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Keeping the recipe


Norwegian folk costumes and cultural capital


Thomas Hylland Eriksen


Focaal, 2005

 

 

The concept of cultural property rights is a recent one and one which raises several sets of analytical problems. Some of them concern issues of copyright protection and royalties from cultural production; some concern the delineation of the object, namely what kinds of culture can be ‘owned’; and some are to do with the assignment of specified forms of cultural property to particular groups or individuals — who ‘owns’ a certain tradition, the right to define it, to protect it from infringement and to benefit from its possible commercialization?

Commercialization of traditional cultural products entails a form of reification and ‘musealization’ of cultural production which is intimately connected to the history of nation-building, and which currently feeds directly into the debate over culture and rights. Stable national identities presuppose the standardization of cultural expression, and it is no accident that Anderson (1991), in the second edition of Imagined Communities, added material on museums, maps and censuses. Routinely associated with the Romantic movement in 19th century Europe and North America, the folk and national museums have later proven to be important elements of postcolonial nation-building worldwide. Moreover, as every anthropologist knows, the same concerns that gave the initial impetus to developing national museums in European countries are today at the core of a variety of projects aiming at profiting politically or commercially from a collective sense of cultural identity.

The issue of cultural property rights has emerged partly as a consequence of an increased global traffic in signs and goods, partly due to an increased reification of culture and concomitant recognition of its potential as a resource. Culture has become a widespread idiom for discourse about politics in the wide sense (including identity and life politics), tourism, the arts and so on. For twenty years, it has been a staple of what we may speak of as an ironic anthropology to deconstruct and critically interrogate ‘native’ reifications of and manipulations with their own presumed cultural productions. Following in the footsteps of historians like Hugh Trevor-Roper, whose research on the Scottish highland tradition revealed it to be a recent creation (Trevor-Roper 1983), numerous anthropologists (e.g. Handler 1988, McDonald 1989, Friedman 1993, Eriksen 1993) have explored ‘native essentialisms’ and showed them to be inscribed into political and sometimes commercial discourses.

Reacting to this ironic turn in anthropology, Sahlins (1999) complains that too many "anthropologists say that the so-called traditions the peoples are flaunting are not much more than serviceable humbuggery" (Sahlins 1999: 402). He then goes on to argue that the ‘afterological’ strategies so typical of contemporary intellectual life fail to take seriously the meaningful structures that make up people’s life-worlds, which continue to vary in discontinuous ways and not least, in ways which are crucial to the actors involved.

In an earlier, parallel argument against radical constructivism in research on nationalism, Smith (1991) pointed out that although the reified symbols of nations may be recent constructions or even fabrications that does not mean that the members of a nation do not have anything substantial in common. Being paranoid is no guarantee that nobody is after you. Smith, unlike Sahlins, distinguished between shared culture as embedded in popular experience and shared culture as political tools. The point is well taken — the majority of people who live in a given country may have a lot of untheorized, unmarked and unpoliticized culture in common, in spite of the fact that the official national symbolism is recently and perhaps even cunningly constructed. Diverging from Smith’s view, Sahlins (1999) suggests that it is not always possible, or even interesting, to distinguish between ‘fabricated’ and ‘real’ culture. Certainly, conflating culture with identity politics, as de Heusch (2000) has uncharitably accused Roosens (1990) of doing, can be illuminating, but it is ultimately intellectually limiting to do so (see also Eriksen 2000).

 

Is the distinction between ‘experienced’ and ‘fabricated’ culture relevant or spurious? To be sure, the distinction is often blurred in practice. In the case of Norwegian national identity (to be discussed in more detail below), outdoor winter activities were depicted strategically as a national characteristic from the late 18th century onwards (Christensen 1993), but they later became a part of the national habitus of a population massively socialized to enjoy cold outdoor activities. Be this as it may, there are several strong arguments in favor of exploring commercialized or politicized expressions of culture as contestable acts of symbolic invention; we just need to make it clear that such analyses do not offer the whole story. Firstly, as Keesing (1996) pointed out, the politics of tradition in societies studied by anthropologists now entails the appropriation of a vaguely anthropological (or perhaps nationalist) concept of culture: Anthropologists are no longer needed to identify other people’s culture, since the latter are perfectly capable of doing it themselves. It is clearly a matter of interest how a particular local culture is being trimmed and shaped to meet immediate political needs. Secondly, research on ‘ethnic art’ (e.g. Graburn 1976, Marcus and Myers 1995) shows that both form and content of symbolic production associated with particular cultures undergoes dramatic transformations when the products are incorporated into a wider system of exchange, such as the global arts market. Thirdly, it must be said that whenever a particular use of symbols associated with a group are contested, asking the question cui bono? — who benefits? — is less an act of cynicism or ironic anthropology than an earnest wish to find out what is going on. Fourthly and finally, it is sometimes both relevant and enlightening to distinguish between culture seen as the shared understandings of a particular collectivity of people and culture seen as a commodity or political resource. If it is true, as rumor has it, that Irish theme pubs are becoming so popular these days that they are even appearing in Dublin, then no anthropologist worthy of his grant money would describe them without making a distinction between the generic, globalized Irish franchise pubs and the ancient local on the corner.

