Sense and Essence. Heritage and the Cultural Construction of the Real

By Birgit Meyer and Mattijs van de Port

The past is present in the present in many ways and shapes, from barely marked traces to cherished treasures. In this spectrum, cultural heritage is qualified as a valuable resource that underpins a sense of personal and collective (ethnic, national, religious) identity and self-respect. Heritage formation occurs in highly-dynamic political-aesthetic processes that involve the making and breaking of heritage (see, What was once cherished and transmitted with a sense of pride across generations may appear as embarrassing or even untenable at a later point in time. With increasing ethnic, religious and cultural diversity, claimants from minority groups call for alterative heritage designations and challenge national heritage canons. Hitherto disprivileged citizens revolt against problematic national icons, as for instance against mining magnate and racist politician Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, or Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee in the Southern United States. Certain long-standing forms of national heritage – such as the figure of Black Pete in the Netherlands – are subject to contestations, and this may evoke fierce responses from those in favour of retaining them as key elements of national culture. Intimately tied to issues of cultural identity and its politics of in- and exclusion, heritage is a productive entry point into the dynamics of world-making in contemporary plural, postcolonial societies. Focusing on the formation of heritage allows one to study processes of fixing, or even essentializing, cultural forms in a world in turmoil.

Sense and Essence is grounded in a long-standing collaboration.[1] Conducting anthropological research in different regions (Brazil, Ghana, Angola, The Netherlands, South Africa), the contributors explore the formation and contestation of heritage in plural environments, in which the past and its value is up for debate, and new forms of heritage arise whilst existing ones are questioned. Situated in the margins of the established field of heritage studies, we developed an interest in the study of heritage formations against the backdrop of broader questions with regard to politics and aesthetics of world-making. How are worlds made in such a way that they are experienced as real by their inhabitants? Posing this question, our point is to neither treat the real as given nor to take it as merely constructed.

The volume is grounded in a dissatisfaction with the limited capacity of constructivist approaches to account for the processes through which cultural constructions become real – enshrined in matter, authorized through powers that be, experienced as authentic, and, once brought into being, difficult to get rid of. While we appreciate the critical potential of such approaches to demonstrate how histories are ‘assembled’, communities are ‘imagined’, traditions are ‘invented’ or identities are ‘staged’, we insist that the analysis should not be limited to critical deconstructions of presumed essences. For if histories, communities, traditions and identities are constructed and fabricated, how then is it that people manage to convince themselves and others that this is not the case? Since we embarked on our research project, this question has become ever more pertinent in the context of current concerns about ‘post-factual’ politics. How to deal with the fact that the truth of statements and claims recedes behind their emotional appeal and that people reject the possibility to (in)validate them through rational arguments? Merely deconstructing such statements and claims, however important, will not do. The question is in which political-aesthetic ways certain cultural forms are produced as essences that are authorized and sensed as being real. This is the key question addressed in the volume.

Cultural heritage is a prime research topic to find answers to this question. According to popular perceptions, cultural heritage is vested with an aura of factuality, conveying an inalienable essence. And yet, cultural heritage is not given but constantly in the making. Its appeal often rests on its denial of being a fabrication, on its promise to provide an essential ground to social-cultural identities. This logic is enhanced in plural societies, where existing heritage forms are challenged by some and defended by others and new forms of heritage emerge that open up towards other so far forgotten histories. The puzzling fact that, notwithstanding the prominence of discourses that deconstruct heritage claims as invented, heritage formations are thriving, and embraced by many as repositories of essence and truth calls for two concepts which we would like to introduce to the study of heritage formations: ‘politics of authentication’ and ‘aesthetics of persuasion’.

