‘For those adepts who have a vision for restitutions...’

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The Sarr-Savoy report to Emmanuel Macron on heritage restitution has an English translation, and I have read it. It’s very... French. That is, it reflects the stereotype of the continental intellectual whose writing can never merely be about a subject when it can bear witness to it, and whose language teems with temporalities and specificities and capitalisations. The historical and legal survey sections tone it down somewhat and appear solid, but the highfalutin moral/political exhortation that’s meant to hold it together seems itself to have expropriated its terminology into alien contexts. A sample of what President Macron will learn if he actually reads this: ‘Objects are the mediators of correspondences, of metamorphoses, and passages within an ecosystem characterized by fluidity and circularity. Within a reticular universe, objects become the operators of a relational and plastic identity...’ (p. 35)

Further brief impressions:

  • It honestly reads more like a manifesto than like a report. A weighing up of arguments and points of view this really is not; when views to which the authors are unsympathetic are acknowledged at all, they tend to be psychologised: e.g. ‘no one dared to have the courage to face the situation directly’ (p. 18) and we need ‘an analytical reading of the various postures [sic!] polarizing the debates around restitutions’ (p. 28).
  • Relatedly, a lot of research has clearly gone into this, and yet, given the topic, it’s remarkable to what extent the scholarship of heritage ethics as I know it isn’t represented here. It isn’t for want of a willingness to draw on Anglophone sources. It’s just not there. The closest thing comes in the context of a sort of progress narrative of the spread of pro-restitution views (p. 24).
  • However, the authors do critically respond to existing pro-restitution arguments: some people who might have been cheerleaders for this report aren’t going to like p. 39. ‘Their return to their communities of origin does not have as its aim to substitute one form of physical and semantic imprisonment by another, that would this time be justified by the idea of the “rightful property owner”.’ ‘The argument according to which the act of restitution implies that cultural heritage objects only retain their legitimate life within their originary geocultural environments—and equating this with the idea that the cultural objects must therefore remain at their originary home, is not acceptable.’
  • That’s because they want to push a ‘new relational ethics’ instead. Why no, they don’t do much to set this grand aim within the context of moral philosophy at large. No prizes for guessing why I have the knives out for this one.

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