When folks start talking about getting back to ‘tradition,’ their is often a counter-cultural element at play. They are often defining tradition in counterpoint to ‘this modern life.’ There are reasons to be a little cautious of such gestures since they can become more protest than viable alternative, but there is something to this approach. The more we look at modernity, the more exceptional it seems.
Modernity seems to depend upon an industrial ethic and the way of life that ethic fosters can be defined by the way it not only differs but actively seeks to exclude and control other ways of living. It seems like we can get at a positive sense of tradition by examining these exclusions.
Three strands come to mind. When we talk about non-industrial socieities, we can wager that while they may not all share these three features, they will share some overlapping pattern of them (i.e., they will have what Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’):
- Developed and stable forms of ecstasy/trance (Keith McNeal observes in Trance and Modernity in the Southern Caribbean that such practices are nigh universal, except in our modern Euro-Western world)
- Developed and stable forms of sacrifice, patterns for expending excess and preventing excessive accumulation (my mind goes first to Georges Battaille’s The Accursed Share)
- Developed and stable forms that make status dependent upon the redistribution of wealth and power, i.e., a powerful and vital gift economy (I think here of Pierre Clastres’s work describing a ‘society against the state,’ though this opens on broader issues)
While a simple return to tradition may not be possible for us, this sense of what tradition is provides some sense of how we might move toward something more in line with it.
Looking at it in this way also allows us to see the regulatory dimensions of these forms of life, ways that get us beyond silly ideas about a ‘liberatory’ traditional life on the other side of modernity (which helps us hammer away at the color line). Instead of orgiastic savagery, we find just another form of discipline suited to another sort of life, a life that is quite restrained and modest in its demands, especially compared to the unruly expansion of industry.