A Gentle Ferocity: An Interview with Derrick Jensen

As published in Dark Mountain, Vol. 1

Once, while living in Washington DC a few years ago, I went along to a talk by an ecological activist that I had heard a little bit about, Derrick Jensen. I arrived at the talk and found a few people starting to gather for the event.  Being a little shy, I moved on through and headed for the carrot sticks and cucumber at the back. I dawdled there for a while, rocking on my heels, waiting for the talk. I noticed that there was another guy standing quietly in the corner, keeping to himself, dressed in dark colours, not taking up very much space in the room. I generally feel more comfortable meeting people one-on-one, and I sidled over to say hello. It was Derrick Jensen.

Derrick Jensen is an amazingly prolific writer. From early works like A Language Older Than Words (2004) to more recent publications like Endgame (2006), Derrick’s writing offers us a sustained series of meditations on the possibilities of the personal as the political. I would find it hard to think of a writer who inscribes his thoughts with such a delicate combination of vulnerability and purpose. Whether you agree with him or not, one thing that cannot be fairly questioned is his integrity. His words sear with the honesty of his explorations of what it might mean to be human, and what it can mean to make a difference in the face of social, political, and environmental violence and catastrophe.

Although sometimes caricatured as an eco-warrior dam-buster, Derrick’s views are most often subtle, nuanced, and worked with the blood, sweat, and tears of someone who takes their responsibility as a writer very seriously indeed. For me, to read Derrick’s work is often to feel the presence of beauty in the crafting of thoughtful anger. The focus of Derrick’s ire is what he calls “the culture of civilization”, and this critique of “civilization” has been influential in the development of the Dark Mountain manifesto and the “uncivilisation” project at its heart.

As Derrick writes in Endgame, “I would define a civilization … as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined … as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.” In this analysis, the Tolowa, on whose land he now lives, were not civilized, as they lived in villages and camps, as they did for the last 12,500 years without destroying the place. This culture, on the other hand, Derrick explains, has destroyed the place in 150 years. Civilization, for Derrick, is a way of life that is inherently unsustainable: “If your way of life is based on the importation of resources then your way of living can never be sustainable. If you require the importation of resources it means you denuded the landscape of that particular resource. The way to live sustainably is by not harming your habitat, to improve your habitat by your presence. It’s what salmon do. It’s what Redwoods do. It’s what indigenous humans do. You don’t survive in the long run by exploiting your surroundings. You survive in the long run by actually improving your surroundings. Dolores LaChapelle taught me that it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the fit – how well you fit into your surroundings. What I’m saying to people who live in the cities or the country is this way of living is not sustainable, and we’re pretending it is. Denial doesn’t help anybody on this, except maybe to let you pretend that by changing light-bulbs that’s going to make a difference. And the real world is at stake here, so the very least we can do is attempt to be a little bit honest.”

Two things stood out for me as Derrick was speaking. The first was this notion of “survival of the fit”, and its emphasis on the principle of appropriateness-to-context. Another related point was something which I have always found very powerful in Derrick’s work, particularly in his work on teaching, which is an appeal to specificity. In Walking on Water (2004), Derrick writes that “specificity is everything, it’s the only thing we’ve got.” Is that sense of actually being present, being in place, and being connected to what’s around you, is that one of the core challenges, then?

“Yeah, I think one of the core challenges is to first acknowledge that place actually exists. The fundamental difference between western and indigenous ways of being is that westerners generally view the world as consumable resources to be exploited, as opposed to other beings to enter into a relationship with. The notion that the non-human world has anything to say is central to every indigenous culture, and it’s absolutely anathema to this culture which believes that we’re the only ones who have subjective existence. There’s a great line by Canadian lumbermen, “When I look at a tree I see dollar bills”. If all you see when you look at trees is dollar bills, then you’re going to look at them one way. If you look at the trees and see trees, you’ll look at them another way. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about trees or fish or women. If I look at women and see orifices, I’m going to treat them one way. If I look at this particular woman and see a particular woman, I’ll treat her differently. How we perceive the world affects how we behave in it and this culture has systematically driven us insane. John Livingstone wrote about how people perceive cities as being a place where you get overloaded with sounds and sights, but he believes it’s the opposite and I agree, that actually they’re places of sensory deprivation. In this moment, right now, look around and ask yourself, how many things do you see? How many beings do you see? How much of what you see around you, how much of what you perceive is either created or mediated by human beings as opposed to how much of what you see right now is not created or mediated by human beings? Right now I see a closet door, I see a bed, I see crutches, I see a dresser drawer, I see a computer, I see a sewing machine, I see a window. Out the window I see some Redwoods, and that’s through a glass. I hear a fan, I don’t hear any non-humans right now. And how many machines do you have a daily relationship with versus how many wild beings, plants or animals you have a daily relationship with? The point is that we’re living in an echo chamber, and you can start to believe your own hallucinations. And I agree with John Livingstone when he says that most of our ideologies are hallucinations. What’s real? What’s real is the real physical world.

“In order to survive the real world must be primary. I feel like an idiot having to say this, because it is still fundamental, and it is still stupid to live with anything else. The real world is what’s real, and the humans that come after are not going to give a shit about whether we were pacifists or not pacifists. They’re not going to give a shit whether we voted democrat or republican, green, whig, tory, whatever. They’re not going to care if we recycled. They’re not going to care about any of that stuff. What they’re going to care about is whether they can breathe the air and drink the water. What they are going to care about is whether the world can support them. The world is primary, because without the real world you don’t have any social system. 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone and we are long past an emergency situation. We’re fighting for life on the planet here, and people are worried about the economy? It’s stunningly dishonest and it is insane.”

Derrick’s views have brought him quite a bit of attention, some adulatory, some dismissive, some spiteful. Some follow him as a visionary, some peg him as an extremist. I wondered about some of the reactions that he gets to his work. “I routinely get 400-600 people at talks, and I routinely get notes from people saying ‘Thank god, I thought I was the only person thinking these things, and I’m so glad’. I get these every day. Most of the hate mail I’ve gotten frankly has been from, has been horizontal hostility. I’ve gotten more than a thousand pieces of hate mail over the past ten years, and only two of those were from right-wingers. The others were from vegetarians because I eat meat, anti-car activists because I drive a car, pacifists because I don’t believe in pacifism. Basically, one way or another, lifestylists. Anarchists because I’m not anarchist enough for them, whatever. In one sense or another, they’re all lifestylists – people who believe that lifestyle change equals social change, and that’s where most of the vituperation towards me has come. The response has been almost entirely favourable.”

“But there’s no way that anyone can argue realistically that this culture is not killing the planet. This guy came up to me after a talk I did and he said, “You know, my friend (wink, wink), my friend says that it’s not time to fight back yet.” I said, “Well great, 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone – you tell me when your friend thinks it would be okay to fight back – 91%? 92%? 93%? 94%? 95%? 96%? 97%? 98%? 99%?” And he said, “I don’t think it would ever be time to fight back”. And I said, “In that case we have nothing to talk about, do we?” At what point is it okay to fight back? Give me a threshold. And I think we really do need to put those thresholds in, because fundamentally we are all being driven insane by this culture. We should have stopped this culture long ago. I can’t imagine anyone of good heart who can’t see that this culture is effectively killing the planet. What’s the threshold?

One possible response to Derrick’s work is fear – fear of the future, fear about what we might do next. One of the key questions he asks in Endgame is, “Do we believe that our culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?” It seems quite obvious that his answer to this question is “definitely not!” Is it any wonder, then, as he has written elsewhere, that the most common response he has got from environmentalists is “We’re fucked!”?

“Which is good. That’s great, because we can’t begin to … hold on a second … I handwrote this the other day. “Before we can begin to use power on our own terms we must realise we are powerless on theirs. Much of the brilliance of the democratic experiment is “to con the powerless into believing they have power”. What has finally become clear to even the most obtuse is that we the people are powerless in this great democracy. The next turn of the screw was to con us into believing that our power lies in our power to consume, or in our inner power to be enlightened. But only when we realise that we are powerless in all these ways, will we be moved to use power in ways that do affect change.” One of the things I’m trying to do is to help form a culture of resistance that will move us towards effectively stopping this culture. Because, once again, we’re talking about life on the planet here. This is not some fricking computer game.”

There seemed to be an acknowledgement in Derrick’s handwritten statement that the dominant understandings of power tend to render us invisible and politically irrelevant in terms of their own logics. But was there also a glimpse of his trying to revalue the notion of power, trying to find other ways of thinking about power that will be helpful to us?

“I think one of the things we need to do, is we need to ask ourselves, what do we want? What is our goal? And that will help determine the ways we can manifest power and the ways we want to manifest power. I think for a lot of mainstream activists, their goal is to attempt to maintain civilization – they say so explicitly. I’m very clear in what I want. I want to live in a world with wild salmon. I want to live in a world with wild sturgeon. I want to live in a world with migratory songbirds. I want to live in a world with more large fish in the oceans every year than the year before. I want to live in a world with less plastic. I want to live in a world that has less dioxin in a mother’s breast milk. So that’s the first issue – I want people to think about what they want. And the next question is, how do you get there? What are the steps to getting there? We have to make some conscious choices. Right now I am choosing to talk to you on the telephone instead of choosing to blow up a dam, or instead of choosing to do anything else in the world. Whether I make it a conscious choice or not, it is a choice. This is one of the areas where I have got into it with pacifists because every moment we are making a choice and I am choosing to write over other forms of resistance but that doesn’t alter the fact that I am making choices. My point is there is culpability in inaction as well. Standing in the face of a complex situation and doing nothing or acting in your own personal way does not absolve you.”

For me, these discussions about specificity and the culpability lead us right to the heart of Derrick’s critique of hope. He has written that “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. It means you are essentially powerless.”

“That definition is one I really like, and it’s how we talk about hope in everyday language. I don’t hope that I eat something today, I’m just going to do it. On the other hand, the next time I go on a plane, I hope it doesn’t crash, because I’ve no agency once I’m on a plane. If it’s going to crash it’s going to crash, there’s nothing I can do about it. You can do all the writing you want, I can do all the writing I want, we can all theorise however we want, but that doesn’t alter the fact that there are still dams standing. At some point the dams have to go. It’s doesn’t matter how they go, whether they go because you file a lawsuit, or whether they go because you take a sledge hammer or you blow them up, it doesn’t matter. The problem is the physical infrastructure of the dam. Yeah, there’s the personal stuff, too, the psychological stuff, but the fact is it’s not attitudes that are killing salmon, it’s dams, and yes there are attitudes that lead to dams (for god’s sake I’m a writer, I fully understand that, that’s why I was saying that we need to change perspective), but that doesn’t alter the fact that we don’t need to merely change perspective. We need to change physical conditions as well.

“And about the hope thing, I’m not a hope fascist. I attempt to be very clear. What I’m trying to get at with the whole hope thing is what we do and don’t have control over, what we do and don’t have agency over. A friend of mine whose brother was dying of cancer said to me, “So you’re telling me that I can’t hope that my brother survives”, and I said, “No, of course you can hope that your brother survives, but what I’m saying you can’t do is stand there with car keys in your hand and say ‘dear brother, I hope you make it to the hospital’. You drive your brother to the hospital”. So what I’m trying to get at is figure out what we do and don’t have agency over, and to expand the areas over which we do have agency but don’t perceive. Because one of the central points of any oppressive system is to attempt to get you to believe that you are powerless.”

It is well known that Derrick is committed to physical sabotage in principle. Could it not be said, though, that the blowing up of dams to save wild salmon, demonstrates the same kind of false hope that he critiques amongst mainstream environmentalists? Very few people are ever going to do this kind of thing, and if they do they will be caught and jailed very quickly. Eco-sabotage has been tried before many times. How could it ever reach the stage where it starts to bring civilization apart or even succeed on its own terms?

“Well, first off I can guarantee that if you have a defeatist attitude like that, it’s never going to happen. The best way to ensure it doesn’t happen is to pretend it can’t happen. Second, it actually is working right now. I have eight words for you. Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. MEND. People in Nigeria have been able to reduce oil output by up to 40%, and they’ve done this by sabotage and kidnapping oil workers, and they’ve done this against the full might of the Nigerian government, oil companies, and of course the support of other governments around the world. It’s absolute nonsense to say that sabotage doesn’t work. What about the Pankhursts? Look at history? What about the IRA, for god’s sake? What about resistance against the Germans in World War II? The single strongest turning point in the French Resistance in World War II was a recognition that the German military was not invincible. As long as people propose that myth of the absolute omnipotence of the oppressors, we will remain oppressed to precisely that degree. I’ve a friend, and he’s great, he’s just this normal guy who didn’t like the coverage of the invasion of Iraq and so instead of just complaining about it, he went and filled a hole in his corner. What I mean by that is he just went to Iraq, and started reporting what was happening. I love this. Instead of sitting on his ass and thinking ‘they can’t do it’, he just did it himself. That goes to the heart of the whole hope thing. There’s this line by Thomas Jefferson, “in war, they shall kill some of us, and we shall destroy all of them”. And that’s one of the reasons that the dominant culture always wins, because that’s the attitude that they have taken, always, and the attitude the resistance has taken has been the one you mentioned – oh, if they do something they’ll catch us. Well, you know what? Fuck that, because there will be casualities in war, but we need to take on the attitude – “you know what, they may stop me, they may stop you, but we’re going to take out every last dam, we’re going to take out every last corporation.” What happens if we match their relentlessness with our own? Because the truth is, they want to win more than we do. That’s the bottom line. They have this insatiability. Most environmentalists don’t know what the fuck we want. What do we want? Maybe we want to live in a world that uses a bit less electricity and the electricity is made by wind farms, never mind what that does for bats? Let’s get clear on what we want, and let’s do it. And there will be generations. These struggles last a long time, and that’s how any social change comes about – you lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win. I mean that was the Suffragettes, the suffragettes were generation after generation. The Pankhursts went three generations. There’s generation after generation in the Irish struggle. There’s generation after generation in the civil rights struggle. The leaders of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties were the grandchildren of the Pullman Porters, and they themselves were the children and grandchildren of slaves. We have to dedicate ourselves to the struggle and we have to say, hey, yes, we’ll have setbacks, but it time it will be you that grows tired.

Given my own background, I felt drawn to reply to his use of the Irish example. “One of the things about the Irish example, which you’ve brought up yourself, is that for many of us living here, talking about “the Irish struggle” is so incredibly simplistic and it fits too neatly into the binary oppositions of war metaphors, it fits too neatly into-“

“I don’t give a shit about war metaphors. There is an enemy, and those enemies have names. James Inhofe, the capitalists in general, the capitalist system, and that’s one of the things we need to do. The first thing we need to do is we need to decolonise our hearts and minds. Salmon don’t get conflicted. Indigenous people I know don’t get conflicted, “oh we can’t get into a binary system of us and them’. It’s like, fuck that! Tecumseh knew who the enemy was, and yes, there is a binary system. The enemy is the capitalists, and the first thing we need to do, and every indigenous person says this to me, the first thing we need to do is to decolonise our hearts and minds, and as soon as we do that, as soon as we switch our allegiance to where we live, it becomes very, very clear. You can’t trump this by saying that’s a war binary metaphor or a war binary image. So what? It’s true, there are enemies, and they are my enemies, and the capitalist system, and the capitalists themselves are my enemies, and I’ve got no problem saying that.”

This raised a question for me about possible consequences of Derrick’s position. One of the many explicit assumptions in Endgame is the notion that “violence always flows in one direction”. I do sometimes wonder whether taking that stance can sometimes immunize us against critique of our own enactments of violence, maybe even guaranteeing that we are always on the side of the angels. Isn’t it important to leave more of a space for the critique of what we’re at?

“Gosh, do you think that after fifteen books I haven’t thought of this? Oh my god. Frankly the last few minutes have been really bugging me. I deal with this at length. In how many books have I mentioned Robert Jay Lifton’s “claims to virtue”? I talk about this in most of my books because it’s absolutely necessary. But Robert Jay Lifton talks about how before we can commit any mass atrocity you have to convince yourself that what you’re doing is actually in fact beneficial, and so the Nazis had themselves convinced that they were not committing atrocities, that they were not committing genocide against Jewish people, that they weren’t committing mass murder against Eastern Europeans, they weren’t killing homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, etc. Instead what they were doing was purifying the Aryan race. Likewise, capitalists can convince themselves that what they are doing is not destroying the world, instead they’re developing natural resources. And this is true on a personal level. I myself have never once in my life been an asshole. Every time I’ve been an asshole I’ve had it fully rationalised. I am fully aware of the fact, and I write about this in every book. I am fully aware that one can rationalise atrocities and can convince oneself that one is actually doing good when one is actually doing harm, and that’s one reason why I’ve tried so hard in my books to attempt to develop a morality to figure out what can one base a morality on? And one of the things that I came to in Endgame is that clean water is the basis of a morality, because without clean water you die. And so, if something makes drinkable quantities of clean water, that’s a good thing, you can build up a morality from there. On the other hand, I realised that was actually not sufficient, because you can have a water purification system that temporarily creates, at a cost of great energy, temporarily creates drinkable clean water. That’s when I realised that the real question is, do you leave the real physical world a better place because you were born? Just because I recognise there are enemies of the planet that doesn’t mean I don’t remain open and fluid in my analysis.”

One of the reasons that I was enthralled by A Language Older Than Words was precisely because of it’s core of self-critique, its open exploration and critique of the logics of committing violence against violence, on a deeply personal level. It was easily the most honest self-interrogation I had come across. It was someone very clearly trying to make sense of their own experience of thinking and feeling and doing, within a context that was very clearly their own context. I think one of the reasons I was prodding him further on these things was very much because I value the courage in his work. Clearly Derrick self-identifies as a writer, not least because he is so incredibly prolific. Why is writing so powerful for him?

“One part of it is, as a friend of mine says, what are the most pressing problems you can help to solve given the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe? And I have a gift for writing and I need to use that. Like I was saying about my friend in Iraq, I saw a hole in discourse and I tried to fill it. I remember years ago talking to my friend Jeanette Armstrong about an essay that Ward Churchill had written attacking Jerry Mander, and I asked Jeanette what she thought about it and Jeanette said, “If Ward didn’t like it he should have written his own damn book”. That was probably fifteen years ago, and it has really stuck with me. If I don’t agree with somebody or another’s approach, what I should do for the most part is I should write my own damn book. I’ve been blessed to have a really active muse, and my muse is as frightened as I am of circumstances and is willing to push me as hard as I’ll go.

“I like to tell a story … I was watching The Battle of Algiers with a friend of mine. it’s a great movie about the Algerian resistance against the French, and I said to my friend, “So, who would I be in this movie?” And my friend said, “Oh, you’d be dead.” I said, “Oh, thank you very much.” “No,” he said, “you’ve been dead for thirty years and you’re books are on the bookshelves of the insurgents”. I have grown very clear over time about what my role is. My role is to put little pieces of wood and kindling and paper, to pile them up, and to put them just so, and to put some lighter fluid on that, and it’s somebody else’s job to light the match. My job is to get bringing down civilization to pass the lab test, you know? So that’s why I write, that’s what I’m good at. I was doing a video presentation for a class maybe a month ago, two months ago, and one of the people in the class said, “You know, I don’t buy it. Why are you really writing, because you should be out blowing up dams. I don’t buy that you do this because you’re better at writing than you are at chemistry.” (I stink at chemistry). I said, “Well, how many writers have you encountered who are actively calling for us to bring down civilization?” And she said, “one”. I said, “That’s why I write.” You know? There’s nobody else doing this work. One of the things people should do is find the place where you see a hole and fill it.

In 2007 Derrick wrote an extended preface to Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology, a book which directly addresses the question of whether violence is ever an acceptable tool to help bring about social change. The preface provides a short introduction to themes and issues explored at greater length in Endgame, with a particular focus on “dogmatic pacifism”. Point by point he addresses what he sees as the crucial weaknesses of pacifist positions, “deconstructing pacifist arguments that don’t make any sense anyway”. I wondered about his well-documented position on pacifism.

“I have a good time bashing pacifists in Endgame, but the truth is that pacifists were very, very important to the abolition struggle, for example. Harriet Tubman carried a gun, but many of the people in safe-houses along the underground railroad did not. They were run by pacifists. And my problem is not with someone being pacifist at all. I don’t give a shit what someone’s personal proclivities are. The important thing is, I think, to recognise that we need a range of resistance which includes everything from military resistance to absolutely non-military resistance. I was sharing the stage with this friend of mine, Carol Rathensberger, who’s a pacifist, she’s great, and at one point when we’re on the stage, she’s talking about, “Oh, you know a sustainable community would look like, and smell like, and here’s how we make decisions in a sustainable community”, and she went on and on, and she’s great, but I’m fidgeting in my chair the whole time, and she looks at me and says, “obviously you want to say something, Derrick, so what do you want to say”, and I said, “I love what you’re saying, but those in power are sociopaths and the culture itself is sociopathological, and how do we get there from here?” And she smiled at me really sweetly, and said “That’s your job to figure that out, Derrick.” I did a talk years ago at Bioneers, and it was really frustrating for me because as far as I know I was the only person there who was talking about either power or sociopathology. Lots of people were talking about all these groovy things you can do to relocalise and that’s great, but what are you going to do when it ends up there’s a resource on your land that those in power want? At some point we need to talk about self-defence. I’ve known some transition town people who combine relocalisation with firearms skillshare, and with making self-defence on both a personal and a community level a priority. I think that’s great. That’s the thing, you know, really, I’m suggesting with all this that we need it all.”

When Derrick talks about varieties of resistance, it seems important to me that we also talk about varieties of internal resistance. One of the things that I think is crucially important about Derrick Jensen’s work for pacifists is that if they don’t take his work or Peter Vanderloos’ work or Ward Churchill’s work seriously, then how are they going to realistically clarify their own positions?

“I agree totally. The same thing has happened the other way. I’ve been able to hone a lot of these arguments by having those disagreements with pacifists, or whatever. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Endgame, because I got in so many arguments with pacifists that I just wanted to write out the arguments once and for all so I could be done with it. I really like the definition of violence that violence is any act that causes harm to another. And I really like that because it shows the ubiquity of violence, and it demystifies it, and it leads to other questions. So, every time I defecate I’m killing gazillions of bacteria and every time I eat a carrot I’m killing a living being there, too. I think that most of us under most circumstances would agree that it’s morally acceptable to commit an act of violence against a carrot, to eat it. I think most of us under most circumstances would agree that it’s not morally acceptable to commit an act of violence against a human being. I think that’s pretty clear. What I want to find out is where do we individually, where do we collectively draw those lines, and that’s the discussion that I think is really interesting about violence. Is it morally acceptable to kill a carrot? Is it morally acceptable to raise a carrot in a factory farm situation? Is it morally acceptable to kill a chicken? Is it morally acceptable to raise a chicken in a factory farm situation? Is it morally acceptable to kill Ted Bundy? Is it morally acceptable to kill Sarah Palin? Is it morally acceptable to kill me? Where do you and where do I and where do we as a collective in our communities, and whatever social groups we want to talk about, I would like to make those as conscious as possible. That’s one of the things I want to do with my discussions. And if somebody says it’s never acceptable to kill a human being under any circumstances, it’s like, okay, let’s start throwing out … what about Hitler? In 1939, Georg Elser’s assassination attempt. And then to round the stuff out, because out discourse surrounding violence is just so squishy and ridiculous, and harmful, frankly.”

One of the things that Derrick has written is that he doesn’t “provide alternatives because there is no need”. But what I suggested to him was that one of the strongest parts of his work is that he is constantly providing alternatives, not necessarily in terms of what we should do, but in terms of other ways of looking at things. Is he inviting people to a more honed ethical awareness?

“Well, thank you. I really like that. That’s one of the nicest things you could say, and I don’t disagree with that at all. Yeah, I probably am not being clear that when I’m not telling people what to do. There are a few reasons for that. One of them is that I don’t know people and frankly I’ve been approached by some people who want to blow up dams who are either crazy, literally crazy as in think they’re Marie Antoinette or something, or who are very young, and there are many reasons why I would never suggest what that person do, one of which is that I don’t know them. Another is, that it’s one thing to talk to an adult, to talk to someone who is capable of making decisions for themselves, to have a discussion with them, and it’s quite another thing to have a discussion with someone who is either very young or otherwise has problems. I used to say that I’m a recruiter for the revolution, but then that’s not true. And one of the reasons it’s not true is because of what military recruiters do, where they basically try to con people into joining the military. And what I want people to do is to make informed decisions about what they need to do with their life.”

I suppose that’s one of the challenges of being a writer, I suggested. A lot of his work could very easily be taken as a banner for people to wave or a clarion call. I’m a great fan of lifting up words and looking underneath them to see what the attitude of the person is behind the words, beyond the words, but one of the challenges of writing is that many times readers don’t do that, they often just take the words and run. They might not be particularly interested in the bigger picture that the words suggest, taking  a particular page, or a particular sentence, or even a particular word and making of it what they will.

“There are a couple of things about that. One of them is, absolutely, I get misinterpreted all the time, and I used to take that more personally until I realised that I actually do that, too. I’ll read somebody else’s work and I get confused, and so I can see how that will happen. But people misinterpret me. I can say something that I think is pretty clear, and somebody will just take it wherever they’re going to go, and it’s like “gosh, I never actually said that”. I get pegged a lot of times as a violence guy, but I’m not at all, cause I recommend so many times that what we need is a full range of resistance.”

