Opportunities of Resistance: Irish Traditional Music and the Irish Music Rights Organisation 1995-2000

This is the draft of an article that I published in 2012: “Opportunities of Resistance: Irish Traditional Music and the Irish Music Rights Organisation 1995-2000.” Popular Music and Society 35(5):651-681.

Introduction

Legal sociologist Roger Cotterrell has noted that for those not personally committed in some way to the legal system, personal experience of the law often only arises when the law is felt to impact directly, positively or negatively, on the individual’s personal conditions of life (184). Legal power, I would suggest, becomes available for analysis in moments of resistance and conflict arising from prescriptive assertions and demands for obedience. As the work of scholars such as Kembrew McLeod have made clear, the unsettled and unsettling moments of personal encounter and participation in the contexts of “music and copyright” can serve as valuable diagnostic tools whereby the expansionary dynamics and political consequences of doctrine can be made visible. Moments of resistance and contestation can serve not only as clear invitations to analysis and critique, but also as clear invitations to possibilities of empowerment.

In this paper I outline a series of encounters of resistance and conflict relating to the political and economic expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) during the years 1995-2000, with particular emphasis on the domain of Irish traditional music. IMRO administers licences[i] for performing rights[ii] in Ireland. In their own words, “The Irish Music Rights Organisation is the national body charged with administering public performance rights in copyright music in Ireland on behalf of songwriters, composers, arrangers of public-domain works, and music publishers. IMRO’s function is to collect and distribute royalties arising from the public performance of copyright works.” Musical performing rights entitle the copyright owner of a work to receive a royalty whenever their musical work is performed in public or broadcast.

The Irish Music Rights Organisation achieved independence from the English Performing Right Society (PRS) in 1995. In the period that followed, IMRO representatives intensified their efforts to increase the number of licences contracted with the company. Expansion, as a consequence, was the most significant aspect of the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation during the period 1995-2000. A series of controversies resulted during the second half of the 1990s, allowing for an eruption of suspicion, if not paranoia, about IMRO’s operations. Representatives of IMRO encountered fierce resistance as certain groups refused to comply with the purported need for IMRO licences, in particular, primary schools, publicans, and, the main focus of this article, supporters of ‘Irish traditional music’. By the year 2000, however, what had been one of the most notorious organisations in the country had become one of the most accepted, in a complete and almost miraculous turnaround. Presently, the organisation operates with full government sanction, full support of the legal system, and with an unchallenged economic monopoly position in the Irish jurisdiction.

Primary Targets

In one week at the end of April 1996 there was a short flurry of public outcry in the national media and in sessions of the Dáil (the Irish parliament)[iii]. The outcry arose as a result of The Irish Music Rights Organisation’s dogged pursuit of performance royalties in relation to primary schools. The IMRO position was that songs and tunes were being used in public performances, and the writers and composers of those songs and tunes were therefore owed royalty payments for use of their property. Teachers, politicians, and journalists condemned the move. IMRO’s demands to schools were heralded as a direct threat to the continuance of some of education’s most sacred rites, such as the school concert, disco, and even nativity play. The Fianna Fáil[iv] education spokesman of the day, and later Minister for Education, Micheál Martin, declared the demands “anti-music” and called on the Minister for Enterprise and Employment to change the 1963 Copyright Act so that school performances would be exempt from such charges. There was recognition of the fact that the representatives of the organisation were within their legal rights to pursue royalties from primary schools, but the morality of such actions was questioned.

Representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation argued that it was obliged under Irish and international law to collect royalties for composers and songwriters. One of the reasons that such demands hadn’t been made of Irish schools before was that the London-based Performing Right Society had, in IMRO’s estimation, been lax in their duties. Since attaining independence in 1995, Keena reports, the Irish Music Rights Organisation had “tightened up our affairs”. In an article entitled “Sing a Song o’ Sixpence, a pocketful of cash”, Sunday Independent journalist Declan Lynch denounced the organisation’s actions as “petty” and “anti-social,” also commenting on the “widespread odium” that had been generated against the Irish Music Rights Organisation, confirming these disputes as a public relations disaster (Lynch). Ultimately, however, the disputes were settled when, following negotiations, schools agreed to contract for performance royalty licenses at reduced rates. Following that week of controversy, IMRO were to have no more publicly-aired disputes with primary or secondary schools.[v]

If nothing else, IMRO’s brief dispute with primary schools increased brand recognition for the organisation. Described in an Irish Independent headline in 1994 as a ‘Music Rights group’ (Cullen), by 1996 IMRO’s name had reached a level of widespread infamy. Even bad publicity is publicity. All that was left for the organisation to do was to convince those in opposition that they were legitimate, and worthy of widespread support. A second major target for IMRO in performing rights disputes in the 1990s was the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI), an association of Irish publicans operating outside the Dublin area. Publicans objected to the amounts they were being asked to pay for performing rights licences and registered this objection in a campaign of non-cooperation with the Irish Music Rights Organisation. The Vintners’ Federation had been contesting payments to PRS-IMRO since 1984. 1996 saw an escalation of the ongoing disputes between the Vintners’ Federation and the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and a concentration of IMRO’s efforts to resolve them. By the end of 1996 the VFI were the only major music-using group with which IMRO had been unable to agree a tariff for performing rights licences.[vi]

