As 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.
So, this morning as I was working, reading drafts of my chapter, along with notes I’ve made and copies of documents from various archives that I’ve visited while in Greece last year, archives devoted on documenting “traditional villages,” my eyes got a glimpse of my coffee mug. “Well isn’t that a traditional mug?” I thought to myself. By saying that it is “a traditional mug,” and not just a mug that was given to me, a mug I happen to like for who knows what reasons, I realized that I made a strategic move, placing myself in the nexus of the Department of Religious Studies at The University of Alabama.
For there is nothing inherently traditional (whatever that means) about the mug and, I would add, about anything that is labeled in this way; but, in the hands of strategic agents who want to bridge the gaps that disconnects them from past and present people, the discourse on tradition is a useful technique that allows a person (or a group of persons) to identify with long gone people or even their contemporaries by bringing focus not on differences but on similarities, on things or ideas they possess, or even creating those things and ideas people come to think that they possess. In that respect, the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama is successful in creating the means, whether intentionally or not, by which people can come to think of themselves as being part of its nexus and why not its “traditions”! For I hear that they give these to all of their guests (I taught there for a semester in 2010)—thus, in my imagination, my mug unites me with a communion of saints whom I’ve never met but who’ve also visited Manly Hall such as Arjun Appadurai, Tomoko Masuzawa, Greg Johnson, Jeppe Jensen…, and so many others, whether scholars or students.
So, how do you know if you are part of a group that has traditions? Well, start off by asking if you own a mug?
But, to go back to my initial questions, what I can start to entertain now is that if I want to study “tradition” or “traditional,” then asking “What is a tradition?”—as if it is a thing that can be described, that is handed down from authoritative past transmitters, to passive present recipients—is likely of little analytical use; instead, it might be more useful to see the discourse on tradition as a process, a rhetorical technique employed by strategic agents in the present in their various identification practices.