The argument is not that culture is reducible to its expression as commodity or political resource, or that it is meaningful to make an absolute distinction between ‘artificially created’ and ‘organically created’ culture, but rather that there is a complex relationship between lived culture and reified or commercialized culture, which needs to be explored.

The argument to be developed below concerns the economics of cultural tradition, not its politics (although the two are sometimes nearly inseparable). The questions asked are simple and straightforward: Who invests what, how is the market conceived, how are market shares defended and expanded, and in what do the profits consist? It needs to be stressed that the present analysis is not meant to reduce a meaningful symbolic universe to mere market mechanism — on the contrary, the market mechanism simultaneously presupposes and appropriates a pre-existing meaningful symbolic universe, but it twists it to meet its own ends. It is also obvious (pace Sahlins 1976) that the ‘profits’ garnered from cultural commoditization are just as meaningful as they are economic in a narrow sense. Before we begin, however, some more context is required.

 

Causes of commoditization

In the nascent stages of modern European nationalism, Johann Gottfried Herder developed a famous argument against the great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. In his youthful essay Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte ("Another philosophy of history", Herder 1967 [1774]), Herder accused Voltaire’s universalism of being a provincialism in disguise. Voltaire, who held the view that there was but one universal civilization, to which all humans had the right of access, was in Herder’s opinion a promoter of Frenchness parading as a universalist. Against Voltaire’s universalism, Herder proposed that all peoples (or, at any rate, all Kulturvölker) were equal but different. Each Volk had its unique genius, its own form of creativity and so on, and it was fundamentally distinctive from other Völker.

In this argument, we can discern the foundations of contemporary debates over national identity, culture and rights, and cultural commoditization more specifically. As recent work on culture and rights has shown (see e.g. Cowan et al. 2001), human rights can only be successfully introduced in any society if they are adapted to local conditions. In other words, even the most universalist notion held in ‘the global ecumene’, and arguably the only shared normative dogma in contemporary world politics, is continuously subjected to local adjustments. Moreover, Herder’s view that — to use contemporary terms — culture matters and creates important discontinuities, has numerous sources of support in our day and age, ranging from grand theories of civilizational conflict, Huntington-style, to the marketing strategies of transnational companies, Benetton-style. In a word, the relationships between individual rights and group rights, and between liberal universalism and cultural boundedness, are acutely relevant in today’s world, characterized as it is by commercialized and politicized culture. There can be no simple intellectual response to the Gordian knot which is made to appear: It cannot be cut through, but perhaps it can be untied, at least partly. Leaving the questions of world politics aside, I shall begin the analysis by proposing distinctions between some interrelated features of the contemporary world which contribute to making culture a scarce resource, thus also turning it into a site of contestation, before bringing them back together through an empirical case.

 

Hegemonic capitalism

Just to what degree capitalism (as a mode of production, distribution and consumption) and individualism (its ideological counterpart) have become universal at the onset of the 21st century, and what their diffusion entails in local terms, are issues continuously being explored, and it would be preposterous to pretend to specify the extent of capitalist penetration here. Generally speaking, however, it is obviously the case that market exchange and consumer choice today form an important part of the economy both internationally and in most societies. Moreover, after the end of the Cold War, there are few serious ideological challenges to the capitalist/liberal ideal posited by the World Trade Organization, the G7 states, NAFTA and the EU, as well as by major development agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank. Commoditization takes place through deregulation of public services — postal services and hospitals are increasingly seen as businesses — through educational reforms (Strathern 2000) and in other important arenas. Commoditization also characterizes notions and practices related to cultural production, perhaps especially in the tourist industry, but also in attempts by export industries to turn assumed national or ethnic traits into ‘trademarks’, e.g. by airlines or car manufacturers, or in connection with international sports events (see Berkaak 1999 on the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics). The tendency to exploit national character in marketing has been described as using ‘the soul as a marketing idea’ (Johansen 1991). Culture, then, becomes something which can be sold and purchased as an inherent quality of goods and services.

