Sunday, February 19, 2006

From Tradition to History

After thinking further of the diverging cases of Lorraine and Provence, I feel that there is more that is revelatory than changing fates of two regions in the face of industrialization. Each represents a way of grasping the past: one based on tradition, in which the genre de vie becomes ossified; the other turns tradition into history, making it an object of a distant time--a remnant of the genre de vie that manifested itself in the built environment. The immediacy of tradition is less valuable than its historicization. Holding onto social capital, in the case of Lorraine, becomes a recipe for decline. More of the population must uproot itself (commute) in order to sustain industries that once made the region wealthy. The other, as in the case of Provence, turns social capital into cultural capital, sustaining the population. The cost is that the population is in a permanent relationship with the past that is representative rather than immediate, rarified and preserved rather than lived.

The survival of place becomes evermore dependent on the ability of communities to represent themselves as the products of history. It is as remnants of ways of living that they become attractive to tourists. And despite the alienation caused by tourism, the cultural goods that communities promote are not as easily delocalized (deracinated in the process of globalization) than social goods, such as industry.


At 11:57 PM, Blogger aeogae said...

That makes a lot of sense. Any thoughts on countries and cultural capital in general? (This is coming from a heritage obsessed Brit)

At 11:36 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Sorry, I took so long to respond to this. I hesitated, because it seemed that nations have more flexibility with regard to how they deal with the cultural and social policy, unlike other social groups; they have complicated relationships with the past. Any nation can only gain from rediscovering its heritage, even if it finds nothing that it marketable. What if a nation's legacy is poverty, landlessness, dispossession, diaspora, nomadism, or famine? There are probably elements and values that can be drawn from the experiences of the past to create a collective commitment to development. The example I would point out, as I have done numerous times, is the Trans-Andean Aymarra movements, that position themselves as the native inheritors of both Incan pride and European progress.

What troubles me is living in the past. As historians, we are accustomed to thinking that we must make the past come alive, and nature of the built environment (especially in Europe) makes living outside the past impossible: the buildings, the streets, the logic of the layout of the town--these are all elements made in the past, for the past, that imposes itself as more than just a memory.

But insisting that it is possible to bring the past back into the modern world--to make the past a more intimate place--is dangerous. Misogyny and racism are but two elements that can be, and have been, restored as nostalgia turns into social policy. I think that the nationalist appeal to agriculture, in many cases, has become a folly. In the 1920s and 30s, many of the new states of Eastern Europe promoted agriculture above other economic sectors because nationalist movements idealized the peasant as the heart of the nation. The result: increasing backwardness, increasing economic underperformance, racism, lack of cooperation in security matters, exposure to more industrialized economies (namely Weimar and Nazi Germany.) And it worked against their independence.

I guess that the past should always remain "a foreign country." We are, however, enriched by visiting it.


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