Thursday, August 24, 2006

What is tradition for?

Went to a talk last night in Libra Aries on the Folk-lore of East Anglia (the guy was insistent upon the hyphen although I couldn't for the life of me work out why). I went for all kinds of reasons. I wanted to check it out as a venue, I needed to drop some stuff off to the owners and it's something that sounded interesting. I love stories and tales although the whole thing was more about old traditions than anything else.

Do some traditions need to be extinguished? It was thought provoking in a number of ways. Unfortunately, before I arrived I'd kissed Hamish just after he'd had a big swig of strong beer and so I felt quite light headed (from the beer no doubt) and found it difficult to concentrate.

As an aside at one point the speaker started scoffing about Essex, which made my eyes narrow and I then folded my arms to reinforce the sentiment - he thought it was safe to mock Essex up here in Cambridgeshire - he should know no one is ever safe from the Essex crew... but let's not dwell on that.

It passed through my mind "What is tradition for?" It's all very well talking about preserving old ways but... why?

I think part of the answer, if there is one, may lie in the way that culture is contested ground and that whilst Starbucks, "Mum's gone to Iceland" and the bloody Archers are all part of modern culture, they are the part that has been imposed upon from above and is outside of local control and influence.

There are other cultural tendencies, that whilst they're not free from capital, are the product of self organisation. This makes them vulnerable to erosion, but also culturally powerful at the same time, because they grow organically from human desire rather than being a pure function of production.

The speaker talked about how Morris Dancing (God save us), the Norwich 'dragon dance' and the tradition that led to the "Dog and Duck" were all aspects of ordinary people practicing their autonomy. This really struck a chord with me. It doesn't mean these things are progressive per se (particularly blood sports) but it is about people claiming ownership over their lives outside of the control of the Lord, the corporation or the government.

When Harrods can start its Christmas season in August the motivation is entirely based on the needs of capital, that have become an entity somehow operating outside of human conscious control. When early Christians took hold of the original winter festivals and shaped them for their own ends it was a product of the human heart.

The "specialness" of Christmas is eroded. The unique character of regions are swamped by a global corporate take over. Homogeneity and individuality are rival forces - but where the traditions that gave "The Bun Shop" its name and place in the community can quickly slip away - the bland multinational texture of the world seems ever present yet to have so little purchase over our emotional life, perhaps because it's not "us" - just the shape of where we live.

It's no coincidence that in East Anglia it was the unorthodox Christians who were at the heart of the Chartist movement and Swing Riots of the nineteenth centuries or that Cromwell came from up the road where more independent minded forms of Christian thought prevailed or that the peasants revolt was strongest in areas that also had strong regional traditions.

But whilst I can delight in the stories and myths of the past I can't find it in my heart to give them a special place above the new folk-lores that develop today, the modern homegrown idiosyncrasies and initiatives that, through no fault of their own, come into friction with MTV, Frappachino and Jeremy Clarkson.

That development of local autonomous cultures and traditions may or may not have radical content - but they all share one thing. If you can like music your not meant to like and dance dances you invented yourself, you are better armed to think things you are not meant to think.


Renegade Eye said...

Postmodernism is frightening.

Interesting point about culture from above.

moll said...

> before I arrived I'd kissed Hamish just after he'd had a big swig of strong beer and so I felt quite light headed

Oh that's a perfectly normal reaction... I feel quite jealous ;-P


I was actually just trying to explain the concept of Morris Dancers in my Spanish class the other day. The question being asked was "What traditional dances and music do you have in your country?" (though in Spanish, obviously.) My limited vocab didn't quite extend to the words "stomping" "ribbons" and "making a tit of yourself" so I think I didn't quite do quaint old England the justice it deserved. But it was nothing to trying to explain Guy Fawkes night to foreigners, which I have found myself trying to do on occasion. "So we have this fantastic festival every year where we burn the effigy of a catholic to celebrate his failed attempt at overthrowing Parliament." Er, yeah....

To me, once something starts being called "tradition" as opposed to "stuff we do a lot" then the reason for doing it has died. All the things you mention are not things that people really, actually do anymore, except for for tourists. Its like here in Cusco, where the only people forced to listen to "traditional" panpipe music are tourists, and the "traditional" costumes are only worn by women who come into the cities to dress up and pose with a llama to have their photo taken of in exchange for a few dollars. The line between "traditional" and "stereotyped" is too close for comfort for me.

While you argue that the world is becoming more homogenised, I wouldn't agree. There are plenty of people who would like it to be more homogeneous - I could quote from any of the many, many conversation I have had to listen to in the last few weeks about how hard it is to get a decent hamburger in Peru and why there isn't 24 hour hot water in the hotels. But the fact remains that there while there are still more than two people in the world there will always be variety, and there will always be different ways of doing things - even of thinking about something as "global" as Santa Claus or Starbucks.

