The Semiotics of Cultural Discourse

Alan Audi has an interesting Feature Article titled A Semiotics of Cultural Property Argument in the latest issue of the International Journal of Cultural Property. The article is here, but I’m afraid is free only for University folks and those with institutional access. Here’s the abstract:

This article applies the tools of legal semiotics to examine the terms, modalities, and conventions of legal argument in the cultural property context. In a first instance, the author re-enacts Duncan Kennedy’s study of recurrent patterns within legal argument to illustrate the highly structured nature of most cultural property argument. This mapping exercise shows how legal concepts draw their meaning in part from their place within a broader linguistic system, and as a result cannot by themselves form an adequate basis for ethical positions. Following this, the pervasive Elgin Marbles controversy is shown to resemble a myth (in Roland Barthes’s sense of the term) behind which a series of value judgments and support systems are embedded into cultural property argument. The conclusion presents a number of observations sketching a framework centered on restitution as a starting point for resolution of cultural property disputes.

There are then responses from some of the best cultural property writers around, including Patty Gerstenblith, Daniel Shapiro, Yannis Hamilakis and perhaps the best response was from Barton Beebe. In a final rejoinder Audi engages in an entertaining, if perhaps unhelpful scholarly kerfluffle with Prof. Gerstenblith’s critiques.

I’m a newcomer to the field of semiotics. If I understand Audi’s arguments correctly, he believes many cultural property scholars have unwittingly used canned responses to a number of the same recurring debates. This dialectic does not promote a better legal framework and renders many arguments stagnant. I think this may be exactly right in some cases. The problem is Audi does not define what he means by a cultural property debate. It seems he is speaking in the main about restitutions of objects such as the Elgin Marbles. Some of his more general arguments about the law are perhaps diminished by his failure to discuss the current state of the law, as Prof. Gerstenblith rightly points out.

I think he is exactly right about the arguments being made about these kinds of objects, but there is settled law for other classes of objects; for example for newly and illicitly excavated antiquities. For these objects there is not a problem of discourse, but rather a problem with implementing the law because the market effectively evades regulation.

I think perhaps one of the most insightful comment on the cultural property trade was made by Kurt Siehr,

If pieces of visual arts were treated like other commodities traded in international commerce, we would have to talk about letters of credit, charter parties, import and export regulations, embargoes, dumping, most-favoured-nation clauses, GATT and arbitration. It is interesting to observe that none of these terms are in fact used in the field of international art trade, except for … import and export restrictions.

There are gaps in the regulation, and strong conflicts in the ongoing debate. Audi I think does show how many legal arguments can be classified as maxims and countermaxims. However good legal analysis should get to the root of that tension, and show the policy at play on both sides, and effectively evaluate the state of the law. Unfortunately he doesn’t incorporate enough of the cultural policy-making scholarship into his analysis on “cultural property debates” as he calls it; which he seems to only believe can encompass the intractable dilemmas posed when the law has nothing to say for claimants in situations like the Parthenon marbles.

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