[NB] Tradition is Always Plural

I guess I’m still chewing on the tradition and appropriation bone, but there is one more reason that I am suspicious of people getting up in arms about appropriating ‘traditions’ on the internet. The people doing the policing often work hard to firm up the borders of the tradition they are policing, pushing the ‘tradition’ into increasingly dogmatic directions.

Pay attention to most any living tradition, though, and you should see that they are never singular. Find one living tradition and you will discover around it at least one other tradition with which it is in dialogue and debate. In most cases, a living tradition is in dialogue and debate with a whole family of traditions. When push comes to shove, it is the dialogue and debate with other practices that defines a tradition. To understand a tradition, we need to appreciate its fellow travelers.

In most cases, the boundaries between those traditions is permeable. One is not a member of this tradition or that tradition, but a member of the world in which these traditions play out their tension. In some cases, the ‘other’ tradition is little more than a minor chord within the ‘main’ tradition, but sometimes it is a robust rival. Notice how this parallels the evolutionary situation?

A particular individual may cross between traditions, though they must often negotiate such mutual allegiances carefully. More often than not, the independent but related traditions serve as reservoirs of wisdom practices that can be accessed to some extent or another without full membership. Thus we find in Classical Antiquity a quiet but real exchange of magical and spiritual know-how between magicians and priests, mystics and philosophers, Christians and Jews, Muslims and Abraham’s others.

One of the greatest dangers to a tradition’s viability is the loss of these interlocutor traditions that help to define it. When a tradition’s practices enter into diaspora or are adopted in contexts far removed from its origin, the tradition must reconstitute for itself a world of fellow travelers or slip into dogmatic dissipation. A similar conundrum faces a tradition whose fellow travelers become increasingly marginalized from it.

Think of some of Cuba’s most well-known homegrown faiths: Ocha, Palo, Ifa, Abakua, and Espiritismo. Can you cut any of them off from the whole and appreciate the world in which any of those traditions came to itself? Consider that there are traditions within these traditions, too, reflexes of the same tendency for a tradition to develop by differentiation and dialogue. Think of Simone Weil’s conviction that much of Catholic Christianity’s mystical core was lost as it became the primary religion of empire, as it marginalized and silenced its would-be fellow travelers.

If you lose your fellow traveler, you must find another, or make another. It also means that being part of a tradition is, in no small part, knowing who your tradition’s fellow travelers are and cultivating them. Cultivate the wrong fellows and you risk the tradition, sometimes to good ends, sometimes to bad. Cultivate no fellows and you invite the creation of imaginary others, masks you might be tempted to violently impress on others.

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5 thoughts on “[NB] Tradition is Always Plural

  1. Alexandra

    Yes, this. Thank you.

    “One of the greatest dangers to a tradition’s viability is the loss of these interlocutor traditions that help to define it. When a tradition’s practices enter into diaspora or are adopted in contexts far removed from its origin, the tradition must reconstitute for itself a world of fellow travelers or slip into dogmatic dissipation.”

    This is so true, and is perhaps the greatest danger, at least in the long term, of the essentialism that worries me about most of the anti-appropriation arguments I’ve heard. It also feeds into (and makes clearer for me) a post on a rather different topic I’ve been wanting to write, but so far haven’t quite gotten the words in order.

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