[NB] Traits of Tradition

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’):

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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.

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5 thoughts on “[NB] Traits of Tradition

  1. It’s an interesting point of view, and one which I see as being quite clear and quite useful for the restraint of the strong against the weak and the breaking down of the evil-doers, as the Code of Hammurabi puts it. If there’s a functioning gift economy (I think of potlatch in the American Pacific Northwest), then the strong are constantly redistributing their surpluses. In part because of the failure of those sorts of systems, government in America and other nations took over the redistributive function — but not necessarily as well as traditional societies did it, simply because traditional societies are much smaller.

    Orgiastic savagery is fun at least in simulation, but in reality it’s quite unpleasant. I’d like to see the return, too, of the traditional idea of trans-tribal societies — Native America had the Snakemen Society, and for a while the Ghost Dance Society, and others; the West had the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows and the Knights of Pytheas and the Grange and other guild-like organizations, West Africa and the Caribbean have a number of similar organizations… not that these are all the //same//, but I think that there’s also evidence that tribal and ‘stateless societies’ often have cross-tribal organizations and social networks as part of their enforcement mechanism. A friend of mine found a list of a late Roman-imperial Dionysian cult’s bylaws, and remarked, “they’re awfully organized for a bunch of ecstatics…”

    I guess what I’m getting at is that there’s a model here for the occult revival, in the form of societies and guilds and lodges, as places where the teaching advances beyond the beginner level. I know I’ve made greater spiritual and magical progress while working with associations, but I’ve also found it highly challenging to work with groups without traditions of rotating leadership, or distribution of responsibilities and power. Anyway, a thought about a fourth category or pattern, whose continued lack or dysfunction in western society is cause for concern.

    1. Io

      That’s a good point about unmooring power from individuals and examining groups that establish criss-crossing relationships between relatively distinct communities. Arguably, one of the reasons that we see contemporary ‘traditional’ societies responding so dynamically to the pressures of industrial society has to do with the flexibility and resilience of those kinds of structures. Good call.

      An archaeologist I know recently mentioned that there has been a lively discussion going on inside anthropology around the concept of ‘heterarchy’–that seems like the sort of thing you’re talking about here. Number four it is!

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