Derrick speaks a lot about the horrors of civilization, but what about the deconstruction of civilization? As his book Walking on Water (2004) showed, he also identifies very deeply as an educator. What role do we have as educators of each other in the unweaving of civilization?

“It’s like I said, that one of the first things we need to do is decolonise, and I think that we can help each other through that process, and it can help to have validation, to have a friend with whom you can have a conversation, and say, “Hey, the stock market went down three hundred points today”, and say “Yes, that’s great”, as opposed to having to explain why that’s not bad. I don’t have any friends any more with whom I have to revisit ‘Civilization Is Bad 101’. There was a time I kept questioning that, and I remember asking Jeanette Armstrong, who was one of my mentors many years ago, “do you ever question that everything you are thinking is wrong?” She said, “I used to question, but I don’t any more.” And I’m at that stage, too, where, you know, I used to question whether maybe I was just wrong about all of this stuff, but probably around writing Culture of Make Believe (2004), I thought, no, my analysis of the culture is right-on. There are other things that I still question, but I don’t question that any more, and part of that is being surrounded by friends with whom you don’t have to say why it’s bad for a creature to be driven extinct.”

Something that comes across in Derrick’s writing is that he is a person who loves life, a person who is also really very gentle in many ways, in spite of the intensity of his themes. I’ve stood in his presence, I know him to have the presence of what I would consider a very gentle person. It’s also interesting that I have heard him characterised by people who don’t know him as anything but gentle.

“It’s pretty funny, when Endgame came out I did this radio interview and about ten minutes into the radio interview, there were two hosts, they just burst out laughing and said, “You’re a nice guy! We were kind of expecting you to be pounding and spitting.” It’s pretty funny. On a personal level, I’m pretty non-violent. I’m not naturally a bellicose person. It used to kind of disturb me that I was writing about these issues, but then I thought, no, actually, I think I’m the person who should be writing about these issues, or one of the people who should. I’m not actually inherently an angry person at all. I’m pretty even tempered. I can get annoyed or whatever, but I think I’ve only shouted at two people, and one of those was my sister. Somebody said in a review of one of my books, and I really liked it. They said that I was almost pathologically unsentimental, and I like that. Not unemotional, obviously. I don’t really know what it means, but I like it.”

Special thanks to Derrick Jensen for agreeing to do this interview while recovering from surgery. 

Humanising Music and Copyright

“… copyright stands as an unknown continent that music researchers must explore …” (Franco Fabbri 1993:159). 

“[Clearing the samples] is very tedious. We have to sit there and basically break out every single component of every track that we do and make a list of the sources for everything. We go through every little blip of sound and decide what’s significant enough that we need to contact the owner. From there, it’s a whole bunch of lawyer craziness” (Michael Diamond of The Beastie Boys, in Steuer 2004:186).

 “It is becoming increasingly harder to be an ethnomusicologist with a tape recorder today than it used to be because people are always suspicious, even when we have no commercial intentions”  (Anthony Seeger, cited in Lin-Eftekhar 2002).

In the disciplines of Ethnomusicology, Musicology, and Popular Music Studies, it’s hard to operate in ignorance or apathy about “music and copyright” anymore (see Frith and Marshall, eds. 2004). The disciplinary imperatives of permission contracts potentially foster and facilitate a relational architecture of distrust as we engage with people in our fieldwork. Copyright concerns are apparently having to become increasingly important to both ourselves and the people we work with. Confusion over what does or does not constitute “fair use” or “fair dealing” in relation to copyright restrictions reminds us of the quiet behavioral gravity of normative legal instruments in our research and teaching. It tends to be supremely important to us now that we protect “stuff” as we seek to respect people … and obey the Law.

Law, intellectual property, and copyright have, in only a few years, assumed unprecedented prominence as themes in our lives. Rosemary Coombe notes that what people imagine “the law says” may be a shaping force in the practices of our lives, even though the standards and sanctions involved may be self-imposed or misinformed: “People’s anticipations of law (however reasonable, ill informed, mythical, or even paranoid) may actually shape law and the property rights it protects” (1998:9). Often what is most important is not so much the letter of the law as people’s understanding of it, and our reactions to legal meanings based on that understanding. For example, how many of us respond to the declaration of copyright restrictions in university libraries with detailed study of the law? How many of us simply ‘get with the program’ in an attitude of benign obedience, ignorant of legislation and deferent to restriction? Law, then, can often be understood as “a … diffuse and pervasive force shaping social consciousness and behavior” (12). Neither just a collection of rules, nor a collection of social effects, law can be understood, as “a complex interpretive activity, a practice of encoding and decoding social meaning that merges imperceptibly with rhetoric, ideology, “common sense,” economic argument (of both a highly theoretical and a seat-of-the-pants kind), with social stereotype, narrative cliché and political theory of every level from high abstraction to civics class chant” (Boyle 1996:14).

I write this in my capacity as an ethnomusicologist. In 1992 the field of Ethnomusicology was criticized from within for failing to recognize the need for substantial practical and theoretical engagement with issues of law, and specifically with issues of “music and copyright.” Anthony Seeger noted a “theoretical predisposition to ignore juridical concepts related to music in our research, an uncritical (and perhaps unconscious) re-elaboration of the concepts of twentieth century copyright law in our writings, and a lack of intellectual engagement with the globalization of the world’s economy and its implications for the objects of our research” (1992:345-346). By neglecting these issues, Seeger stated, ethnomusicologists were impoverishing their discipline. They would increasingly find it difficult to contribute significantly to dialogue about musical practices which were increasingly being shaped by the very processes that ethnomusicologists seemed to be ignoring. In 1993, Franco Fabbri was able to note that “copyright stands as an unknown continent that music researchers must explore” (159). Seeger again, in 1996, reiterated the failures of musicologists and ethnomusicologists to consider the implications of local, regional, national, and international legislation for their research in the face of “the transformation of all music to potentially for-profit “intellectual property” throughout the world” (88). He argued that this academic negligence ran the risk of compromising the relationships that ethnomusicologists so delicately foster while doing fieldwork: “Our failure to act both intellectually and practically in this area can only vitiate our analyses, damage our reputations, and make us suspect in the communities in which we wish to work” (ibid.).

Any failure in this regard would not be without consequence. Law, legal doctrine, legal practice, and, by association, the role, activities, and expansion of bodies such as The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) continue to play a vital role in the production and generation of meaning, power, and knowledge in the social interactions of our lives. By accepting the meanings that structure discourses of law, intellectual property, and copyright, we also allow those same meanings to structure our expectations and our social relationships. Scholars working within the Anthropology of Law (see, for example, Falk Moore, ed. 2004; Darian-Smith, ed. 2006; Donovan and Anderson 2006), the Sociology of Law (see, for example, Cotterrell 1984; Aubert, ed. 1969) and Critical Legal Theory (see, for example, Hutchinson, ed. 1989; Fitzpatrick and Hunt, eds. 1987) have drawn attention to these processes. Legislation, in any jurisdiction, consists of a set of prescriptions which specify the way in which legal subjects ought to behave. Law thus assumes a very palpable presence in our lives.

Research in the area of “music and copyright” can only be enriched by humanised and humanising perspectives. Despite the exponential growth of this increasingly contentious, and increasingly bizarre area of study, to a large extent discussion continues to stagnate in and around issues of access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection. From digital file-sharing to folk and traditional musics, “Who owns the music?” has become the prime question, with “How do we protect the music?” coming a close second. “What are we allowed to do with the music?” and “Where does the money go?” follow close behind. Research, then, has been dominated by the exegesis of litigation and the analysis of economic conditions, as people trace the movement and management of ‘things’, and follow the money. That can be very important, but scholarly debate seems largely to have stalled as a series of descriptive discussions about the management of legally-constituted musical resources rather than tending towards more explanatory approaches that might allow us to understand the impact of discourses and practices of intellectual property within the broader qualitative, social, and emotional dimensions of musical life. The ‘stuff’ becomes all important, people’s personal stories tend to be somewhat less so.

This explanatory weakness, this overwhelming emphasis on commodity transaction, would be for many deeply redolent of the general character of orthodox legal discourses. The apparent separation of law and, in particular, legal doctrine from the contingencies of social and political life is, in fact, one of the prime assertions of orthodox legal theory and one of the most influential foundations of legal practice (Hutchinson, ed. 1989; Fitzpatrick and Hunt, eds. 1987). For many people, law, the doctrines of law, the workings of law, the institutions of law, the concepts of law, seem to be separate from, and only tangentially relevant to, the everyday interactions of their lives. This is largely because law, and practices legitimated by law, are often characterised by specialist legal practitioners as autonomous, self-sufficient, value-free and politically-neutral (Blomley 1994), a strategy referred to by critics as “legal closure”.

As we enact the discourses and practices of copyright and intellectual property in our work, we can be assured that, in very practical ways, the workings of law are not ‘neutral’. Unger would argue that the great power of law is that “it enforces, reflects, constitutes, and legitimizes dominant social and power relations without a need for or the appearance of control from outside and by means of social actors who largely believe in their own neutrality and the myth of legal reasoning” (1986:5). As ethnomusicologists we have this “power of law” at our disposal insofar as we claim it and that claim is accepted by others as valid. One of the achievements of strategies of the aforementioned process of “legal closure” is that “The rule of law … appears rational, benign, and necessary” (Blomley 1994:9). As Peter Jazsi has commented: “The whole structure … is grounded on an uncritical belief in the existence of a distinct and privileged category of activity, that generates products of special social value, entitling the practitioners (the “authors”) to unique rewards” (1991:466).

Law, for the most part, then, “appears as an arcane world of professionalism centered on a body of esoteric knowledge which is intimidating to the uninitiated in its bulk and obscurity” (Cotterrell 1984:17). This is perhaps especially the case for copyright discourses, a complex nexus of legal, economic, and literary doctrinal orthodoxies sustained by a declaratively erudite register of concepts and productive inclinations: property, rights, authorship, public and private interest, public and private space, utility, consumption, production, incentives, possessive individualism, originality, creativity, freedom, and progress. When esoteric knowledges of music scholarship, always-already sustained by many of the same Euro-American orthodoxies, are added to the mix the result can be a heady maelstrom of mutually-reinforcing and profoundly-abstract discourses of obedience, regulation, and resource management. Little wonder that people might consider “music and copyright” to have little relevance to the personal politics of their everyday lives. The gravity of legal closure tends to invite political detachment, facilitated ably by enthusiastic analysis of sonic minutiae and the intricate management of musical commodities. We hardly need to turn to the likes of Marx, Lukacs, Simmel, or Weber to remind us that relationships between people can be easily and formally rendered as relationships about ‘things’ and money. The more approaches to “music and copyright” approximate a sort of musical accountancy, or an exercise in advanced legal classification, the more our attention can be quietly drawn away from the analysis of personal experience, social context, and social change.

This is important, for as the discourses and practices of law increase in technical complexity, and are deemed by many people to be more and more irrelevant to everyday concerns, they tend to intrude more and more into our lives as “increasingly detailed regulations relate [the law] more and more concretely to particular narrowly defined situations and relationships” (Cotterrell 1984:186).  Discourses and practices of intellectual property and copyright have long been associated with expansionary dynamics and with processes of accelerative commodification. Bettig (1996) would argue, for example, that it is almost impossible to separate intellectual property from its role as an instrument of commodification within capitalist systems. It has been shown that the development of capitalism and intellectual property have been concurrent (Rose 1993, Woodmansee and Jaszi 1994). The appearance in the eighteenth century of ‘things of the mind’ as transferable articles of property matured simultaneously with the capitalist system (Jaszi 1991). It is no coincidence, then, that an accelerative, commodifying, expansionary logic should infuse the discourses and practices of intellectual property. But effective legal closure and an overriding emphasis on commodity management both serve to depoliticize the climate. They systematically occlude particular characters of personal experience, social context, and social change, immunizing against critique of the expansionary character and doctrinal representations of law and legal practice by allowing both expansion and doctrine to remain unremarkable, invisible, and analytically unavailable.

Discourses of commodity management are fostered and facilitated by the persistence of the “musical work” as a philosophical and legal concept. The concept provides much to support and little to challenge resource-management models in music and copyright studies. In recent years, sustained attention has been drawn to various discursive and philosophical constructions of the “musical work” by Lydia Goehr (1992, 2000), Ingrid Monson (1996), Michael Talbot et al (2000) and many others.[ii] In discursive practice, the musical work remains for many the central resource, the central transactable commodity of “music and copyright” discourse. I don’t wish to declare “the musical work” or considerations of access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection irrelevant or unimportant. My emphasis, indeed, is a direct response to the real importance of these themes in “music and copyright” discourses. Access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection remain vital themes with which to make sense of the management of works as “musical resources”, and they remain crucial concerns in the combination and recombination of sonic motifs, phrases, and tunes. Such ways of making sense of things matter to many people. As Reinhard Strohm notes, for example, “The work-concept … is as ‘real’ as any aesthetic idea can be, and many generations of musicians have believed in it” (Strohm 2000:128). Often taking someone to court in direct adversarial engagement over the “things”, the “works”, might be the only obvious option that people have available to them in the context of litigation (see Soocher 1998). From a strictly legal standpoint it sometimes seems there is no other way to make sense of the issues. What I do seek to do is to underline, however, that, as analysts, we can do better. We can supplement or even supercede this narrow, enclosing, and often dehumanising focus on property, rights, musical works, and sonic form. We can move towards analysis that is more socially-sensitive to the “absences and inaudibilities in contemporary cultural spheres” (Coombe 1998:9), more sensitive to particular characters of personal experience, social context, and social change.

As copyright and intellectual property become more and more familiar aspects of discursive and musical landscapes through increasingly technological, standardized, specialist, universalised, and universalising practices, those same practices are increasingly regarded as legitimate, or, at least, unremarkable. The solid status of copyright and the justifications for all practices relating to copyright are taken for granted by many of us not only as the way things are and the ways things ought to be, but as the way things must be. Increasingly, as music scholars we often find ourselves in climates where we place the discourses and practices of intellectual property and copyright beyond debate, acquiescing, perhaps unknowingly, perhaps enthusiastically, to rather grandiose narratives of progress, authorship, necessity, and inevitability. In small ways, in our interactions with colleagues, students, and the people we work with in the field, the dictates of legal doctrine are increasingly taken as given, if not absolute. As this happens, the details and internal complexities of doctrine, the features of sonic form, and the politics of ownership can become the focus of inquiry rather than the social, political, personal consequences of acquiescence to doctrine as doctrine. When we can so easily allow the influence of absolutes to cascade throughout our lives, it is important that the interpretive practices of law be deconstructed and revealed as interpretive practices. Hardened narratives of law, intellectual property, and copyright suffuse the practices of intellectual property organizations, universities, academic departments, and libraries. From a scholar’s perspective it is perhaps more helpful to consider that the orthodoxies of “music and copyright,” whether “legal” or “musical,” do not simply reflect “the nature of things.”

It is important to remember that every situation concerning disputes about “music and copyright” serves as a nexus for personal stories and an opportunity for understanding complex emotions, meanings, and relationships of power, authority, and resistance. Focusing on the specificities of history and on the particularities of circumstance allow us to disclose social and political aspects of “music and copyright” debates as, importantly, always-already humanized encounters.  Legal structures are not just to be found in legislation and the workaday rhetoric of lawyers. Insofar as music scholars also acquiesce to the discourses and practices of intellectual property and copyright, or work unquestioning with those who do, we contribute to the privileging of the legal as a key structuring value in the ways in which we relate to each other.

Humanising approaches to “music and copyright”, for me, means challenging legal closure to look at the broader social and political context of debates about access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection, in terms of ‘what is going on’; in terms of particular experiences of authority and power dynamics in particular situations: What’s important, and to whom? Who gets to say? Who is dealing with whom and on what terms? Who is claiming what, and how do they justify or legitimate what they say? How do people feel about what is going on? How do people respond in different ways to situations in which copyright is an abiding concern? What principles are people willing to defend? Is there a point beyond which people in a situation feel unable to challenge the status quo on account of the pressures and certitudes of necessity and inevitability, market and law, national and international government? Is there more at stake than scrambles over who owns what and how much we will allow others to do? By accepting copyright, what might we be allowing to happen to the character of our relationships with each other? To ask such questions is to assume a position of some skepticism with regard to claims that are often made to the natural and unchallengeable status of copyright law. It is helpful to challenge those ideas which are accepted as ‘given’, self-evident, ‘common sense’, ideas that are “so obvious that the question of their origin may seem unreal because to not accept them seems unthinkable” (Cotterrell 1984:121). It is precisely because ideas associated with law are largely unquestioned that they must be examined as having developed in and through particular social formations and social practices.

It behoves us to take responsibility for our own education with respect to copyright law and its relevance to the practices of Ethnomusicology, Musicology, and Popular Music Studies. As R. M. Cover has written: “Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live” (1983:4-5).

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Reebee Garofalo. 1997. Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA. New York: Prentice-Hall.

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Nancy Guy. 2002. “Trafficking in Taiwan Aboriginal Voices.” In Handle with Care: Ownership and Control of Ethnographic Materials. Sjoerd R. Jaarsma, ed. 195-209. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
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Debora J. Halbert. 1999. Intellectual Property in the Information Age: The Politics of Expanding Ownership Rights. Westport, Connecticut and London: Quorum Books.

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[i] More famous, perhaps, is the work of Foucault in this regard. See Burke ed. (1995) for this and other key contributions to discussions on “authorship”, and Burke (1998) for an extended discussion of the work of Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida in this regard. A collection of essays more focused on the relationship between authorship and copyright can be found in Woodmansee and Jazsi, eds. (1994). A useful summary of various approaches to authorship and copyright can be found in Halbert (1999). For an interesting discussion of “originality” in relation to copyright see Sherman (1995). For a discussion of authorship, ownership, and intellectual property law see McLeod (2001).

[ii] In 1992 Goehr, for example, challenged the naturalized status of the work-concept in musical discourses, noting that, “speaking about music in terms of works is neither an obvious nor a necessary mode of speech, despite the lack of ability we presently seem to have to speak about music in any other way” (243).

Enclosure Without and Within the “Information Commons”

2005. Information and Communications Technology Law 14(3):217-240

Information and Communications Technology Law is available online at:
http://www.informaworld.com/openurl?genre=article&issn=1469-8404&volume=14&issue=3&spage=217

[Someone commented to me by email that this paper left them feeling very pessimistic, as it identifies commodifying contradictions in ‘commons’ discourses but offers no alternative. This is a fair point, as offering alternatives was not a point of this paper. Alternatives are, however, the primary focus of my current and future research, which deals with an elaboration of a ‘politics of gentleness’/’ordinary ethics’ as a predominantly uncommodifying ethic of human flourishing.]

The information commons is an idea whose time has come. In part this is a result of pressures that face the commons. Issues related to intellectual property law in particular are leading to what many are now calling the enclosure of the information commons – a process that separates people from ideas. This process is analogous to the fencing off of the English commons, an act that separated people from the material resources they needed for their survival

Info-commons.org, 2002

Within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their [declared] opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game.

Herbert Marcuse, 1965

Unless we demonstrate greater caution with analytical models that are products, as they all are, of particular histories, we are in danger not only of solving but also of producing tragedies and dilemmas in the commons and elsewhere

Pauline E. Peters, 1987 

Introduction

There are perhaps three primary ways in which the notion of the “information commons” has been taking shape since Felsenstein’s seminal 1993 article promoting the notion of a “Commons of Information”. The first two have been developing in direct response to the demands and discourses of public library practice, first in the United States, and now internationally. Allmang et al. (2005) note in the context of library practice, for example, that a generally accepted meaning of “information commons” has been “a specific location designated to deliver electronic resources for research and production that is maintained by technically proficient staff” (Cowgill et al., 2001). They also note that a second meaning of the term is emerging, speaking more to the notion of open access space with shared information rather than technological enhancement. They quote Nancy Kranich of the American Library Association (ALA), who sees the information commons as a “new dynamic approach to serving the public interest in the digital age” (Kranich 2004). Within the specific contexts of library practice, Allman et al. suggest that a comprehensive information commons is constituted by the combination of “a place that offers shared technology/work/study spaces and a place that supports the distribution of as much full text of published scholarly information as possible” (2005). This is clearly a powerful notion, as a quick google search of the term will confirm that libraries in universities across the world are being renamed “information commons”.

There is a third, not entirely distinct, way in which the notion of “information commons” is being deployed. It’s this one that concerns me most in this paper. The term has become a banner of action for a concerted lobby group of public policy activists and legal scholars from all over the United States, centred primarily in and around the civic communities of Washington D.C. Even more specifically, some of the most intense lobbying for the concept of the “information commons” can be located around a series of interconnected websites, in particular http://www.info-commons.org, and http://onthecommons.org. The first is the website of the Information Commons Project of the ALA, run by Frederick Emrich, a librarian and policy activist. This website also serves as something of a nexus for all three notions of “the (information) commons”. The second is a private website run by David Bollier, who was a founding member of the non-profit organisation Public Knowledge, and author of the influential book Silent Theft (2002), a veritable bible for the new “commons” movements in the United States. David Bollier might easily be taken as the flag-bearer of the cause, and it is his work that will provide much of the focus of this article. The websites run by Emrich and Bollier have provided a focus for thinkers such as Howard Besser, Yochai Benkler, Jonathan Tasini, and Jorge Reina Schement. Other people that might be included as working in the spirit of the “information commons” lobby, sometimes referred to optimistically as a “movement”, are legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, author of The Future of Ideas (2001), communications scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library (2004), and legal scholar James Boyle, author of Shamans, Software and Spleens (1997), among a number of others. I would argue that these people have become key drivers of meaning in discourses of “information commons”.

From this point on I will be using the term “(information) commons” to refer to this third strand of “information commons” thinking. This is because of the ways in which notions of the “information commons” in this regard intersect and overlap with the use of a rhetoric of “the commons” in American public policy. These discourses are co-extensive and mutually nourishing, and it is interesting, in passing, to note that discourses of “the commons” in the United States are more and more becoming synonymous with discourses of “the information commons”.

There are a number of lines of critique that I could take with regard to discourses of “the (information) commons” and their buddy-narrative of enclosure. I could focus on the use of fear and threat as a way to rally people around a political cause on American Democratic principles; I could focus on the reimagination of both “public domain” and “(information) commons” as more recent versions of the colonial imaginary of terra nullius; I could focus on the utopian technoromanticism of “(information) commons” notions; I could focus on the ways that the Creative Commons movement allows people to enthusiastically endorse the expansionary principles of intellectual property doctrine while sometimes believing that they are radically challenging them; I could focus on the weakness of “information” models as a foundation for sociological analysis; or, I could focus on the ways in which proponents of “the (information) commons” seem to forget that not everyone has a computer, and not everyone either has or wants to have access to the Internet. There’s not time to take on all of these issues here, but I certainly invite you to follow them up yourself. One point that I do want to make, however, is that discourses of “the (information) commons” do not present us with a “new narrative”, as some would claim. As with other post-9/11 American democratic rhetoric, the narratives and rhetoric imbedded in “(information) commons” discourse are tried and tested, not so much new as renamed and repackaged to appeal to a specifically American audience. Not only that, but we do well to remember what Kevin Robins and Frank Webster have written: “there is much about the ‘information revolution’ that is just business as usual (if the technologies are new, the social visions that they generate tend to be surprisingly conservative)” (1999:5).

Champions of “the (information) commons” tend to be critics of what they term “enclosure”. Understandings of enclosure within discourses of “the (information) commons” rely very heavily upon economically-based resource-management models of “the commons”. Historically these have tended to be used by apologists, not critics, of enclosure. What I will suggest is that dominant understandings of the notion of “the (information) commons” within American public policy don’t actually combat the dynamics of enclosure, as the rhetoric would suggest. In particular, I will go as far as to suggest that we might consider many discursive instantiations of “the information commons” to be subtly-cloaked political manifestations of the dynamics of legislative, technological, political, and theoretical enclosure and, more specifically, of the continued expansion of intellectual property doctrine. It has been written that the notion of the “information commons” is “a much-needed tool for achieving intellectual clarity about the digital revolution” (Bollier 2002a). I would suggest, rather, that discourses of the “(information) commons” tend to work more in the spirit of a Trojan horse than an analytic tool.

The idea of “the (information) commons” is not simply “gaining currency”. It is being aggressively sold by David Bollier and others as a “new idea for new times”, to “help name and mentally organize a set of novel, seemingly disconnected phenomena that are not yet understood as related to each other or to the health of our democratic polity” (Bollier 2002a). With a tone interestingly not dissimilar to post-9/11 ‘The World Has Changed’ rhetoric, “(information) commons” apologists suggest that we have to change our discourses to adapt to this Brave New World: “The functioning of our economy and culture has changed dramatically as a result of digital technologies, but our mental maps still tend to depict the landscape of another time, one that is fast-disappearing” (ibid.). This is a new discourse, it is suggested, unlike those “rooted in an earlier media culture” (ibid.). The notion of “the (information) commons”, it is suggested, allows Americans to “talk more cogently about constitutional and cultural norms that are increasingly threatened in the new digital environment. Being able to name endangered values is the first step toward understanding what is at stake and mobilizing suitable responses” (ibid.). I will suggest later that such discourses constitute anything but new ideas for new times.

