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.

References and Other Relevant Bibliography

Appadurai, Arjun, ed. 1988. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arensberg, Conrad M., and Solon T. Kimball. 1968. Family and Community in Ireland. Cam­bridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Attali, Jacques. 1985. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis and London: Uni­versity of Minnesota Press.

Baden, John A. 1998. “A New Primer for the Management of Common Pool Resources and Public Goods.” In Managing the Commons, edited by John A. Baden and Douglas S. Noonan, 51‑62. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Baden, John A., and Douglas S. Noonan, eds. 1998. Managing the Commons. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bettig, Ronald V. 1996. Copyrighting Culture: The Political Economy of Intellectual Proper­ty. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Bish, Robert L. 1998. “Environmental Resource Management: Public or Private?” In Manag­ing the Commons, edited by John A. Baden and Douglas S. Noonan, 65‑75. Blooming­ton: Indiana University Press.

Blaukopf, Kurt. 1990. “Legal Policies for the Safeguarding of Traditional Music: Are They Uto­pian?” The World of Music 32(1):125‑33.

Boyle, James. 1996. Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the In­formation Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
. 1997. “A Sense of Belonging.” Times Literary Supplement, July 4.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brush, Stephen B. 1996. “Is Common Heritage Outmoded?” In Valuing Local Knowledge: Indigenous People and Intellectual Property Rights, edited by Stephen B. Brush and Doreen Stabinsky, 143‑64. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Calhoun, Craig Jackson. 1983. “The Radicalism of Tradition: Community Strength or Venera­ble Disguise and Borrowed Language?”American Journal of Sociology 88(5):886‑914.

Carrier, James G. 1998. “Property and Social Relations in Melanesian Anthropology.” In Prop­erty Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition, edited by C. M. Hann, 85‑103. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chused, Richard, ed. 1998. A Copyright Anthology: The Technology Frontier. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing.

Collins, John. 1993. “The Problem of Oral Copyright: The Case of Ghana.” In Music and Copyright, edited by Simon Frith, 146‑58. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Coombe, Rosemary J. 1998. The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appro­priation, and the Law. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Fabbri, Franco. 1993. “Copyright: The Dark Side of the Music Business.” In Music and Copy­right, edited by Simon Frith, 159‑63. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Fairbairn, Hazel. 1993. Group Playing in Traditional Irish Music: Interaction and Hetero­phony in the Session. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge.

Feeny, David, Fikret Berkes, Bonnie J. McKay, and James M. Acheson. 1998. “The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty‑Two Years Later.” In Managing the Commons, edited by John A. Baden and Douglas S. Noonan, 76‑94. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Finnegan, Ruth. 1989. The Hidden Musicians: Music‑making in an English Town. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flitner, Michael. 1998. “Biodiversity: Of Local Commons and Global Commodities.” In Priva­tizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons, edited by Michael Goldman, 144‑66. London: Pluto Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.
. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Foy, Barry. 1999. Field Guide to the Irish Traditional Session: A Guide to Enjoying Irish Traditional Music in its Natural Habitat. Niwot, CO: Roberts Rineharts.

Freie, John F. 1998. Counterfeit Community: The Exploitation of Our Longings for Connect­edness. New York and Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield.

Frith, Simon, ed. 1993a. Music and Copyright. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
. 1993b. “Music and Morality.” In Music and Copyright, edited by Simon Frith, 1‑21. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Frow, John. 1997. Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and Postmo­dernity. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Gibbons, Luke. 1996. Transformations in Irish Culture. Critical Conditions: Field Day Essays and Monographs, edited by Seamus Deane. Cork: Cork University Press.

Gibson, Eleanor J., and Harry Levin. 1975. The Psychology of Reading. Cambridge, Massachu­setts: MIT Press.

Glassie, Henry. 1995. Passing the Time in Ballymenone. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Goehr, Lydia. 1992. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldman, Michael, ed. 1998. Privatizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons, Transnational Institute Series. London: Pluto Press in association with Transnational In­stitute (TNI).

Goldsmith, Edward, Nicholas Hildyard, Peter Bunyard, and Patrick McCully, eds. 1992.”Whose Common Future?” isuue of The Ecologist. 22, July/August.

Gonner, E. C. K. 1912. Common Land and Inclosure. London: Macmillan.

Green, Tony and Michael Pickering. 1987. “Towards a Cartography of the Vernacular Milieu.” In Everyday Culture: Popular Song and the Vernacular Milieu (Popular Music in Britain), edited by Michael Pickering and Tony Green, 1‑38. Milton Keynes: Open Uni­versity Press.

Gregory, C.A. 1982. Gifts and Commodities. Studies in Political Economy, edited by John Eatwell. London and New York: Academic Press.

Gudeman, Stephen. 1996. “Sketches, Qualms, and Other Thoughts on Intellectual Property Rights.” In Valuing Local Knowledge: Indigenous People and Intellectual Property Rights, edited by Stephen B. Brush and Doreen Stabinsky. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Hann, C. M., ed. 1998. Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition. Cam­bridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons. “Science 162:1243‑48.

Honko, Lauri. 1982. “UNESCO Work on the Safeguarding of Folklore.” Nordic Institute of Folklore Newsletter 10 (1‑2):1‑5.
. 1983. “Protecting Folklore as Intellectual Property.” Nordic Institute of Folklore News­letter 11(1):1‑8.
. 1984a. “Do We Need an International Treaty for the Protection of Folklore?” Nordic Institute of Folklore Newsletter 12:1‑5.
. 1984b. “The Unesco Process of Folklore Protection. Working Document.” Nordic Institute of Folklore Newsletter 12:5‑29.
. 1989. “The Final Text of the Recommendation for the Safeguarding of Folklore.” Nor­dic Institute of Folklore Newsletter 17(2‑3):3‑13.
. 1990. “Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore Adopt­ed by Unesco.” Nordic Institute of Folklore Newsletter 18(1):3‑8.

Hunt, Harriett Fran. 1966. African Folklore: The Role of Copyright ” African Law Studies. New York: African Law Association in America.

Hyde, Lewis. 1983. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vin­tage Books.

Inglis, Julian T., ed. 1993. Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Concepts and Cases, Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Museum of Nature, International Program on Traditional Ecological Knowledge and International Development Research Centre.

Jabbour, Alan. 1982. “Folklore Protection and National Patrimony: Developments and Dilem­mas in the Legal Protection of Folklore.” Copyright Bulletin (Paris: UNESCO) 17:10‑14.

