Forcing Tradition

Recently on Netflix I watched an interesting episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (“Producer’s Backend,” season 16 episode 3, which originally aired 8 October 2014). The narrative in the episode focused on a movie producer named Brubeck who used his power over young actresses — i.e., girls under the age of consent — to force them into sexual quid pro quos. Throughout the episode, the SVU detectives uncovered a number of victims, but in each case their hands were tied insofar as the assaults took place so far in the past that the incidents were past the statute of limitations.

As they investigated victims coerced more recently, they found that the movie producer had learned to cleverly skirt age of consent laws:

Detective #1: In the last nine years, all of Brubeck’s movies have been shot in Pennsylvania, Washington, or Montana.
Detective #2: All states with an age of consent of sixteen, and a mistake of age defense.
Prosecutor: Meaning, the guy can have sex with a fourteen-year-old and claim that he thought she was sixteen.

Despite this, the captain insists on moving forward with the investigation: “We’re not giving up. … There has got to be a way to stop him.” Continue reading “Forcing Tradition”

Which “Tradition”?

I recently came across the following video (somewhat dated now in the US, since federal rulings have made this political issue a moot point), which offers a clever critique of appeals to “traditional marriage,” specifically regarding appeals used to justify heteronormative marriage laws. It works by drawing attention to the massive variety of all that fits into our collective past, history, or “tradition.”

From this video it is clear that there are always multiple pasts to draw from, and our choice of which elements we pick out and lift up as the real “tradition” — which we want to make normative for ourselves and others — is always motivated by our interests in the present and for the future.

In the classroom, when I point out that people pick and choose from their “traditions,” students often take that as if I were criticizing practitioners, or as if I were calling them hypocrites. Then I point out that although most of them are Americans, none of them wants to hang onto the 3/5ths rule in the constitution. The point? We’re all picking and choosing, all the time. Rather than refereeing which truth claims, or in this case which traditions, get to count as legitimate, I encourage my students to consider the issues at stake in these debates and the speakers involved. In doing this, we are able to see how different social groups construct contradictory, if not competing, historical narratives in very stragic ways to further their own social agendas. Cherry-picking historical traditions isn’t necessarily hypocrisy, but rather is just social group formation.

Fabricating Origins

Picture 17We used a typescript copy of my small, forthcoming edited volume, Fabricating Origins (due out this summer), in my upper-level seminar this semester, a course devoted to examining origins narratives — seeing those various sorts of “In the beginning” tales we so commonly tell as not being about the past their tellers claim to narrate but all about the present and future hopes of the tale’s narrator. The course started out with Barry Levinson’s endearing film “Avalon” (but one that opens the way to discussing hidden fractures in the life of any social group) and then a couple weeks later we watched Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (in which the notion of nostalgia is problematized so nicely) — both setting the tone for the course. Students kept notebooks in the class (something I learned from Jonathan Z. Smith and which I’ve incorporated into most of my upper-level seminars), and they handed them into me last week; it was interesting to see, from some of their notes, how effective the films were in framing the problem of the course. And then, eventually, we worked our way to the ten revised posts from this site, collected together in the above-named volume, complete with commentaries on each by a group of young scholars I’ve mostly met online through social media. And, like the movies, the volume seems to have worked well with students, to press home the point of the course.

And that point was…?

Don’t look in the distance, or the past, at whatever someone is gesturing toward; rather, keep your eyes on the one trying to direct, perhaps even to force, your gaze. Continue reading “Fabricating Origins”

In the New Old-Fashioned Way

brenda-leeBeing Christmas day, it’s worth mulling over the artful way in which the arbitrary, changeable present and the authoritative past can be linked together to lend the appearance of continuity and necessity — the result being what we otherwise call tradition.

As if all history led to us, putting us in synch with the ages. Continue reading “In the New Old-Fashioned Way”

Subtle Strategies

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.48.44 AMWhile I was searching the web for tradition-related articles, I came across this news story written by John Laughland (a British civil engineer) who submitted an article to a Greek e-newspaper—“protothemanews.com”—entitled “Kayakoy: Death by Restoration.” The title immediately caught my attention, given my own interest in how we use the term tradition, restorations, and the like. He and his German wife Beatrice have lived in Turkey for the last 26 years near an abandoned village known as Kayakoy, located at the south side of Asia Minor, and it is said that its Greek residents abandoned it after the 1920s population exchange between the two countries (i.e., Turkey and Greece). Continue reading “Subtle Strategies”

Prof. Russell McCutcheon at Lehigh University

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During the last week of October, Culture on the Edge‘s Russell McCutcheon, Monica Miller, and Vaia Touna presented at Lehigh University’s Collaborations: Directions in the Study of Religion. The Edge’s Russell McCutcheon delivered the Plenary address “And That’s Why No One Takes the Humanities Seriously.” The conference included panels on “Tradition,” with a presentation from the Edge’s Vaia Touna, “The Past,” “Identity,” and “Experience,” with a presentation from Monica Miller.

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Lehigh University published a few articles on the conference, which can be found here and here. Lehigh’s own De’Anna Monique Daniels (@DeAnnaMonique) made a Storify of the Plenary which can be found here.

While McCutcheon was there, Lehigh also interviewed him regarding his thoughts on the Humanities and the study of religion in the university. Take a look at what he had to say…

Dr. Russell McCutcheon from Lehigh IMRC.

Special thanks to Lehigh University for hosting this conference and passing this along!

Frames of Identity Revisited

framingWhile at a workshop in Bethlehem, PA, I stayed at The Historic Bethlehem Hotel, built in early 19th century – a very nice and quaint hotel. On the second day of my stay there I came across a photo shoot in the lobby and as you can see in the picture that I was able to snap, the multiple frames immediately caught my attention and reminded me of a blog I wrote a while back on the use of frames at a museum in Greece – devices that effectively reinforced the nation’s enduring identity. Continue reading “Frames of Identity Revisited”

Cultural Sensibilities

Change, Same Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.A year ago, a member of the Greek Parliament, Mrs. Repousi, who belongs to the leftish political party of DEMAR (Democratic Left) provoked a series of reactions in the media with two statements (each set apart by a couple of days) that she made during discussions concerning changes in the educational system. Continue reading “Cultural Sensibilities”

Traditional? Why not?!

photo-2As I got back to working on my dissertation’s chapter on tradition a question kept coming up: “What’s a tradition?” It’s the question that hunts me day and night. How do we talk about this? Is it all around us? When do we say this is tradition or traditional and what do we accomplish by saying this? Is tradition even a thing (invented or not) or is it a process?
No doubt you’ll read some great insights on the issue in an upcoming volume from Culture on the Edge (in an essay by Craig Martin). But wait…Spoilers!! Until then, I’m left to try and solve or complicate this notion of tradition on my own. Continue reading “Traditional? Why not?!”

Trickle-Down Social Change?

savannahnewsstoryThis is an interesting news story, for it prompts us to ask about what constitutes a social change that’s worth calling a change: opening up elite institutions to non-traditional or minority members or changing the conditions that require elite institutions in the first place? Continue reading “Trickle-Down Social Change?”