So what do apologists of “the (information) commons” mean when they talk about “the (information) commons”. The point is that we can never really be sure. David Bollier has written that, “While still a rudimentary concept, the information commons is a valuable idea because it provides a coherent framework and language for explaining phenomena that are otherwise ignored or misunderstood” (Bollier 2002a). This is patently not true. While a discourse of “the (information) commons” may well focus minds, the analytic frameworks that have been erected around the notion are often anything but coherent. Never mind confusion across different writers, even in the same piece of work there can be much confusion, as I will later show. This would suggest that the power of “(information) commons” discourses rests not in the light they shed on the sociological or political aspects of either the process of enclosure or the constitution of “the commons”. Rather, the interchangeability of meanings and metaphors of “the (information) commons” would suggest that the power of the notion “the (information) commons” lies primarily in its ability to draw a public-policy lobby around a rhetorical (American) flag.

My discussion in this paper runs as follows:

  • Discourses of “the (information) commons” are also discourses of “enclosure”
  • Discourses of “the (information) commons”, although often quite confused and confusing, tend to involve us in resource-management approaches to social analysis, primarily reducing analytic discussion to the access, control, allocation, protection, and ownership of posited resources. These tend to be consistent with profoundly inadequate (socio-politically limited) models of expansion and commodification, the primary features of the process and practices of enclosure.
  • Resource-management approaches to concepts of “the (information) commons” likely contribute in the long-term to intensifying (enclosing) dynamics within what might be referred to as commons systems, despite best intentions. This is because resource-management approaches in analysis tend to be both symptomatic and constitutive of the dynamics of enclosure

“Enclosure” and “the Commons”

Discourses of “the (information) commons” emerge from discourses of enclosure. It is a frequent strategy among “(information) commons” theorists to ground and legitimate their narratives in the English parliamentary enclosures of the Industrial Revolution (see, for example, Felsenstein 1993; Lessig 2001; Boyle 2001; Bollier 2002, among others). Indeed, the parliamentary enclosure narratives of history have provided a powerfully-emotive metaphor for many people[i], far beyond the concerns of information or the Internet. Throughout relevant literature, “enclosure” has been contrasted with or, more often perhaps, set up in direct opposition to notions of “the commons”. It comes as little surprise, then, that much of the coherence in rhetorical deployments of “(information) commons” discourses comes from narratives of “enclosure”. “(Information) commons” discourses are couched in a rhetoric of crisis, positing an often vague threat, against which “the (information) commons” must be protected.  The danger to the “(information) commons” (and to democratic process and, arguably, the American Way of Life) comes from “enclosure”. Howard Besser, for example, writes:

In recent years we have begun to experience the erosion of various aspects of our contemporary commons. … Just as the coming industrial revolution provided an excuse for the wealthy to enclose the commons grazing land, the current information age is providing an excuse for the content industry (publishers, motion picture studios, music distributors, etc.) to fence off access to our information commons. (Besser 2002).

What normally happens is that the analogy is made, and a general threat posited as equivalent to the earlier threat of parliamentary enclosure. On the back of identification of this threat a notion of “the (information) commons” is formulated to counter this threat, working by analogy with “the commons” that were enclosed during the English enclosures from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. There are two analogies, then, although they are often dealt with as one. It is important to first be a little clearer about where these analogies come from.

“Enclosure” is frequently used as a label to speak of broad social processes and pervasive social change, and variously equated with commodification, privatization, commercialization, and the marketization of everyday life (see, for example, Midnight Notes 1990; Goldsmith et al. 1992; Brush 1996; Gudeman 1996; Shiva et al. 1997; Frow 1997; May 2000; Boyle 2001; Bollier 2002). In this way, “enclosure” has become very much about the identification of the threat of unwelcome social changes, driven by often anonymous corporate agents, fueled by the expansionary logic of free-market capitalism. However, it has been noted that the term “enclosure” is “an arena for the criss-crossing of disputed and competing values and orientations” (Siemon 1994:23). The relationship between “enclosure” and the “commons” has been, if nothing else, an invitation to take sides. Depending on which side you take, the term ‘enclosure’ can have either negative or positive connotations. For some, enclosure is undoubtedly a synonym for increased productivity or profitability (Thirsk 1958:4), for others enclosure refers starkly to “expropriation, exclusion, denial and dispossession” (Goldsmith et al. 1992:131).

In simple terms, it can safely be said that study of parliamentary enclosure concerns land, property, and “the commons” (see Thirsk 1958; Mingay 1968; Yelling 1977; Turner 1984; Allen 1992). “Enclosure”, in this sense, refers primarily to a series of changes to the English landscape from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It often entailed the changing of agricultural practices from communally administered landholdings, usually in fields without physically defined territorial boundaries, to agricultural holdings which were non-communal. Common lands were “enclosed” by man-made boundaries that separated one farm from another. Slater identifies three generic features of “enclosure” in this regard:

(1) the laying together of scattered properties and consequent abolition of intermixture of properties and holdings; (2) the abolition of common rights; (3) the hedging and ditching of the separate properties. The third process is the actual “enclosing” which gives its name to a series of processes which it completes (1907:85).

For many people, this “enclosure” was undoubtedly negative. William Carroll (1994) has noted that during the Tudor-Stuart period (1485-1714) the term “enclosure” is unstable, to the point where it is used as “an all-purpose signifier for virtually every negative socioagricultural development” (1994:36). This didn’t make the designation any less meaningful for those who resisted enclosure. As the works of E.P. Thompson (1968, 1993), Jeanette Neeson (1993), Kevin Robins and Frank Webster (1999), and Iain Boal (forthcoming), among others, have made clear, changes to the English landscape were symptomatic of a broad programme of expansionary social changes. Profound changes to people’s everyday lives were driven by the burgeoning popularity of a capitalist ethos. Resistance to these changes, such as that offered by the Luddites, was often stereotyped as anti-progressive and backward:

“Luddism was a response to deep-seated changes in ways of life, changes in which technology was undeniably implicated, but which were about much more than mere technical matters. What the Luddites were fighting against, more broadly, was the unfolding logic of the Enclosures movements. The Enclosures … were fundamentally about bringing realms that had hitherto been exempted into the new and expanding commercial relationships that marked the growth of capitalism. Former ways of providing food and sustenance – strip farming, labour relationships based on obligation and deference, widespread access to, and availability of, common land for grazing, hunting and collection of fuel – were denuded and done away with in the name of efficiency, progress and private property rights” (Robins and Webster 1999:7).[ii]

There are others, however, for whom “parliamentary enclosure” carries positive connotations. Allen notes that “Few ideas have commanded as much assent amongst historians as the claim that enclosures and large farms were responsible for the growth in productivity” (1992:2). Thirsk, for example, defines enclosure as “a method of increasing the productivity or profitability of land. This definition would apply accurately to all forms of enclosure” (1958:4). In a more recent commentary, Boyle agrees: “The big point about the enclosure movement was that it worked; this innovation in property systems allowed an unparalleled expansion of productive possibilities” (2001:3).

Whether people are referring to the parliamentary enclosures in England from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries or to the more recent critiques of “corporate enclosure”, there have tended to be two dominant characterizations of “the commons”.

In the first, people have conceived of “the commons” as a particular character of uncommodifying social relations in a localized context of community. It is important to note that, in the literature on the parliamentary enclosures, this has tended to be the characterization of “the commons” adopted by critics of the broad social changes that enclosure brought about.  This can primarily be characterised as a relationship-centred approach to “the commons”, whereby “the commons” is understood to refer to a particular character of social relations that are constituted, at least in part, by an ethic of interdependence and cooperation (see, for example, E. P. Thompson 1968, 1993; Neeson 1993). The key point has been, however, that the relations in question are of a peculiarly uncommodifying character. As the editors of The Ecologist note: “[The commons] provides sustenance, security and independence, yet … typically does not produce commodities. Unlike most things in modern industrial society, moreover, it is neither private nor public” (Goldsmith et al. 1992:7-8).[iii]

The second dominant characterization of “the commons” is as a resource-pool to be managed. Within the literature on parliamentary enclosure, this has tended to be the characterization of “the commons” adopted by those very much in favour of enclosure as a means of enacting economic progress and the capitalist ethos.[iv] The term “commons”, in this sense, refers to resources “held in common” or managed in such a way as to allow common access. Again, “the commons” is often considered within a context of community, but the community does not need to be localized or situated. As there is no necessity for a resource management model of “the commons” to consider experiential or broader social psychological elements, the community in question may have the character of an “imagined community” or a simplistic and reductionist abstraction.

“Enclosure” and “the (Information) Commons”

Upon examination the analogies with “parliamentary enclosure” and the English “commons” don’t hold up. No real grounds are offered for the comparativist claims. Yes, a threat has been identified, and yes, this threat has been identified as long-acknowledged processes of commodification, privatization and marketization. Thus far there are similarities with earlier critiques of parliamentary enclosure. But beyond this the analysis does not go. The threat is left vague, and the analogy is never properly justified. No sociological or social psychological explanation is ever offered for the processes of commodification, privatization, or marketization that are identified as threats, therefore no appropriate comparisons can ever be made in considerations of enclosure as a social process. In light of the general discussion in this paper, this is important. On the one hand this lack in the analysis, the deferral to an abstracted threat, allows the threat to remain external to the person identifying the threat. No room is left to understand how we ourselves might be possibly participating in the dynamics of commodification and enclosure, at least in any way that we could do anything about.

When there is such a possibility for internal paradox with regard to what constitutes the threat of enclosure, it is little wonder that there tends to be some degree of internal contradiction with regard to understandings of how the expansionary process of enclosure operates. For example, at one point David Bollier claims that “The privatization of the commons has crept up slowly and quietly, in fits and starts. It has not been an identifiable juggernaut with a single battlefront or defining moment” (2002:4). Elsewhere, in the same document, he states that “… market enclosure … is typically a coercive fait accompli” (2002:22). In the same document, Bollier declares, however, that: “The issue is not market versus commons. The issue is how to set equitable and appropriate boundaries between the two realms – semi-permeable membranes – so that the market and the commons can each retain integrity while invigorating the other” (Bollier 2002:4). This rhetoric of equilibrium fails to take into account the expansionary character of capitalist market relations, and ignores the expansionary dynamic of enclosure that has elsewhere, countless times, been identified as the key threat against which apologists of “the (information) commons” must fight! This is possible, because an underlying sociological explanation for enclosure is never offered, against which to compare his declarations. The concept that lives by the rhetorical sword can just as easily die by the rhetorical sword. Failure to account for the expansionary logic of capitalism leaves Bollier open to accusations of economic and political naivety. Denying his own critique of the expansionary commodification of enclosure might leave his arguments, grounded in the celebration of copyright, intellectual property law, and legislative expansion of the American constitution in the name of “democracy”, open to accusations of complicity with, or, at the very least, enthusiastic participation in broader processes of enclosure. This is confirmed, in the same document, when Bollier actually goes as far as to literally naturalize the expansionary dynamic of capitalism by way of a nature metaphor:

“Business, let it be said, is no more a villain than a lion whose metabolism needs gazelles. Companies are in the business of maximizing competitive performance in the market, and use of the commons simply represents an available resource and frequently a path of least resistance. That is why fortifying the commons is not equivalent to attacking the market, which clearly generates many important benefits for our society” (Bollier 2002:3).

If the analogy with parliamentary enclosure is problematic (if not empty), the analogy with “the commons” is equally problematic. Yes, attention is sometimes drawn to a threatened way of life, and, yes, the way of life that is threatened has been identified as uncommodifying social relations. To that extent the positioning of a commons-critique against processes of enclosure has validity. However, as I have just noted, the point is that this tends not to be the primary characterization of “the (information) commons”. What is crucial, and vital to the arguments set forth in this paper, is that conversations about “the commons”, and in particular “the (information) commons”, tend now to be effectively monopolised by those who espouse resource management conceptualizations of “the commons”. For example, at one point David Bollier describes “the commons” as “the collectively owned resources that are fundamental to a democratic commonwealth … valuable resources that the American people collectively own” (2002:2). He suggests that these:

“include resources that we have paid for as taxpayers and resources that we have inherited from previous generations. They are not just an inventory of marketable assets, but social institutions and cultural traditions that define us as Americans and enliven us as human beings – public education, community institutions, democratic values, wildlife and national forests, public spaces in cities and communications media” (2002:3).

Ignoring for a moment the American flag-waving, pretty much anything you can imagine becomes a resource, within the American democratic polity.[v]

This is where the confusion starts. It is simply prevarication to suggest that this resource management discourse is not based on economic principles. It is an attempt to outline a notion of non-marketability without acknowledging that the attempt is taking place firmly within an overarching normative framework of free-market capitalism and orthodox economic discourses.[vi] This allows Bollier, for example, to nestle in paradox (or outright contradiction) by claiming on the one hand that  “… the idea of the commons helps us identify and describe the common values that lie beyond the marketplace” (Bollier 2002b:14), while also stating, in the full garb of political economy, that,

There is a vital political analysis implicit in commons-speak, and this analysis presumes that citizens, not investors, are the primary stakeholders. It also presumes that citizens are not just the owners of these assets, but often the users, and so they ought to be direct participants in how their assets are managed (Bollier 2002a).

Jonathan Tasini, at least, is up-front about it, stating that “(information) commons” activists “have to carve out a more aggressive role in defining the economic rules of the game” (Tasini 2002). The game of resource management discourse is very much an economic one.

Rather than being about uncommodified spaces, uncommodifying, non-capitalist, non-propertized social relations, notions of “the (information) commons” tend to refer to always-already commodified resources, always-already commodifying management of resources, or an always-already commodified space of propertized resources (a classic commodity framework): “What unites these highly disparate commons … is their legal and moral ownership by the American people” (Bollier 2002b:3). The resources become “givens” of the discourse, and the focus shifts from things to the management of things. This is a discussion about a control economy, about who gets to control resources, and how: “A reckoning of what belongs to the American people is a first step to recovering control of common assets and protecting them for public purposes. When we argue for the American commons, we assert the right to public control over public resources …” (Bollier 2002b:14). David Bollier declares it to be the central issue under debate: “One of the great questions of contemporary American political economy is, who shall control the commons?” (2002b:1). Discourses of “the (information) commons” tend mainly to refer to resources (commodities) that are under the threat of an alternative mode of commodification or propertization. To identify the threat of enclosure within “(information) commons” discourses as the threat of even solely economic commodification, then, is to hoist a straw man on a rhetorical petard.

This is, of course, not without consequence. It is no coincidence that, in the past, resource management notions of “the commons” were espoused by those intent on driving the logic of enclosures and capitalism to their best advantage. The possibilities of conceiving of “the commons” in terms of uncommodifying social relations, in terms of the political character of relationships at all, or even in terms of resistance to the dynamics of enclosure, are decidedly limited when resources are the focus of attention.[vii]

As with the analogy with parliamentary enclosure, the analogy with “the commons” gets a little shaky upon closer inspection. When we historicize the dominant model of “the (information) commons” it has tended to be deployed as a privileged discourse by people in favour of enclosure, not those critiquing it.[viii] I would suggest that the use of resource-management models to either counter the expansionary dynamics of enclosure or to characterise “the commons” will tend to lead to inadequate analysis that, in the long-term, will likely exacerbate rather than ameliorate the broader socio-political consequences of enclosure. I would also suggest that the analogies drawn between past and recent examples of “the commons” only really work insofar as capitalism is excluded as a focus of critique, and insofar as the rhetorical promise of uncommodifying social relations is foregrounded to cloak the commodifying presence of resource management frameworks.

With the analytic weaknesses embedded in these particular deployments of analogy, it is no great stretch to establish a rhetorical opposition between enclosure and “the (information) commons”. It takes little effort to state that one is protecting “the commons” and combating enclosure, because both terms operate more or less as free-floating rhetorical implements. This crisis rhetoric allows apologists of “the (information) commons” to appropriate the emotional weight of historical narratives of “enclosure and the commons”, without every really justifying comparisons with those narratives in any rigorous fashion. Rhetorically, they frame it in terms of widespread social changes involving commodification and the spread of market values, but they are a little shy to push the analysis so far that they might have to acknowledge that they might actually be espousing commodification and the spread of market values.

If it is accepted that deployments of the notions of “enclosure” and “the (information) commons” in the literature in question tend to be primarily rhetorical, it will not come as too much of a shock to find that there is considerable shifting of meaning and metaphor within the rhetoric. It can get a little confusing.[ix]

Take, for example, when resource management notions of “the commons” are “mixed” with notions of enclosure. The (information) commons” is often those resources that are both being enclosed, as well as being that which is not enclosure, indeed, the opposite, the ‘necessary Other’ of enclosure:

“The commons” refers to that vaste range of resources that the American people collectively own, but which are rapidly being enclosed: privatized, traded in the market, and abused.” (Bollier 2002b:1).

“… the idea of the commons helps us identify and describe the common values that lie beyond the marketplace” (Bollier 2002b:14).

This raises a problem not dissimilar to the problem of causation raised by Descartes’ separation of mind and body – if “the (information) commons” is separate from enclosure, and fundamentally different, how is it that enclosure happens within “the (information) commons? You can’t have it both ways. This doesn’t make much sense unless we accept that the Othering of enclosure is primarily a rhetorical strategy. It draws attention away from the possibility that how proponents of “the (information) commons” are claiming to protect what they wish to protect isn’t all that different from what they identify as the process of enclosure.

The key to understanding all of this confusion may be that the project of “the (information) commons” is not a project of social or political analysis. Enclosure is left as a vague threat, “the (information) commons” as an unquestioned good. The refusal to analyse the social dynamic of enclosure in sociological or social psychological terms, particularly at the level of social interaction, leaves any analysis flowing from these statements, at best, simply descriptive; somewhere in the middle, politically naïve; and, at worst, rhetorically manipulative.

Enclosure Revisited, Without “the Commons”

Some time ago I would have been very inclined to go along with the persuasive language offered by the public policy apologists of the “(information) commons”.  I, too, have become, in spite of myself, a theorist and critic of enclosure. However, my analysis of “enclosure” differs in significant ways from that offered by apologists of the “(information) commons”, not least because I seek to extricate my analysis of expansionary social dynamics from notions of “the commons”. I have found in my own analysis of the process and practices of enclosure that resource management discourse tends to be both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dynamics of enclosure. This is, of course, quite obvious in the case of the discourses and practices of apologists of parliamentary enclosure. Where it is perhaps not quite as obvious, and where we might indeed think it counterintuitive, is in the discourses and practices of apologists of the “(information) commons”.

Over the last number of years my research has focused on the identification and analysis of expansionary social dynamics. Of particular interest to me have been the increasingly influential discourses and practices of law, copyright, and intellectual property. My doctoral dissertation (http://www.beyondthecommons.com), for example, examined the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) during the period 1995-2000. IMRO administers licences[x] for performing rights[xi] in Ireland. As IMRO representatives intensified their efforts to increase the number of licences contracted with the company, a series of controversies resulted during the second half of the 1990s, allowing for an eruption of suspicion, if not paranoia, about their operations. Representatives of IMRO encountered fierce resistance as certain groups refused to comply with the purported need for IMRO licences, in particular, primary schools, publicans, and supporters of ‘Irish traditional music’ (see McCann, 2001, 2003, forthcoming). In the space of five years, however, the organization went from being one of the most hated in Ireland to being one of the most accepted, with full government support and full legal sanction for their monopoly operations. The representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation are now allowed to assert absolute authority to undertake their favoured activities and deploy their favoured strategies in all domains within the Irish state. The hegemonic dynamics of IMRO’s operations effectively sustain ‘the end of debate’; resistance to the foundation of IMRO’s authority is consistently rendered ineffective, politically irrelevant, and, especially now, discursively invisible. I was interested in how this public relations miracle had been achieved.

I read the rapid expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation’s authority across the Irish jurisdiction as an example of “enclosure”. Enclosure, as I understand it, is a process that is not helpfully identified with specific historical periods or associated solely with identifiable “movements”. I believe enclosure is more helpfully understood not as one side of a binary opposition in relation to notions of “the commons”, but, rather, as a character or mode of power relations. There is not, then, any a priori assessment of enclosure as positive or negative, with associated tendencies to judgment and blame. Rather, in a Foucauldian move, my focus is on enclosure as a particular mode or character of the exercise of power, with characteristic consequences. I understand enclosure to be a social psychological, and deeply political, process which operates in and through the very particular practices of very particular people in very particular circumstances. I will let it be known at this stage that I am no fan of invisible hand solutions to sociological analysis. Any analysis of enclosure as a characteristic set of power relations is faced with the challenge of achieving what Yelling refers to as “an appropriate set of generalisations”, the derivation of which “is the crux of the matter, and it is on the solution of this problem that any general work on enclosure must depend” (1977:4). The aim of my research, then, has been, in my dissertation of 2002 and since, to identify the features of enclosure as a process[xii], to identify family resemblances across various contexts.[xiii]

From my work (discussed at length in McCann 2003), two elements stand out as characteristic in my analysis of the process, discourses, and practices of enclosure. The first is the experience of commodification. The second is the extension of authority-as-certitude, which could be otherwise understood in the context of this paper as ‘doctrinal expansion.’ Both of these elements I take to be symptomatic and constitutive of enclosure. Thus, for the purposes of this short paper, I will only be directly addressing the first of these, commodification.

Commodification

Commodification is, for me, the first element of enclosure. Commodification (also commoditization) is a popular word among mainly left-wing thinkers, due to Karl Marx’s enthusiasm for the term “commodity” as part of his anti-capitalist arsenal in Das Capital. It surprised me recently that the term “commodification” itself has only become a presence in the academic lexicons since the mid-1970s (see Strasser, ed. 2003). It is interesting that people who write about the process of commodification concern themselves almost exclusively with attempts to quantify or define the qualities of “commodities” (e.g. Appadurai et al. 1986). This seems to me a somewhat counterproductive strategy. To focus on commodities-as-things, to focus on access to, and the exchange, movement, allocation, control, ownership, and protection of commodities in these discussions is ironically to adopt a peculiarly commodifying approach, as I argue below. I would further suggest that to consider commodification as primarily or solely an economic issue, which most scholars do, is further to diminish its usefulness as a concept in analysis by making commodification in apparently non-commercial contexts invisible. I don’t accept that commodification is a primarily or peculiarly economic process, or that it necessarily concerns the abstract exchange and movement of commodities.

In my own work, I understand commodification as a primarily dispositional[xiv] and discursive[xv] process (with very particular political consequences). It arises from a dominance of the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be “eliminated”. In this, I make a key assumption, that uncertainty (affect) is a constant and variable aspect of our experience. If this is the case, and my own experience would suggest to me that it is, then it would follow that the “elimination” of uncertainty can only ever be a rhetorical assertion. Therefore, it would seem, the more we participate in the discursive “elimination” of uncertainty, the more we are likely to become alienated from what is happening. The more our discursive renderings of what happens are suffused with the dispositional expectation that uncertainty can be or should be “eliminated”, the more misrepresentative are likely to be our renderings of our experience and of whatever we might refer to as reality.[xvi] The more we seek to “eliminate” uncertainty, then, the more likely we are to become structurally blind to how we ourselves are participating in our own political realities.

I have found in my work that the more we tend towards the discursive “elimination” of uncertainty, the more we are likely to engage in discursive strategies of “closure” and “separation” in the way that we make sense of our experience. Closure is here understood as the discursive “elimination” of variables, and separation as the discursive “equation” of difference as separateness.[xvii] A discursive dominance of  “closure” and “separation” within a particular context is what I mean by commodification. As strategies, they both rely on the assumption that we can achieve an exact equivalence between what we say and think about what happens, and what actually happens. In my dissertation of 2002 I outline how the discourses of the Irish Music Rights Organisation are suffused by such assumptions.

As a consequence of thinking that the commodifying strategies of closure and separation are okay ways to make sense of experience, it is often the case that we think “things” (“commodities”, “resources”, etc.) are more important than people and how they treat each other. At the very least, we often naturalize or reify these “things” so that we assume that they maintain an existence independent of ourselves. It is easy then to assume that our reifications (and our responses to them) are natural, and often therefore inevitable and necessary, “the way things are”. Little wonder, then, that I have found various versions of resource management discourse (access, control, allocation, protection, and ownership) have provided crucial structural support for the dynamics of enclosure. In my work I now take a dominance of resource management discourse to be both symptomatic of and constitutive of the commodifying dynamics of enclosure.[xviii] I say “commodifying” instead of “commodified” to underline that commodification as I understand it is a dispositional and discursive process in which we engage and participate.

Karl Marx suggested that a key characteristic of “commodity relations” was that social relations between people come to assume, it would seem, “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Kamenka, ed. 1983:446-447). When resource management models become the central concern of a discourse, as happens in the dynamics of enclosure, it is very easy to see how people’s lives can become formalistically reduced to involving little more than the exchange, transaction, and circulation of things/ resources/units/commodities. This frequently allows for the erasure, in C. Wright Mills’ terms (1959), of both biography and history. This is an obvious way in which uncertainty (affect) can be “eliminated”, the experiential and affectual aspects of social life excluded from analysis. All too easily the internal dynamics of a posited resource system become subject to analytic closure, whereby social, political, and cultural variables get left out of analysis in favour of the aesthetically-charged complexities of resource flow. In addition, resource management models are premised on the assumption that our experience is always-already commodified. The very construction of any resources as resources often involves discursive practices of commodification, as I understand the process. When this is the case, resource management discourses leave it very difficult for those of us concerned about the accelerative commodification of everyday life to explain the intensifications and encroachments of commodification. Such concern tends to be not only rendered politically irrelevant, but politically invisible. Such concern is further sidelined when commodification is corralled as solely an economic concern.