 

Culture as a political resource

The perhaps most obvious social field defined simultaneously by cultural creativity and patrolling of cultural boundaries, is that of ethnic politics. In ethnic politics, processes of exclusion and inclusion are framed through the idiom of cultural specificity — knowledge and skills associated with the group and only with the group. Emblematic expressions of cultural particularity in this well-researched area range from traditional practices couched in a modern language to creolized tradition to pure fabrication. The point is that both the valorization of the group’s collective identity and the criteria for membership hinge on a notion of group culture as a quantifiable entity. Such notions are often contested — what does it mean to be a German Turk? How ‘Huron’ do you have to be in order to be a Huron? — and the fact of these contestations reveal their importance (see Baumann 1999). Strip away all the perceptible trappings of cultural tradition, and what you get is something else than an ethnic interest group. Some members of ethnic minorities are likely to be inclined towards this solution, but in so far as a leadership profits politically or otherwise from the maintenance of a clear group identity — or if that identity is thrust upon the group from the dominant Other — it continues to exist, and notions of shared culture continue to be a key factor in political life.

 

Keeping-while-selling

In settings where information or knowledge are valuable commodities, as well as simultaneously functioning as capital and as means of production (Castells 1996), distinctive knowledges acquire special economic value. The so-called knowledge industries, from software design to advertising, are often mentioned examples, but the phenomenon is much more widespread in the contemporary world. Knowledge forms the decisive input and output in bureaucracies, in the legal system and so on. In ethnography, professional informants have emerged in some societies; that is, specialists who charge a fee for sharing their knowledge with the anthropologist.

Or, to put it differently: The scarcity that gives a commodity its value often consists not in scarcity of raw materials or production technology, but of a certain kind of knowledge. This economic logic certainly does not apply only to information societies. Godelier (1974) described the surplus value of salt among the Baruya as a result of scarce, protected knowledge, but in contemporary capitalist societies, the art of marketing a certain kind of knowledge as being both rare and indispensable has become essential to many economic activities. Culturally specialized knowledge can thereby be a not insignificant source of economic profit, provided it is successfully marketed as relevant. The formula is: Give away the menu, sell the food, and keep the recipe.

Seen from another perspective, the situation can be described as an extractive, asymmetrical one. Rather than extracting sweat and cocoa, the new colonial masters extract ideas, sounds and colors. As Strathern points out in a discussion of intellectual property rights (IPR) and indigenous peoples: "The market ... disembeds what is usable, whereas the thrust of the indigenous IPR movement is to re-embed, re-contextualize, indigenous ownership in indigenous traditional culture. Tradition, we may remark, is an embedding concept." (Strathern 1999: 167, my italics) This insight highlights the conflict at hand — between commercialism and traditionalism, between exchange-value and use-value.

 

Copyrighting culture

It may be said, both with reference to advertising and to identity politics, that one of the scarcest resources in the contemporary world is the attention of and recognition by others. Although most indigenous movements still place a high priority on the classic issue of land rights, their cultural production and collective markers of identity are also, probably increasingly, politicized (and often commercialized) resources. Demands for the repatriation of objects exhibited in foreign museums are typical expressions of this (Lührmann 2002). ‘Ethnic music’ and ‘ethnic arts’ are also means of achieving recognition, simultaneously catering to cosmopolitan tastes and expressing local knowledge.

In a creative updating of the standard anthropological perspective on ethnic identity as a device for creating social boundaries (and thus controlling the flow of signs and resources), Harrison (1999) describes ethnic identity as a scarce resource, indeed seeing it ultimately as an inalienable possession (following Weiner 1992; see also Kasten 2002). As mentioned above, the menu can be given away (look at us and our cultural wealth!), the food can be sold (buy our products; learn our language!), but the recipe is sacred and must be kept secret (don’t even think about doing whatever it is that we do!). In the cases discussed by Harrison, the boundaries are transgressed by the outsiders, who make ‘illegitimate copies’ of a group’s cultural production, for political or commercial ends. Harrison’s perspective seems perfectly in tune with the constraints and incentives characteristic of information society. For example, he analyses Maori land claims and their conflicts with white livestock farmers in a way which makes it easy to draw the parallel to Microsoft’s rights to their own software and their conflicts with Asian software pirates. The white farmers have copied ways of relating to the land reminiscent of traditional Maori notions of land tenure, and claim similar land rights. Maori see this appropriation of their cultural notions as piracy. Unlike the forms of knowledge which, when shared with others, increase one’s symbolic capital — missionary activity and linguistic conversion are obvious examples — the Maori case is more similar to the Trobrianders’ practice of transferring magical incantations through inheritance, or the transmission of secret knowledge through initiation rites. Theft of a spiritual way of relating to the land can be seen as a form of industrial espionage.

The question which arises is whether, and to what extent, it is possible to copyright cultural knowledge which is publicly known. Is it, for example, possible to see mass marketed instant Thai food as counterfeited food? Can the footballer Ronaldo’s haircut be copyrighted? Is it possible to copyright the spoken word? (Many readers doubtless know people who specialize in stealing the jokes of others.) For centuries in Europe, the problem was not that of software pirates but of pirate printers (Siegrist 2002). Interestingly, the efficient enforcement of copyright coincides with the era of the nation-state: before, and — we may argue — after the predominance of the nation-state, there are serious problems of controlling flows and even of identifying the copyright holder. Regarding ‘cultural property’‚ problems of defining boundaries also become acute: who has the right to claim exclusive rights to a dance, a ritual, a cuisine, a craft?

