Saturday, March 18, 2006

Tradition Patents

John Quiggin has been beaten up pretty roundly for his post "The Traditionality of Modernity." Such posts often incite vigorous debate about which practices could rightly be called traditional. In the past, I have been critical of scholars who feel the need to adjudicate the authenticity of any given traditions; I think that rather than creating more understanding about the dynamism of culture, they confer genuineness on certain traditions while denying it to others.

One large problem with the whole debate is that tradition and culture are being used synonymously. Sharon points out that even though the nineteenth century may have been an era of the invention of traditions, the people of the era nonetheless felt a connection to the past based on their beliefs, customs and practices. Yes, they had their traditions.

But the problem of the nineteenth century was not that it invented traditions, either ex nihilo or on remnants of the past, but that it invented the category of tradition: the culture that was the spontaneous expression of the people/nation (often rooted in or preserved by its peasantry) and that was endangered by the transformations set forth by modernity.

Perhaps to focus an inquiry, we should ask, "how did ethnologists invent tradition?" Yes, the precursors of anthropology, who scoured the valleys and hills of Europe in search of continuity with the past. Describing and cataloging practices and material culture, ethnologists authenticated tradition. They identified practices that revealed the greatest purity (either being unchanged by modernity or that seemed to reflect a consensus of numerous practices.) Their criteria could be simple: because they could not identify an author, they assumed that the authorship of practices belonged to the people in general. From their work, standards evolved that were used to homogenize all cultural practices and preserve them. In this way, things like dress (Tracht), Passion Plays, and Carnival celebrations, which were initially quite diverse, converged towards one another. The fact that the ethnologists' quest was framed by modernity (in museums, exhibitions, national celebrations, consumer products, recreational travel) contributed to the notion that the practices that were being presented were the authentic culture of the nation.

There may have been slivers of continuity in invented traditions: one community's practices were adopted as the standard for all; or the practices of many communities were similar enough that a general ritual could be drawn up. Many could not offer the same sense of durability of practices without constructing it out of nothing. Regardless of whether or not the molecules of the pre-modern helped to make the modern, the category of tradition created false impressions what culture should be: collective; anonymous; popular rather than intellectual; resistant to change; enduring; patriotic.

(I recommend Regina Bendix's In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Culture, which discusses the ethnological project both in Germany and the United States.)

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