It has already been suggested both that discourses of “the (information) commons” tend to be dominated by resource management models of “the commons”. It has also been suggested that a discursive dominance of resource management models tends to be symptomatic and constitutive of commodification and the process and practices of enclosure. If this is the case, then it makes sense that any dominance of resource management models in a particular discourse serves as an invitation to further investigation. A dominance of resource management models may be indicative not only of commodifying discourse, but of the extensions of absolute authorities and the presence of doctrine, and of the accelerative and intensifying impetus of enclosing dynamics. This is not necessarily so, but is worth checking for. It is also worth checking whether the discursive dominance of resource management notions foster and facilitate the profoundly impactful structural blindnesses to the implications of our own participation that also tend to be symptomatic of enclosure.

It is not inevitable that resource management models be used to speak of “the (information) commons”. My critique of commodification and enclosure is also, then, a critique of the use of resource management discourse as an analytic framework for the study and critique of enclosure. This brings me to an interesting place, for, as it happens, resource management models have become the dominant models both for the study of enclosure and for the promotion of notions of “the commons” or “the (information) commons”. I would suggest that this is not a coincidence, but rather a deepening of the enclosing dynamics that are and have been at work in these discourses, as new orthodoxies take root and old ones are given new life through the novelties of renaming. Foucault (1972) cautioned against academic circularity, noting that our scholarly discourses and practices may well be systematically forming the objects of which we speak. In and through the “discursive feedback” identified here, I would suggest that we can systematically participate in the dynamics that we critique.

An Enclosing Commons?

“There is much about the ‘information revolution’ that is just business as usual (if the technologies are new, the social visions that they generate tend to be surprisingly conservative)”

Robins and Webster, 1999.

Bollier has subtly equated the “narrative of market enclosure” with the “narrative of the commons”: “It is important to speak of market enclosure because it reframes the economic narrative of the market. What the market considers incidental externalities (toxic waste, species extinction, safety hazards), the narrative of the commons regards as an assault on the community” (Bollier 2002:49). In a way, as I have suggested, I agree with Bollier in this. Narratives of “the (information) commons” may indeed be read as narratives of enclosure, but not necessarily in the ways Bollier intends. Championing “the (information) commons” tends to implicate people in a series of discourses that have long been implicated in the expansionary social practices of enclosure (where enclosure might be variously understood in terms of commodification, private and collectivist propertization, marketization, globalization, and the propagation of expansionary doctrine).

Take the issue of technology for example. Discourses of “the (information) commons” tend to be always-already couched within progress doctrines of technoboosterism, technoromanticism, and technodoctrine (see MacKenzie and Wajcman, eds., 1999; Robins and Webster 1999; Coyne 1999). I take this to be more than a little ironic, given other analysis that suggests that “The development of … new Enclosures is being massively facilitated by the introduction of information and communications technologies” (Robins and Webster 1999:7). Heightened levels of self-awareness with regard to participation in the dynamics of enclosure is hardly to be expected in the midst of technological enthusiasm. As Langdon Winner has written: “.. the sheer dynamism of technical and economic activity in the computer industry evidently leaves its members little time to ponder the historical significance of their own activity” (1989:84). The social implications of increasingly technologized relations are hardly likely to get a lot of airtime when the use and future development of technology serve as the sine qua non of “(information) commons” discourses.

A similar structure is at play with regard to intellectual property issues. For example, it is not the legislative enclosure of the expansionary discourses and practices of intellectual property that are challenged. No, rather, the legal-literary doctrines of Anglo-American law, copyright, patent law, and intellectual property rights are acknowledged as necessary and beneficial. This is despite long-standing scholarly recognition of the role of intellectual property in commodification and expansionary enclosure. For many, the analysis of “corporate enclosure” specifically concerns resources, intellectual property, and “the commons” (see, again, Goldsmith et al. 1992; Brush 1996; Gudeman 1996; Shiva et al. 1997; Frow 1997; May 2000). The term “enclosure”, in this sense, refers to more recent developments concerning the appropriation of genetic resources and scientific or indigenous knowledge by opportunistic researchers in and through the application of intellectual property rights. This new understanding of the term “enclosure” speaks to major ethical issues that have arisen in the last twenty or thirty years. “Advances” in scientific research and development have ushered in a situation where “more and more, the traditional lifestyles, knowledge, and biogenetic resources of indigenous, traditional, and local peoples have been deemed by governments, corporations, and others to be of some commercial value, and, therefore, to be property that can be bought and sold” (Posey and Dutfield 1996:1).  Although at one point David Bollier, for example, seems to align himself with such analysis, asserting that “… copyright imperialism has blossomed into brazen rapaciousness” (Bollier 2002:123), the analogy with imperialism, the apparent alignment with broad critiques of the discourses and practices of intellectual property, is misleading. To extend the analogy in line with Bollier’s own stated position elsewhere, the principles and politics of imperialism are not problematic but rather it’s the aggressive application of them that is. A subtler, more regulated imperialism is fine. As Frederick Emrich writes on info-commons.org:

“To sound a call in support of the information commons does not mean calling for the end of intellectual property. Commercial uses of information serve a vital role in ensuring that new ideas are produced. So long as commercial uses of information are balanced with effective public access to information, there is good reason to see the information commons and information commerce as mutually beneficial aspects of one system of managing ideas” (Info-commons 2002).

Apologists of “the (information) commons” also tend to support optimistic assumptions of Anglo-American neo-liberal consensus with regard to the benefits of the free market, the free flow of resources, our roles and duties as consumers, the existence of a ‘public sphere’, and the promise of mainly American versions of democracy. Many of these notions are often silent partners in “(information) commons” debates, but they are no less powerful for the silence. This reminds me of a critique that James Brook and Iain Boal levelled against the “corporate libertarianism” of groups such as Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and the Electronic Freedom Foundation who, they suggest, “see no essential contradiction between social progress and corporate profits. While they are energetic defenders of on-line “privacy” and “open access” to information, their advocacy of civil rights in cyberspace is tempered by their industry affiliations; for example, they rarely challenge the assumptions that more computerization is necessarily a good thing and that “the free market” needs to be protected from “big government” (Brook and Boal, eds. 1995:xi).” A similar critique, I would suggest, can be levelled against many proponents of “the (information) commons”.

The case for “the (information) commons” offered by David Bollier and others runs as follows:

  • The process of enclosure is driven by market concerns, that is, with concerns of people who explicitly privilege economic criteria as the most important elements of discussion.
  • The process of protecting “the (information) commons” is identified with “non-market” concerns, that is, with concerns of people who do not privilege economic criteria as the most important elements of discussion.
  • American legislative development and more equitable governance within American public-policy regulation are identified as the primary means whereby the protection of the information commons will occur.

This argument overlooks a number of key issues, however. Among them, it ignores the interdependence of legal and economic concerns within Anglo-American Common Law. This has very direct implications for “(information) commons” discourse. For example, it’s okay for apologists of the “commons” or “information commons” to talk about “enclosure” as commodification, privatization, marketization, or the encroachment of economic values, but to talk about enclosure as propertization would draw attention to a central confusion within their rhetoric – that the notion of the “commons” they are working with is based on a commodifying, marketized, economic, property framework. This is also why their claims about legislative enclosure ring a little hollow – property is also a legal concept. Economic and legislative enclosure has always-already taken place within their discourse of “the (information) commons”.

The place of American democratic governance in the discourse is also in question. American constitutional principles (e.g. First Amendment rights) and the principles of (American) “democracy” are identified as the discursive basis for justifications with regard to the protection of the “information commons”. Nevertheless, proponents of these discourses tend to ignore the many ways in which political structures and practices in the United States, in particular those underpinned by neo-liberal rhetorics of “democracy”, are suffused by free-market ideologies, and very much implicated in the enclosures of corporate expansion worldwide. This is of particular concern in the current political climate, given critique of “… the contemporary expansion of American imperial rule through the mechanisms of economic, political, and cultural domination often concealed behind a façade of democratic structures and discourses” (Boggs 2003:2). An increasingly coherent body of theory is often allowed to assume the unquestionable positivity of classic anti-enclosure “commons” rhetoric, sounding like globally oriented concern while also declaring support of the central principles of an historically expansionary American polity. Would that the separation of doctrines of democracy and corporate economics were so easy.

Simply declaring the existence or the desired existence of an “(information) commons” does not suddenly sweep away the political baggage that comes along with each of these issues. But it is not uncommon, consistent with the wonderful dynamics that any condition of hegemony tends to imply, that such issues are often conveniently swept under the carpet, shrouded in the mists of denial, or immunised against criticism by the blinding light of the best of intentions. Discourses of “the (information) commons” allow people to purport that they are focusing attention on the fundamental political implications of new technologies, intellectual property laws, free market economics, and American democracy without ever really taking any of those implications seriously enough to challenge them at base.

Conclusion

Insofar as “(information) commons” models monopolize discussion about notions of both enclosure and the commons, they also potentially diminish the power of these notions to provide a focus for truly radical political critique. It would seem that their notion of “enclosure” is little more than rhetorical posturing, presenting a threat to “the commons” that must be countered, while also working from a position, that cannot be acknowledged, that they are part and parcel of the threat they identify. Hence their earnestness in countering the identified threat can hardly be taken seriously. The “information commons” tends to be primarily a rhetorical play, one that muddies the waters of political analysis while at the same time suggesting that paddling around in there actually makes the waters clearer.

With discourses of the “(information) commons” a rhetoric of social critique has been made synonymous with the promotional rhetoric of a positive cause. There are three key points to be made here. The first is that the rhetoric of social critique rarely rises above description and emotive response– this is what is happening, it’s getting worse, and we don’t like it. The second is that those who find themselves going along with the rhetoric of social critique can easily find themselves becoming co-opted into the promotion of positive values that they may not share. The third point to be made is that the rhetorical shift of focus from critique to espousing a positive response to critique tends to allow people who espouse the rhetoric of promotion to remain immune from a critique similar to that which they have undertaken themselves – “we are working against enclosure by protecting the information commons therefore we cannot be involved in enclosure”. While this may have rhetorical force as a declaration, it is of little analytic use. Not only this, but it tends to actively limit the future possibilities of sustained, helpful social and political analysis by placing the consequences of one’s own participation beyond debate. This is a classic dynamic in the discursive maintenance of absolute authorities and hegemonic environments.

What seems to be of greatest concern within “(information) commons” discourse isn’t so much that commodification, privatization, marketization, or the spread of economic values is happening, but that it is happening coercively: “A discussion of the commons and enclosure helps bring into sharp focus a dramatic but largely unexamined phenomenon of contemporary American society: the forced privatization and marketization of large swaths of shared wealth and social life” (Bollier 2002b:2).

What’s of greater concern to me is “enclosure” (commodification, privatization, marketization, the spread of economic values etc.) that happens not due to coercion, but on account of acquiescence and (often enthusiastic) participation. Coercive enclosure is easy to identify, and likely to be met with, one would hope, high-profile resistance. It’s the creeping commodification of everyday life that I would think is of greatest concern, and this tends to happen because either we don’t realise that resistance is even an option or we don’t care to resist. When it comes to the creeping commodifications of technological, political, economic, and legislative enclosure, it would seem that the apologists of “the (information) commons” don’t care to resist. That makes them profoundly and actively complicit in the expansionary dynamics of enclosure, if and when we consider enclosure to be a broader social process than Bollier and his colleagues present it as being.

The championing of an “information commons” (or even a “public domain”) might be interpreted as a series of concerted efforts to carve out a space of what Marcuse (1965) might have referred to as “repressive tolerance”: “within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game.”[xix] It would seem to be a decent enough first step as a defensive measure, but the rhetoric tends to freeze beyond the aspiration of an efficiently utopian “(information) commons”, and, at any rate, appearances can be deceptive. Such efforts tend to succeed admirably in inverse proportion to the challenge they offer to the hegemonic assumptions upon which they are built and in which they nestle, or, to ground it a little more in day to day realities, in inverse proportion to the radically political challenges that people offer themselves or others. “Success”, then, is not necessarily to be welcomed. Be careful what you wish for.

If there are indeed such fundamental paradoxes, if not outright contradictions within “(information) commons” theory, then a re-evaluation of “information commons” developments is called for. I would suggest that the enthusiasm with which notions of the “information commons” have been greeted is misplaced. It would be more helpful, I would suggest, to keep an eye to the critique, concentrating on the implications of enclosure and commodification for the ways in which we relate to each other. Taking the focus away from resource management will leave us not only with less misrepresentative analyses. We will have less limiting theoretical perspectives with which to undertake assessments of our own engagement as discursive participants in the very fields of our inquiry, that is, with which to undertake more helpful participatory analysis to supplement and inform other descriptive and explanatory explorations.

Why is this important? We do well to focus again on the critique offered by apologists of the “information commons”. It’s important because of the expansionary dynamic of enclosure, because of the accelerative dynamics of commodification. If we aren’t more aware of how we may or may not be helping with relation to such expansion and commodification, then we are likely to contribute to a long-term worsening of the enclosing dynamics we are often seeking to ameliorate, even if our short term intentions may frequently seem to be realized. The more appropriate, sensitive, fluid, dynamic, and flexible the methodologies we employ and deploy, the more appropriate, sensitive, fluid, dynamic, and flexible will be our participation as scholars and activists. This paper, then, is an invitation to less partial renderings of what happens, more analysis of the consequences of our own participation, and more adequate understandings of power, agency, expansion, and commodification as they relate to discourses of the “information commons”.

Enclosing characters of social change don’t happen by way of humungous invisible hands that sweep us into an inevitable further stage of commodifying existence. Enclosure happens when people interact with people, when attitudes have consequences, as they only ever do, when the smallest rhetorical layerings of absolutism, domination, oppression, coercion, and violence are anointed with stealth and blessed with the silent pull of gravity on account of their banal humanity. What in the long term will be a pretty big deal is often in the short term left unnoticed. Such ways of thinking are not better or Darwinistically superior. For those of us who are uneasy about them they can be simply different, but the consequences of that difference are where the possibilities of critique and transformation lie. Whether or not such ideas become more influential depends on politics, on how energetic, persuasive, or coercive people become with regard to their propagation, with how acquiescent or participatory we become with regard to their acceptance. Enclosure tends to be a process in which we ourselves often engage and participate, often regardless of or on account of our oppositional rhetoric. As such, our greatest contribution in our encounters with the dynamics of enclosure may well be to consider that there is nothing more political, personal, or relevant than the character of our own attitude. This would implicate us in the continual clarification of our own priorities of importance with regard to what we value, and evaluation of the dissonances between our values and what we find ourselves being expected to concede to, or, often, what we find ourselves conceding to.

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[i] This is reflected in book titles such as The Enclosure and Recovery of the Commons: Biodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge and Intellectual Property Rights (Shiva et al. 1997), or A Global Political Economy of Intellectual Property Rights: the new enclosures? (May 2000).

[ii] “… Luddism, the real Luddism, was not the cry of the empty gut against innovations which inexplicably (at least to the victims) threw people out of work. It was an answer from many ordinary working people to changes imposed from above which had repercussions on their whole way of life, notably through the ‘mobilisation’ of women’s and children’s labour in place of that of skilled men. Luddism was above all else an attempt by working people to exert some control over changes that were felt to be fundamentally against their interests and mode of life. It was a protest, in the days before the existence of any organised trade union movement, against new modes of accountancy, employment patterns, work rhythms, and industrial discipline” (Robins and Webster 1999:46).

[iv] Apologists of parliamentary enclosure almost invariably criticised “the commons”, “common rights” or “common property” as negatives. The privileged criterion was often the maximisation of utility, such that “[Enclosers] deplored the insubordination of commoners, the unimprovability of their pastures, and the brake on production represented by shared property” (Neeson 1993:7).

[v] In passing, most of the “collectively-owned resources” that Bollier mentions I might potentially identify as environments of enclosure, depending on the particulars of circumstance.

[vi] Bollier at one point suggests, without a shred of irony that: “The idea that human beings share a moral and civic inheritance that cannot be alienated, commodified, or sold is part of an American tradition that has its roots in the Declaration of Independence” (Bollier 2002b:16).

[vii] Nevertheless, resource management notions of “the commons” have provided a shining beacon for many people during anxious times, a clear focus for active and purposeful attitudes in the face of crisis. Visit reclaimthecommons.net, for example, and you will find “a movement of people who “want to teach and demonstrate sustainable, life-affirming alternatives to biotechnology and corporate power in general” (http://www.reclaimthecommons.net/article.php?list=type&type=6). The Global Commons Institute (gci.org.uk) declares that its mission is “to globally shrink and share future greenhouse gas emissions to avert dangerous rates of global climate change”. The Chaordic Commons (http://www.chaordic.org) seeks “to develop, disseminate and implement new concepts of organization that result in more equitable sharing of power and wealth, improved health, and greater compatability with the human spirit and biosphere”. The Caribou Commons Project (http://www.cariboucommons.com) is “an international effort to permanently protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, located in Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge.” The “Cultural Commons” project of the Center for Arts and Culture in Washington DC (http://www.culturalcommons.org), the title referring to a “think tank that seeks to inform and improve the decisions that affect our cultural life”.

[viii] Little wonder, then, that many of the “(information) commons” apologists characterize their ”commons” within victimizing frameworks, whereby a static, threatened, feminized pool of resources “(information) commons” is under threat from a dynamic, aggressive, masculinist process of enclosure. This, again, is a classic rhetorical position taken by people in favour of enclosure (and by colonizers ad empire builders, as it happens).

[ix] Sometimes “the (information) commons” is not enclosure; sometimes “the (information) commons” is the opposite of enclosure; sometimes “the (information) commons” works with enclosure; sometimes “the (information) commons” is enclosure.

[x] Enforcement of the property right of copyright can be exercised by other persons by licence or assignment (WIPO 1997:5). When the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation identify that a premises requires an IMRO license the proprietor is approached, and asked to sign a standard public performance contract. The licence granted by IMRO permits the licensee “to perform copyright music from the IMRO repertoire on the premises, in return for paying royalties to IMRO according to the applicable tariff” (Lyons 1999:7). IMRO agents are granted a right of free entry, for monitoring purposes, to any premises which has been licensed.

Licensing constituted the primary activity of the Irish Music Rights Organisation during the period 1995-2000, for “the licensing of works is how collectives earn their money” (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:30). In 1999 licensing revenue for the Irish Music Rights Organisation came to IR£17,418,077. In 2000, the figure had risen to IR£19,457,780 (IMRO 2000:6). The performance royalty licensing rates vary greatly from premises to premises. They take account of the type and frequency of ‘performances’, the nature of the venue and other variable conditions. Royalties are paid annually and, in advance. This blanket licence[x] runs from year to year, until such time as the licence is cancelled. Most music users will not attempt to contact licensing collectives. Often they will only enter into a licensing agreement upon threat of litigation (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:36). As a result, collectives actively identify and pursue all potential music users:

It is an unfortunate fact of life that respect for the rights of creators is not the norm. A significant number of users avoid or even actively resist a collective’s efforts to control the use of its repertoire of works. It is up to the collective to assert its rights and the rights of its affiliated rights owners in a way that will cause compliance (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:39).

Strong-arm, coercive tactics, including litigation, are generally avoided, as they are costly and generate bad public relations. Nevertheless, licensing is the most debated and litigated area of collective administration worldwide (Sinacore-Guinn 1993). In 1993 the Irish Music Rights Organisation paid out more than IR£47,000 in legal expenses (Curran 1994). By 1999 IMRO’s legal, collection and professional fees came to IR£476,258, a rise from IR£413,453 the previous year. If someone refuses to pay for an IMRO licence when approached, then the organisation takes recourse to the Circuit Court. If a licensing agreement has been contracted but royalties are not paid, then the ‘music user’ is sued by the Irish Music Rights Organisation as a commercial debtor. The use of debt-collection agencies is standard practice for IMRO as the last attempt at resolution before more substantial coercion. The use of persuasion is preferable for the organisation, so significant efforts are made to convince users of the necessity for proper licensing. Often a performing rights society will undertake cultural activities, programs, and sponsorships in order to encourage the creation of new works, educate people as to the nature of creative rights, and garner support for those rights. The Irish Music Rights Organisation is very active in this regard. Such activities also perform the obvious functions of brand recognition and public relations.

[xi] According to the Irish Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000, “copyright is a property right whereby, subject to this Act, the owner of the copyright in any work may undertake or authorise other persons in relation to that work to undertake certain acts in the State, being acts which are designated by this Act as acts restricted by copyright in a work of that description” (17.1). Copyright, then, is a set of prescriptions on the actions of others in relation to a “literary or artistic work” which control what can or cannot be done by other people in relation to that “work”. According to the Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000 (4.37), the owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to undertake, or authorise others to undertake, all or any of the “acts restricted by copyright”. A person is understood to infringe the copyright in a work if they undertake or authorise another to undertake any of these acts without the licence of the copyright owner. The acts restricted by copyright are as follows:

(a) to copy the work;

(b) to make the work available to the public;

(c) to make an adaptation of the work or to undertake either (a) or (b) in relation to an adaptation.

The “performing right”, although not specifically mentioned in the Copyright and Related Rights Act, is generally understood to pertain to (b), making a work available to the public. If the act of copying is the first act which requires authorization, then the second is the act of public performance: “The right to control this act of public performance is of interest not only to the owners of copyright in works originally designed for public performance. It is of interest also to the owners of copyright, and to persons authorized by them, when others may wish to arrange the public performance of works originally intended to be used by being reproduced and published” (WIPO 1997:155). This ‘performance’ is often assumed (without much discussion) to be at least analogous to copying. This includes performing, showing or playing a copy of the work in public; broadcasting a copy of the work in public; including a copy of the work in a cable programme service; issuing copies of the work to the public; renting copies of the work; or, lending copies of the work without the payment of remuneration to the owner of the copyright in the work. Performing rights are statutory, that is, they exist solely and exclusively by virtue of the laws that create and recognize them (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:14).

[xii] A developed theoretical perspective on the commodifying and expansionary qualities of the process of enclosure did not exist, at least not exactly. What did exist were various sociological critiques of political processes that seem to affect us in our everyday lives. In developing the tone and colour of my own understanding of the concept of “enclosure” I drew on the spirit of Tönnies and his critique of gesellschaft, and on Marx’s critiques of objectification, alienation, and commodity relations. I kept in mind Lukács’ critiques of reification and totalization, and Simmel’s critique of the relational implications of abstraction and reification as found within works such as The Philosophy of Money (1978). I also drew upon the spirit of Weber’s extended critique of rationalization, and his typologies of authority, in particular his analyses of legal, institutional, and bureaucratic relationship structures (I am indebted here to the Weberian work of Raymond Murphy (1988) on ‘social closure’). I also consider this work to be resonant with much counter-enlightenment critique, among which I would include certain strands of postmodernisms, poststructuralisms, feminisms, critical theory and the Frankfurt School, and Holocaust Studies. I think it’s also hard to underestimate the influence of the spirit of Michel Foucault in the thinking outlined here. While in a general fashion Foucault’s work allowed me to consider that I never needed permission to think for myself, more particularly I find his work on disciplinary power provides me with a kindred critique.

[xiii] Understanding the characteristic features of enclosure in this way, I am as happy to identify practices of enclosure at work in Hitler’s Germany, an abusive relationship, a gambling casino, or the corporate logic of an organisation, as I am to identify them in the historical narratives of parliamentary enclosures in eighteenth-century England.

[xiv] I understand “disposition” as a consistency of relationship to uncertainty (for more on this see McCann 2003).

[xv] While acknowledging that there is a broad literature available concerning the notion of “discourse” (see, for example, Jaworski and Coupland, eds. 1999; Mills 2003), in simple terms, my approach to discursive analysis involves asking the following questions:

  • What do people, including myself, say and think about what happens?
  • What actually happens?
  • How might we increase the discrepancies between what we say happens and what actually happens, and thereby come to more misrepresentative renderings of our experience?
  • How might we reduce the discrepancies between what we say happens and what actually happens, and thereby come to less partial renderings of our experience?

[xvi] Following this line of thought has, of course, profound implications for the analysis and critique of many scientific methodologies that are still deployed in a classic Baconian or Newtonian mode, which are often explicitly founded on aspirations to the “elimination” of uncertainty and the drive towards the certitude of verifiable knowledge. Scholars such as John Dewey (1929), Richard Rorty (1979), Jane Flax (1992), Donald N. McCloskey (1994), Edward S. Reed (1996), and F. David Peat (2002), among others, have drawn attention to this “quest for certainty” insofar as it underpins the dominant trends of European and American philosophical thought.

[xvii] In my dissertation I present ‘framing’ as the coupling of these strategies (McCann 2003: Ch 9).

[xviii] It seems helpful to suggest that there might be degrees of commodification, depending on the circumstances. For example, the more formal, rigid, or rule-bound the situation in which you find yourself, the more commodifying the environment. Or, the more unquestioned and unchallengeable authorities, roles, positions, icons, or symbols in your experience, the more commodifying may be your environment.