Kasten (2002: 4) sums up the dilemma accurately:

"On the one hand, the result of intellectual labor and time invested has to be acknowledged and rewarded; on the other hand, the free flow and use of ideas is the essential stimulus for human creativity and innovation. One of the basic problems of intellectual property law is, perhaps, that every product of intellectual labor or invention builds upon the ideas of predecessors. This often makes it difficult to define from what point onwards the innovation of a particular individual or team in a chain of numerous innovations begins or ends."

As will be argued below, it is becoming increasingly difficult to protect oneself against piracy, and even to defend the term piracy, on the grounds suggested by Kasten.

The copyleft movement associated with Open Source (Linux) software represents an original solution. Unlike the software giants (Microsoft and others) who jealously protect every line of code, the code of Open Source software is freely available, and anyone is entitled to using it in their own applications. However, if someone copies your piece of code, they have to make their work freely available in the same way: anyone must be allowed to copy the copy. Violations could be compared to plagiarism, and the transgressor loses face. Interestingly, the names of all contributors to a piece of software should accompany it. Among other things, recognition thus seems to be a source of motivation for the programmers. If the Maori attempt to monopolize their spiritual relationship to the land can be said to be similar to copyright, secret knowledge and protection of source code, then the ‘copyleft’ practices of Open Source are reminiscent of the kula trade (see Leach 2000 for a similar comparison; see also Carrier and Miller 1998). These contrasting ways of dealing with knowledge represent two opposite, and competing, views of cultural property: it should be shared with as many as possible, or it should be protected. Indeed, in his analyses of language and symbolic power, Bourdieu (e.g. 1982) has argued that the French academic system favors a high degree of protectionism regarding knowledge. A contrasting view of cultural property is developed in Kasten’s (2002) analysis of repatriation in Kamtchatka, where he concludes that "if we are to deal with repatriation, we should concentrate on making appropriated local cultural knowledge available again to local communities", not for them to monopolize it, but for them to be able to benefit from it. This view comes very close to the Open Source ideology in that it posits that knowledge should be freely available, but in using it, one has moral obligations to its origin.

The bunad

We now move to the empirical case, which shows the essential unity of the phenomena described above, as well as the fact that the commercialization and the politicization of culture are frequently two sides of the same coin. The example also shows how symbolic universes expand and contract, how they open and close, in response to changing circumstances.

There has been a certain scholarly attention to folk costumes, most of it concerned with their place in identity politics (see e.g. Eicher 1995). It has been shown, for example, that the kilt has never been a popular garment in Scotland but gained symbolic significance for political reasons after 1745 (Chapman 1992), and that certain folk costumes have been ‘frozen in time’ while others have been adapted and modernized to fit changing circumstances (Lynch 1995), always with the political project of group cohesion and boundary maintenance as the underlying force.

The present case deals with Norwegian bunads, a kind of festive folk costume (earlier anthropological studies include Haugen 1981 and Alnaes 1995). Instead of seeing them primarily in the light of nation-building, I shall analyze the bunad and recent controversies surrounding it in the context of the above discussion of cultural property.

The bunad is a particular kind of festive dress. The term is a slightly archaic Norwegian dialect word, introduced into urban circles by the author and nationalist activist Hulda Garborg in her pamphlet Norsk klædebunad in 1903. Writing during a feverish phase of Norwegian nationalism (the country became independent in 1905, and cultural nationalism was an enormously powerful force at the time), Garborg argued the need for a truly Norwegian and regional form of formal dress. She collected and systematized what she saw as intact and useful regional bunad traditions, and designed some bunads herself. Interestingly, Garborg never denied the syncretic and partly invented character of the new, traditionalist folk costume. She nevertheless emphasized its role as a marker of rural, Norwegian identity. Very many Norwegian regions and even smaller valleys have their own bunads. Many have been designed long after Garborg, the Bergen bunad, for example, dating from 1956 but giving the impression of being a very traditional kind of dress.

There were important precursors to the bunad movement instigated by Garborg. In the latter half of the 19th century, certain folk costumes, notably the Hardanger costume from a fjord area in Western Norway, were worn by urban bourgeois women to signal adherence to authentic Norwegianness (Haugen 1981: 5). The proliferation of folk costumes and their significance as markers of local or regional identity nonetheless began around 1905.

A relevant distinction obtains between a bunad and a folk costume. Folk costumes were everyday and festive clothes worn by peasants in southern Norway until the 19th century, and — like certain kinds of peasant food — have been recontextualized more recently as formal dress. Bunads, on the contrary, are reconstructed and re-designed — sometimes very nearly purely invented — costumes designed from the early 20th century onwards, and are used at formal occasions such as Christmas Eve, Constitution Day (17 May), weddings and other major social events, although not at funerals: bunads are bright and joyful garments. Some bunads represent minor adjustments (‘upgradings’ and modernizations) of the original folk costume, while the link is less obvious in other cases.

