Brian Daniels (Philadelphia): Precarious Heritage: Cultural Protection, Necropower, and Political Resistance in the Syrian Conflict

Technische Universität Berlin
Straße des 17. Juni 135, Hauptgebäude, H112
10623 Berlin

Ongoing since 2011, the Syrian War is the worst global humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Over six million people have fled the country; almost as many have been displaced within its borders. Syria’s acclaimed cultural heritage has also been devastated. A common question in this conflict, as well as others, has been the relationship and hierarchy of value between living people and heritage sites. This paper reconceptualizes of the intersections and disconnections between safeguarding human life and safeguarding heritage using necropower as a theoretical lens for understanding the forms of violence directed at civilian populations. Drawing upon the work of Achille Mbembe, as well as older legal traditions about genocide, this paper seeks to examines how cultural heritage is implicated in conflicts that marshal negation, expendability, and precarity as tactics. Curiously, in the case of the Syrian War, the exercise of disciplinary, biopolitical, and necropolitical power has not completely enervated the agency of civilians caught up in the conflict. This paper discusses the production of roles and identities that enable novel forms of political resistance that seek to respond to the totalizing control imposed over life and death. This paper draws upon the experiences of the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq (SHOSI) Project, which worked with displaced Syrian activists to protect heritage sites inside Syria between 2013 and 2019.

Dr. Brian I. Daniels is the director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, adjunct assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania anthropology graduate group, visiting professor in the Sustainable Cultural Heritage Graduate Program at the American University of Rome, and research associate at the Smithsonian Institution. His research centers around three concerns: (1) conflict, cultural loss, and human rights violations; (2) community-based approaches to cultural heritage preservation; and (3) indigenous rights and recognition. Currently, Dr. Daniels leads the National Science Foundation-supported Conflict Culture Research Network, a group of scholars at fifteen international universities and research organizations focused on the study of intentional cultural destruction. He has received the Society for American Archaeology’s Presidential Recognition Award for his efforts to protect Syrian and Iraqi cultural heritage and the Lynn Reyer Award in Tribal Community Development from the Society for the Preservation of American Indian Culture for his work with the Shasta Indian communities of northern California. He previously served as the manager of the National Endowment for the Humanities regional center initiative at San Francisco State University, where he worked on strategies for public engagement and the digital humanities.