Politics of Authentication

Authenticity is the sine qua non of heritage formations. And yet, authenticity is not intrinsic to cultural forms – in the sphere of heritage and beyond – but a quality attributed to such forms in particular social-political configurations. Both historical artefacts and immaterial historical legacies (traditions, rituals, performances, crafts) have to be ‘authenticized’ in order to qualify for a heritage label. Part of this authentication is realized through scientific research, which verifies whether (or to what extent) the heritage item is ‘really’ what claimants have made of it in their narrations. In these inquiries, technical, archaeological, historical and anthropological knowledge is mobilized to make clear-cut distinctions between original and imitation/fake. And yet, authenticity is not out there to be found, but is always ascribed through authorizing procedures. It is not a neutral qualification, but a historical category employed with regard to certain artefacts and practices. Authenticity plays a key role in the contemporary production of the past as heritage, and hence of certain tangible or intangible forms as authentic signs of authentic origins.

The notion of authenticity has been deployed in multiple strands with the rise of modern society.[2] Especially interesting for our volume is the recurrence to authenticity in the Romantic Movement, where it was called upon to undo the divide between subject and object, to reject artificiality, to affirm a sense of the true self, of being one with the world. It is one of the salient ironies of our time that the concern with authenticity is rooted in a deep insecurity about the gap lurking between reality and its representation. Having no ontological grounding in an objective reality out there, the authenticity of a cultural form can only be achieved through procedures of representation and certification that profile it as present and real to its beholders. In this sense, the authentic is not given – though often posing as such – but rather a result of a careful ‘cultural construction of the real’, through which particular cultural forms and their beholders become sensorially, emotionally and mentally entangled. Our interest concerns especially what we call the politics of authentication, for the formation of heritage is subject to the power and authority to select, frame and authenticate something as heritage. Focusing on the politics of authentication of forms qualified and valued as heritage places heritage formation in wider political formations that include those who can claim some kind of ownership of these forms and identify with them, and exclude others. This frame also allows us to explore the processes through which heritage is authorized in specific power constellations.

Aesthetics of Persuasion

The fact that people need to be enticed, captivated, convinced and mobilized to see certain artefacts and practices as their heritage, which belongs to them and underpins their belonging, and hence, is part of their identity, forms the backdrop against which we develop the term ‘aesthetics of persuasion’. Why aesthetics? As pointed out by the cultural sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, mainstream social theory operated under the aegis of an Ernüchterungskur (cure of sobering up, from a pre-Enlightened, enchanted world) that characterized modern society as disenchanted, objectified (versachlicht), rationalized and subject to functional differentiation, in which aesthetics was confined to the subsystem of art. This yielded a mainstream of scholarly meta-narratives and approaches in the field of the social sciences that discarded aesthetics as having no serious relevance for research and theory (of course, some thinkers followed alternative paths, such as Simmel and Nietzsche). The focus was on acts, rules and regulations, marginalising the levels of experience, embodiment and sensation, and confining their study to the discipline of psychology. A major transition occurred in the 1980s with various turns – body, senses, material, affective – through which aesthetics was taken seriously as informing social-political practice. The point here is that aesthetics can no longer be regarded as a domain confined to the arts that social-cultural research may comfortably neglect. [3]

One of our guiding propositions is that the turn to aesthetics and the senses is tremendously fruitful for the study of heritage. Such a new focus moves our inquiries beyond a mere concern with the construction and framing of heritage per se, and opens up new alleys to understand the processes through which forms of cultural heritage, as powerful ‘sensational forms’ that convey a sense of direct presence of the past, become appreciated and appropriated as if they were real essences. The formation of heritage, as our volume shows, can fruitfully be analysed as a political-aesthetic and material process, and, by the same token, offers a privileged case to study how essences are fabricated and made real in processes of world-making. This opens up a focus on the affective-sensorial relations between humans and material heritage forms, asking questions on the ‘agency’ of such forms in relation to their beholders, as well as on the long-standing human-object entanglements, which are encapsulated in forms of cultural heritage and shape their aesthetic appeal and effects.[4] This appeal does not only pertain to cherished heritage forms, but also to gloomy remnants of past violent regimes, such as the Voortrekkersmonument in Pretoria that iconizes Afrikaner nationalism and Apartheid. So, it is by being enveloped in a political-aesthetic regime that a form of cultural heritage ceases to be merely an object at display out there in the world, but becomes an embodied part of a lived experience that conveys – like a ‘second nature’ – a strong aura of authenticity and a sense of essence.