The bunad is an important, traditionalist symbol of modern Norwegianness. Most of these costumes are clearly related to regional and minority folk costumes from Central and Eastern Europe, and the German influence has often been commented upon (Oxaal 2001). More importantly, the bunad confirms Norwegian identity as an essentially rural one, where personal integrity is connected to roots and regional origins. However, 18th and 19th century peasants would often wear European-style dress at formal occasions such as weddings, or they might wear a folk costume which gradually went out of use. In other words, there is a clear element of modern invention, which nobody denies, in the currently widespread use of bunads. Fashions changed and were often inspired by the big European centers. The bunad, which has therefore often had to be reconstructed from historical sources, signifies adherence to roots and traditions. Indeed, the then prime minister of Norway, Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland, wore a bunad in what could be described as ostentatious display during the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994. Later in the same year, Norway would decide on whether to join the European Union. Mrs. Brundtland’s dress must be read as a way of overcommunicating Norwegianness. She was the leader of a pro-EU government trying to persuade a skeptical population, and by wearing a bunad she seemed to try to convey the idea that there was no contradiction between being European and being a good Norwegian.

Although bunads have been a common sight on festive occasions, not least on Constitution Day, for generations, they have become increasingly common during the last two decades. I can remember growing up in the 1970s in a coastal town near Oslo with hardly any connections to national romanticism past or present, and there were scarcely any bunads or folk costumes to be seen in town during the parades and public gatherings on 17 May. The town had for centuries been a prosperous centre of trade, shipping and whaling, and the fashions had always tended to be urban and European. Returning to my old hometown on that day in the mid-1990s, I was completely taken aback by the uniformity in dress. The regional bunad had been designed relatively recently, and neither folk costumes nor bunads had not been common in this coastal region in the past.

What exactly, then, is a bunad? The only possible answer is: a festive dress associated with a regional Norwegian tradition, accepted by the Bunad and Folk Costume Council as such, and widely recognized as a bunad by the public.

Patrolling the borders

The Bunad and Folk Costume Council (Bunad- og folkedraktsrådet) is a state funded advisory body under the Ministry of Culture. The purpose of the Council is to offer advice and to stimulate an enhanced understanding of the traditional dress practices which are the foundation of today’s bunads’. The Council has collected enormous amounts of knowledge about bunads, and states on its website that it has 55,000 different patterns of bunads and folk costumes in its database. The Council cannot legislate formally on patterns and designs, but is advice is taken very seriously. Often, a new or revised design is denied the term bunad, a garment which should have a strong historical element and a clear geographical provenance, but is instead called simply a regional costume (drakt), or — pejoratively — a ‘fantasy costume’.

Interestingly, the current policies of the Bunad and Folk Costume Council are based on a stronger version of Romantic notions of cultural authenticity than were Garborg’s views in 1903. Garborg emphasized that some degree of cultural continuity was desirable, and recommended that Norwegian bunads should be made from Norwegian fabrics such as wool, not from imported silk and linen. However, she also took a pragmatic stance on the issue of authenticity, admitting that the bunads needed to be modernized to suit the modern woman’s taste. The Bunad and Folk Costume Council, on the contrary, states that "The main objective in our day and age is that the bunad should be as good a copy as possible of a local folk costume as it was used in a particular historical period".

It is estimated that more than 60 per cent of Norwegian women have a bunad (Aagedal 2002) and a growing, but much smaller number of men. In total, about a third of the population owns a national costume; in neighboring Sweden, the figure is six per cent (Aagedal 2002). These costumes are expensive garments with hand-embroidered details, ornamental silver jewellery and, often, accessories such as belts, sashes, ribbons and bands. Some of the more popular ones cost as much as NOK 30,000 (4,000 Euros). The total value of the one and a half million Norwegian bunads in existence is estimated at 30 billion kroner (4 billion Euros). In other words, the bunad business is economically significant, in addition to its strong connotations of political and cultural identity.

The economics of the bunad is deeply informed by cultural values and norms relating to tradition. Notably, there are strict informal rules regulating individual use of bunads. Some are considered more beautiful than others, but a person has no moral right to wear them unless she (it is usually a she) has documented kinship links with the place of origin. In contemporary society, many if not most individuals have two, three or four options: they can legitimately wear a bunad designed in the place where they live, in the place where they grew up (which is often a different place, as urbanization has been considerable), or in one of their parents’ places of origin. They cannot, however, legitimately wear a bunad from wherever they fancy. Of course, they could buy it, but their friends and relatives might react strongly. An expert says: "I am aware of people in the heart of Bunad Norway (sic) who are deeply offended. They have no time for West End ladies who claim Telemark ancestry when they buy the perhaps greatest status symbol of all bunads, namely the expensive and exclusive East Telemark bunad. They also dislike that people wear gold chains and earrings while they wear bunads."