Jaszi, Peter. 1991. “Towards a Theory of Copyright: The Metamorphoses of ‘Authorship’.” Duke Law Journal 52:455‑502.
. 1992. “On the Author Effect: Contemporary Copyright and Collective Creativity.” Cardoxo Arts and Entertainment Law journal 10:293.

Keil, Charles, and Steven Feld. 1994. Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues. Chicago: Uni­versity of Chicago Press.

Kimiecik, Kathryn. 1992. “Heritage, Folklore, Cultural Conservation, & Policy or What Ever Happened to Child Ballads? Part L”New York Folk Lore Newsletter Winter 1992:6, 10.
. 1993. “UNESCO & the Global Conservation Culture or, I Found the Child Ballads! Part 11.” New York Folk Lore Newsletter Spring 1993:6‑7.

Klarman, Barbara Friedman. 1965. “Copyright and Folk Music‑A Perplexing Problem.” Bul­letin of the Copyright Society of U.S.A. ( New York), June 1965:277‑92.

Kollock, Peter. 1998. “The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cy­berspace.” In Communities in Cyberspace, edited by Marc Smith and Peter Kollock. London: Routledge.

Litman, Jessica. 1990. “The Public Domain.” Emory Law Journal 39: 965‑977, 995‑1012, 1019‑1023.

Macfarlane, Alan. 1998. “The Mystery of Property: Inheritance and Industrialization in England and Japan.” In Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition, edited by C. M. Hann, 104‑123. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macpherson, C. B. 1985. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Malcolm, Elizabeth. 1998. “The Rise of the Pub: A Study in the Disciplining of Popular Cul­ture.” In Irish Popular Culture 1650‑1850, edited by James S. Donnelly and Kerby Miller. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

Maim, Krister. 1993. “Music on the Move: Traditions and Mass Media.” Ethnomusicology 37:339‑52.
. 1988. “Copyright and the Protection of Intellectual Property in Traditional Music: A Summary of International Efforts.” Music Media Multiculture‑Today and Tomorrow 3:24‑29.

Manuel, Peter. 1991. “The Cassette Industry and Popular Music in North India.” Popular Music 10(2):189‑204.

Mauss, Marcel. 1974. The Gift. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

McCann, Anthony. 1998. “Irish Traditional Music and Copyright: an Issue of Common Prop­erty?” Paper presented at Crossing Boundaries, the seventh annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, Vancouver, British Colum­bia, June 10‑14, 1998. http://www.indiana.edu/‑iascp/Final/mccann.pdf

McGinnis, Michael, and Elinor Ostrom. 1996. “Design Principles for Local and Global Com­mons.” In The International Political Economy and International Institutions, edited by Oran R. Young, 465‑93. Cheltenham, UX: Edward Elgar Publishing.

McGraith, Donal. 1990. “Anti‑copyright and Cassette Culture.” In Sound by Artists, edited by Dan Lander and Micah Lexier, 73‑87. Ontario, Canada: The Coach House Press and Walter Phillips Gallery.

McKean, Margaret, and Elinor Ostrom. 1995. “Common‑property Regimes in the Forest: Just a Relic From the Past.” Unasylva 46:3‑15.

Merges, Robert P. 1996. “Contracting into Liability Rules: Intellectual Property Rights and Collective Rights Organizations.” California Law Review 84(5):1293‑1393.

Mills, Sherylle. 1996. “Indigenous Music and the Law: An Analysis of National and International Legislation.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 28:57‑86.

Mitsui, Toru. 1993. “Copyright and Music in Japan: A Forced Grafting and its Consequences.” In Music and Copyright, edited by Simon Frith, 125‑45. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univer­sity Press.

Nguiffo, Samuel‑Alain. 1998. “In Defence of the Commons: Forest Battles in Southern Came­roon.” In Privatizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons, edited by Michael Goldman, 102‑19. London: Pluto Press.

Niedzielska, Marie. 1980. “The Intellectual Property Aspects of Folklore Protection.” Copy­right November 1980:339‑46.

O hAllmhurain, Gearoid.1998. A Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music. Dublin: The O’Brien Press.

Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collec­tive Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Phillips, Jeremy, and Alison Firth. 1995. Introduction to Intellectual Property Law. 3rd ed. London, Dublin, and Edinburgh: Butterworths.

Prakash, Sanjeev. 1998. “Fairness, Social Capital and the Commons: The Societal Foundations of Collective Action in the Himalaya.” In Privatizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons, edited by Michael Goldman. London: Pluto Press.

Puri, Kamal. 1998. “Preservation and Conservation of Expressions of Folklore.” Copyright Bulletin 32(4). Paris: UNESCO.

Rose, Mark. 1993. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, MA: Har­vard University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone Age Economics. London: Tavistock Publications.

Salazar, Carlos. 1996. A Sentimental Economy: Commodity and Community in Rural Ire­land Vol. 2. 6 vols. New Directions in Anthropology, ed. Jacqueline Waldren. Providence and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Schrift, Alan D., ed. 1997. The Logic of The Gift. New York and London: Routledge.

Seeger, Anthony. 1992. “Ethnomusicology and Music Law.” Ethnomusicology 36:345‑59.
. 1996. “Ethnomusicologists, Archives, Professional Organizations, and the Shifting Ethics of Intellectual Property.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 28:87‑105.

Seeger, Mike, and John Cohen, eds.1964. New Lost City Ramblers Song Book. New York: Oak Publications.

Shiva, Vandana. 1993. “Biodiversity and Intellectual Property Rights.” In The Case Against “Free Trade” San Francisco: Earth Island Press, 115.

Slobin, Mark. 1993. Subcultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1999. “What is Intellectual Property After?” In Actor Network Theory and After, edited by. John Law and John Hassard. Oxford: Blackwell.

Titmuss, Richard M. 1972. 7`he Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy. New York: Vintage Books.

UNESCO. 1989. Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore. Paris: UNESCO, http://www.unesco.org/webworld/com/compendium/5414.html.

Vallely, Fintan. 1997. “Save The Session.” The Irish Times February 1997: 4, 12.

Waldron, Jeremy. 1990. The Right to Private Property. Oxford: Clarendon.

Wales, Tony. 1973. “Copyright and the EFDSS (Part 2).” English Dance and Song 35, Au­tumn:3.

Wallis, Roger, and Krister Maim. 1984. Big Sounds from Small Peoples: The Music Industry in Small Countries. London: Constable.