The fact that this process of embodiment is far from taken-for-granted, but requires specific modes of address, and specific styles and designs that are appreciated as persuasive and binding, calls for a detailed investigation of the ‘aesthetics of persuasion’ through which people relate to particular forms of cultural heritage. As heritage is not given naturally, persuasion is a necessity. This involves both the mobilization of all kinds of devices, narratives and material forms on the part of heritage builders to persuade its addressees and indulgence in self-persuasion – the preparedness to identify with such forms emotionally and mentally – on the part of the latter. Studies in rhetoric show that persuasiveness is not intrinsic to that which is spoken about, but a quality realized via speech that reaches the listeners and appears natural. In our view, rhetoric needs to be extended to include broader modes of expression than oratory alone, involving other media such as radio, film, television, and the internet, and a broader set of aesthetic strategies that seek to persuade listeners. Forms of rhetorical persuasion operate within particular political-aesthetic regimes that appeal to the senses, emotions and intellect and which may or may not be taken up and appreciated by those addressed, or even evoke fierce disapproval and calls for removal.

Book and Editors

The volume Sense and Essence. Heritage and the Cultural Construction of the Religion (2018, Oxford, New York: Berghahn) offers an (open access) introduction (, and eight chapters on heritage formation in Europe, Africa and Brazil by André Werneck de Andrade Bakker, Bruno Reinhardt, Maria Paula Fernandes Adinolfi, Duane Jethro, Ruy Llera Blanes, Marleen de Witte, Rhoda Woets, Markus Balkenhol and Irene Stengs. Three eminent scholars – David Chidester, David Berliner, Ciraj Rassool – conclude the volume with reflections on its findings and propositions. For more information, see: and

Birgit Meyer is Professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University. Trained as a cultural anthropologist and working on lived religion in Ghana for more than 20 years, she currently chairs the research program Religious Matters in an Entangled World ( She is the chair of the Academic Advisory Board of the Forum for Transregional Studies. For more information, see:

Mattijs van de Port (PhD in Cultural Anthropology, 1994) is Professor of Popular Religiosity at VU University Amsterdam and Associate Professor at the anthropology department of the University of Amsterdam. In his written and filmic work on Serbia, the Netherlands and Brazil, he addresses the tensions inherent in human modes of world-making. For more information, see:


[1] This collaboration came into being thanks to the NWO-funded research program, ‘Heritage Dynamics: Politics of Authentication and Aesthetics of Persuasion in Brazil, Ghana, South Africa and the Netherlands’ (2008-2013), and the HERA-funded research program, ‘Currents of Faith, Places of History: Religious Diasporas, Connections, Moral Circumscriptions and World-making in the Atlantic Space’ (2013-2016).

[2] See also Leibniz Forschungsverbund Historische Authentizität:

[3] E.g. Reckwitz, A. 2015. ‘Ästhetik und Gesellschaft – Ein Analytischer Bezugsrahmen’, in A. Reckwitz, S. Prinz and H. Schäfer (eds), Ästhetik und Gesellschaft: Grundlagentexte aus Soziologie und Kulturwissenschaften. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, pp. 13–52; Funk, W., F. Groß and I. Huber (eds). 2012. The Aesthetics of Authenticity: Medial Constructions of the Real. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag; Fillitz, T. and A. Jamie Saris (eds). 2013. Debating Authenticity: Concepts of Modernity in Anthropological Perspective. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

[4] E.g.: Hodder, I. 2012. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Citation: Birgit Meyer and Mattijs van de Port, Sense and Essence. Heritage and the Cultural Construction of the Real, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.10.2018,

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