The degree of purism within the Bunad and Folk Costume Council is equally strong. The director of the Council comments, regarding the unhistorical, but in many’s view beautiful ‘fantasy costumes’: ‘Some companies use really aggressive marketing strategies to sell these fantasy costumes. They have nothing to do with old traditions. We just want to inform people that they have no business believing that they are wearing bunads if they buy this stuff.’

There are frequent conflicts over authenticity framed within the bunad discourse itself. In the valley of Numedal, competition between two alternative bunads actually led to the creation of two distinct factions in the 17 May parade of 2002. Family members fell out with each other; local politicians groped for compromises. One of the alternatives, a simple folk costume, is woven in dark fabrics; the complex, reconstructed bunad sanctioned by the Bunad and Folk Costume Council is much more elaborate and colorful. The defenders of the simple costume argue that the new one, "overloaded with silver and embroideries", is inappropriate and clearly inauthentic for a traditionally poor mountain valley; while the other faction see the simple bunad as sordid and joyless. Both factions claim that their bunad is the most ancient one. The one sanctioned by the Council is anyway the more expensive one. It is also an undisputed fact that embroideries and masses of fine silver jewellery have been added to bunads in modern times, as people were increasingly able to afford them. Interestingly, embroideries were widespread in 18th century folk costumes, but went out of use following the availability of inexpensive (often imported) fabrics in the 19th century. Reconstructed bunads are therefore said, by their defenders, to be older than the 19th century folk costumes, even if they can also be said to be more recent.

The entrepreneur and the bunad police


The bunad industry sits perhaps uncomfortably, but very profitably, in the crossroads between traditionalist identity politics and business. The largest actors in the field, notably the powerful shop chain Husfliden, try to have it both ways; by guaranteeing the regional authenticity of the garments they sell, they are using culture as investment capital to justify exorbitant prices. Husfliden (‘Home crafts’), which has outlets in many Norwegian towns and cities, contributes in no small measure to defining what a certain bunad should look like and focusing the market on certain bunads and costumes at the expense of others. In one case, Husfliden organized courses for women wishing to save money by sewing their own bunads, but as a condition, the participants had to sign an agreement promising that they would only make bunads for themselves and for first-order blood relatives. Some talk about "the bunad police" (by analogy to Orwell’s thought police), while a particular region in North-Western Norway, known for its heartbreaking local conflicts over authenticity issues, is spoken of as "the Yugoslavia of the bunad". Interestingly, the same region is also known for its unfaltering support of nynorsk (New Norwegian), a minority variety of Norwegian created by the remarkable self-taught linguist Ivar Aasen in the mid-19th century and based on the dialect words he considered most authentic (i.e. most ancient, most distinctive from the then dominant Danish).

The bunad definitely stirs up strong emotions. After the 17 May celebrations in 2001, Queen Sonja was criticized in public for wearing sunglasses along with her bunad; in the same year, Crown Princess Mette-Marit was severely reprimanded in the press for wearing a purely invented ‘fantasy costume’ rather than an authentic bunad from her home region. Women are generally advised by the Bunad and Folk Costume Council not to wear makeup and earrings with their bunad. Moreover, although Husfliden has no formal connections with the Council, it tends to follow their norms, presumably for commercial reasons. It gives their enterprise credibility and trustworthiness. As its website states, "The simplest and safest way to find bunads and bunad equipment consists in visiting your local Husfliden shop" (emphasis mine).

Because of the wealth of detail, a proper bunad cannot be made industrially in its entirety. This partly accounts for its high market price. Moreover, the knowledge and skill required to make a bunad is considered a cultural, local form of knowledge — a kind of inalienable possession. In the spring of 2002, a conflict erupted between the traditionalists and a young entrepreneur who wanted a slice of the market. This conflict inadvertently brought the implicit ideology underlying the bunad to the public eye.

What happened was this. A young Norwegian of Chinese origin, who originally worked as a cook, began to take interest in bunads. He took a bunad course, learning the basics of the craft. Before going into business, he changed his name from Aching to John Helge Dahl, realizing that he would have little credibility as a bunad salesman with a Chinese name. He then founded a company called ‘Norske Bunader’ (Norwegian bunads), and then he did the outrageous thing, namely to contract dozens of Chinese seamstresses in Shanghai to do the stitching. The fabrics were sent from Norway, and the completed garments were returned — at a much lower price, of course, than that of the Norwegian competition. He built the bunads from the garments himself. "To most people, it is the quality that counts," he says, "not who has done the embroidery." Of course, he can offer bunads at a competitive price.