Weiner, Janice G. 1987. “Protection of Folklore: A Political and Legal Challenge.” IIC : Inter­national Review of Industrial Property and Copyright Law 18 (1):56‑92.

Whiteley, Sheila. 1997. “‘The Sound of Silence’: Academic Freedom and Copyright.” Popular Music 16(1):220‑22.

Wily, Liz. 1998. “The Legal and the Political in Modern Common Property Management.” Paper presented at Crossing Boundaries, the seventh annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, Vancouver, British Columbia, June 10­14, 1998.

WIPO. 1997. Introductory Seminar on Copyright and Neighboring Rights. Geneva, Octo­her 8 to 10, 1997. Geneva: World Intellectual Property Organization, WIPO/CR/GE/97/ 7.

Woodburn, James. 1998. “‘Sharing is Not A Form of Exchange’: An Analysis of Property‑shar­ing in Immediate‑return Hunter‑gatherer Societies.” In Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition, edited by C. M. Hann, 48‑63. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni­versity Press.

Woodmansee, Martha. 1984. “The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of the ‘Author’.” Eighteenth‑Century Studies 17(4):425‑48.

Woodmansee, Martha, and Peter jaszi, eds. 1994. The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Ziff, Bruce, and Pratima V. Rao, eds. 1997. Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropria­tion. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Advertisements

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.

Bibliography

Abu-Lughod, Lila 1991. “Writing against culture.” In Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present. Richard G. Fox, ed. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 137-162.

Abrahams, Roger D.  1993. “After New Perspectives: Folklore Study in the Late Twentieth Century.” Western Folklore Vol. 52, Nos. 2/4: 379-400

Adichie, Chimamanda 2009. “The Danger of a Single Story.” Ted.com. October 7th. URL: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html (accessed February 2010).

Anderson, Benedict 1991. Imagined Communities: reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

Ashcroft, Bill 2001. On post-colonial futures: transformations of colonial culture. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.

Becker, Ernst 1973. The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press.

Behar, Ruth 1996. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that breaks your heart. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ben-Amos, Dan 1971. “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context,” Journal of American Folklore, 84: 3-15.

Ben-Amos, Dan 1984. “The Seven Strands of Tradition: Varieties in Its Meaning in American Folklore Studies.” Journal of Folklore Research Vol. 21, Nos. 2/3: 97-129.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Passeron, Jean Claude 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Calhoun, Craig J.  1983. “The Radicalism of Tradition: Community Strength or Venerable Disguise and Borrowed Language?” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 88, No. 5: 886-914.

Cixous, Helene 1980. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” In New French Feminisms. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New York: Schocken Books, 245-264.

Dominguez, Virginia R.  1987. “Of Other Peoples: Beyond the Salvage Paradigm.” In Discussions in Contemporary Culture: Number One. Hal Foster, ed. Seattle: Bay Press, 131-137.

Duara, Prasenjit 1998. “The Regime of Authenticity: Timelessness, Gender, and National History in Modern China.” History and Theory Vol. 37, No. 3: 287-308.

Eyerman, Ron and Jamison, Andrew 1998. Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fabian, Johannes 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York, Columbia University Press.

Fisher, Stephen L. 1993. Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change.
Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Flax, Jane 1992. “The End of Innocence.” In Feminists Theorize the Political. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott, eds. London: Routledge, 445-463.

Foucault, Michel 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London, Tavistock Publications.

Foucault, Michel 1990. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York, Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel 1991. Discipline and Punish. London, Penguin Books.

Freire, Paolo 1998. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Transl. Patrick Clarke. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Frye, Marilyn 1983. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Freedom, California; The Crossing Press.

Glassie, Henry 1993. Turkish Traditional Art Today. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Glassie, Henry 1995. Passing The Time in Ballymenone. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Graeber, David 2007. Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Grieve, Gregory P.  and Weiss, Richard 2005. “Illuminating the Half-Life of Tradition. Legitimation, Agency, and Counter-Hegemonies.” In Historicizing “Tradition” in the Study of Religion. Steven Engler and Gregory P. Grieve, eds. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1-18.

Hall, Stuart 1997. Representation and the Media. Documentary transcript. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.
URL: http://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/409/transcript_409.pdf (accessed February 2010).

Handler, Richard and Linnekin, Jocelyn 1984. “Tradition, Genuine or Spurious.” Journal of American Folklore Vol. 97, No. 385: 273-290.

Heaney, Seamus 1966. Death of a Naturalist. London: Faber.

Heckert, Jamie 2005. Resisting Orientation: On the Complexities of Desire and the Limits of Identity Politics. Ph.D. thesis. University of Edinburgh. URL: http://sexualorientation.info/thesis/index.html (accessed February 2010).

Heelas, Paul, Lash, Scott, and Morris, Paul eds. 1996. Detraditionalization: Critical Reflections on Authority and Identity. Oxford: Blackwell

Hern, Matt ed. 2008. Everywhere All The Time: A New Deschooling Reader. Oakland: AK Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Ranger, Terence eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Honko, Lauri 1991. “The Folklore Process.” Folklore Fellows’ Summer School Programme. Turku, Finland: Folklore Fellows’ Summer School, 25-48.

hooks, bell 1989. Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black. Toronto: Between the Lines.

Hymes, Dell 1975. “Breakthrough into performance.” In Folklore Performance. Dan Ben-Amos and Kenneth S. Goldstein, eds. Mouton: The Hague, 11-74.

Illich, Ivan 1971. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row

Jensen, Derrick 2004. Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

King-Dorset, Rodreguez 2008. Black Dance in London, 1730-1850: Innovation, Tradition and Resistance. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Langellier, Kristin M.  1989. “Personal narratives: Perspectives on theory and research.” Text and Performance Quarterly Vol. 9, No. 4: 243–276.

MacDougall, Pauleena 2004. The Penobscot Dance of Resistance: Tradition in the History of a People. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire.

Lee, Theresa Man Ling 2007. “Rethinking the Personal and the Political: Feminist Activism and Civic Engagement.” 
Hypatia Vol. 22, No. 4: 163-179.

Mauzé, Marie ed. 1997. Present is Past: Some Uses of Tradition in Native Societies. Lanham: University Press of America.

Lorde, Audre 1984. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” In Sister Outsider. Audre Lorde, ed. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 114-123.

Luke, Carmen and Gore, Jennifer 1992. Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy. New York: Routledge.