All That Is Not Given Is Lost: Irish Traditional Music, Copyright, and Common Property

Ethnomusicology  2001, Vol. 45, No. 1

Irish music in a traditional idiom finds itself in the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand Irish traditional music has become a global phenomenon, lending its symbolic and commercial weight, replete with what Irish cultural historian Luke Gibbons calls, “the communal Prozac of the heritage industry” (1996:172), to anything from Riverdance™ to Xena,™ Warrior Princess and its ethereal glances of uilleann pipe inciden­tals. Commercially speaking, the music has never been as popular, a boon for those determined to make a living playing the music that they live by. On the other hand we find that the embedded cultural practices and val­ues that have supported the transmission and life of the music are being threatened as a result of the very embeddedness, their being taken for grant­ed, that has guaranteed their lack of articulation thus far.

The aim of this paper is twofold. Firstly, I feel it necessary to clarify the nature of the social relationships that are inextricably bound up with Irish traditional musical practice, in partial answer to Luke Gibbons’ com­ment that, “though much valuable work has been done on Irish society from the point of view of economic development, political mobilization, and administrative structures, very little has focused on culture as a set of ma­terial practices informing and constituting the social environment” (1996:10). To do this, I shall address issues of gift and commodity, ultimately concluding that grass‑roots Irish traditional music transmission rests upon an as‑yet‑unarticulated system of gift or sharing. And secondly, I believe that it is crucial that we clarify the power relations and the dynamic processes that frame those social relationships. For this purpose, I shall use certain aspects of Common Property Theory, still a very young field, with a view to highlighting the actors and signposting directions. As Michael Goldman has written,

“The commons‑a material and symbolic reality, always changing, never purely local or global, traditional or modern, and always reflect­ing the vibrant colors of its ecological, political, cultural, scientific and social character‑is not at all disappearing into the dustbin of history. To the contrary, we find that the commons are increasingly becoming a site for robust and tangible struggles . . .” (1998:14).

At the UNESCO/WIPO World Forum on the Protection of Folklore in Phuket, Thailand (April 1997), it was admitted that: “The participants were of the view that at present there is no international standard of protection for folklore and that the copyright regime is not adequate to ensure such protection” (WIPO 1997). As has been elaborated in a number of sources (McCann 1998; Mills 1996; Seeger 1996; Weiner 1987), the musical prac­tices that support traditional music transmission abide by models of creativ­ity, collaboration, and participation that together add up to the antithesis of the text‑based, individualist, and essentially capitalist nature of intellec­tual property regimes. All problems relating to copyright and neighboring rights in traditional musics can ultimately be traced back to these issues. Hence the need to develop a sui generis system of protection for traditional culture and traditional musical expression, one that grows from the nature of traditional systems as they are, rather than one imposed on them as the way they should be. The challenge we face is to attempt to reconcile these two apparently irreconcilable world views in practical terms.

The Irish Context

The last three years have seen a growing but notoriously vague aware­ness in the Irish traditional music scene of a conflict of interest that involves publicans, amateur practitioners of traditional music and song, and the performance royalties collection agency, the Irish Music Rights Organiza­tion (IMRO). This growing awareness has led to a national newspaper arti­cle proclaiming “Save the Session” (Vallely 1997). At the same time, there has arisen a public debate clouded in ambiguity and a lack of direction due to a lack of a shared lexicon or conceptual consensus and the complica­tions of the philosophical basis of copyright legislation.

A very small percentage of traditional musicians are members of the Irish Music Rights Organization (IMRO). IMRO claims the right to police traditional compositions despite being originally formed to serve the needs of commercial songwriters. IMRO claims that it only has the best interests of musicians at heart, and within its own circle of logic this is undoubted­ly true. IMRO was formed to champion the cause of commercial compos­ers and songwriters, and feels duty‑bound to extend its reach on the assump­tion that all musical practice is commodity exchange, an assumption founded on the epistemologies of neo‑classical economics.1 To diffuse grow­ing hostility among traditional musicians, and in the shadow of a develop­ing Copyright Bill in the Irish parliament, IMRO recently signed an agreement (1999)2 with the largest voluntary music body in Irish traditional music, Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann, both parties claiming, as a result of the agreement, that the “copyright‑free status of traditional music” has been secured. This does not, however, mean that the fundamental philosophi­cal issues at the heart of the conflict have been resolved, and they will most likely surface again in another form.

As Irish traditional music has increasingly entered the commercial are­na, collectors of traditional songs and tunes, and performers of traditional tunes3 are personally claiming copyright on works presumed to be in the “public domain,”4 Increasingly, however, many new compositions in tra­ditional idioms are assumed to be in the “public domain,” even though the composers can often be sourced, and many of whom are still alive. Usual­ly this is the result of laziness or an unwillingness to source the tune or song. The reluctance of traditional composers to copyright their tunes, thus leav­ing their work vulnerable to piracy, stems from a complex web of social relationships, and a recognition of a “tradition” that incorporates past, present and future generations, and is often simply a case of offering a tune up to the possibility of future anonymity.

A recent study by Carlos Salazar entitled A Sentimental Economy: Commodity and Community in Rural Ireland (1996) states, “We have seen that the farming communities of the west of Ireland are deeply inte­grated into the world market economy, and they undoubtedly participate in the individualistic and profit‑maximizing ethos that characterizes all cap­italist societies, but they still have a substantial sphere of noncommodity transactions” (1996:126). I would argue in no uncertain terms that the same can be said of Irish traditional music and the musicians that practice it. I would go further to suggest that the noncommodity aspect of Irish musi­cal practice, with both its amateur and participatory aspects, is the lifeblood, the “cultural glue” that holds the whole system together.

The Session

Undoubtedly the most popular form of Irish traditional musical activi­ty in public places5 is the “session.”6 Involving at least three people who play jigs, reels, hornpipes, planxties, and so on in heterophonic union, with the odd solo thrown in, this musical practice takes place for the most part in pubs,7 a typical “third space,”8 the site of an obvious cultural lubricant, and also in houses, although those gatherings have more the character of private parties. It has become an extremely widespread phenomenon, al­lowing at best (deliberate moral overtones) the shepherded involvement of younger or less experienced players by older and respected musicians, and is the site of most musical transmission.9 It is the site of focus for a complex system of codes and etiquettes,10 humiliations and value reinforce­ments that are distilled from the wider context of the Irish traditional scene. Many musicians involved in sessions are also professionals,11 many of them full‑time, a number of them most likely members of IMRO, but once embraced by the aura of the session, the hierarchies are of a “traditional” not a commercial nature. As is evident by the paraphrasing below, a por­tion of C. A. Gregory’s analysis of Papua New Guinea is equally applicable to a discussion of the session:

The gift economy of [the Irish instrumental session] has not been destroyed by [commercialism] but has effloresced. The labor‑time devoted to the produc­tion and exchange of things as gifts has risen rather than fallen, a change that has occurred simultaneously with the introduction of [paid sessions, commer­cial recording, and regular concert opportunities]. To understand this process, it is necessary to abandon the concept of dualism which classifies this part of the economy (e.g. urban sector) as “modern,” and that part (e.g. rural sector) as “traditional.” The fact of the matter is that the whole economy is “modern.” The gift exchange practiced in [Irish instrumental session culture] is not a pre­colonial relic but a contemporary response to contemporary conditions …. Economic activity is not a natural form of activity. It is a social act and its meaning must be understood with reference to the social relationships between people in historically specific settings. The essence of the [Irish musical] econ­omy today is ambiguity. A [tune] is now a gift, now a commodity, depending upon the social context of the transaction …. It is because of this ambiguity that the concept of dualism, with its clearly defined traditional sector, must be abandoned. (1982:115)

One of the top traditional musicians in the commercial scene has com­mented to me that there is no greater thrill than hearing one of her own tunes at a session with no‑one knowing who composed it (personal inter­view, 1997). Authorship takes a back seat as a designation of respect and cultural .capital rather than ownership. As another celebrated performer commented to me: “I mean, like, nobody owns the stuff. You can’t own this stuff’ (personal interview, 1999). But “the tune”12 in this situation has been placed in that site of ambiguity mentioned above. For IMRO the tune undoubtedly walks, talks and quacks like a commodity. For the musicians engaged in the session the tune cannot be separated out from the social and historical context of the non‑commodified musical moment, in a pro­cess of forging and acts of personal courage, where “Talent is tested. The self is risked and accomplished. Human power is restrained and focused to make the self a gift to the other, the past a gift to the future. Past and present, internal and external collapse into union” (Glassie 1995:146). There is also the widespread practice, as Gregory has identified in general terms, of de‑commodification, of tunes having been written as commercial, com­modified money‑making “works” with the cow‑bell of copyright draped around their neck, only to be transformed in the context of the session into gifts to be distributed freely among musicians in a context of tradition and community.13

The session conforms readily to the idea of a “gift cycle”: “In a gift cycle the gift is given without contract or agreement about return. And yet it does return; a circulation is set up and can be counted upon”(Hyde 1983:114). The gift is the risk of self, the tunes, the songs, the chat, the shared expe­rience, the history of personal endeavor. As another musician commented: “The music doesn’t belong to anybody, so if somebody’s trying to learn it and you can help them, it’s not yours, so it’s not like you can hold back, because it’s not yours anyway. There have been people who have come to the sessions who have been rude, and I’ve had differences with them. But if somebody is sincere and it seems like they’re trying to tap into the spirit of the music then you have to stretch your hand out to them” (per­sonal interview, 1998).14

Intellectual Property and Commodification

At this stage in history it is almost impossible to separate intellectual property from its role as an instrument of commodification within capital­ist systems (Bettig 1996). In fact, the development of capitalism and intel­lectual property have been concurrent (Rose 1993, Woodmansee and Jas­zi 1994). The appearance in the eighteenth century of things of the mind as transferable articles of property matured simultaneously with the capi­talist system (Jaszi 1992). It could be argued that the application of intel­lectual property in any circumstance assumes the a priori application of capitalism, where the production and distribution of goods depend on in­vested private cultural capital and profit‑making. If this is the case, then unlimited participation in a capitalist system, which seeks by its nature the furthermost penetration of the market, and the unbounded acceptance of intellectual property as a legal solution, impose an unnecessarily individu­alist vision. Ecologist Vandana Shiva has written:

The first restriction of Intellectual Property Rights is the shift from common rights to private rights. This excludes all kinds of knowledge, ideas, and inno­vations that take place in the “intellectual commons” . . . The second restric­tion of Intellectual Property Rights is that they are recognized only when knowl­edge and innovation generate profits, not when they meet social needs …. This immediately excludes all sectors that produce and innovate outside the indus­trial mode of organization of production. Profits and capital accumulation are recognized as the only ends to which creativity should be put. (1993:115)

Recognition that intellectual property is not going to go away15 makes it tempting to just accept that intellectual property is the lesser evil. But unchanged application of intellectual property rights carries profound implications, as Stephen Gudeman rightly points out:

In my view, the use of intellectual property rights on an international scale to compensate nonmarket economies not only raises problematic issues but pre­sents a paradox. Some people would use the legal and monetary entitlements afforded by intellectual property rights to protect and foster the local knowl­edge and innovations of a folk in order to secure global equity and help them preserve community identity. But if intellectual property rights is a property and component of Western capitalism, then abetting its acceptance elsewhere must lead to economic transformation or adoption of the market form ex­actly among those people whom it is said to protect. (1996:104)

Common Property Studies

In The Ecologist magazine of July/August 1992 (Goldsmith et al. 1992), one reads:

Despite its ubiquity, the commons is hard to define. It provides sustenance, security and independence, yet (in what many Westerners feel to be a para­dox) typically does not produce commodities …. Systems of common rights, far from evolving in isolation, often owe their very existence to interaction and struggle between communities and the outside world. It is arguably only in reaction to invasion, dispossession or other threats to accustomed security of access that the concept of common rights emerges.

I have found it useful, in assessing traditional music as it intersects with issues of intellectual property, to turn to Common Property16 Studies. It is widely believed, though not entirely true, that Common Property Studies has primarily developed in response to the 1968 publication of Garrett Har­din’s article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which described the collapse of an unmanaged commons comprised of self‑interested individuals. This literature17 generally distinguishes four property regimes: open access, common property resources, private property, and state property. The two that most concern us here are open access and common property. “Open access is the absence of well‑defined property rights. Access to the resource is unregulated and is free and open to everyone” (Feeny et al. 1998:79).18 Common Property Resources (CPRs) fulfill two criteria. The first is that of non‑excludability, which is well‑illustrated in Douglas Noonan’s example of the Internet, where “excluding users from the Internet is technically impossible or prohibitively expensive” (1998:189). We have only to think of Mark Slobin’s comment that, “A music can suddenly move beyond all its natural boundaries and take on a new existence, as if it has fallen into the fourth dimension” (1993:20).19 The second criterion is that of subtractabil­ity or rivalrous consumption, “the source of the potential divergence between individual and collective rationality” where “each user is capable of subtracting from the welfare of other users” (Feeny et al. 1998:78).20 As Noonan describes it in relation to the Internet, “Too many users can over­load different links in the network chain, reducing the value of other trans­missions congested at that point” (1998:189). Musically speaking we have a number of areas for comparison here.

Firstly, there is the question of musical sound acting in support of a particular value system, within a particular value system. To what extent is the actual musical sound bound up with the values of the community from which it comes? To what extent do the “participatory discrepancies” (Keil and Feld 1994) or the “fuzzy edges” disclose a sonically ordered world­view? The further the music moves from its origin, the less likely that these “extras” will be passed on in transmission. Does it matter? I believe it does.

Secondly, modifying Sahlins’ concept of “kinship distance (1972), the further that music moves from its register of origin, the more likely, it seems, it is to be commodified. This has certainly happened in Irish traditional music, something which certainly changes, if not radically reduces the social value of the music. The question of individuals copyrighting tunes that have been held in common for time immemorial is another site for rivalrous consumption. As Bish writes, “the existence of valuable unowned resources provides an incentive for individuals to try to capture the resource before other potential users can do so”(1998:66). It will be interesting, in further research, to see to what extent Irish traditional music fits the criteria for CPRs,21 and to what extent common property theory can be enriched by studies of traditional transmission.

Where Common Property theory is most useful in the context of copy­right and traditional music is in the identification of the process of “enclo­sure.” We have already seen how a central element of Irish traditional mu­sic is based on an idea of gift, which supports what could be seen as a characteristically non‑commodified common property resource. It would not be too difficult to then see the commodifying processes of neo‑classical eco­nomics, commercialism in music, and of the conceptually‑bound and con­ceptually‑driven agency of the Irish Music Rights Organization as an exam­ple of enclosure in a musical context. In The Ecologist we read, “Enclosure cordons off those aspects of the environment that are deemed “useful” to the encloser . . . . Instead of being a source of multiple benefits, the environ­ment becomes a one‑dimensional asset to be exploited for a single purpose­that purpose reflecting the interests of the encloser, and the priorities of the wider political economy in which the encloser operates” (Goldsmith et al. 1992). Music becomes product, musician becomes producer in the capital­ist process of commodity production.22 Again, Goldsmith at al. write:

Enclosure claims that its own social frame, its language, is a universal norm, an all‑embracing matrix which can assimilate all others. Whatever may be “lost in translation” is supposedly insignificant, undeveloped or inferior to what is gained …. Because they hold themselves to be speaking a universal language, the modern enclosers who work for development agencies and governments feel no qualms in presuming to speak for the enclosed. They assume reflex­ively that they understand their predicament as well as or better than the en­closed do themselves. It is this tacit assumption that legitimizes enclosure in the encloser’s mind‑and it is an assumption that cannot be countered simply by transferring the visible trappings of power from one group to another.

So what are some of the lessons that can be learned from interpreting the practices of Irish traditional music as a common property resource? The threat of the “Tragedy of the (unmanaged) Commons” is undoubtedly a real one. What warning signs are there? John Baden has written that,

Tragedy strikes when self‑interest and social interest diverge . . . a common‑pool resource is a resource for which there are multiple owners (or a number of people who have nonexclusive rights to use the resource) and where one or a set of users can have adverse effects upon the interests of other users. In the situation where there is no agency with the power to coordinate or to ration use, action which is individually rational can be collectively disastrous. This is the central point of the “tragedy of the commons.” (1998:51‑52)

Need we be mindful of the commercially motivated actions of profes­sional Irish “traditional” musicians and the potentially harmful effects of their activity in a time of “communal Prozac”? What Noonan has written of the Internet strikes a number of pertinent echoes when applied to tra­ditional music in an Irish context,

. . . for the Internet to continue creating new value, it must remain robust and functional‑and not fall victim to its commons status. Up to now, the pressures on the Internet infrastructure have been relatively light, but the staggering growth in use leads‑to justifiable concern about “managing the commons.” The Inter­net currently has ingredients for tragedy: open access, rivalrous use, and rising value and decreasing costs of access to users. Limiting access to the Internet is highly problematic because of its abstract, global nature, and open access is in­tegral to the Internet’s character. Infinitesimal marginal costs of use make me­tering use difficult; charging access fees, for instance, is often more costly than the access itself. If nothing changes, some might reasonably expect the Internet to eventually crash …. Avoiding this requires addressing problems of overuse (appropriation) and undermaintenance (provision).” (Noonan 1998:190)

All That Is Not Given Is Lost

The Common Property paradigm clearly enunciates some of the pres­sures that are being brought to bear on the continued practice of Irish
tra­ditional music in its amateur and non‑commodified forms. It also invites us to properly address the underlying complexities in those areas where Slobin’s (1983) “subcultures,” “intercultures,” and “supercultures” intersect, challenging us to dispense with false dualisms:

Our studies . . . do not present themselves as essentially anti‑modern or solely dependent on either private property or community‑controlled commons for their survival. They demand that their worlds be recognized as situated with­in multiple (albeit contradictory) linkages that can be empowering while also running the risk of being exploitative. (Goldman 1998:13)

If the continued commodification of Irish traditional music is allowed to go unchecked, or is even allowed the force of law through the imposition of intellectual property and neighboring rights upon amateur and inherently non‑commodified musicking contexts, then a very precious, and ultimate­ly humanizing domain of gift will be diminished. One of the reasons that processes such as these have gone without opposition or even without clarification for so long is that the value systems are deeply embedded in cultural practice (Bourdieu 1977; Foucault 1990, 1995): “These communi­ties are ruled by a set of rights and obligations that do not have to be ex­plicitly manifest in each particular interaction, since they are taken for grant­ed” (Salazar 1996:151). Silence against political processes that are in no way benign invites dehumanization and suppresses individual responsibility to past, present and future. As Glassie writes, “Silence is not harmless. It brings disengagement. As surely as the evil tongue, silence threatens the destruc­tion of the self and the community” (Glassie 1995:35). This is a question of music as community, community as music, the consolidation of person­al participation. In Glassie’s words, “True communities are built not of dewy affection or ideological purity but of engagement” (Glassie 1995:282).

So, where to from here? Michael Goldman outlines the pessimistic view in Common Property Studies,

On the one hand, we know that capitalism can’t stop. It is a kind of malignan­cy which will keep on devouring new resources even as it undermines the very body . . . upon which it depends. Codes of conduct and voluntary restraint are laughably (or lamentably) inadequate to protect common property resources from capitalist confiscation, because that appropriation allows the cancer to spread for a while longer. This is why the stakes keep rising and the subject of the commons, whether in its local or global form, is now so hotly debated. (Goldman 1998:xiv)

The contexts for musical practice that are untouched by the hand of either competitions, tourism‑oriented showcases, or commercial perfor­mance are becoming few in number. We can seek to re‑evaluate the role of intellectual property as it impacts on Irish traditional music by coming to an understanding, in future work, of what I identify as the “Cultural Commons,” in an attempt to wrest our approaches away from the goods­-based, economic analysis that has until now dominated CPR literature.

We need to be careful not to prescribe cultural activity. We need to assert the contemporary validity of traditional practices as a contemporary response to contemporary conditions. In the words of sociologist Craig Jackson Calhoun, “I shall ask that we go still further beyond the Enlighten­ment’s historicist opposition of tradition to modernity and see tradition as grounded less in the historical past than in everyday social, practice” (1983:888). We need to carefully examine the registers of social interac­tion within which traditional practices occur, for it is here that the keys to transmission will be found. We need to explore the effect of gift, and the effect on gift of market relations. We need to be aware of the human di­mension of intellectual property application, the human dimension of in­dividualist possessiveness, the distancing effects of increasing profession­alization, the drive to convert folklore into spectacle, the change that all of these effect upon relationships, upon community, and ultimately upon the transmission process:

. . . a circulation of gift nourishes those parts of our spirit that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature, the group, the race, or the gods. Fur­thermore, although these wider spirits are a part of us, they are not “ours”; they are endowments bestowed upon us. To feed them by giving away the increase they have brought us is to accept that our participation in them brings with it an obligation to preserve their vitality. When, on the other hand, we reverse the direction of the increase‑when we profit on exchange or convert “one man’s gift to another man’s capital”‑we nourish that part of our being (or our group) which is distinct and separate from others. Negative reciprocity strengthens the spirits‑constructive or destructive‑of individualism and clan­nishness. (Hyde 1983:38)

It is crucial that the legal system, informed by consultative scholarship, recognizes the wealth, the breadth, and, most importantly, the social na­ture of traditional musics and transmission, and that it invites a fair, accu­rate, and proportioned representation of the music and its cultural context. The challenge is to effect a paradigm shift from the dominant folklore‑as­materials to folklore‑as‑practice. The challenge is to find ways to support traditional practices, by legal means, in education and in community action. To quote Calhoun,

During times when the existing order seems deeply threatened. . . such com­munities may find that they can be traditional only by being radical. (Calhoun 1983:911) 

Notes

1. Copyright is the foundation upon which the Music Business rests (Frith, ed. 1993).

2. See the press release at http://www.imro.ie/Old News/1999/comh.html.
Also http://www.imro.ie/Old_News/1999/Comhaltas2.htm1.

3. At the present time in Ireland a musician is allowed to garner 100% performance or mechanical royalties for the fixation of an “arrangement” of a traditional tune. However, there is no definition available that clarifies exactly what a “traditional” tune is. Most people assume that traditional means that the tune was composed by someone, but that no one knows who, that it is an anonymous composition. This equating of “anonymous” with “traditional” is the position of the Irish Music Rights Organization. Many people, assuming that traditional is a marker of genre, think that anything that sounds “traditional” is therefore anonymous and that they can get full royalties.

4. “Public domain” is a concept that stems from the construction of copyright, and is that space that is left over after all else has been parsed out. Anything that is not in copyright is regarded as “public domain,” effectively infinity minus copyright. However, “public domain” is synonymous with uninhibited exploitation of the music or song, and it reinforces the anon­ymous/authored dichotomy. Not only is a piece that sounds traditional often assumed to be of unknown origin, but it is therefore assumed to be open to all for free and unbridled ex­ploitation. In musical practice ‘public domain’ is inadequate, logically enough, as copyright, the foil of “public domain,” has also proved so. In real terms, traditional Irish musical prac­tice has not been open access, bounded as it is by customary norms that regulate and control the entry requirements for community participation, the repertoire content, and the internal hierarchical dynamics, among other things. Participation in the resource‑as‑community is earned by personal face‑to‑face investment of time and self in negotiation with others. For a further discussion of “public domain” see Litman (1990), Frow (1997), and Boyle (1996).

5. “In effect, public spaces help provide the glue for genuine community. Not only do they provide a form of refuge for community members and link them together in informal, relaxed settings, but the public spaces, if carefully situated, physically and symbolically link people together. When public spaces function effectively, they overlap and reinforce the patterns of interaction that occur in the broader community and help define community boundaries”(Freie 1998:59).

6. See Fairbairn (1993).

7. See Malcolm (1998).

8. “Third Spaces, as discussed by Oldenburg (1989), are simply the informal gathering places for people beyond the family and work. They include cafes, pubs, corner stores, pool halls, coffee shops, barbershops, parks, and other hangouts. They are oriented primarily for conversation and free play. They have been typically modest, inexpensive and small, where people met spontaneously to entertain each other without hidden agendas or clearly defined purposes” (Freie 1998:50).

9. The following description of musical practice from Green and Pickering’s article “The Cartography of the Vernacular Milieu” (1987) could easily have been written about the “ses­sion”; . . . performance occurs in small groups and . . . is rooted in shared, immediate, ev­eryday experience. Within the group it can be said that ‘all members know each other, are aware of their common membership, share the same values, have a certain structure of rela­tionships that is stable over time, and interact to achieve some purpose.’ Members of such groups today are of course more articulated and orientated to other external social and cul­tural frameworks of reference than ever before, and this must not be forgotten. Conversely, the decline of the family and community in social life has augmented the value of their sym­bolic celebration. So far as the group’s own dynamics are concerned, the cultural and aes­thetic mode we are discussing differs from mass communication in the following major ways. It is generally two‑way and participatory; it is usually confined to amateur performance, and where professionalism is involved it is generally at a low economic level; it is situation‑specific and contextually local as a communicative event and process, and therefore its impact is only on those involved who at the time of the event . . . bear a low relation to industrial and busi­ness structures; it involves little technological equipment and little division of labor; and as we have already indicated, it gives very low priority to the extraction of surplus value from the labor of its performance. That labor is unproductive in terms of market structures and relations, and thus holds a valid potentiality, at least, of subverting or reversing the alienation of the commodity form” (4).

