Thoughts on the Word ‘Tradition’

Woo, I know I have been very quiet lately. A quick update – I have not posted for a while because 1) I had to, ya know, finish my thesis, and 2) I conferred my degree! Finally, I have been able to take some time to decompress. Now that my brain has recovered, I’m happy to get back in the habit. I figured I’d start with an interesting correspondence I had.

Recently, a friend I met at the 2013 International Babaylan Conference sent me a message and asked my thoughts and opinions on the words ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional’. When is it okay to use, if at all? I was both surprised and unsurprised, because of course, this is a highly problematic term; however, it is a term that cannot be avoided using. Below is my (edited) response:

There have been many essays and dialogues written up about the problem of the term and use of ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional.’ Historical anthropology and ethnology brought about the temporal notion of ‘traditional’ versus ‘modern’, and with it, other sticky, Western-based dichotomies:

savage vs. civil
barbaric vs. refined
pagan vs. christian
Other/Oriental vs. Western
inferior vs. superior
insider vs. outsider

Academic fields have since addressed this topic, which has produced a sort of apologetic discourse. (like: “hey, sorry the country I’m from colonized yours and then applied their own meanings to your culture – we know this is bad and here’s what we wrote about it!” type of thing). It continues to be problematized, and the terms are always written with qualifying statements when used.  Now that colonized/formerly (continually?) oppressed countries have started to speak out about their own conditions and histories, have set movements of cultural rebirth in motion, or have incorporated indigenous research within their own academic approaches, the term ‘tradition’ remains a hot topic. It is both embraced and shunned, but should be used appropriately. The tricky thing is that most people have a sliding scale of what is appropriate and what is not. It differs with each culture, and then differs culturally versus academically (yes, complex and confusing – especially difficult for those who are both culturally and academically inclined).

Here are my thoughts on ‘tradition’ as a practice and ‘traditional’ as an adjective:

My personal take on the word ‘tradition’ is that it is totally okay to use.  In fact, I can’t imagine NOT using it. Indeed, tradition is all around us – it evolves, it changes, it adapts just as each generation does. Older traditions are modernized. Other traditions have been born just recently, in contemporary contexts.  Traditions, even when modern, continue to invoke ancestral acknowledgement.  I personally believe that traditions must innovate – it is the way that they survive and stay relevant to us.  Others think that when we add a new twist to traditions, we are bastardizing it or disrespecting the ancestors somehow.  Certainly, it all depends on how these innovations are handled.  I know of contemporary cloak weavers who painstakingly gather and prepare the raw materials, fibers and feathers for traditional and ceremonial use.  I know of other cloak weavers who spend as much time and energy on their craft but use materials like glass and wire – not for use as wear, but as art.  Both parties have used the word ‘traditional’ (among others) to describe themselves.  It all depends.  Is tradition decided by materials, or intended use?  Or aesthetics?  Even then, there are more nuances that can be brought to consideration.

But, to go back to the original question of when/how the terms ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional’ is used, here are my general rules of thumb when used in writing or presentations:

  1. Know who your audience is
  2. Express in some way that you are aware it is a problematic term (normally found in an introduction to a body of work)
  3. Contextualize it within its time period
  4. Take care to mention which part of the ‘tradition’ you are referring to (cultural/temporal specificity)

For example:

  1. This is a traditional carving that repeats our ancestral patterns and indicates a sacred house, although we used contemporary architectural designs.
  2. This is a traditional dance that uses age-old moves/narratives/music, but is no longer performed to indicate ceremony.
  3. This is a traditional weaving, but I’m wearing it a contemporary garment.
  4. Exchange of [x] was a tradition popular in the 19th century but was discontinued in 20th century, although the production of [x] continues today.

Again, these qualifying statements are essential.  They can be confusing, as traditions are constantly morphing and expanding.  But, spending time and attention to detail will pay off.  Otherwise, you can end up being the target for a lot of criticism.

Some other thoughts:

I have been involved with, and listened to, other culture bearer artists whom I’ve witnessed get uncomfortable when scholars use the word ‘traditional’, but then describe themselves or their work as ‘traditional’ with every fiber of their being.  Again, I think this goes back to that temporal notion.  Many of the cultural producers feel as though they are being frozen in time or historicized, flattened and encapsulated in a sterile, academic discourse.  However, when they describe their work as traditional, what they really mean is that traditions are alive and breathing, changing just the same way we as humans do.  They are still honoring the ancestors, even if the tradition in question has experienced new changes.  As long as there is a mutual understanding that tradition is not static, then the term as a label really shouldn’t be a big issue.

I had a conversation with a friend and scholar, Ping-Ann Addo, who once told me that the survival of a cultural tradition is dependent upon the community.  They might decide, if it no longer makes sense for them, that they might not choose to continue a traditional practice.  This doesn’t mean that their culture or identity changes, but rather the way they express it.  In this light, tradition is something we must allow for some flexibility, just like our identity.  Tradition is not something that is linear, unlike time – traditions are repeated then discontinued, they circle back, they modernize, they recur, they are forgotten, they are brought back, and so on.

What we do with our traditions and how we relate to them should always be full of respect, but must also be present in our lives only if it continues to serve us.  If a certain tradition no longer applies to our lives or contemporary situations, do we continue it out of obligation?  Do we force it to fit our lives?  Or do we change it and keep certain elements so it remains present?  Do we constrain it?  Or let it grow?  It’s never easy to make these decisions, but they are made just the same.  There will always be a spectrum of reactions and criticisms, and we deal with it in our own ways.

I think I’ll leave it here for now.

Readers, hit me with your thoughts! I would love to hear them.