May, Tim and Powell, Jason 2008. Situating Social Theory. London: Open University Press.

McCann, Anthony 2005. “Enclosure Without and Within the ‘Information Commons’.” Journal of Information and Communications Technology Law Vol. 14, No. 3: 217-240.

McCann, Anthony 2011. “A Tale of Two Rivers: Riverdance, A River of Sound, and the ambiguities of “tradition”.” Ethnologie Française Vol. 40(2): 323-331.

McCarthy, Marie 1999. Passing It On: The Transmission of Music in Irish Culture. Cork: Cork University Press.

McCoy, Michael ed. 1989. Apprenticeship: From Theory to Method and Back Again. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Mills, Margaret 1993. “Feminist Theory and the Study of Folklore: A Twenty-Year Trajectory toward Theory.” Western Folklore Vol. 52, Nos. 2/4: 173-192

Muana, Patrick Kagbeni 1998. “Beyond Frontiers: A Review of Analytical Paradigms in Folklore Studies.” Journal of African Cultural Studies Vol. 11, No. 1: 39-58.

Ó Laoire, Lillis. 2005. On a Rock in the Middle of the Ocean: songs and singers in Tory Island, Ireland. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.

O’Sullivan, Maurice J.  2001. “Tony Hillerman and the Navajo Way.” In Crime Fiction and Film in the Southwest: Bad Boys and Bad Girls in the Badlands. 163-176. Madison: Popular Press (UWP).

Paredes, Américo. 1995. Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Paredes, Américo and Bauman, Richard eds. 1972. Toward New Perspectives in Folklore. Austin: American Folklore Society by the University of Texas Press.

Postman, Neil 1996. The End of Education. New York: Vintage Books.

Peavey, Fran 1986. Heart Politics. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Peavey, Fran 2000. Heart Politics Revisited. London: Pluto Press.

Prakash, Madhu Suri and Esteva, Gustavo 1998. Escaping Education: Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures. New York, Peter Lang.

Reason, Matthew 2006. Documentation, Disappearance and the Representation of Live Performance. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Reddy, Michael J. 1979. “The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language about Language.” In Metaphor and Thought. Andrew Ortony, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 284-234.

Ritchie, Susan 1993. “Ventriloquist Folklore: Who Speaks for Representation?” Western Folklore Vol. 52, Nos. 2/4: 365-378.

Rose, Gillian 1995. “Tradition and paternity: same difference?” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Vol. 20, No. 4: 414-416.

Shils, Edward 1971. “Tradition.” Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol. 13: 122-59.

Shils, Edward 1981. Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Siikala, Anna-Leena, Klein, Barbro, and Mathisen, Stein R. eds. 2004. Folklore, Religion and the Politics of Heritage. Studia Fennica Folkloristica 14. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.

Smith, Mark 1994. Local Education: community, conversation, praxis. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Stoller, Paul 1989. The Taste of Ethnographic Things. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Stone, Lynda ed. 1994. The Education Feminism Reader. London: Routledge.

Tirrell, Lynne. 1993. “Definition and Power: Toward Authority without Privilege.” Hypatia Vol. 8, No. 4: 1-34.

Toelken, Barre 1996. The Dynamics of Folklore. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books.

Vansina, Jan 1965. Oral Tradition. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.

Vansina, Jan 1985. Oral Tradition As History. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Weber, Max 1921/1968. Economy and Society. Totowa, NJ: Bedminster Press.


[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).

“Crafting Gentleness: The Political Possibilities of Gentleness in Folkloristics and Ethnology” – an amended transcript

Presented at Reflecting on Knowledge Production: The Development of Folkloristics and Ethnology, an international conference organised by the Estonian Literary Museum and the University of Tartu Department of Literature and Comparative Folklore. May 17-19, 2007.

Hello.

[I was nervous. I wasn’t reading from a page this time. Some notes, but no set text to work from. I told myself that I should have some idea what I want to say after eight years of researching this. They looked friendly enough. But I’m not standing up and speaking any more. I’m writing now.  Déanaimis teangmháil. Let’s connect. Let’s communicate. Let’s get in touch. Well, no, no touching. Looking. Reading. I’m not really with you now. Am I?]

Why don’t I just leave all those people alone?
Why don’t I just stay at home and read?
Why don’t I just let all that stuff go? I’ve already got too much stuff in my life; too many books, too many things; why don’t I just let it all go?
Why do I have to remember everything? Why do I have to write down everything other people remember? Why do I have to even bother talking to people?
Is my desire to collect greater than my desire to respect?
Is my desire to record greater than my ability to just be present with people?
Is my desire to write greater than my desire to listen?
Is my desire for knowledge greater than my desire for wisdom?

An Irish fiddler, Paddy Cronin, was being interviewed at a summer school called the Willy Clancy Summer School a number of years ago, and he was asked what he thought about young people playing traditional music and he said something like, ‘they’re not playing traditional music, they’re collecting tunes’.

Jean Ritchie was up for a National Heritage Award in the United States and as she was accepting the reward she was asked something to the tune of, would she like to be remembered as a singer?, and she said, no, she wouldn’t like to be remembered as a singer, she would like to be remembered as a person who sings.

[Juxtaposition. Little wordpictures alongside each other. They’ll do quite a bit of shimmering on their own if I allow them to hold the space together. I tell myself that it’s an exploration of poetics – poetics, not just causality. Poetics, not just causality. Stories can rhyme too, rhyme and chime. Sound them out. A little bit of  shadowplay.]

I was working with some students this year on a folklore course and a number of them came from an Irish language speaking district of Donegal, an area that had been the focus of a lot of collecting work in the nineteenth century, and I introduced them to the philosophies of a number of the people who had been doing the collecting. I introduced them to the idea that a number of these people considered people from their own communities as ‘resources for tradition’ as ‘raw materials for the nation’ and a couple of my students got very angry. They thought that quite a number of people at that time in the nineteenth century might have got very angry if they had known that that is how these people, the ones doing the collecting, thought about them and their lives, and about what was important to them.

