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).

In the article he makes a plea to “stop the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry from covering the layers of Kayakoy’s heritage.” Although it is not surprising that the Turkish government has decided to restore and use this village, considering the European trends on this very matter (my own research actually concerns the wide use of the notion of “traditional villages” in Greece and Europe), a couple of things caught my attention.

First, it was his use of quotation marks (having in mind Russell’s blog that quotation marks are doing significant work); for example, when he describes how he and his wife bought and restored a cottage he writes, “My wife and I restored a ruined stone cottage in the Kaya valley and have lived there ever since,” but when it comes to the restorations of the Turkish government he writes: “The killing blow to Kayakoy will come in the next year or two when a development company will ‘restore’ a third of the houses into hotel accommodation.” Obviously, there are restorations and then there are “restorations,” a kind of normalization of one over the other notion of restoration—leaving us to assume that he and his wife have somehow preserved the authentic and original form of the cottage while the supposed restorations by the government will destroy the authenticity of those buildings.

The irony, of course, is that having studied so-called “traditional” houses in Greek villages and efforts to restore them to their original form I can very well imagine that their stone cottage has all the accommodations of a modern house, from central heating to modern plumbing—demonstrating that the use of the rhetoric of authenticity and therefore tradition helps to support their all too modern interests and needs, which for the couple is the preservation of a romanticized past of a simpler life, one without the hustle and bustle of tourists (such as themselves?) destroying that life. As he writes:

We have despaired to see gradual increase in tourism and the decrease in the class of tourists. It is not unusual to see women walking the streets in beachwear now and men sitting in restaurants with no shirts on. Few seem interested in the story of the population exchange and few take any interest in Turkish culture but enjoy a version of English culture offered in the nearby bustling tourist town of Hisaronu, ten minutes drive away by a road as wide as a three lane highway.

But in order to support this rhetoric of authenticity there needs to be another move, that is, apart from the subtle use or not of quotation marks to distinguish what is authentically restored or not, there has to be another move that supports this distinction; and it has to do with an appeal to a kind of past knowledge that one has because of a certain kind of experience, producing a nostalgic imagining of how things were. So, we therefore read in that same article:

We two walked among the ruins and saw how magnificent the churches had been. Neither of us have any truck with actual ghosts but having recently lived in Greece, our imaginations conjured up the street noises of the town. Communication across the village between friends was by raised voice and we heard them. We heard too the lowing of the cows, the barking dogs and the crying of babies. By that time a few tourists were visiting the town and they walked quietly along the narrow paths talking in whispers as if in a cathedral.

Although, it should be evident from the article that what they are trying to preserve is at least his version of an English romanticism, one suited to his current interests, and therefore what he now imagines to be the past village life, we should not lose sight of those subtle rhetorical moves that strategic agents use in order to accomplish their always present interests.

If we, as scholars, understand tradition in a way different from people’s own claims about it, that is, as something that is handed down to us from the past and therefore transmitted and passively received, we will instead hear its use as a rhetorical technique employed by strategic agents in the present for their all too modern interests and needs. If so, then the discourse on tradition can be understood as a way by which a group (or individual) tries to enforce what they take as the group, especially when this “groupness” is considered to be under threat, in this case the supposed threat of the wrong type of tourism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *