Friday, June 09, 2017

Evening Note for Friday, June 9

Thought for the Evening: Invented Traditions

I have recently been reading The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, which I picked up at Half-Price Books a while back; it is quite interesting. Hobsbawm defines 'invented tradition' in the following way:

It includes both 'traditions' actually invented, constructed and formally instituted and those emerging in a less easily traceable manner within a brief and dateable period-- a matter of a few years perhaps -- and establishing them with great rapidity....'Invented tradition' is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. (p. 1)

A number of examples are given throughout the book by the different authors. For instance:

* The kilt, which is practically a distinguishing feature of Scotland today, was invented in the eighteenth century by an Englishman, Thomas Rawlinson, who owned a business that hired a lot of Scotsman for dangerous jobs like lumberjacking. The traditional Highland costume was a belted long tunic that had to be hitched up for hard work, and Rawlinson designed the kilt to be a vaguely similar garment that would be more practical. His design was indeed much more practical for difficult work, so it spread like wildfire through the Highlands among Highlanders, who often were involved in various kinds of manual labor jobs. It then began to be replaced by trousers, but the Highland regiments in the military continued to have it as part of their military uniform, so when there was a revival of Scottish nationalism in the nineteenth century, it was in people's minds as a distinctively Scottish kind of dress. Likewise, association of tartans with particular clans arose only in the nineteenth century, mostly as a marketing gimmick. (Hugh Trevor-Roper, "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland")

* Most of the public rituals and traditions we associate with the British Monarchy are fairly recent -- through most of the nineteenth century the public face of the Monarchy was notoriously shabby and unimpressive, with a poor sense of ceremony. This began to change in the 1870s, and as the Crown exercised less and less power, it began to be put forward more and more as a purely symbolic representation of British unity. (David Cannadine, "The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the 'Invention of Tradition', c. 1820-1977")

It quickly becomes clear that what the authors call 'invented traditions' are in fact one way in which traditio, handing down, is standardly done. The forest of old ways tends to dry up and burn out as people lose a sense of their purposes and meanings, or as invasive species take root and steal away their original nutrition; something must fill the void left. Either those old ways will be entirely replaced, or there will be some revitalization. If they are replaced, the new ways become the new forest, and undergo the same cycle. Residues and remnants of old ways, sometimes scholarly, sometimes distorted, sometimes only speculated, sometimes entirely imaginary, often become the seeds for either a return of something approximately like the old forest, or, more often, a compromise forest between the old and the new. The return of the old ways is often merely approximate, or by analogy, or sometimes more as a symbolic aspiration than an actual return. And the cycle begins again.

The actual processes involved are, of course, various, and, despite the name 'invented traditions' are not necessarily invented in the ordinary sense of the term -- they may just be a shift from a literal understanding to a symbolic one, or they may just be natural responses, consistent with prior traditions, to new situations that become stable precedents. They may -- indeed, in the Romantic period often were -- scholarly reconstructions, or, even more commonly, popular presentations of scholarly reconstructions that become part of people's folkloric self-understanding.

While it wouldn't be considered an 'invented tradition' in the above sense, an interesting analogy to some of these situations can be seen in Ivar Aasen's Nynorsk, an attempt to find the more purely Norwegian framework in the heavily Danish-overladen Norwegian language. He did this by working out what a purely Norse-based Modern Norwegian might be like. Thus we have the situation, which is remarkably common, of an actually traditional practice -- in this case, Dano-Norwegian -- in a struggle with a reforming purist-traditionalist practice -- in this case, Nynorsk -- both putting themselves forward as the appropriate tradition. In the case of the Norwegian language, this became tangled up with political disputes, leading to a considerable number of artificial interventions, none of which succeeded; and the result is that the Norwegian language today is quite an extraordinary mess, with no organic solution to the struggle yet found or, for that matter, in sight. In the end, only a long stretch of time and a lot of ordinary interaction will heal a muddle of tradition created by politics.

Various Links of Interest

* G. E. M. Anscombe, On Transubstantiation: "It is easiest to tell what transubstantiation is by saying this: little children should be taught about it as early as possible."

* Hume as Historian at "Incudi Reddere"

* Thomas Storck, The Sin of Usury

* Daniel J. Lasker, Translations of Rabbi Judah Halevi's Kuzari

* I'm thinking of doing some Unamuno for a fortnightly book this summer, so this discussion of his quijotismo by Mariana Alessandri is timely.

* Martha Bolton, Mary Shepherd, at the SEP

* James V. Schall reviews John Safranek's The Myth of Liberalism

Currently Reading

Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
Vladimir Soloviev, The Justification of the Good
St. Romanos the Melodist, On the Life of Christ: Kontakia
Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed
John of St. Thomas, The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

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