I was reading an article recently by Ríonach Uí Ógáin, a folklorist based in Dublin, and she’s been doing a lot of work on the field diaries of Séamus Ennis, and she recently published a book, a magnificent book, which is mainly in the Irish language, the diaries of Seamus Ennis. But she has this very nice article published in Béaloideas, the Irish folklore journal, about the relationship between Séamus Ennis and Colm Ó Caodháin, who was a person who lived in Conamara who Séamus identified as someone with whom he could work to collect songs and stories and various other things from. But there’s one line in the article, and in the diaries of Séamus Ennis, which sits with me and makes me very sad. Séamus Ennis had a wonderful relationship with this man by all accounts. By the accounts of the diary he was a great friend of his. He more or less lived with him on many occasions and was invited by Colm to live with him semi-permanently at one point. But there’s one point at the end of his diaries in relation to Colm where he says, ‘Bhí mé réidh leis’. ‘I was finished with him.’ He’d done all the collecting that needed to be done; it was time to move on. ‘Bhí mé réidh leis’.

The ethnomusicologist Kofi Agawu has a line in the middle of an article that he wrote, where he says, ‘the imperial urge dies hard’.

I was once speaking to someone, I was working as a music journalist, and I was speaking to someone about various things, and interviewing her, and in the middle of the interview we stopped talking about what we were talking about and the attention turned to myself and my own family, and I let it slip that my parents didn’t sing traditional songs or play any instruments, and she goes, with a little disappointment, if not disdain, ‘Oh. I thought you came from a traditional family.’

[That set me off, although I said nothing at the time. I’ve learned since to make it more obvious when something annoys me. I must have spent a year thinking about what this woman said, mulling it over in my head, wondering why it had irked me so, wondering what I understood by the term ‘traditional’]

I was sitting beside the sociolinguist Joshua Fishman at a conference a number of years ago and it was about a year from the end of my Ph.D. and he turned to me and asked what I was working on, and I babbled my Ph.D. abstract back at him in rather large prose. In the middle of it he just put his hand up in a sign for me to stop, and said, ‘Speak to me as if I’m your grandfather.’

I had two grandfathers. One grandfather was named Joe; he worked in quarries; he worked as a postman; and a baker at one point; a quiet gentle man by my Dad’s account. My other grandfather was called Johnny; a farmer, apparently a very smart man, with a sharp wit; he sang many songs, many long songs. I didn’t know him very well because when I was growing up I was scared of old people, and he was an old person. But I’m guessing that neither of my grandfathers and neither of my grandmothers would have much time for people who couldn’t communicate with them respectfully. And part of the work that I’m trying to do at the moment is, in a sense, to honour them; to honour the relationship I have with grandfathers Joe and Johnny; with my grandmothers, Kathleen Edith and Mary; with my parents, John and Teresa; and with the rest of my family who are too numerous to mention. And I think that’s very, very important for me at the moment, to consider this relationship with the people in the communities where I live, the people in the community of family in which I have grown up. It’s important for me to consider the ways in which, as an academic, I have been conditioned and trained to write in ways which could often be regarded as very disrespectful if I were to be standing here speaking to them.

[I suppose part of the point is that I’m often not standing here speaking to them. But I’d like to be. Maybe it will take a while. Any disrespect was never meant. There are simpler ways to say what I’d like to say, although it may take me many more years to come down from the abstractions that I love so much. I’ll give it a try, anyway. And I’ll practice. And I’ll be more patient with myself, maybe take fewer shortcuts on the way to my next potentially unnecessary insight. Is é an bealach mór an t-aicearra. The main road is the actually the shortest way there.]

Why do I do the work that I do?

I don’t regard myself as a folklorist, I don’t regard myself as an ethnomusicologist, I don’t regard myself as an anthropologist. I regard myself as a person who sings songs. I regard myself as a person who practises some of the methodologies of anthropology, ethnomusicology, and folkloristics. But one of the reasons that I do the work that I do is because I regard any academic position, any role as a professional thinker – someone who is paid to think thoughts about life and about human beings – to be a very, very privileged position, and to be one which is deeply political whether we like it or not. We’re the professional thinkers. We get time to think about the world. We get time to think about life. Not many people get as much time as we do. There’s a lot of violence in the world. There are people getting blown up. There are people getting murdered. There are people getting raped. There are people dying all the time. People die. It happens. But I think we do have an opportunity as professional thinkers to really take that responsibility very seriously, that we do have a part to contribute to the diminishment, the lessening of dynamics of violence, coercion, fear, anger, hate, domination, and oppression in the communities in which we live.

[As I read back on these words, I am drawn to mention Derrick Jensen’s book, A Language Older Than Words. It’s a book I recommend with caution – it’s a magnificent piece of work, but it demands a robustness from you as you read it, an emotional vulnerability with armour at the ready. Where does our impulse to commit violence against violence come from, and how can we come to a better understanding of our participation in violence, silence, and denial? How can we come to face the destruction we so specialize in as human beings? I’m not sure I would follow Derrick in some of his more recent conclusions, but in this book he raises questions that are important to sit with, and respond to.]

In our disciplines [speaking to an audience of folklorists], many of the practices that have been undertaken in the name of the things that we do have contributed to domination, to oppression, to anger, have not helped a lot, and there’s a lot of damage reparation and damage control that tends to go on in the work that we do. And the silences and exclusions that have been a consequence of the work that, for example, folklorists have done, and the silences, exclusions, and blindnesses that tend to be structured into the work that we often continue to do, are not accidental. They tend to be a consequence of the epistemologies that we use, and we talk about epistemology quite often, but we don’t really have any open discussions about epistemology.

[A did a little digging in the last few weeks, for another discussion in another place. I was looking for discussions about epistemology in anthropology, particularly in relation to the notion of ‘participant-observation’. There’s not an awful lot out there. What I found quite interesting, though, was that most things labelled ‘epistemology’ were really just cloaked discussions about methodology. What’s with that?]

Epistemology is sort of like pedagogy. We’re teachers, but we very, very seldom talk about what pedagogy means for us and what it can mean for us. Similarly, we very, very seldom talk about what epistemology might mean. [I didn’t really say much about this myself in my original talk. What I mean by the term is the study of how we know what we know, or what we understand as ‘knowledge’ or the knowable. Some might even go as far as to say that it’s the study of our basic assumptions about reality, but I’m not sure I want to push it that far today.] And too many times our epistemologies are still grounded in Kantian, Platonic, Hegelian, etc. etc. etc. Euro-American, ‘Western’, whatever you want to call them, models which are deeply fragmented at their heart, in terms of subject-object dichotomies, in terms of various ways of thinking about the world which, from our starting assumptions, often shut down the heart, shut down any sense of holistic relationship and often leave us in a position where our very starting points desiccate our work. And what I’m interested in is the way in which, in thinking about trying to honour the people I live with, work with, admire, love, in what ways have our epistemologies, in what ways have our methodologies, in what ways have our discourses made the people I admire and love not only discursively invisible but politically irrelevant?

