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Monday, November 14, 2011

The Invention of Tradition

If you thought that the Scottish tartan (you know, the striped cloth of which the pattern indicates the clan you’re from) is a tradition going back to times immemorial, you should read the chapter on it in the book The Invention of Tradition, edited by Hobsbawm and Ranger. The chapter describes beautifully how at some point in time there was no such thing as a tartan-tradition, and that ten years later it was an age-old tradition.
I liked the story – I even thought, and still think, it is hilariously funny in some ways. Read it, when you can. When I first read it, a long time ago, it also showed to me the capacity of us, human beings, to invent our past in ways that are fitting to our present. I was gripped, at the time, by the idea of showing the inventedness of many traditions, and even wrote an article on an evident invention of tradition: the invention of a Frisian folk song tradition by the group Irolt, a tradition which they then, although it was fake, could revive in order to create a Frisian folk revival analogous to the “second English folk revival”, specifically of groups like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention.
And it ís worthwhile to look at those inventions of tradition, because it does show very clearly how music may function as a vehicle to express, for example, social identity. But at the time I thought there was a clear difference between invented and not-invented traditions, and I thought Hobsbawm and Ranger thought so too. Now I am not so sure of that anymore. I recently reread the introduction to the book, and actually believe that you could also interpret it in such a way that the argument actually is that tradition is invented by definition. Traditions never “exist”, they are an active reordering-in-the-mind and renaming of existing routines. Routines become traditions when they are loaded with symbolic meanings of a special kind, characteristically at least references to both ritual and continuity with the past.
This interpretation of Hobsbawm and Ranger fits neatly into a social constructivist, yes even “praxeological” (practice-theoretical – never mind that, by the way) interpretation of social reality. But if all traditions are invented, then the term “invented tradition” becomes a pleonasm. Of course there are examples of traditions like the Scottish tartan or (Irolt’s version of) the Frisian folk-revival, but they are not characterized by the fact that the traditions they pretend to be are inventions. The remarkable thing about those kind of traditions is not their inventedness, but their reference to a past that demonstrably never existed. If they are an invention, then they are a double invention: an invention of tradition as well as an invention of the past on which the tradition is based.
For some time now I am asking myself what an alternative term for “invented tradition” might be. All suggestions are welcome!
Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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