10. “It’s a painfully familiar scenario: newly returned from one of the music’s distant hot spots, afire with enthusiasm over the brilliant playing you heard there, you make your way to your local session venue on the usual night, determined to give the listeners a serenading they won’t soon forget. But how quickly your mood changes! Within the first ten minutes it be­comes clear that something is amiss. Is it the quality of the playing? Possibly. But that’s only part of the problem. The rest lies in the nature of the session itself. It’s not flowing, it’s not breathing, it has no inner logic or natural momentum. It isn’t bringing out the best in the musicians, nor is it particularly pleasing the listeners.

“This is the moment when you realize that the seeming offhandedness and impromptu grace of a good session are no accident, and that a sense of how to conduct one‑and how to conduct yourself at one‑is not something you’re born with after all, your Irish surname notwithstanding. The fact is, these things must be learned, either by example or by outright instruction”(Foy 1999:10).

11. For a brief discussion of the ambiguities thrown up by professional and amateur sta­tus see Ruth Finnegan (1989).

12. A “tune” here is to be seen as a “complex of features,” a term more commonly used to speak of words, as composite representations of five classes of information: graphic, pho­nological, orthographic, semantic, and syntactic (Gibson and Levin 1975:194). Within the tune, and the word, I would also identify social context and self‑knowledge as feature‑variables, among many others.

13. In fact, to talk of the domain of gift in the context of the writings of Mauss, Sahlins, Strathern, and many more, is to assume the presence of reciprocation. I am attracted, how­ever, in the Irish context, to an article by social anthropologist James Woodburn entitled, “‘Sharing is not a form of exchange’: an analysis of property‑sharing in immediate return hunter­gatherer societies” (1998). In this article Woodburn outlines the sharing practices of the Hadza, which can be transposed fairly successfully into the Irish context. Sharing, as John Price has written, is “the most universal form of human economic behaviour, distinct from and more fundamental than reciprocity” (Cited in Woodburn 1998:50). For Woodburn,

[T]o treat this type of sharing as a form of exchange or reciprocity seriously distorts our understanding of what is going on …. My argument is that to treat such sharing as a form of exchange or reciprocity is inappropriate when donation is obligatory and is discon­nected from the right to receive. To describe such sharing as exchange or reciprocity does not accord with local ideology or local practice among the Hadza and most other hunter-gathering societies with immediate return systems. (1998:50)

Although space does not allow me to elaborate on this point, I hold that the Irish context of musical transmission works very much along the lines of “sharing” as opposed to “reciproca­tion.” An indepth analysis of the ceiling practices in Glassie (1995) would bear this out.

“Sharing here is, as we have seen, not a form of exchange. We must correct our models. Some societies operate with both ideologies and practices which repudiate reciproca­tion. It makes no sense to construct analyses of human social life which are based implicitly or explicitly on the notion of a universal necessity to reciprocate. Of course in day-to-day interaction Hadza do at times reciprocate. They show affection to those who show affection to them. They help those who help them. They are friendly to those who are friendly to them. But in their use of food and of other property, the expected be­havior is nonreciprocal sharing.” (Woodburn 1998: 61)

14. It is also a context that fits into Appadurai’s description of a “tournament of value”: “Tournaments of value are complex periodic events that are removed in some culturally well-defined way from the routines of economic life. Participation in them is likely to be both a privilege of those in power and an instrument of status contests between them. The cur­rency of such tournaments is also likely to be set apart through well-understood cultural dia­critics. Finally, what is at issue in such tournaments is not just status, rank, fame, or reputation of actors, but the disposition of the central tokens of value in the society in question. Finally, though such tournaments of value occur in special times and places, their forms and outcomes are always consequential for the more mundane realities of power and value in ordinary life” (Appadurai 1988:21).

15. “The institution of copyright is of course deeply rooted in our economic system and much of our economy does in turn depend on intellectual property. But, no less important, copyright is deeply rooted in our conception of ourselves as individuals with at least a mod­est grade of singularity, some degree of personality. And it is associated with our sense of privacy and our conviction, at least in theory, that it is essential to limit the power of the state. We are not ready, I think, to give up the sense of who we are” (Rose 1994:142).

16. In dealing with the concept of property I would follow C. M. Hann in saying that, “I argue that the focus on property must not be restricted to the formal legal codes which play a major role in our own society, but must be broadened to include the institutional and cul­tural contexts within which such codes operate. The concept of property has greater salience in capitalist society, but it can never be disembedded from these contexts. There is no anach­ronism in studying property relations in other forms of society where the economic and le­gal systems are very different. If we adopt a broad analytic concept of property in terms of the distribution of social entitlements, then it can be investigated anywhere in time and space” (Hann 1998:7).

17. “For the most part the conceptual analysis of the commons (also described as com­mon property resources, common pool resources and CPRs) has concentrated on the univer­sal principles, conditions or rules that characterise successful regimes and institutions (Ostrom 1990; Bromley 1993; Wade 1987; McGinnis and Ostrom 1993). In the process the analysis has largely circumvented the implications of internal differentiation or asymmetry including the plurality of beliefs, norms and interests involved in interactions between resource users, the effects of complex variations in culture and society, as well as wider aspects of social, polit­ical and economic conflict relating to the commons”(Prakash 1998:168). The vast majority of the literature in this field can be accessed via the International Association for the Study of Common Property, based at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, http://www.indiana.edu/‑iascp. I am grateful to participants of the workshop for their assistance in this work.

18. Already we can see that the description of an open access system pretty much con­forms to the general understanding of the free-for-all concept that embraces the public domain. As has been stated in the literature on the commons, “Many of the misunderstandings found in the literature may be traced to the assumption that common property is the same as open access” (Feeny et al. 1998:79).

19. I would like to make it clear at this point that for me the resource in question may not be “tunes” or “musical works” but the musicking, the amateur, non-commodified musical practice. Speaking of music in terms of a “resource” at all may not be appropriate.

20. “Hence, we define common-property resources as a class of resources for which exclusion is difficult and joint use involves subtractabillty” (Berkes et al. 1989:91).

21. It has been suggested to me that Public Goods might be a better model to use for these purposes.

22. Interestingly, C. A. Gregory (1982) comments that Political Economy, and not neo­classical Economics, is the only field in which we can properly analyze concepts of Gift and Commodity, while Jacques Attali (1985) comments that Political Economy is inadequate when dealing with music.

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A Tale of Two Rivers: Riverdance, A River of Sound, and the Ambiguities of “Tradition”.

Anthony McCann. 2010. “A Tale of Two Rivers: Riverdance, A River of Sound, and the Ambiguities of “Tradition”.” Ethnologie Française 41:323-341.

ABSTRACT

In the mid-nineties in Ireland, the terms “tradition” and “traditional” became public fulcrums for contention, debate, and conflict. At the heart of this were two media events: Riverdance, a broadway-style dance production based on “Irish traditional dancing”, and A River of Sound, a seven-part television series, that offered an overview of “Irish traditional music”. In both Riverdance and A River of Sound, “tradition” became merely an expedient notion, in two clear senses. First, the concept of  “tradition” offered a contrasting foil against which people could claim superior status as transgressive, innovative, modern, creative purveyors of discontinuity and distinction; second, the concept of “tradition” also became a way for people to legitimate their activities in rhetorics of continuity and community. What was important in each case was not that “tradition” had a clear and stable meaning, but that the concept fulfilled a rhetorical function.

 

A Tale of Two Rivers: Riverdance, A River of Sound, and the Ambiguities of “Tradition.”

A Tale of Two Rivers

In the mid-nineties in Ireland, the terms “tradition” and “traditional” became notoriously public fulcrums for debate, and at times even vicious conflict, at least where music was concerned. This period heralded what BBC’s head of music programmes dubbed an “uncivil war for the soul of Irish music” [MacRory, 1995 : 8]. At the heart of the storm were two media events: the dance show Riverdance, which first exploded into consciousness in 1994, and A River of Sound, a seven-part television series, first broadcast in 1995.

Riverdance

The most internationally-famous catalyst for debate about “tradition” in Ireland in the mid-1990s was Riverdance. On the 30th April, 1994, the seven-minute interval entertainment for the Eurovision Song Contest stole the show. It was watched by an estimated 300 million viewers.[i] The impact of Riverdance was enormous, and has been documented elsewhere [e.g., Wulff, 2007; Ó Cinnéide, 2002]. Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole wrote that: “It became customary to talk of Riverdance as an act of reclamation, a taking-back for popular entertainment of a form that had been prettified and stultified” [O’Toole, 1996 : 149]. There were at least three ways in which Riverdance could be seen in this light: first, as transgression against rigid ideologies of cultural nationalism; second, as an act of transgression against rigid sexual mores in Ireland; third, as transgression against “tradition”.

The latter part of the 19th century saw the rise of a distinctly cultural, rather than political, nationalism in Ireland. In sport, music, and song, highly-regulated and regulating forms of bodily practice came to be designated as symbols of a pure Irish national identity (usually meaning ‘not-English’). This also happened in dance.  From local dancing classes to All-Ireland and World competitions, organisations such as the Irish Dancing Commission established complex regimes of authority, authenticity, and control throughout the twentieth century [see Wulff, 2005, 2007; Hall, 2008; Brennan, 1999]. These came to be symbolically represented by the caricature of stiff-backed, stiff-armed dancers with rapid-fire footwork.

Riverdance enacted a clear challenge to the embodied disciplines of cultural nationalism in Irish dance. For most Irish people, from the moment lead dancer-choreographer Michael Flatley leapt to the stage from the wings, the performance of Riverdance presented something radically new and distinct.  Riverdance’s visual legacy was provided by the iconic “eighty-strong chorus-line of Irish dancers liberated from the constraining folk uniforms and rigid upper body posture of traditional dance” [N. O’Connor, 1999 : 171]. Even with the regimentation of the chorus-line, Riverdance was indeed seen by many as liberation, as a triumphant act of transgression against the confines and constrictions of perceived atavism and moral conservatism.

Challenging the strictures of cultural-nationalist bodily prescription in dance could also be an act of transgression against strictures of sexual morality. Throughout the twentieth century, life in the Republic of Ireland was lived within a complex nexus of Catholic Church, State prescription, sexual morality, and cultural nationalism, whereby moral purity was, for many, inscribed into the project of national identity formation [Smith, 2004; Ferriter, 2009].

Riverdance served as a catalyst for at least symbolic transgression. The producers of the show didn’t shy away from suggestions that Riverdance was just plain sexy, claiming: “Of all the performances to emerge from Ireland in the past decade – in rock, music, theatre and film, nothing has carried the energy, the sensuality and the spectacle of Riverdance – The Show” [Riverdance Press Pack, 1995]. Choreography and costume for Jean Butler, the female lead, conformed readily to the standard expectations of a feminine role within the cultural-nationalist imaginary – pretty, delicate, twirly, balletic. What was different, though, was that Jean Butler and the other female dancers were dressed to be feminine and sexy; poise and balance, leg and lace. The male dancers got leave to perform as masculine and sexy; strength and vigour, control and speed. So what if the binaries of gender and sexuality within cultural nationalism in Ireland were barely touched; with Riverdance eroticism was raised from the shadows of cultural nationalism to take centre-stage.

Riverdance also became a catalyst for statements about “tradition”. The most blatant and oft-quoted claim in this regard was made by the producer, Moya Doherty: “I wanted to show a modern image of Ireland … not the green pastures. Irish dance is frozen in tradition, and I thought it’s time to thaw it out” [quoted in Duffy, 1996]. With this, the producers of Riverdance placed themselves among the transgressive champions of modernity, modernisation, and urbanity, distinguishing themselves as the sun of enlightenment in the face of undesirable tradition. Yet, the producers also spoke of the show as “drawing on Irish traditions, the combined talents of the performers propel Irish dancing and music into the present day giving it a relevance, which captures the imagination of audiences across all ages and divides” [Riverdance Press Pack, 1995]. So, Riverdance directly challenges tradition, and draws on tradition. To confuse things further, there was also some degree to which Riverdance was itself presented as traditional, as Adrian Scahill has noted [Scahill, 2009 : 70].

The rhetoric that placed Riverdance in an antagonistic relationship with “tradition” seems to have come largely from the show’s producers, from journalists, and, latterly, from academics [e.g., Flannery, 2009]. The level of popular engagement with such antagonism seems minimal.  As was noted at the time, “Riverdance brought a flush of pride and admiration from most musicians, and at worst a shrug of the shoulders from the rest” [Crosbhealach/Crossroads, 1996].

Riverdance drew the limelight, but failed to establish clear terms for debate about “tradition” – it was a song and dance show, not an academic treatise. In discussions about Riverdance, “tradition” became little more than a rhetorical cypher with which people could position themselves with elevated status in an intensely commodifying field, whether in contrast to “tradition” as a negative foil to validate a politics of transgression, or by using “tradition” as a badge of legitimation in contexts where that might prove useful. Either way, the discursive field had been primed.

 

A River of Sound

The seven-part series A River of Sound [AROS 1995], was produced by Philip King’s Hummingbird Productions, and broadcast at prime-time in Britain, Ireland, and in a shortened version in the United States. An unprecedentedly well-produced series of programmes, it focused on the genre of “Irish traditional music”. Music professor, composer, and pianist Ó Súilleabháin wrote and presented the series (in collaboration with Philip King and Nuala O’Connor), lending it an air of academic authority.

A River of Sound was part documentary, part academic lecture, part music video. It seemed to provide a straightforward introduction to the genre, musicians, and singers of Irish traditional music. It also foregrounded a small group of experimental musicians. The message seemed to be that these musicians, rooted in tradition but moving beyond it, were stretching the boundaries of the art, leading a latter-day avant garde movement in Irish traditional music, under the symbolic leadership of Ó Súilleabháin himself. As if to reinforce this, the series also showcased Ó Súilleabháin’s own compositions in a series of set-piece performances, built around his roles as conductor and pianist.

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin used two water metaphors to explain how he himself made sense of the series. The first and most obvious one was the metaphor of the river, which ran as follows: the young experimental musicians are at the head of a river of sound which is the river of tradition which is the river of Irish traditional music. The second was the metaphor of the “Third Stream”, drawn from the jazz writings of Gunther Schüller, such that: the young experimental musicians are on a different course that veers off the mainstreams of Irish traditional music and jazz to form a new river of their own.

The source for the structuring metaphor of the river in A River of Sound is found in the work of Ó Súilleabháin’s teacher, composer Seán Ó Riada. Ó Riada was one of the key figures in the commercial and professional development of the genre of Irish traditional music in the 1950s and 1960s [O’Shea, 2005, 2008]. Ó Súilleabháin made it clear [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995] that the river metaphor in A River of Sound was a direct reference to radio lectures that Ó Riada presented on Raidio Éireann in 1962 entitled Our Musical Heritage [Ó Riada, 1982]. In the introduction Ó Riada states: “You might compare the progress of tradition in Ireland to the flow of a river. Foreign bodies may fall in, or be dropped in, or thrown in, but they do not divert the course of the river, nor do they stop it flowing; it absorbs them, carrying them with it as it flows onwards” [Ó Riada, 1982 : 19-20]. Operating within a nativist, nationalist paradigm that privileged Irish distinctiveness and maybe even Gaelic purity [see O’Shea, 2005 : 1], Ó Riada’s river of tradition flowed with a current that was clear and strong.

Ó Súilleabháin stretched the metaphor of the river further than Ó Riada, pushing it to become more of an analogy, around which A River of Sound was constructed. He outlined the analogy at the 1995 Ó Riada Memorial Conference:

“… the origins of a music are equated with the river’s source; the containment within the riverbanks represents the identity of tradition; the ability of the river to manoeuvre through the contours of the countryside is akin to music’s engagement with non-musical forces amidst social history; the force of the current at different times and places relates to the rate of change manifested at different points in time; the ability of the river to take foreign objects without disturbing its flow reminds us of the process of acculturation, …. And the final moment, when the river flows through the estuary into the ocean, represents, at least in the series A River of Sound, the present process of Irish Traditional Music entering the arena of the emerging idea of World Music” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995].

This appeal to the riverness of tradition left Ó Súilleabháin with at least one narrative thread in A River of Sound that clearly championed an avant-garde in Irish traditional music. This came about because of two clear consequences of the river analogy: first, the presentation of “Irish traditional music” as a unified (though not necessarily homogenous) imaginary whole, and, second, the subsequent placing of “Irish traditional music” within a linear historicity, that fostered and facilitated hopes and fears about the future of the music.

“Tradition”

A River of Sound provided a forum for many voices. The clearest statement in A River of Sound on “tradition” is offered by Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin. Carolan talks about the “tightrope that traditional music walks … between tradition, receiving what you got from the past and adhering to it exactly as you received it, and innovation, taking in new influences that come to you as a person in your time, and that no ancestor of yours, no father, no grandfather, ever received” [AROS, 1995]. Many others use the term “tradition” in the series, but no one else says what they mean. The viewer is left to work it out on the basis of context and implication.

Of all participants in the series, ironically Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin makes it least clear what he understands by “tradition”. For Ó Súilleabháin, the term “tradition” seems to act as a cypher, an emptied category. At no point does he say what he means by the term, but often uses it declaratively, as though the meaning could be assumed as a taken-for-granted given. For example: “Tradition may come out of the past, but it’s in the here and now that tradition exists, and as long as that continues, traditional music will always be a contemporary music” [AROS, 1995]. Without discussion about the meaning (or meanings) of “tradition”, this last statement mystifies and obfuscates. Ó Súilleabháin’s role as declarative narrator and his role as recognised academic make it easy, however, to assume that a meaning has been imputed.

“The Tradition”

There is a more definite sense in which the term “tradition” is used in A River of Sound. Psychologist and broadcaster Maureen Gaffney is the first of those interviewed to use a definite article, “the tradition”, referring, it seems, to an overarching genre classification that includes music, song, and dance: “I was always very struck by performers, that when people would sing a song, I think that’s the part of the music that I like the most, the part of the tradition that I like the most, they would always say where they got it from” [AROS, 1995]. Harmonica player Brendan Power also uses the definite article, but for him “the tradition” seems to mean a canon of style and a body of tunes: “My main interest … is to learn the traditional tunes, … the ones that I like, on the harmonica, but also to compose new tunes that fit into the tradition, but come out of the harmonica and maybe bring some of the influences that I’ve assimilated along the way, so, I try and make new music that still sounds Irish but has also got something different about it” [AROS, op.cit.].

There is a sense in Brendan Power’s statement that “the tradition” refers to a way of sounding, a characteristic set of sonic genre markers, a way of playing an instrument. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin sometimes uses the term in this way: “And this came out of an instrument that wasn’t traditional. I began to realise for the first time that between the written note and the sound was where the tradition flowed. And I also began to appreciate that perhaps if I listened to that sound carefully I could begin to construct a traditional way of playing on the piano keyboard” [AROS, op.cit.]. Fiddle player Eileen Ivers also speaks of “the tradition” in these terms of performance style and technique: “I feel very strongly like the real way to get into Irish traditional music is learning the tradition. You can’t come in from outside. You have to understand the rhythm of it, and the simplicity of it, of that rhythm, without putting in all these ornaments, without getting too fancy too quickly” [AROS, op.cit.].

There is a confidence within the series, from many voices, that there is such a thing as “the tradition”, a confidence that there is an assumed, stable, and shared meaning. Musicians and academics commonly refer to whatever is meant by “Irish traditional music” as “the tradition”. It is perhaps a confidence trick. In Dan Ben-Amos’ 1984 article, “The Seven Strands of ‘Tradition’,” Ben-Amos cites folklorist Edward Ives, who says that “Students of folksongs have been talking about “the tradition” and how songs either “entered” it, were “altered” by it, or perhaps “rejected” by it for so long and with such confidence that we have come to think of it as something that’s really there, when of course it is nothing but a convenient abstraction” [Ben-Amos, 1984 : 106]. It is also one which undermines critical analysis in Irish traditional music studies, leaving uninterrogated the dubious notion of a singular, indivisible entity as the primary object of discussion and analysis.

Cultural critics in the field of Irish Studies speak openly about “the Irish Tradition”. Claire Connolly has noted that it remains very unusual for academics “to conceptualise a postcolonial Ireland which does not have the singular and indivisible Irish nation as its terminus” [Connolly, 2001 : 308].  I would suggest that A River of Sound similarly relies for much of its effect on the uninterrogated structuring assumptions of a quite orthodox nationalism.

This might seem a little incongruous. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin publicly positioned himself as “post-nationalist”.[ii] The choice of people interviewed within A River of Sound echoes Ó Súilleabháin’s leanings – many of the musicians and singers included in the series aren’t obviously Irish, coming from places like the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, in a clear gesture towards a broad sense of identity within the communities of the so-called Irish diaspora. However, Helen O’Shea’s words ring a note of caution: “Implicit in … popular accounts of the musical achievements of Irish emigrants … is the assumption that, despite geographical dislocation and musical innovation, an essential Irishness remains intact, in both music and musicians” [O’Shea, 2005 : 21-22].

Although not explicit, and at times even disavowed, I would suggest that much of the symbolic power of the river analogy in A River of Sound derives from what I think of as a “phantom nationalism”. When a phantom limb persists in the wake of amputation; the effect of the limb remains as real as ever. To draw a more musical analogy, sometimes singers of unaccompanied song who are used to singing with guitar accompaniment effect a regular rhythm and sporadic breathing style, as if the guitar were still there. This would be regarded by many as stylistically inappropriate for the genre of unaccompanied singing, known more for its free rhythm and steady breathing. Some people have started referring to this as the “phantom guitar” effect. The guitar is not there, but the regularising effects of the guitar persist.

This operates in a very simple way – “the tradition” is frequently used as a direct synonym for the phrase “Irish traditional music” (my emphasis), which clearly relies on at least rudimentary assumptions about national identity and identification. “The tradition”, in this context, arguably always refers to “the (Irish) Tradition”. Of course, the metaphor-analogy of the singular river also does nothing to challenge and plenty to reinforce the singular imaginary of the nation, especially given its source in Ó Riada’s nativist nationalism. The Irish Nation arguably persists as the silent partner of the river-as-tradition analogy. The distinction between abstracted “tradition” and the definite imaginary of “the tradition” is never explained or explored, but it’s a crucial distinction. The notion of “the tradition” is, for me, the key that unlocks the avant-garde narrative that structures A River of Sound.

“Third Stream” or Avant-Garde?

At the Seán Ó Riada Memorial Conference at University College, Cork, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin suggested that “we were seeing the fragmentation of the tradition into three voices” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. The first voice was the mainstream tradition, “a communal tradition par excellence”. The second voice was the popular commercial Irish traditional music forms of the 60s and 70s, which, for Ó Súilleabháin, remained “terribly conservative in their structural elements all the time”. The third voice, a “Third Stream”, was the emergence of a new genre in which musicians were seeking to stretch and even break the musical structures of “the tradition” in a spirit of investigation.

Ó Súilleabháin acknowledged that he had drawn the term “Third Stream” from jazz. The term comes from the work of Gunther Schüller. For Schüller, jazz and classical music constituted “long, separate traditions that many people want to keep separate and sacred” [Schüller, 1986 : 115]. He was keen to recognise the right of musicians to preserve the “idiomatic purity” of both traditions. He was also interested in establishing a “new genre” that attempted to fuse “the improvisational spontaneity and rhythmic vitality of jazz with the compositional procedures and techniques acquired in Western music during 700 years of musical development” [Schüller, op.cit. : 115]. What was crucial for Schüller, though, was that this new genre, this “Third Stream”, was conceptualised as a separate development, an experiment whereby “the other two mainstreams could go their way unaffected by attempts at fusion” [Schüller, op.cit. : 115]. Another important dimension of the “third stream” concept was that it sought “to embrace, at least potentially, all the world’s ethnic, vernacular, and folk music. It is a non-traditional music which exemplifies cultural pluralism and personal freedom” [Schüller, op.cit. : 120].

Ó Súilleabháin explicitly claimed to be at ease with Schüller’s sense of “Third Stream”. Ó Súilleabháin used the term to refer to a growing number of increasingly experimental young musicians coming from the contexts and communities of “Irish traditional music”. Many of them were registered as students in university campuses, and had been taught by Ó Súilleabháin, or by students of Ó Súilleabháin. Their experimentation involved exploration of other sounds and genres from around the world, in a classic “fusion” approach, echoing the values of global pluralism and personal freedom that Schüller had championed.

The quintessential musical hero of Ó Súilleabháin’s “Third Stream” was fiddle player Tommy Potts (1912-1988). From the working-class neighbourhood of the Coombe in Dublin city, Tommy Potts worked at various times as a plumber, a fireman, and a rent collector. By all accounts an introverted and isolated musician, Tommy Potts’ frustration with regularity, and a desire for what he called “development”, led him to explore alternative structurings of dance tunes, and to incorporate intertextual borrowings from other genres (see Ó Súilleabháin, 1999). Potts recorded his explorations on a series of “experimental tapes”.[iii]

Ó Súilleabháin has, more than anyone, promoted Potts as a radical cause célèbre, a prophetic musical voice. Potts was, in his view: “a rare genius, the ultimate subversive agent, he dismantled Irish traditional music from inside” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. But there is a confusion at the heart of Ó Súilleabháin’s re-presentation of Tommy Potts. He presents two versions of the prophecised future, establishing a tension which highlights the confusions at the heart of A River of Sound.