[My Dad, reading this over, was quick to point out that I was falling into the ditch of disrespect that I had already said I was going to try and avoid. Not much speaking to anyone as if they’re my grandfather here! Maybe there are other ways to talk about epistemology, methodology, discourses, or dichotomies. Maybe I’m so steeped in jargon that it’s going to take me a long time to reground myself. And even then, maybe I’m too fond of the wordy familiarity? I don’t know. I need to think about it for another while.]

What I’ve been looking at in my work are two themes; one is the theme of ‘enclosure’, the other is the theme of gentleness.

When I talk about enclosure, I’m talking about expansionary social dynamics that involve accelerative or intensifying commodification of everyday life, emerging from the dominance of the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be eliminated. What I’m looking at in my work is the way in which certain unhelpful dynamics of social change are driven by these tendencies we often have to eliminate uncertainty.

[Talk about wordy. Need I say more? Probably. What I was trying to say was that, for me, ‘enclosure’ is a word I use to talk about really unhelpful ways of relating to each other that we often fall into when we try too hard to eliminate uncertainty. I feel that we do that if we place too much value on control, or perfection, or purity, or truth, or righteousness, or status, or … many other values by which we try to convince ourselves that the elimination of uncertainty is not only possible, but also desirable.]

I work with the assumption that uncertainty is a constant and variable aspect of my experience. So to seek to eliminate uncertainty, for me, is to deeply disrespect the character of that experience. Historically, seeking to eliminate uncertainty has also often meant seeking to eliminate the aspect of emotion from our work. The idea of the ‘objective scientist’ is very much at the heart of this notion of the elimination of uncertainty. Often it very much involves simply eliminating people from our work, because people can be unpredictable and uncertain and keeping people and their biographies, keeping people and the richness of their lives away from the heart of our work (actually, the heartlessness of our work, sometimes) is actually a very, very interesting process for me.

[I remain astounded by the obviousness with which people producing folklore collections in the past have often sucked the people they worked with out of their collections of songs and stories. What we are often left with are pages and pages of songs and stories that could have been sung or told by anybody, to anybody, anywhere, at any time. I would hope that we don’t leave that impression for our children. We’re getting better at it, but silences, profound silences of absent humanity, continue to structure some of our most valued collections.]

But these enclosing dynamics, as I think of them, arising from the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty, for me they can be identified in two particular ways. One is in the dominance of discourses of resource production and management, and another is in the privileging of sight and sound in the discourses of our analysis.

[I need to work on this. It says what I would like to say, but it may not communicate what I would like to communicate. I hope what follows makes some sense. If you would like it to make more sense, you can always try to track me down and ask me to clarify something. I’ll do my best to keep it simple.]

In terms of discourses of resource production and management, just think of the ones that we use. ‘Heritage’ is a property metaphor. ‘Property’, that’s a property metaphor too. ‘Data’, ‘that which is given’. ‘Information’. ‘Knowledge’. ‘Capital’. ‘Resources’. Tradition as a resource. Etc. etc. etc. Most of the words that we use at the core of our work are resource metaphors.

Discourses of sight and sound tend to be privileged in what we do. We tend to talk a lot about aesthetics. We tend to privilege text. Again, the privileging of sight and sound. We tend to do a lot of surveillance work – that’s what we do, we monitor people, we go, we record, we monitor. And there tends to be a lot of emphasis on spectacle, on performance.

One of the consequences of the elimination of uncertainty as an ethic, or of discourses of resource production and management, or of the privileging of sight and sound, tends to be a profound depoliticisation of what we do, and of how we think about what we do, and of how we think about the possibilities of what we do. Primarily because what we’re left with, and this is what the orthodoxies of most fields are left with, is that our understandings of power are reduced to the idea of power as control, or power as intervention, but power as some form of resource production or management.

Also what tends to happen, particularly with regard to the privileging of sight and sound, is that there tends to be an emphasis on descriptive analysis, analysis that simply describes what’s going on, without really explaining how a situation happens to be the way it is and not some other way. Further, often without allowing for any participatory analysis, in terms of how might we be participating in the dynamics that we analyse?, or how might we be participating in the dynamics that we seek to critique?

As far as my interest in gentleness is concerned … what I’m interested in doing is not identifying what gentleness is, or what gentleness looks like. What I’m interested in looking at is the way in which the elimination of uncertainty as an ethic can draw us away from the possibilities of relationship.

If we only think of power as control then those who seek to control have power and those who do not seek to control are powerless. Those who seek to be gentle are powerless and are in fact irrelevant to politics.

What I’m interested in is the way in which the gentle people that I’ve worked with, the gentle people that I’ve admired and loved – in line with work in eco-feminism, in line with work in certain aspects of gentle anarchism, in line with aspects of certain Buddhist and quasi-Buddhist approaches to thinking about politics – these people are living deeply powerful lives. These people are living lives that we [folkorists] can learn from. And I think we are in a deeply privileged position. We get to talk to people as a job. We get to talk to people that we can learn from about what it means to be human.

And when I think about the archives that we have … When I go to a zoo it makes me sad, but I still keep going to zoos because I keep thinking that it’s a good thing to go to a zoo. But every time I go to a zoo I go with hope and aspiration, and I come back feeling very sad. Archives increasingly make me quite sad, because for me they’re records of missed opportunities. They’re records of missed opportunities for understanding what it means to be human. We’ve had a chance a chance to talk to so many wise people, historically speaking as folklorists, and we have so little wisdom in the archives. We have lots of stories and songs, but in terms of what it means to be human, the emotional intelligence, the emotional wisdom, the emotional university that has been there, we don’t have access to that, because we weren’t listening well enough, and I think that’s one of the opportunities that we have now, is to really privilege those aspects in our work and to not think of ourselves merely as archivists. I think archives are important, if we ground them in the social responsibility of reimagining the power of small emotions, reimagining that folkloristics is actually in a very privileged position. You have eco-feminism, you have activism, you have all these things, but we’re the ethnographers. We’re the ones who get to actually sit down and spend time to work out what do people think are helpful ways to make sense of being human. We can ground our work. We can substantiate our work. And for me that’s very much at the heart of the gentleness project.

I’m just going to stop there and open it up to the conversation.