The Bunad and Folk Costume Council have reacted very strongly against Mr. Dahl, as have Husfliden. At one point the latter threatened to sue him for plagiarism, but since bunad designs are not copyrighted, they were likely to lose a court case. Their argument is that the craft amounts to a locally embedded kind of knowledge which does not travel well, comparing it to dialects. Talking about mass production and industrialization of bunad production, they argue that the use of foreign labor leads to cultural flattening. The resulting products are, in a way, said to have no hau, to use Mauss’s (1990) Polynesian term for the ‘soul’ of an object.

A sociologist who defended the traditionalists said that this concerns ‘personal knowledge’. Bunad embroidery, she added, was a kind of handwriting. "When anyone can take a pattern, send it abroad, and make a good profit from the product, people will ask: What is it that I am spending one or two months’ salary on?" Responding to her own question, she said that this kind of garment would feel alienating, and that it would not satisfy people’s emotional need to build their own history into the garment.

Another argument concerns the low salaries in China, claiming that it is immoral to hire ‘underpaid women’ to do this kind of work. Dahl’s Shanghai seamstresses are paid about 2 Euros an hour, which he says is a good salary in China, but which is perhaps less than a tenth of a comparable Norwegian salary. Yet others have said, when pressed, that it may be acceptable to employ immigrant women living in Norway, who may have assimilated some local skill, but not to employ foreign women living abroad.

The defenders of tradition and Norwegian craftsmanship also fear a development which could be described as a McDonaldization (Ritzer 1993) of bunad production. Although the Dahl case was spectacular in that it simultaneously brought out both accusations of racism and controversy concerning criteria for authenticity, his business innovation was less original than it might seem. Several producers admit that they outsource parts of their production to the Baltic countries and elsewhere where wages are low, and even Husfliden has admitted that parts of their bunads are made industrially because of the extremely high cost of labor in Norway.

 

What is at stake?

Two separate bunad controversies have been presented:

• What makes a particular bunad or folk costume authentic in the eyes of the Bunad and Folk Costume Council and the business community, notably Husfliden? Age, continuity in use, or market value? (Aesthetic criteria are formally deemed irrelevant.)

• What kind of knowledge is required in order to make a bunad? Can it be acquired like any other technique, or is it locally rooted? (Is it Zivilisation or Kultur?)

It must be noted that none of the people involved question the terms of the controversies. The criterion of authenticity is unquestioned — except, of course, among the many Norwegians who do not and will not buy themselves a bunad.

Let us consider the case in the light of the general points made above about culture as a scarce resource.

First, how does the example fit with the argument about capitalism and liberal individualism turning culture into a scarce resource? The short answer (and I shall keep this short) is that the bunad market seems to be about to be deregulated. With a growing number of actors seeking to make a profit, several of them seeing possibilities in transnational production, the oligopoly held by a few powerful producers is being weakened. As a result, the cultural product (the bunad) may become just another commodity. As argued by Berkaak (1999) in connection with the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, commoditization has become the main way in which a Norwegian identity, which initially was defined politically, is promoted.

Secondly, bunad issues also reveal that culture is a potent political resource, as the example of Mrs. Brundtland indicates. The Dahl affair also brings up normative issues about the nature of Norwegianness and the place of immigrants. Actually, even migration within Norway has been seen as posing a problem to traditional identity, which should ideally be locally rooted. Commenting on the consequences of virilocal postmarital residence in the mountain valley of Valdres, one of Haugen’s (1981) informants says, "Although they [the young housewives from outside] can naturally adapt to the new conditions, they will not be carriers of local culture." (Haugen 1981: 186).

Thirdly, both Husfliden and the Bunad and Folk Costume Council defend the view that the recipe belongs to the cultural group: they wish to keep it while they sell the food. However, the recipe is not merely the pattern, but it is rather the skill involved, which can apparently only be acquired in certain, partly implicit ways.

Fourthly and finally, both bunad controversies represent attempts to copyright culture. The authenticity issues are obvious; although they also have a strong economic element (some designs are more expensive than others), but the stern messages from the Council, and the deep moral resentment expressed when someone wears a bunad she is not entitled to wear, create bounded entities; regions with a proud history. A South African anthropologist settled in Norway commented, after viewing a 17 May parade, that this seemed more like a lineage-based tribal society than a modern nation (Kramer 1984). As shown above, however, the firm association between bunads and geographical provenance is a product of the 20th century. In the late 19th century, the Hardanger dress was an emblem of (anti-Danish and anti-Swedish) Norwegianness among nationalist women everywhere.

The above analysis shows that there exists a shared discourse about folk costumes in Norway, but this is not to say that the "Norwegian people" exhibits one set of views. Disagreements, the examples have shown, are common and laden with emotion, which testifies both to the contested nature of Norwegianness and to the centrality of a Romantic symbol such as the bunad. It is therefore difficult to speak of "local perceptions" as opposed to "official views": The two are not mutually exclusive, do not refer to two distinct social groups, and the former is variable.