The other area where "tradition" is called on a lot is in nationalism, something else I am pretty uncomfortable with. Revivals of interest in traditional dress, language, dances etc etc in Peru, for instance, are usually part of what it known as "Incanismo", which is a nationalistic pride in what is considered a "purer" Peruvian past. But its very much a middle and upper class movement, that has less to do with what you're average person is actually doing and wearing and listening to, than with a mythical "traditional" golden age. In fact, it often goes hand-in-hand with a snobbery towards the farmers who, in the opinion of the Incanismo, speak a degraded version of Quequa and who have fallen from their glorious Inca past. To quote from an article I was reading yesterday:

"This mestizo pride in the Quechua language as a badge of local and regional identity is sometimes combined with a prejudiced and condescending attitude to contemporary peasants, because some members of the Cuzco elite make a clear, if somewhat schizophrenic, distinction between the glories of the Inca past, and the living representatives of that society, whom they often see as sadly degenerate, ignorant, backward peasants mired in abject poverty, and addicted to alcohol and coca. Incanismo is in part, an elitist ideology espoused by educated urbanites who see themselves as the heirs to the Tawantisuyu's ruling class." "Tourism and nativistic ideology in Cuzco, Peru" Authors: van den Berghe P.L.; Flores Ochoa J. Source: Annals of Tourism Research , 2000

The point I am making in a long winded way, is that I entirely disagree that "traditions" are best understood as autonomous acts of protest. Instead I would say anything that becomes fetishised as a tradition has already ceased to have an active role in society, or come to that the ability to change. Actions, to be effective, need to be able to adapt, and by its very definition a tradition is something fixed. Whats more, an action that has become a tradition starts to serve nationalistic or semi-racist purposes more often than autonomous ones, or at the least a purpose of emphasising differences between people who could otherwise be being brought together in solidarity and a recognised shared humanity.

I find it interesting when I read about the Inca and the Aztec empires, that both forced their subject nations to wear very marked "ethnic" clothing, particularly when they transplanted entire populations to different parts of the empire to live in each other's lands. The Spanish chroniclers talk about it as if its a wonderful way of preserving traditional ways of life that would otherwise be lost. To me it sounds far more like making people wear little stars of David, or of physically and continually maintaining a strategy of divide and rule in a very personal and day-to-day way.

And one last thing before I finally shut up. "When early Christians took hold of the original winter festivals and shaped them for their own ends it was a product of the human heart." hmmm... Actually I would think of Christmas instead as a great example of Christianity doing exactly what most new religions do when they come into a new area - appropriate local practices in an attempt to suppress them. So really capitalism, if you want to think of it for a moment as a religion, is just carrying on a long standing practice of usurping the meaning of Christmas from, this time, the Christians who were trying to get rid of, say, Yule, or Saturnalia or whatever other winter festival happened to be going on. The ability to create and manipulate traditions normally stays at the top, not from the bottom.

Jim Jay said...

Cool, lots of good stuff here Mary. I might not come back on it all, let's see how it goes.

Disagreement first. My post was a bit rambling so it probably wasn't as clear as it could be that I'd agree with the statement that whilst there are two people they'll be variety - what I guess I'm trying to say is that there are two countervaling tendencies that are probably existant in most of us, most of the time.

I think the rise of the coffee house (again) is great. So my favourite thing is to have coffee with a friend and it may well be at one of these starbucks/nero/costa places.

So at one and the same time I'm supporting the homogenisation of culture AND turning it to my own ends. For example.

I consciously avoided describing "traditions... as autonomous acts of protest" I did pop a few caveats in but probably didn't spell it out clearly enough.

I think these local idiosyncracities are definately not acts of protest (usually).

Rather I'm thinking that these things that became traditions were acts of *autonomy* - not necesarily progressive or in conflict with the state at all. But perhaps cultural aspects that are less controlled or shaped by outside agencies but that have local character and are self organised provide good soil for movements against those that oppress. Maybe.

I agree with this description of things once they become traditions which is why I can take or leave morris dancing for example (shudder) and tend to prefer the organic and new cultural forms - that may be rather short lived and a bit crap - to the ossified and slightly wrong spectacles you see when people "do tradition"

In Colchester there's a massive fireworks do every Nov 5th laid on by the council (it might be so big because Colchester was a key town for the revolution) and the thousands upon thousands gathered under the norman castle and behind the roman walls are normally very noisy and robust during the ceremony.

They chant "burn him, burn him, burn him" as they lead the guy out and always others start yelling "let him go, he meant well" etc. it's horrifying and hilarious at the same time.

Calls about preserving our traditions are almost always made from the right. They tend to be defending the status quo against erosion and change. Or arguing against immigration.

But I don't think that's always the case. On the left people talk about various traditions - the trotskyist or anarchist traditions for example - or the trade union movement having a tradition of 'democracy' which are usually invoked against erosion from the right when someone is trying a stitch up - I think.

I definately think in England traditional music is a leftish current and tends to have an anti-establishment thread. Which is certainly not representative of folk music down the ages.

Hmmm - I'm still thinking about the question "why preserve traditions" I can't imagine myself doing something, anything, on that basis - I might do something that happens to be traditional, but I'd definately be doing it to enjoy myself rather than doing some good deed.

One of the things your post has done that's really useful for me Mary is to draw out and sharpen the distinction between the things we might regard as traditions and the process of becoming a "tradition" when they have become something quite different.

I hope my post is primarily about different cultural forces - one characterised by its imposition and economic strength and the other by its self organisation and inventiveness.

That sentance about Christians is one I worried over for ages. Partly out of the use of the words "human heart" and partly from uncertainty about the process of how it actually came about.

I'm still thinking about it now - but I have to plough on regardless of little flaws otherwise I'd never post!

You may be right - but it might also be that as religious ideas changed people took hold of the 'traditional' festivals that were part of their lives and renewed them according to their wishes.

One thing it's important to avoid I think is implying (as i might have done a bit) that "pre-christian" culture had more consistency than it did. Just as Hinduism underwent a period of standardisation by imperial rule from very localised, almost animist, ideas to a more regular form I think we often attribute "pre-christian" religions with a regularity it may not have had.

I'll stop there for now - whew!