Comment/Micheál Briody: First, Séamus Ennis’s comment that he was done with Colm Ó Caodháin. Yes, I’ve come across other comments like that, and there’s one interesting aspect in Delargy’s diaries when he’s finished his East Clare collection, it’s in the bag, it’s done with and over, but that’s partly due to the rushed nature of the collecting. When Delargy first started learning collecting he spent two years working with Seán Ó Conaill without collecting anything, just listening to him. He wasn’t ever able to do that with anyone else, just because he had his mission and he liked to collect so much. There was a much more humane approach originally before it became this sort of production stage, I would call it mass production folklore. That’s one thing. You get that a lot, and in Estonia in the 50s and 60s you get a lot of folklorists talking about ’emptying’ an area, sending out a team of collectors to ’empty’ it, and again you get that in Delargy’s report, emptying an area. It’s very much there. But, yeah, I think though, Delargy, to give him credit, he often said that the only experts on the folktales were the narrators, you know, and unfortunately he didn’t follow that through entirely because one thing he never got around to was sending out a questionnaire on storytelling. He intended sending out a questionnaire about storytelling but he never got around to it. There was a great deal of information collected, nonetheless, from many storytellers about the tradition and all of that, so he did … sometimes it was just lip service, but he always sort of humbly said they were the experts. Now maybe there was pretence involved to some extent but I think myself there was a gentle nature in him. I think there wouldn’t be the big collection without that, but it somehow got left aside because of the ambition of making a very large collection and then also of saving it, even if you might say emptying it, but, you know, in many cases if he hadn’t emptied it, despite what you say about archives being places like museums or zoos that are not so pleasant, if we hadn’t it you might be standing up here and saying, you know, why don’t we have archives, and zoos, and museums, so we can’t really have it both ways. But there is that absence of gentle approach, maybe.

A: Well I think what you’re saying is really, really important, in that most of us, pretty much all of us are in this field because we care about people, you know? And I think Delargy and Ennis and all of these collectors were doing what they did because they cared, they really cared. Perhaps they cared too much in some ways. And I think that for me is part of the challenge, that we get drawn in because we like spending time with people, we like talking to people, we value that aspect of what we do perhaps more highly than we value anything else. We value what we learn from these people as human beings. We value spending time with them. We don’t necessarily talk or write about those aspects of our work, instead we privilege the collecting aspect, but I think what we can learn from the likes of that experience that Delargy had where he goes from spending lots of time to spending very little time with people, is to become more aware and more discerning of the influence of institutional imperatives on the work that we do, and to clarify for ourselves what is actually important to us? Regardless of what the institutional imperatives are, what’s important to us as human beings, each for ourselves, and as we go in and do our work how can that be reflected in the work that we actually do?

Comment/Regina Bendix: It’s very nice that you’re able to talk like that. I would like to suggest context as a very important component of evaluating where our predecessors were. I mean that sort of sadness or frustration that you report about your students thinking about the nationalist paradigm of the nineteenth century, I have been helped a lot in doing historical work to recognise that they were also caught in whatever political or academic forces there are, and so the sadness or frustration is not as productive as recognising where individuals are caught. I think the connection between yours and the previous paper is very powerful as a recognition of allowing ourselves, in doing research, to recognise our body, our mind, our emotions. But the link that’s missing there is acknowledging that you’re not just researching or spending time with people, you’re also sitting in this highly institutional, regimented professional life. You’re little episode with Joshua Fishman, here you found a human who wanted you to talk ‘unprofessionally’, so to speak, and I think we have not done enough legwork in our own professional worlds, because our own professional worlds are the realm that is unexamined, are the realm which we slide into, and we appropriate its mores, and its pressures. And because we have not done enough of that kind of deconstruction work you feel isolated when you feel the way you do, maybe also the way Janika [Oras] feels, when you dare to come out and speak that way and act that way, the pressures around you … there are not enough of us who do this, you know? And as a result you get ‘fringed’ unless you participate also in the deconstruction of the professional life.

A: As I do, and that’s why, for me, pedagogy and radical pedagogy is actually very much at the heart of trying to challenge the institutional structures and the institutional values in the places in which I work. I align myself with social ecologists across the world more than anything else, and there is a growing community of people out there, even within university structures, that are doing work like this, that are privileging the human.

And I don’t have to be an academic. If I get too frustrated within the university structures, I will leave and do something else. I can always do something else. I will continue writing and I will continue researching. At the moment I find the university I’m in does facilitate the work that I want to do, and I hope that continues.

Comment/Valdimar Hafstein: Thank you for your talk which I found thought-provoking in many ways. The elimination of uncertainty you spoke about as an ethic and as a social program related to such things to coercion and violence and domination. I found myself being somewhat uncomfortable with this and think perhaps you’re not giving the elimination of uncertainty its due. There is another way of understanding the elimination of uncertainty, and that’s to do with such things as social security and the welfare society, in fact the elimination of uncertainty as an ethic, as a political and social programme has been the programme with the most powerful movement in western societies in the 20th century. The labour movement, its political arm, the elimination of uncertainty has been its programme to create a more decent and just society. And I think that it perhaps another aspect of the elimination of uncertainty that is under-acknowledged in the way that you present it.

A: In looking at movements like the labour movement, for example, for me, discourses of the elimination of uncertainty tend to pervade most political movements. Although I think it’s important to make a distinction between the provision of stability and the elimination of uncertainty. Because the elimination of uncertainty can never happen, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a discursive claim, it’s a claim that people make about what happens. In terms of the welfare state and those sorts of political achievements, in a sense, that’s about the provision of stability, the reduction of uncertainty in often crisis situations. The reduction of uncertainty or the provision of stability for me are quite different from the elimination of uncertainty, which tends to be a[n unsustainable] discursive claim about the way the world is, a declaration that this is reality, and what is and must be in terms of how we think about reality. So I think what you’re talking about are very helpful in many respects, but I would also suggest that in those political movements, if you look where people are claiming the elimination of uncertainty rather than the reduction of uncertainty, you are likely to find very unhelpful dynamics around those aspects of what they do.

Comment/Kristin Kuutma: I would think there is still some hope in the human encounter with the folklorist and the people that they meet because very often there is quite a long interaction and very often the people that folklorists talk to they kind of are indoctrinated into this process of creating wisdom, so they are inside this process. This is a different kind of wisdom, but they know what the folklorists might know, or if the interaction is long enough the folklorist has explained what he or she is looking for so the person talking to the folklorist gets a certain status from being inside this process and producing the knowledge for the folklorist, as they take it down, record it. So there is another side to it as well, whether we ask them what they personally think about things, but I’d say there is a positive side to it as well.