Conflict over the use of symbols is not new to anthropology. When A. P. Cohen (1985) famously argued that symbols fuse the practical and meaningful aspects of identity, he not only pointed out that important things are at stake when symbols fail to unify, but he could also draw on a glorious anthropological past of penetrating sociosymbolic analysis, at least from Victor Turner’s early work onwards. One of the aims of this article, however, has been to show that the practical aspect has two dimensions, a political and a commercial one; and that the meaningful aspect is in itself contested, including its relationship to practical issues. Can I wear a fantasy costume if I think it is pretty? Can I buy a lavish Telemark bunad even if my ancestors came from Oppland? And — referring to the first point — can I be favorable to economic globalization and EU membership, and still wear my bunad with pride?

The bunad controversies, moreover, indicate that commercialization may ‘contaminate’ the meaningful dimension of the symbol, in so far as the latter is conceived of as an inalienable possession, as something that you either have or don’t have, and which you cannot give away, or pretend to have, without losing face (see Harvey 2001: 402, for a Balinese parallel).

Questions of ownership to symbols of culture which are used in a political context are probably no less common than issues arising from commercial concerns. In the early 1990s, small, but very energetic, neo-Nazi groups nearly succeeded in discrediting the Swedish flag among ordinary Swedes; the flag acquired connotations of racism and supremacism, and since the emotional attachments of most Swedes to the flag were weaker than their moral values, the flag faded into the background of mainstream Swedishness for some years. Similarly, in the years following the Second World War, references to the Viking age and admiration for the Viking gods, leaders and so on were exceedingly problematic in an otherwise Viking-loving country like Norway. The reason was that the detested Quisling government had only a few years earlier used Viking symbolism extensively in its Nazi imagery. Also, commercial uses of culture may also discredit it politically. In Hawaii, local identity politics uses few of the stereotypical Polynesian symbols used to market the archipelago to tourists.

There seem to be two general points to be made here.

1) In order for culture to function as a strategic resource, its symbols must function in a dual way; they must simultaneously be meaningful (or sensory, to use Turner’s term) and instrumental. To thousands of Norwegians (I have no statistics and dare not say millions), the bunad symbolizes not only their personal attachment to history, but also a respect for (assumed) ancient craftsmanship. It represents the opposite, one might say, of ahistorical presentism and the standardized, mass-produced (and hau-less) goods of the shopping mall. To the Bunad and Folk Costume Council, the bunad represents nation-building; to Husfliden and others, it represents a way of making profits which is entirely contingent on the functioning of the meaningful dimension of the symbol.

2) For culture to be turned into a form of property, a process of externalization and reification of symbols is necessary. The movement is one from the unmarked to the marked, from the implicit and embodied to the explicit. It is an instance, not of ‘all that is solid melts into air’ but of a contrasting, less well-known observation by Marx, namely that "le mort saisit le vif" (Marx 1968: 11) — the dead and frozen seizes that which is living. This process is likely to be accompanied by struggles for symbolic hegemony. Subsequently, cultural capital is converted and accumulated among users as well as by politicians and/or businessmen. Under certain circumstances, such as a massively neo-liberal economic regime, the inalienable possessions may then be converted to commodities.

The anxieties voiced by the traditionalists are related to all three dimensions: In a thoroughly neo-liberal situation (anyone can wear what she wants; anyone can design and make bunads anywhere in the world), nation-building (politics) suffers because regional roots are severed; economic interests suffer because prices go down; and the personal or emotional pole suffers since the garments lose their special quality.

Finally, then: In what exactly does this ‘special quality’ consist? What is the nature of the enormous personal resources invested into clothes? What is invested are (notions of) hundreds of years of accumulated, local skill which one is oneself somehow connected to as a legitimate wearer of a bunad: it is the hau of the local. It is the recipe, not the food. What is reaped from this investment is a handsome profit, an enhanced sense of community and visible boundaries to the outside world. Cultural property of this kind is intangible, it is legally oblique, and it is poised to lose against both the brisk efficiency of contemporary capitalism and against individualist ideology of choice. Marketing and selling bunads does not in itself challenge the distinction between commercialism and tradition, and the continued validity of the distinction becomes evident when the unspoken but essential connection between a cultural practice and a marketing strategy is severed. When the commodity character of the bunad is divorced from its cultural context, the magic spell is broken. Then, and only then, the bunad finally becomes just a garment.

Acknowledgements. This article was first presented in outline at the conference ‘Cultural property’, Max-Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, 1-3 July 2002. I thank the organizers, Deema Kaneff and Erich Kasten, for providing an extremely congenial and stimulating atmosphere, and the participants for their comments. I have also benefited from comments by Daniel Miller, colleagues at the Department of Social Anthropology at Oslo, and students and colleagues at the Department of Scandinavian Studies, University College London.

 

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