In one version, Tommy Potts is presented as the precursor, if not originator, of Ó Súilleabháin’s “Third Stream”, the forerunner of a musical tradition distinct and separate from Irish traditional music, running parallel to “the tradition”. Ó Súilleabháin stated in 1995, for example, that “Potts generated the philosophical and psychological possibility for the emergence of … the Third Stream” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. In the other version, within the river analogy, Tommy Potts is reframed as an avant-garde hero of “the tradition” who “moved the music from its communal base to one of individualism” [Ó Súilleabháin, op.cit. : 177]. In a piece written during the production of A River of Sound, Ó Súilleabháin places Potts as the latest in a line of heroic Irish musical avant-garde iconoclasts over the last three centuries [Ó Súilleabháin, 1994]. In this light, he represents for Ó Súilleabháin the historicist futurity of the avant-garde, an exemplar of “innovation”.

A New World of Sound

Rivers start somewhere and go somewhere. This linear structure supports the avant-garde narrative of A River of Sound; the river becomes an analogy for “Irish traditional music” and “the tradition”. The “Third Stream” musicians were actually at the head of the river, navigating in the spirit of Tommy Potts. To leave us in no doubt that the direction of the entire “tradition” was in question, A River of Sound was subtitled “The Changing Course of Irish Traditional Music”. No longer were these musicians just experimental and academically inclined – now they were the future of the music, leaving the past behind in the wake of their transgressions. As Ó Súilleabháin addressed the camera: “this is a time of great transition for traditional music. Out of an old world, a new world of sound is being formed.” [AROS, 1995].

What was this “new world of sound” to be like? In the commercial video release of A River of Sound, edited down to 86 minutes, the answer was made clear by an edit that was not present in the original series [AROS video, 1995]. As Ó Súilleabháin speaks the words “a new world of sound is being formed”, the camera cuts to the performance of the titular musical composition, “A River of Sound”. Composed by Ó Súilleabháin and Donal Lunny, this is the symbolic core of the series from the point of view of performance, and its summary statement in terms of narrative, appearing in the final episode. Its eleven minutes and eight seconds make it at least seven minutes longer than the average time allotted to other musical pieces in the series.[iv]

African Kora players, a man and child, are silhouetted; a Kora is lightly plucked, then both accelerate into a steady rhythm around a central melody. The camera fades to show fiddle player and violinist Nollaig Casey who picks up the melody, which starts to take colours of Irish melodies with a classical music feel. The picture fades to members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra. Harpist Laoise Kelly takes up the role of the Kora players in the melody, and Casey and Kelly are joined by Brendan Power on harmonica, Evelyn Glennie on xylophone, Kenneth Edge on Saxophone, Mel Mercier and Frank Torpey on bodhráns, as well as co-composers Lunny, on bouzouki and bodhrán, and Ó Súilleabháin, on piano and harpsichord. The melody provides a repetitive groove around which the players improvise with a light jazz feel. The piece ends with the plaintive singing of the African child playing gently on the Kora.

Ó Súilleabháin explained the import of the piece: “As part of the final programme of the television series A River of Sound, Donal Lunny and myself co-composed an instrumental piece that was supposed to have represented in some way a personal view of the river of traditional music meeting the ocean of world music” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. In a magazine interview, Ó Súilleabháin commented: “I had a poetic notion of a traditional river going into a river of globalisation, estuary and source, etc. It was a mythological thing” [Clayton-Lea, 1995].

The composition “A River of Sound” becomes, in the words of the inlay card of the CD, “a piece of music which signals the position of Irish traditional music as it enters into its third millenium” [AROS (CD), 1995]. These players and this piece are explicitly offered as the representation of the present, or indeed future, of Irish traditional music; commercial and academic performers, performing a newly-composed piece written in a “fusion” genre. That which might have been considered marginal becomes central; that which might have been considered apocryphal becomes representative. Irish traditional music becomes part of the great global sea.

When Ó Súilleabháin first suggested the “Third Stream” notion at the Ó Riada Conference, A River of Sound had already been broadcast. This is important, because if the “Third Stream” had been a foregrounded narrative in A River of Sound, outlining a separatist and somewhat marginal development within Irish traditional music, it would have caused little controversy. Without it, A River of Sound can easily be understood as both a vehicle for avant-gardist claims and as a showcase for Ó Súilleabháin himself, both ushered in under the auspices of a general introduction to the genre of “Irish traditional music”. It is little wonder that A River of Sound caused consternation.

A River of Sound and Fury

As one critic expressed it, A River of Sound “[bred] a disquieting air of confusion and uncertainty as to the future of Irish traditional music” [Corr, 1995]. Many people across Ireland were hurt and angered by the disconnect between what they felt “Irish traditional music” was all about, and what they were seeing represented as “the tradition” in A River of Sound. Some were angered at the suggestion that the experimental musicians highlighted in the series were allegedly to be the future of Irish traditional music. Some felt that this not only showed a lack of respect for older musicians, but for the generations and generations of (mostly unpaid) musicians that had gone before, and to whom the musical “tradition” owed its existence.

In an infamous audience discussion at the end of a The Late Late Show pre-broadcast special to launch A River of Sound, RTÉ producer and musician Tony MacMahon voiced concerns about the series, and about the central “River of Sound” composition. He was shouted down by other audience members. Following the controversy of The Late Late Show, Tony MacMahon received 168 letters and phonecalls from musicians all over the country:

“What really struck me about the tone and content of these letters and phone calls was their frustration, anger and upset. They expressed various degrees of sadness at changes that are taking place in the performance and interpretation of traditional music today, they expressed anger at what they saw as the selling of these changes to impressionable young musicians, they expressed frustration at the media ….” [Mac Mahon, 1999 : 115].

“Tradition and Innovation”

In response to A River of Sound, many took a defensive position in which a clear definition of “tradition” or “traditional” was now required as what they felt the music meant to them was under threat. For many, discursive representation of what they might mean by “tradition” was now necessitated in the face of widely-distributed misrepresentation. Journalist Tom McGurk put it succinctly in his review of A River of Sound: “While it doesn’t matter what you call it, it does matter what it is supposed to mean” [McGurk, 1995 : 25]. People who were more interested in the non-commercial contexts, communities, and relationships of “Irish traditional music” could and did express what was important to them in and through conversation, among themselves. But most had no recourse to (or, perhaps, no desire for) a media-savvy or academically-validated discourse to represent their interests. This left many with little option but to fall back on emotionally- and ideologically-charged understandings of “tradition” and “traditional”, which had often been tempered by years of rigid cultural nationalism and atavistic morality, as mentioned above.

Ó Súilleabháin offered a confusion of narratives in A River of Sound. Widespread resistance to the avant-gardism of at least one of those narratives primed conversations to slide into the binary terms of an antagonistic “tradition and innovation” debate. It would be easy to see the controversies in terms of a binary opposition between “tradition” and “innovation”, as merely a struggle between traditionalists and innovators [e.g., Moriarty, 1995]. This dichotomy makes little sense, though, without the avant-garde rhetoric which Ó Súilleabháin embedded within A River of Sound. It was an oppositional framework which Ó Súilleabháin was keen to encourage: “The response which the series evoked in some quarters was a direct challenge by the traditional side of the equation to the innovation side”[Ó Súilleabháin, 1999 : 197].

Within the Irish context of the mid-nineties, discourses of “tradition” and “innovation” came to presuppose each other analytically within the circular formulations of the “uncivil war for the soul of Irish music”. “Innovation”, for Ó Súilleabháin, clearly meant university-based, experimental performance practice. Ó Súilleabháin notably used the term “campus-trad” as a synonym for “Third Stream” at the Ó Riada Conference in 1995. The “tradition and innovation” dichotomy, in Ó Súilleabháin’s hands, thus became a vehicle for narratives of modernisation, globalisation, and academicisation, premised, of course, on the eternal victory of “innovation”.

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin stated in A River of Sound that “The story of traditional music will always be told by the musicians themselves” [AROS, 1995], while narrating a particular version of that story from a position of academic and media privilege that undermined such a declaration. The critical response to the series indicated that many musicians felt there were also other stories yet to tell, from other perspectives.

 

Epilogue

It seems to me that neither Riverdance nor A River of Sound provide me with any clear guidance for thinking about “tradition”. I would like to be able to think of “tradition” as a concept with clear critical, analytic potential. In both Riverdance and A River of Sound, “tradition” became merely an expedient notion, in two clear senses: first, the concept of  “tradition” offered a contrasting foil against which people could claim superior status as transgressive, innovative, modern, creative purveyors of discontinuity and distinction; second, the concept of “tradition” also became a way for people to legitimate their activities in rhetorics of continuity and community.

What was important in each case was not that “tradition” had a clear and stable meaning, but that the concept fulfilled a rhetorical function. Not only did it not have any clear and stable meaning, but it seemed to operate with most rhetorical power when no meaning was assigned to the term at all. That’s a rather sobering thought for anyone engaged in critical academic analysis.

REFERENCES

A RIVER OF SOUND – The Changing Course of Irish Traditional Music, 1995 [AROS], Philip King (dir.), Nuala O’Connor (prod.), Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (pres.), Dublin, Hummingbird Productions for BBC and RTÉ.

A RIVER OF SOUND – The Beauty and Power of Irish Traditional Music, 1995 [AROS video], Philip King (dir.), Nuala O’Connor (prod.), Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (pres.), Dublin, Hummingbird Productions for BBC and RTÉ. BBCV 5819.

A RIVER OF SOUND (Various Artists), 1995 [AROS CD],  Audio CD, Hummingbird Productions/Virgin, CDV2776.

BEN-AMOS Dan, 1984, “The Seven Strands of Tradition: Varieties in its Meaning in American Folklore Studies”, Journal of Folklore Research, 21 : 97-131.

BRENNAN Helen, 1999, The Story of Irish Dance, Dingle, Brandon.

BURMAN Erica, 1994, “Poor children: charity appeals and ideologies of childhood”, Changes: An International Journal of Psychology and Psychotherapy, 12(1) : 29-36.

CHMHE (Council of the Heads of Music in Higher Education), 1997, Music Courses in the Republic of Ireland, Dublin, CHMHE.

CLAYTON-LEA Tony, 1995, “Mícheal Ó Súilleabháin: A Life in Music”,
URL: http://latino.peermusic.com/artistpage2/Michael_OSuilleabhain.html

CONNOLLY Claire, 2001, “Theorising Ireland”, Irish Studies Review, 9(3) : 301-315.

CORR Brian, 1995, “A River of Sound – The Changing Course of Irish Traditional Music”,
(Review) Film Ireland, 47, June/July, URL: http://www.filmireland.net.

CROSBHEALACH AN CHEOIL/CROSSROADS CONFERENCE, 1996, publicity brochure,
URL: http://listserv.heanet.ie/cgi-bin/wa?A3=ind9510&L=IRTRAD-L&E=0&P=592200&B=–&T=text%2Fplain

DUFFY Martha, 1996, “Dance: Not Your Father’s Jig”, Time, 18 March, URL: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,984282,00.html

FERRITER Diarmaid, 2009, Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland, Dublin, Profile Books.

FLANNERY James, 2009, “The Music of Riverdance”, New Hibernia Review, 13(2) : 56-63.

HALL Frank, 1997, “Your Mr. Joyce is a Fine Man, But Have You Seen Riverdance?”, New Hibernia Review, 1(3) : 134-42.

HALL Frank, 2008, Competitive Irish Dance: Art, Sport, Duty, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.

LATE SHOW, 1995, “Donal Lunny: Dancing at the Crossroads”, BBC 2 TV, 6 March, London, BBC.

McGURK Tom, 1995, untitled, Sunday Business Post, 25 April : 25.

MacMAHON Tony, 1999, “Music of the Powerful and Majestic Past”, in Crosbhealach an Cheoil/The Crossroads Conference 1996, Fintan Vallely, Hammy Hamilton, Eithne Vallely, and Liz Doherty (eds.), Dublin, Whinstone Music : 112-120.

Mac RORY Avril, 1995, “An uncivil war for the soul of Irish music”, The Guardian, 15 December : 8-9.

MORIARTY Gerry, 1995, “Tradition and innovation in Irish music: is reconciliation possible or desirable”, Irish Times, 14 August : 2.

O’CONNOR Nuala, 1999, “From Crossroads Dancing to Lords of the Riverdance”, in

World Music: The Rough Guide Volume 1: Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, and Richard Trillo (eds.), London, Rough Guides : 171.

O’CONNOR Barbara, 1996, “Riverdance”, in Encounters with Modern Ireland: A Sociological Chronicle, 1995-96, Michel Peillon and Éamon Slater (eds.), Dublin, Institute of Public Adminstration, Ch. 4.

Ó CINNÉIDE Barra, 2002, Riverdance: The Phenomenon, Dublin, Blackhall Publishing.

Ó RIADA Seán, 1982, Our Musical Heritage, Dublin, Fundúireacht an Riadaigh/The Dolmen Press.

O’SHEA Helen, 2005, Foreign bodies in the river of sound: seeking identity and Irish traditional music”, Ph.D. thesis, Victoria University, Australia.

O’SHEA Helen, 2008, The Making of Irish Traditional Music, Cork: Cork University Press.

Ó SÚILLEABHÁIN Mícheál, 1994, ““All Our Central Fire”: Music, Mediation and the Irish Psyche,” The Irish Journal of Psychology, 15(2/3) : 331-353.

Ó SÚILLEABHÁIN Mícheál, 1995, unpublished paper, Seán Ó Riada Memorial Conference, University College Cork, April.

Ó SÚILLEABHÁIN Mícheál, 1996, “Crossroads or twin track?: Innovation and tradition in Irish traditional music”, in Crosbhealach an Cheoil/The Crossroads Conference 1996, Fintan Vallely, Hammy Hamilton, Eithne Vallely, and Liz Doherty (eds.), Dublin, Whinstone Music : 175-197.

O’TOOLE Fintan, 1996, The Ex-Isle of Erin: Images of a Global Ireland, Dublin, New Island Books.

RIVERDANCE Press Pack, 1995, URL: http://www.riverdance.com

SCAHILL Adrian, 2009, “Riverdance: Representing Irish Traditional Music”, New Hibernia Review, 13(2) : 70-76.

SCHÜLLER Gunther, 1986, Musings: The Musical Worlds of Gunther Schüller, New York, Oxford University Press.

SMITH James, 2004, “The Politics of Sexual Knowledge: The Origins of Ireland’s Containment Culture and the Carrigan Report (1931)”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 13(2) : 208-233.

WULFF Helena, 2005, “Memories in Motion: The Irish Dancing Body”, Body & Society, 11(4) : 45-62.

WULFF Helena, 2007, Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland, Oxford, Berghahn Books.


[i] You can see clips of various Riverdance performances online at http://www.riverdance.com/htm/multimedia/video_clips/index.htm. Riverdance is also well-represented on websites such as youtube.com.

[ii] “For a young person growing up in Ireland in the 50s, or perhaps even the 60s, which was a great transition era, very often you felt that traditional music was coming to you in some kind of pack, a package, and it was definitely coloured green, and it was very suspicious” [Late Show, 1995].

[iii] Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin was so taken by this approach that he undertook a Ph.D. thesis examining Potts’ life and music, completed in 1987. Since then, Potts has been central to the development of Ó Súilleabháin’s thinking.

[iv] It is listed as track 8 on the A River of Sound CD.

What might I like my kids to learn about life?: in search of “tradition”.

2011. Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics 4(1):75-92

“Our study must push beyond things to meanings, and grope through meanings to values. Study must rise to perplex and stand to become part of a critical endeavour. We study others so their humanity will bring our own into awareness, so the future will be better than the past” (Glassie, 1995:xiv). 

Personal Prologue [1]
“I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing” (Seamus Heaney, ‘Personal Helicon’, 1966).

My father passed away last year [2008]. As I think on his passing, I find myself reaching out to understand what it has meant to be a son. What it still means. I find myself searching for words to express what I learned from the man I loved as a friend and mentor. I look for ways to speak about those things that I hold dear. I try to find better words to talk about the helpful things I have learned in the company of my parents, my family, my friends. I wonder how to think more clearly about the things I love about life. I wonder how to make sense of those ways of being human that I would hope any future kids of mine to learn about. I find myself looking for ways to speak of learnings, unlearnings, and relearnings. I find myself looking for ways to speak of the connections and the distances that persist between me and others, the play of influences in our lives, the ways we can always-already make a difference. It seems to me that “tradition” is a notion that may well be suited to speak of such things.

I remember talking to the accordion player Billy McComiskey about his sense of tradition, about why playing his accordion with those tunes, in those ways, was so important to him. “It gives me strength against oppression,” he said, “It keeps me warm at night”. That made sense to me. Another time I was chatting over a drink with a couple of women from County Clare about the bitterness of a copyright dispute over tune ownership in Irish traditional music. The elder of the two, likely in her seventies, got very emotional, almost to the point of tears, as she struggled to express how wrong it all felt to her, saying, “It bites to the core of what it’s all about.” That made sense to me, too. These are people for whom the notion of “tradition” means something. I want it to continue to mean something for me. Or, to put it another way, there are people, values, and things in my life that mean something, that are important to me, that strengthen me in my sense of who I am and how I relate, and I think “tradition” is one of those words (among many) that can allow me to speak and think more clearly about this. “Tradition” is a word that can open up conversations I want to be part of.

Or is it? As much as “tradition” feels right to me on a deep, emotional level, I am aware of the shadowy, grappling gravities of certainty, ritual, obligation, belonging, memory, community, blood, and nation that come with my own and others’ understandings of “tradition”, and they leave me suspicious. “Tradition” can wield considerable emotional power; I have learned to identify those places of strongest emotion within myself and to start my questioning there.  I have come across uses of the term that make me angry; “tradition” and “traditional” can be easily deployed as ways to sanctify, segregate, categorise, denigrate, and exclude. I have come across uses of the term that leave me cold, satisfying the exigencies of academic analysis, allowing for grand, abstract statements that seem to have little connection to the lives of real people. I have come across uses of “tradition” that satisfy the bluster of rhetoricians, meaning little beyond the demands of a soundbite.

With all of my suspicions and misgivings, though, I keep coming back to “tradition”. I keep returning to clarify, to re-articulate, to grapple with meanings of the term, because I have a feeling there is something valuable there. The notion of “tradition”, at least in the English language, tends to be deployed academically in the company of verbal shadow-play concerning, among other things, identity, everyday life, customs, community, intergenerational relationship, and social change. That said, how has the notion of “tradition” become so marginalised within the social sciences and humanities? How has it happened that many understandings of “tradition” have become so profoundly depoliticized that they are frequently considered to offer little of relevance to social and political thought? How is it that folklore studies and ethnology are not explicitly considered co-extensive with sociology? Is there something inherent in the notion of “tradition” that leaves it ill-suited as an analytic term for social and political analysis? I would think not, but it seems to be a bit of an uphill battle.

In thinking about “tradition”, I take inspiration from other people who write from various perspectives in feminisms, anarchisms, anthropologies, postmodernisms, poststructuralisms, and postcolonialisms as they struggle to reconfigure their experiences of meaning, writing against the grain of sedimented orthodoxies (e.g., Foucault 1972, 1980, 1990, 1991; Cixous 1980; Graeber 2007; Heckert 2005; Flax 1992; hooks 1989; Behar 1996; Stoller 1989, 1997; Tuhiwai Smith 1999). So many institutionally legitimated perspectives continue to encode deeply misrepresentative and enclosing understandings of what it might mean to be human. So many of the workaday notions that we leave unchallenged invite us, persuade us, to be less than we can be. So many of the ways of thinking we accept as adequately descriptive of our worlds and our experiences come from deeply partial perspectives that are not truly resonant with our own; perspectives that distance us from the possibilities of our lives even as we use them to live those lives.

 

In search of “tradition”

We can always become more accountable and responsible for our uses of the term “tradition”, and for our processes of “traditioning”. I’m very fond of something that Sunday Business Post journalist Tom McGurk once wrote, in the context of a discussion of the term “traditional”; “While it doesn’t matter what you call it, it does matter what it is supposed to mean” (1995:25). In inviting more accountability and responsibility it helps to start with myself. What do I mean by “tradition”, if I am going to use it at all? What are the qualities of attitude and relationship that are implied by my particular deployments of “tradition” as a term? What kinds of conversations would I like the term to open up for me? If I were to consider it as a signpost, what conversations, communities, and contexts might it point to?

Theoretically, “tradition” might be considered a messy tool to work with. It is easy to fall into semantic defeatism. Shanklin writes; “Like culture, the term tradition has been used so often and in so many contexts that, as Shils (1971) suggests, it may not have any meaning at all” (Shanklin 1981:86). The complaint that “tradition” suffers from an irremediable surfeit of meanings, from that dreadful academic disease of polyvalency (Ben-Amos 1984:125), doesn’t concern me much here – I assume that multiple meanings will be an issue wherever there are multiple people, which I hope is pretty much everywhere. McDonald (1997:47) has noted that a number of scholars would be keen to be rid of the term “tradition” altogether, eager to claim that the term has little heuristic value, declaring that the notion of “tradition” leaves us with little room for sustained and sustainable analyses.

I’m not ready to give up on it altogether, though. In this essay I am “in search of “tradition”.” I am exploring the notion to come to an understanding that for me will be personal, meaningful, and analytically helpful. I want to be able to work with an understanding of “tradition” that allows me to make sense of my relationship with my father and his death as much as it helps me to make sense of the conversations, communities, and contexts of, say, “Irish traditional music”. I want to be able to think of the notion of “tradition” as a way to ground myself in socially responsible action, as a way to facilitate thoughtful analysis and political engagement, as others have explored (e.g., among many, Abrahams 1993; Glassie 1993, 1995; Mills 1993; Paredes 1995; Siikala et al 2004).

Lynne Tirrell has written that; “When women try to articulate our lives, what we try to give is more like an account than a definition. We try to tell true stories about who we are, what we know, what the world has been like for us, and what we would like to see it become” (1993:11). In a similar sense, I do not seek to offer a definition of “tradition” here, but rather present a brief account of my attempts to use the term “tradition” as a catalyst for thinking about social action and social interaction. I try to think about definitions as descriptions of some uses of a term (offered by particular people in particular places), not prescriptions for all uses (applicable to all people in all places). I suppose this article is more the beginnings of a project of clarification and self-explanation. I am not interested in what “tradition” is. I am interested in what “tradition” can mean.

A wish-list

My clarification process rides the tension between the questions, “What’s important to me?” and, “What would I like to be important to me?” In this spirit, I have compiled a wish-list for my understanding of the term “tradition”. This list gives some indication of the conversational work that I would like my understanding of “tradition” to perform.

I join Dell Hymes (1975) in thinking of “tradition” as rooted in social life, in noting that the “traditional” can begin with the personal. I like when Barry McDonald writes, “I consider tradition to be a human potential that involves personal relationship, shared practices, and a commitment to the continuity of both the practices and the particular emotional/spiritual relationship that nurtures them” (McDonald 1997:60). I join Craig Calhoun when he asks that “we go still further beyond the Enlightenment’s historicist opposition of tradition to modernity and see tradition as grounded less in the historical past than in everyday social practice” (1983:888).

I’d like to work with an understanding of “tradition” that can be always-already ethical. I don’t mean in terms of absolutes of right and wrong, or in terms of moral authority. I mean ethical in the sense that we can become more accountable and responsible for our part in the play of influences in each other’s lives. What can we learn from any situation with regard to what it might mean to be human, and with regard to the context of withness in which we always-already operate? How might an understanding of “tradition” open up conversations about the personal as the political? (e.g., Mauzé, ed. 1997; Langellier 1989; Ritchie 1993; Lee 2007; Peavey 1986, 2000).

It is in this sense that I’d like my understanding of “tradition” to facilitate broad discussions about different qualities of learning, education, and pedagogy. “Tradition” can open up conversations about the constitution and co-construction of social identities. On the one hand, I would like my understanding of “tradition” to leave the door open for discussions of “symbolic violence” and “pedagogic authority” (Bourdieu and Passeron 1990), and of the control, legitimation, and institutionalization of objectified meanings (Berger and Luckmann 1966). On the other, I’d like my understanding of “tradition” to invite me into conversations about possibilities of transformative learning, including feminist pedagogy (e.g., Lynda Stone, ed. 1994; Luke and Gore, eds. 1992), critical pedagogy (e.g., Paolo Freire 1998; Ivan Illich 1971), local and informal education (e.g., Smith 1994), and anarchist pedagogy (e.g., Matt Hern, ed. 2008; Jensen 2004).

I’d like to join Henry Glassie in thinking that “tradition” can open up a conversation about learning and futures, and about relationships with those who have passed, those who are here, and those who are yet to come:

“It is a rich word, lacking an exact synonym, naming the process by which individuals simultaneously connect to the past and the present while building the future. So tradition can label the collective resource, essential to all creativity, and in adjective form it can qualify the products of people who keep faith with their dead teachers and their live companions while shaping their actions responsibly” (Glassie 1993:9)

Glassie offers no definition here, and I think that’s the point. In my experience, defining tends to close conversations down, and what Glassie is trying to do here is open a conversation, announce what might be considered an ecological orientation – Glassie’s conversation about “tradition” is also a conversation about distinctly interconnected and helpful relationships.

For Barre Toelken, too, “tradition” seems to speak to the differences that the past, the pre-sent, can make on our present, personal lives: “Tradition is here understood to mean not some static, immutable force from the past, but those pre-existing culture-specific materials and options that bear upon the personal tastes and talents.” (1996:10). Implicit in this is the continuation of such a process in future lives. But Toelken’s understanding of “tradition” here doesn’t require that “tradition” be considered always-already helpful or salutary.