A: I think there’s a positive side to any two people being in the same room together even if they’re hating each other. In thinking about this, I am thinking from a deeply hopeful perspective, and for me hope works better when it’s here, rather than somewhere else that you’re aiming for. I think the mere recognition and acknowledgement of the lives of people who have experienced what might be described as marginalization, or have felt as if they are in situations of oppression, or felt like nobody listens to them any more, that nobody cares about what they care about, these people that we live with and work with, I think it’s very, very important that the mere acknowledgement that they exist and that somebody wants to listen to them is a very positive thing. I don’t think it’s enough. I think that any status that might be accrued from that for them is a very small gift, as far as I’m concerned. I think we can be far more respectful, even in that. I do wonder … at the moment one of my big questions is, is it more respectful for me to visit people and not record anything they say? It’s a very serious question for me. I think of Delargy and his two year visit. Maybe we can be professional friendly people in a true sense, with the powerful character of friendship and relationship that we can bring with ourselves. But there are a lot of interesting things going on there.

Comment/Diarmuid Ó Giolláin: Do you think you can make distinctions between different disciplinary traditions there. It seems to me, for example, that at least the stereotypical folklorist in the last couple of generations as someone who goes in search of particular genres, say, and who perhaps in a sense scratches the surface, and on the other hand the anthropologist who tries to delve deeper, seeking social structures and so on. Often with the folklorist there’s a sort of exaggerated pietas to the tradition, with the anthropologist … there have been a couple of cases in Ireland where the anthropologist was the one that caused the most problems. I’m thinking about that highly respected book by Nancy Scheper-Hughes called Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics. I mean, can you elaborate on that perhaps?

A: For me it’s a question of what’s more important, the disciplinary boundaries, methods, narratives, or making use of the privileged positions we have to make sense of what it means to be human. For me, the second is more important. I am in a privileged position, I am a professional thinker, I get paid to teach, which is the most wonderful opportunity that anyone can have on a daily basis, and I get to research what I want to research, which is not what everybody gets to do, particularly in the current research environment. But I have a chance to try and make sense of my own experience in a way that I think can help me towards more helpful relationship, in the sense of what’s going on. This for me involves both a critique of unhelpful dynamics in the world, or in my experience, and a reconstructive approach to relationship. And wherever I can find disciplinary help in terms of peopled, heart-filled, respectful ways of thinking, whether in anthropology or in social ecology or in folkloristics, wherever I can find them, I’ll try and use them, and see to what extent they work or do not work depending on the epistemological grounding that they come from. But at the end of the day I do regard myself as being in a privileged, institutional position at the moment, which facilitates the kind of work that I want to do and wherever I can find it, in whatever discipline I can find helpful support for that, I’ll go there and I’ll look to that. I’m more interested in inviting the idea that we can think about what we do and say, okay, we’ve got where we are, we’re in a position, we’re professional thinkers, how can we act most helpfully in the world as human beings, while still doing what’s important to us, while still doing things we care about?

Comment/Diarmuid Ó Giolláín: It’s not a romantic search for community?

A: No, not at all. Because that potentially leads us back to eliminating uncertainty through the utopian imagined community. For me community is expectational resonance, it’s the sense that you can have with anyone at any time to some extent, but also conflict as expectational dissonance that’s always present too to some extent. It’s about being more discerning of the conflict and community opportunities that are available to us at any particular time, being aware that at all times there are traps of romantic communalism, traps of arrogant academicism, and so on.

[Déanaimis teangmháil. Let’s connect. I find that hard sometimes. I’m still pretty shy, and meeting new people still takes quite an effort. Disconnecting is easier. And harder.

Why don’t I just leave all those people alone?
Why don’t I just stay at home and read?
Why don’t I just let all that stuff go? I’ve already got too much stuff in my life; too many books, too many things; why don’t I just let it all go?
Why do I have to remember everything? Why do I have to write down everything other people remember? Why do I have to even bother talking to people?
Is my desire to collect greater than my desire to respect?
Is my desire to record greater than my ability to just be present with people?
Is my desire to write greater than my desire to listen?
Is my desire for knowledge, money, and status greater than my desire for wisdom?]

Epilogue:

Bhí Mé Réidh Leis (a folklorist who cared).
Anthony McCann, 2013.

Bhí mé réidh leis,
Séamus the Folklorist wrote in his diary,
and left, off on his bicycle,
Leather satchel bulging at the seams,
off to the next
National Treasure
by the sea,
near a field
without a cow.

Bhí mé réidh leis.
Too easily translated as
“I was finished with him.”
Time spent.
Proverbs listed.
Songs recorded.
Stories transcribed.
Tunes notated.
Resources extracted.
Surveillance completed.
Primary target acquired.

Primo Levi once wrote:
“To give a name to a thing
is as gratifying
as giving a name to an island,
but it is also dangerous:
the danger consists
in one’s becoming convinced
that all is taken care of
and that once named
the phenomenon has also been explained.”

Double danger
When naming people.
When watching people.
When describing people.

Triple danger
When making a good living from
Naming people
Watching people
Describing people.

Bhí mé réidh leis,
Séamus the Folklorist wrote in his diary.
He could have meant
“I was ready with him,”
and stayed.
To talk like neighbours.
To keep good company.
To be with.
To sit in silence.
To chat about those near and dear to him.
To share a cup of tea.
To wile away the hours
Where words matter less
than the heart that dances.

I wonder if
Séamus the Folklorist
ever wished
(as he cocked his leg over his bike
and wiggled his bum
and uilleann pipes
into position for the rocky road)
that he was carrying
a leather satchel bulging at the seams,
chock-full of the sparkling delights of
proverbs unlisted
songs unrecorded
stories untranscribed
tunes unnotated.

For, in truth, he loved that man.
And sometimes
just sometimes
it didn’t feel right.

And sometimes, late at night,
He would stay behind
After a paperful day
And walk through the stacks
Drenching himself in the names
of old friends, dear friends,
Showering himself in half-glances
warm cups of tea
a devilish drop of poitín
a dirty joke
And a broad choir of grins.

And in the light of morning
In office hours
At the start of another paperful day
while walking his fingers through
the cabinet of the card catalogue
for references to “Na Ceannabháin Bhána”
He would again feel a stirring of regret
that there was no card for “love”.