I don’t want to find myself in a situation where I champion “tradition” as an unqualified good, and neither do I wish to denigrate “tradition” as an unqualified bad. In any particular context of use, I’d like to lift up the term and look underneath it, to gauge the attitudes and meanings experienced by the people concerned. I’d like my understanding of “tradition” to remain context-sensitive, something perhaps most notably invited by Paredes and Bauman’s collection New Perspectives in Folklore (1972). Another way of saying this is that I’d like my conversations about “tradition” to remain always-already “peopled”, with a wish that they would actively let me work against depeopling abstractions.[2]

I’d like to eschew discussions about “tradition” that come without contextual or adjectival qualifiers. Adjectives can uncover the attitudes behind meanings, and can thereby uncover the presence and participation of people in the construction and maintenance of particular understandings of “tradition”. In mind of Ben-Amos (1971), I want to ask: What kinds of “tradition”? Whose “traditions”? When? Where? How? Why? With what effects? Without an understanding of “tradition” that involves people, psychologies, interactions, and relationships, it would be hard for me to make sense of my own life in terms of “tradition” at all.

In this sense, I want to work with an understanding of “tradition” that leaves me nowhere to hide. I want to work with an understanding of “tradition” that challenges me to remain transparent to myself in my specificity. Can it invite me to consider the quality of relationships that I experience with others? Can it support me in considering the ways I or others influence each other or always-already make a difference? Can it sink me deep into conversations about consequences and effects of power? Importantly, can it make visible aspects of life that I or others might wish to suppress, deny, denigrate, or silence?

I want to work with an understanding of “tradition” that keeps conversations open enough to encompass the whys and wherefores of “traditions of hate”, “traditions of prejudice”, and “traditions of killing”. It is important that the more toxic possibilities of being human get included in the discussions that “tradition” can open up. Does it make sense to celebrate such practices (e.g., militarism) because they are “traditional”, and thereby inherently good? Should we treat them with a casually descriptive empiricism, and bask in the glow of academic self-satisfaction? I don’t want my understandings of “tradition” to immunize me against consideration and critique of our most toxic possibilities. The notion of “tradition” is of little use to me in scholarly analysis unless it can prise open the cans of worms, provide a GPS-location device for the elephants in our rooms, and support and encourage the wisdom of the child who proclaims the nakedness of the emperor.

Words of caution 

Dan Ben-Amos (1984:118), following Richard Bauman, draws attention to the ways that the agencies of “tradition” are often located somewhat externally to human beings and human relationships, as conversations about independent, reified forces and forms. There are two workaday approaches to “tradition”, in this regard, that I will remain cautious about. The first is the use of discourses of resource management in descriptions and explanations of “tradition” and processes of “tradition”. The second is the common characterization of “tradition” as prescriptive invariance. Resource-management and prescription-invariance approaches to “tradition” do us few favours, serving to depoliticise the conversational terrain, and fostering and facilitating damagingly reductionist stories about what it might mean to be human.

Resource management

Notwithstanding the subtleties of multidisciplinary conversations about “tradition” (see, e.g., Bronner 2000; MacDougall 2004; King-Dorset 2008; Fisher 1993), resource management discourses still constitute a very common class of conversations about “tradition” in academic writing (see, e.g., Shils 1981; Honko 1991; Vansina 1965, 1985).[3] Metaphors, allegories, and narratives of identification, delivery, passing on, handing on, inheritance, collection, containment, extraction, use, access, control, ownership, allocation, storage, inventory, preservation, adaptation, and dissemination abound (see, e.g., Grieve and Weiss 2005). “Tradition” in such conversations can easily come to be thought of in terms of transactable, storable, or manipulable units or commodities.

Subsequently, resource management conversations about “tradition” tend to fit snugly into the conduit metaphors (Reddy 1979) of communication models of “transmission”. “Transmission,” in many of these formulations, can well be reconsidered as one-way (primarily intergenerational) transactions, whereby people become merely the conduits for the more or less efficient delivery of knowledge from the past to the present and on to the future.

In my reckoning, resource management approaches to “tradition” tend to embed clunky metaphors that may well be fine for casual conversation but which can be quite misleading if naturalized in the process of analysis. In very basic terms, I wouldn’t say that any thing ever passes across space between people when we are talking about songs, tunes, poems, stories, or knowledge. To say that there is something that is “passed on” seems to act as metaphorical shorthand for a far more subtle process of learning and presence and interpersonal alignment that takes place. But to stay with the shorthand, to accept the notion of “passing on” as a naturalized description of transactions, seems to me to invite limits to our imaginings about learning contexts, and also of the possibilities of “tradition”. “Passing on” or “handing on” seem to merely embed an acknowledgement of connectedness without leaving much analytic space for the qualities of that connectedness. This is not necessarily the case, of course; there are many people who live richly connected lives for whom “tradition” as “passing on” makes a lot of sense, and there have been many studies grounded in notions of “transmission” and “passing on” that provide rich socio-cultural analysis (e.g., McCoy, ed. 1989).[4] It’s not that I’m trying to eradicate such terminology from my work or my life (and certainly not from anyone else’s), it’s just that I think I need to be vigilant about the subtle weightings and gravities that might steer my analysis away from a desired primary focus on learning, relationships, and ethics.

Tunes, songs, stories, or information can easily be considered in terms of their abstracted, formal, characteristics. Once abstracted, it is very easy to consider them as resources, and it is very easy for the abstractions to be reinforced by the materiality of texts, manuscripts, and recordings. When the going is good, the resources often get well cared for, well stored, well considered. Even then, however, the people from whom the resources were extracted, the stories of their lives and the vast array of what’s important to them, or adequate appraisal of social and political context, can easily come a distant second, if they get considered at all, as evidenced by vast quantities of published tune, song, and story collections. A mere suggestion of biography and humanity might well be taken as a radical move in the face of all those published collections of stuff where people seem to have been sucked out from between the pages to leave a more conventional and pervasive inhumanity. All too easily, people become merely “tradition-bearers”, the containers of resources and the conduit-facilitators of transmissional transactions. All too easily, talking to people about what’s important to them in their lives becomes “collection”, conceived of as the resource-extraction of raw materials. All too easily, speaking about cultural reservoirs or the heritage of the past becomes a way to usher in what I have elsewhere called a phantom nationalism (see McCann 2010 fc), as imagined storage facilities buttress imagined communities (Anderson 1991).

Prescriptive invariance

A second memo-to-self about “tradition” concerns the frequent equation of “tradition” with some sense of prescriptive invariance. Handler and Linnekin have written that “tradition cannot be defined in terms of boundedness, givenness, or essence” (1984:273). Of course it can be. All it takes is for someone to define “tradition” in this way. Not only that, but I would suggest the assumption that “tradition” refers to some sense of prescriptive invariance is still quite a common one, offering “rule-governed models that inculcate behavioral values and norms in such a way as to make those practices, values, and norms, even and especially those of relatively recent origin, appear continuous with the past” (Grieve and Weiss 2005:10). Perhaps the two most influential statements characterizing “tradition” as prescriptive invariance are offered by Weber (1921/1968), and Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983). These are not views of “tradition” that I am going to embrace wholeheartedly as a political position.

Needless to say, both of these positions are coming from critiques of “tradition”. Negatively coloured prescriptive-invariance understandings of “tradition” offer little room for agency, and little middle ground. On the one hand, the iron cage of tradition, on the other, freedom. Another option, static “tradition” faces off against gloriously dynamic modernity; or thoughtless “tradition” falls before progressive rationality. Whichever you choose, when prescriptive invariance is being critiqued in analyses of “tradition”, it is hard for “tradition” to come off as anything but second best. These understandings of “tradition” tend to be premised on the eternal victory of the Other of “tradition”. This is not going to help me much.

Prescriptive invariance is also to be found in the promotion and promulgation of “tradition”. In such situations, adherence to “tradition” can mean “an orientation towards an imagined timeless community, borne of the desire to submerge one’s personal identity into a larger community that transcends that individual” (Grieve and Weiss 2005:3), “a commitment and a duty to a community that existed in the past, exists in the present, and will continue to exist as long as its members do not abandon it” (ibid.). Often framed as “traditionalism”, this kind of approach easily conforms to what might be termed “traditional closure”, whereby ”tradition” comes to assume for people the character of an unqualified good. This tends to effect an apparent separation of “tradition” and, in particular, “traditional” teachings, from the contingencies of social and political life, allowing “tradition” to appear autonomous, value-free and politically-unattached in its transcendent timelessness.

As with negative positions, positive prescriptive-invariance understandings of “tradition” leave little room for agency and no middle ground. They imply an agency that is limited to a clear choice of decision-making – acceptance or rejection. Viewed from the positive logic of prescription, on one side lie the enticements of inclusion and community, intensely consolidated with the emotional weight of duty, loyalty, and uncritical obedience. On the other side lie exclusion and ostracization, combined with the intense emotional weight of isolation, outsider-status, guilt, and betrayal. Once again, these are not qualities of “tradition” that I am keen to champion.

Where there is an expectation of invariance in the study of “tradition”, variance becomes notable and worthy of explanation. But, as Stuart Hall (1997) has suggested, it is not so much identifications of variance as it is declarations of invariance (any assertion that meaning can be fixed), that demand explanation, if only for their implausibility. The temptations of timelessness in academic analysis have not gone unnoticed (Fabian 1983; Duara 1998; and many more). This tendency to think of “tradition” in some way as the freezing of time suits urgent discourses of preservation in the face of change, decay, and ephemerality (see Reason 2006). In this light, some have gone as far as to suggest that, “The desire for tradition is thus also a desire for immortality” (Grieve and Weiss 2005:3; see also Becker 1973).[5]

 

Consequences?

We have archives, histories, institutions, and communities of academic discourse and academic practice to support the apparent adequacy of resource-management thinking. We have doctrines, texts, rules, institutions, and systems of formal schooling to support understandings of “tradition” as prescriptive invariance. But understandings of “tradition” that would reduce my experience of learning and withness to discussions about things, transactions, conduits, texts, and obligations, just don’t feel right to me. There’s a sense of missing, of not-enough, and significantly so. There’s a strength, a robustness, a relational substance to what I think about when I use “tradition” as a gateway to reflection. I lose that with resource management and prescriptive invariance. The poetics don’t fit. Lynne Tirrell uses the phrase, “experiential dissonance” (1993:25). That sounds about right. I want more heart in my conversations. I want more people in my conversations. I want ways of talking and writing that sit more intimately with my life.

This wouldn’t matter so much except that academic and institutionally-legitimated ways of thinking, speaking, and writing about “tradition” frequently work to privilege certain perspectives and disempower others: “In its most obvious sense discourse authorises some to speak, some views to be taken seriously, while others are marginalised, derided, excluded and even prohibited. Discourses impose themselves upon social life, indeed they produce what it is possible to think, speak, and do” (Hunt and Wickham 1994:8-9). Wherever we foster and facilitate a focus in “tradition studies” on either resource management or prescriptive invariance, to the detriment of a focus on people and personal relationship, I believe we have been engaging in what I have termed elsewhere “discursive feedback” (McCann 2005). I use this term to speak of a process Michel Foucault (1972) has described as systematically forming the objects of which we speak.  The “traditions” that we speak of increasingly come to fit only those understandings with which we initially approached our research.[6]

One clear consequence of such approaches is that the authority for making sense of those most visible “traditions” comes to rest firmly with the resource managers and the identifiers of invariance. Those with academic, organizational, and institutional status come to be recognised as being more able to make sense of local “traditions” than local people themselves. Those with a greater ability to sculpt words and document texts easily think of themselves as the privileged guardians of knowledge and the priestly class of any imagined community of “tradition”. Within a resource-management, information-transmission model of “tradition”, It is very easy to pass responsibility for “tradition” over to the experts, to those who are professionally trained and responsible for preserving information – academics and archivists. If it’s all about protecting the information for future generations, then who better to do that? How better to do that?

“Tradition” as a notion, then, easily becomes the facilitator of hierarchies of knowledge, the privileging of institutions, the inscription of texts, and the diminishment of the agency of people in the less formalised contexts of local communities. The variations and nuances of lives lived can become subordinated to the more coherent and regular knowledge constructions of centralized authorities. People can be left to struggle with what Audre Lorde has referred to as “the restrictions of externally imposed definition”(1984:121). Alternative understandings of “tradition”, that is, locally-negotiated understandings of “tradition” that don’t fit within the dominant paradigms, can easily become discursively invisible and politically irrelevant.

Resource-management or prescriptive-invariance models of “tradition” leave us with reductive stereotypes about the learning we experience in the company of others as we bear withness. But they are not to be summarily dismissed, for, as Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie has said, speaking of “The Danger of the Single Story”; “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” (Adichie 2009). The overlain binaries of tradition-modernity, passive-active, conservative-dynamic, static-changing, communalist-individualist, do not tell the whole story, as many have noted before. Wherefore the understandings of “tradition” that allow purveyors of such binaries (even or especially if that includes me) to stand transparently as traders in partial and misrepresentative “single stories”? (or should that be “double stories”?). I would like an understanding of “tradition” that invites me to dissolve the worst excesses of modernization theory and detraditionalization hypotheses (see Heelas, Lash, and Morris, eds. 1996), which strike me as quite disrespectful of many people’s attempts to sustainably maintain continuities of learning and wisdom in their own localities and communities (see Prakash and Esteva 1998; Mauzé, ed. 1989).

If you wish to live “tradition”, these conversations, these narratives, such claims about “tradition”, don’t leave you with much of a choice. You mainly get to choose among various worlds pervaded by determinism: worlds of prescription; of storage and retrieval; of unthinking repetition; of unquestioned ideology and unquestioned authority. You could also opt for or a world of despair as you passively watch what you love inevitably disappearing in the face of active change and a steamrolling modernity, while clambering to preserve it in the face of impending and irreparable silence.

Those aren’t terribly attractive propositions, in my reckoning. And for denigrators of “tradition” and the “traditional”, perched like vultures, such stories serve “tradition” up on a plate, ready to be chewed up and spat out. This is made particularly clear by the statement of manifest destiny that was hoisted as a motto in Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools across the United States in the 20th century: “Tradition is the Enemy of Progress” (O’Sullivan 2001). People often find that their lived ways of thinking and doing become subordinately represented as passive, atavistic, or conservative in the face of rhetorics of modernity, innovation, or progress (see McCann 2010 fc).

The workaday discourses of “tradition” mentioned above can wrench political possibilities out of our grasp. This discursive depoliticization first of all allows for the irrelevancy of “tradition” to social and political thought, but secondly, and more importantly, fosters and facilitates the political marginalization of those people and communities who might, in turn, be considered or consider themselves “traditional”. Muana (1998) has identified this issue as being a core concern in the revival and/or preservation of “traditions”.[7]   People often reach for notions of “tradition” to speak of ways of thinking and ways of doing that were and continue to be important to them, especially when they feel that the persistence of their ways of life may be under threat by particular kinds of unhelpful social change (see Mauzé, ed. 1989, or Grieve and Weiss 2005). At such times, many people would like to speak about feelings of encroachment, a sense of injustice, anger about misrepresentations of what they believe and stand for, or maybe express their sense of deep relational connection with those who have gone before and who are yet to come. These deeply felt, profoundly emotional ways of thinking about “tradition” are not readily articulable if the ways of speaking about “tradition” centre on resource management or prescriptive invariance. The temptation is great, however, to accept the terms of discussion, and to join a reductionist dance that does violence to the experiential richness of what we can and do learn from those around us, both helpfully and unhelpfully. Fundamentally, workaday understandings of “tradition” can frequently leave little room for heart, for love, for people, or for hope.

Models of “tradition” based in resource management and prescriptive invariance also leave hardly any room whatsoever for legacies of learning where questioning and critique are actively encouraged. They leave little room for us to speak of the courage that we learn from others to speak up and speak out, to face up to uncertainties, to challenge oppression (see Eyerman and Jamison 1998; Fisher 1993; King-Dorset 2008). They do not easy facilitate conversations about agency, about uncertainty, about challenges, about learning to make sense of life for yourself. They don’t allow us to account much for the considerable differences that might develop between the lives of our most influential teachers and our own lives. Sometimes our greatest learning from another becomes the least visible. Sometimes what we get from somebody else is a learning about what we don’t want to do, what we don’t want to think. Those people are our teachers, too. Understandings of “tradition” as “that which is handed on” or “that which we must do” don’t in any way encompass those conversations.

Resource-management and prescriptive-invariance understandings of “tradition” leave us none the wiser in the face of aggressively intensifying social and environmental changes such as accelerative commodification, aggressive corporate industrialization, or climate change. They offer little room for voices of resistance or discontent. Understood as the transmission of single units, the units themselves do not contain their alternatives. Understood as aspects of people’s lives, they might. Understood as prescriptive invariance, thinking of “tradition” as the foundation for radical political alternatives becomes simply ridiculous. The mere acceptance and collation of “tradition” as “that which is given” can over time constrict the social imagination of other possibilities, of other ways of thinking, of other ways of being. Little wonder that people, particularly people of younger generations, often think that the only possibility to effect some sense of agency in the context of conversations about “tradition” is to radically separate themselves from what has been pre-sent, from the already-given. In what other ways can we continue to develop workday discourses so that “tradition” can serve as a term that speaks of meaningful yet non-oppressive forces for personal and social transformation in our own lives and in the lives of our children?  Surely we can continue to find more helpful ways to think about “tradition” in the context of the social, political, and environmental challenges that people face?

“If we do not accept the distinctions drawn around (and across) us, then we must draw some of our own” (Tirrell 1993:11).

Neil Postman advises that the best way to free our minds from what he calls “the tyranny of definitions” is to provide alternative definitions, in an understanding that definitions can be considered “instruments designed to achieve certain purposes” (1996:183). Bill Ashcroft asks that “We can take these dominant discourses, and transform them in the service of our own self-empowerment” (2001:1). Following Michael Reddy’s critique of the effect of the conduit metaphor on thought processes among speakers of English, I find myself with a need for other stories about “tradition”, so that the deeper implications of resource-management and prescriptive-invariance understandings of “tradition” can be drawn out by way of contrast (1979:292).

I thought a lot about “tradition” during the final months of my father’s life. Here was a man who had been my mentor and my friend, a touchstone for my thinking, a sounding board for my philosophical explorations. My Dad. Here we were, in the space between here and gone. Sitting with my father I understood a little better some of the emotional realities that these terms allow us to signpost for ourselves and others. For me, if the term “tradition” is to mean anything, it is to help me make sense of the question, “What have I learned from my Dad?” and, in turn, to open up the question, “what might I like my kids to learn about life?”

After many months of reflection, I finally decided that I was happy that the following understanding of “tradition” might allow me to open up the kinds of conversations I want to be part of:

“Ways of thinking and ways of doing, considered within a learning context of relationship or community.”

This isn’t offered as a definition. I find definitions tend to reduce authorities for meaning, and establish hierarchies of knowledge, position, and perspective. Instead, it is offered simply as a positioning. For that positioning I shall remain accountable and responsible. This is what I would consider a helpful understanding of “tradition” in my own life. I may change it as I go along, but for the moment, I’m happy to work with it.

This understanding allows me to foreground and privilege people and their practices. I have not mentioned “things” in my understanding of “tradition”, primarily to leave a conversation open about reification, commodification, and thingification, considered as practices and particular (and peculiar) qualities of relationship.

This understanding invites me to consider conversations about “tradition” as also being conversations about learning. For a while I used the word “educational” in place of “learning”. I default to “learning,” as conversations about “education” tend to be dominated by discussions about formal, institutional learning, sedimented with hierarchies of knowledge and authority, and saturated with resource-management models of transmission. This isn’t necessarily the case, but I find that “learning” opens up a relationship-privileging, and agency-privileging perspective. It can also easily include both institutional and informal contexts of learning.

Fourth, the inclusion of “context” is to invite me to specificity. I want my understandings and analyses of “tradition” become always-already “peopled”, always-already relational. In this way, a conversation about “tradition” can become for me a series of challenges and questions about what it might mean to be human. I want to work with a notion of “tradition” that invites particularist analysis, that draws me down to the specificities of people’s lives, and thereby to the specificities of my own:

“If we are ever to remember what it is to be human beings, and if we are ever to hope to begin to live sustainably in place (which is the only way to live sustainably), we will have to remember that specificity is everything. It’s the only thing we’ve got. In this moment I’m not abstractly writing: I’m writing these specific words on this specific piece of paper using this specific pen, lying on this specific bed next to this specific cat. There is nothing apart from the particular. Now, I can certainly generate abstract notions of writing or humanity or cities or nature or the world, but they’re not real. What is real is immediate, present, particular, specific” (Jensen 2004:60).

As Abu-Lughod (1991:154) has noted, by focusing on particular individuals and their changing relationships, we can subvert the problematic temptations of homogeneity, coherence, and timelessness in our analyses. This is as important in conversations about “tradition” as it was for Abu-Lughod in conversations about “culture”. By giving context due weighting in conversations about “tradition”, I remind myself that I am interested in the always-already hereness of relationship. I remind myself that casual abstractions can easily distance me from the nuances and subtleties of relationship that would otherwise challenge me any time I felt abstraction was a helpful way to proceed.

Epilogue

It is not necessary that “tradition” remain marginalised within the social sciences and humanities. As Grieve and Weiss write; “tradition can be analysed as a strategic tool of cultural critique” (2005:15).  Conversations catalysed by the term “tradition” can include conversations that have been, and remain, central to the concerns of critical social thought: power, agency, domination, oppression, expansionary social dynamics, violence, capitalism, commodification, ideologies, education, gender, socialization, interaction, identities, social structure, social change, and social transformation (e.g., Paredes 1995; Mauzé, ed. 1989; Muana 1998; Mills 1993; MacDougall 2004; Langellier 1989; King-Dorset 2008). What’s more, they can let us engage with these issues from deeply peopled and particularist perspectives. As this happens, though, it would help to acknowledge the power of resource-management and prescriptive-invariance thinking in discussions about “tradition,” and to respond to the limitations that such emphases can shackle us with. May and Powell have suggested that social theory can allow us “to examine taken-for-granted assumptions, explore the basis and content of interpretations of the social world, its structural dynamics and the place of human agency within it” (2008:1). Conversations about “tradition” can continue to facilitate such examinations and explorations.

If I understand my own “traditions” as ways of thinking, ways of doing, considered within a learning context of relationship or community, then I could consider myself to have come from a “traditional” family, indeed, anyone could. I don’t get any sense of status or superiority after claiming this for myself, but it does feel like the beginning of a whole range of exciting conversations. How have I learned in the company of both my parents? How have I learned in the company of my siblings? My friends? My lovers? How do I happen to be how I am and not some other way(s)?

And, crucially, what might I like my kids to learn about life? (should I ever have kids) What emotional climate and learning context would I work to provide for them? How might I encourage them to think about authority, about questioning, about working things out for themselves? How might I invite them to think about different qualities of relationship? About friendship? About love? About family? About relatives? How might I open up questions for them about their relationship to conflict, structural violence, oppressive systems, and social injustice? How might I encourage them to remain considerate of people that have passed on and of people who are yet to be born? How might I invite them to consider their role in social change and helpful social and political transformations? How might I encourage them to dream?

“What might I like my kids to learn about life?” invites a positioning, not only about which kinds of “traditions” of learning might be possible, but which might be preferable, which might be more helpful. Which in turn invites the questions, “more helpful for what?” and “according to what criteria?” I can continually return to clarify both what has become important to me, and what I would like to be important to me, being careful who I pretend to be for that is who I may become, and whom others may learn from. I can become more accountable and responsible for my place in lives of interpersonal and intergenerational learning, holistically considered.

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[1] My sincere thanks go to Jamie Heckert, Lawrence Holden, and Tes Slominksi for their assistance in helping me make sense of these conversations. Thanks to Keola Donaghy and Dorothy Noyes for help in literature searches. Special thanks go to Kristin Kuutma and Monika Tasa of the University of Tartu for their patience, and all at the Tartu Folklore Summer School for their conversations, feedback, and company. Thanks also to the anonymous reviewer who lead me to reassess an earlier version of the article.

[2] As Neil Postman has written, “Meaning is not in words. Meaning is in people, and whatever meaning words have are assigned or ascribed to them by people” (1996:183).

[3] I have elsewhere made a more sustained critique of discourses of resource production and management and their relationship to processes of enclosure and commodification (McCann 2005).

[4] There are too many to list. Among the books closest to me on the shelf are Marie McCarthy’s Passing It On (1999) and Lillis Ó Laoire’s On a Rock in the Middle of the Ocean (2005).

[5] There may be other implications, however, particularly in relation to issues of agency; as Virginia Dominguez has suggested; “When we assert the need to salvage, rescue, save, preserve a series of objects or forms, we announce our fear of its destruction, our inability to trust others to take appropriate action and our sense of entitlement over the fate of the objects. Our best liberal intentions do little other than patronize those slated for cultural salvage” (Dominguez 1987:131).

[6] “The powerful normally determine what is said and sayable. When the powerful label something or dub it or baptize it, the thing becomes what they call it” (Frye 1983:105).

[7] “The researcher may … find it difficult to reconcile the conflictual fit between his/her analytical parameters and the perspectives of the ‘native’ being investigated (Muana 1993). This has never dissuaded some researchers from asserting that they are ‘ventriloquizing’ for the native (Ritchie 1993). This practice of ‘de-voicing’ the native has implications for the status of the interpretations and conclusions reached by the researchers” (Muana 1998:52).