It must be remembered that publicans, for the most part, weren’t arguing that performance royalties shouldn’t be paid to the Irish Music Rights Organisation at all, as had been the case with primary schools. Rather, what was in dispute was the level of the tariff which publicans were being charged for blanket licences. As in the case of primary schools, some felt that the Irish Music Rights Organisation’s pursuit of royalties was unnecessarily aggressive. Other reasons, or rather justifications, were given for opposition to IMRO; among them, that the organisation was undemocratic and unregulated, and in practical terms accountable to no-one. It was felt that the levels of payment requested from the publicans were arbitrary, ‘made-up’, and unjustifiable. IMRO had made numerous attempts to achieve an agreement with the Vintners’ Federation, and it was in their best interests to do so, both financially and from the point of view of public relations. The 1996 IMRO Director’s Report and Financial Statements, however, indicated that 900 court cases were still in progress for non-payment of royalties, mainly against members of the VFI. In 1996, the bill for the Irish Music Rights Organisation’s ‘vigorous pursuit’ of the outstanding debts owed by the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland came to IR£361,293, or 14.7% of net operating expenses.

Irish Traditional Music Enters the Fray

The opposition that arose from among the supporters of primary schools undoubtedly provided the Vintners’ Federation with encouragement for their own opposition to the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and raised the emotional stakes in IMRO’s “vigorous pursuit” of royalties. What had complicated the issue tremendously by 1996, however, was the co-optation of ‘traditional music’ as a major issue in the Vintners’ negotiations. In October of 1996, for example, vintner associates threatened to boycott a music industry event, an Irish traditional Music Expo, ITMEX, in Ennis, County Clare, unless IMRO withdrew their participation. As Vallely comments: “this was akin to having a board meeting without the treasurer” (“Copyright”, 9). As the VFI continued to oppose royalty payments, they turned to the issue of performance royalties for ‘traditional sessions’[vii] to further justify their opposition. This issue provided the Vintners’ Federation with a justification, albeit a dubious one, for the reduction of tariffs for blanket licensing agreements, leading Hugh Duffy to claim that “the VFI are using the traditional music issue to lobby support for their reluctance to pay any writers’ royalties at all” (cited in Vallely, “Copyright”, 8). This was very likely the case. It is important to emphasize that the introduction of the Irish traditional music theme into negotiations was primarily an economic consideration. Although the justifications offered by the VFI were largely insubstantiable[viii], IMRO nevertheless conceded reductions in this regard as part of the deal secured. In retrospect, these concessions amounted to skilful negotiation and savvy public relations. What became clear during the course of these negotiations, however, was that for the people who played in the ‘sessions’ concerned, the issues extended beyond the merely economic.

The Rumble at the Crossroads

‘Crosbhealach an Cheoil – The Crossroads Conference’ (April 19-21, 1996), had been convened as an independent forum in response to growing commercial development within Irish ‘traditional’ culture. The call for discussion had been answered by forty one speakers, and by another three hundred or so conference participants. This was not your usual conference. For perhaps the first time in history, a conference had been called at which practising traditional musicians were in the majority. They had plenty to say, and they were going to make sure that they got to say it. Many were annoyed at a continuous stream of misrepresentation among documentary makers and the national media. Others were tired of those who continually trotted out the tradition versus innovation debate. Some were angry at what they saw as the dilution of the national race and its culture. Others just had a chip on their shoulder. Some were just there for the ‘crack’ [ix].

The Temple Bar Music Centre hadn’t been officially open for more than a year, and the building still had that vague mixture of promise and chaos about it. Inside, up there in a newly-painted room on the third floor, a room probably reserved for the storage of sound equipment at some later date, there was quite a buzz in the air. The room was jammed, packed to the rafters. In the absence of a place to sit I had seated myself precariously and rather uncomfortably on the top of my wooden bodhrán case. There must have been a good fifty people in a room which would have comfortably sat thirty.

The paper was to be entitled, “Irish Traditional Music – Whose Copyright?” William Hammond took a seat in front of the microphone at the table. As he did so, I was aware of the presence, not two feet from where I sat, of the Chief Executive Officer of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO), Hugh Duffy. IMRO had been at the centre of a growing swirl of speculation and discontent among traditional musicians over the previous months, as IMRO had engaged with publicans around the country in pursuit of performance royalties for their members. This continued to cause controversy and confusion, many musicians feeling that one of the vital features of what they considered ‘traditional music’, the ‘session’, was now being placed under threat.

In his broad Cork accent, William Hammond proceeded to describe what he saw as a ‘tollgate’ on the ‘crossroads’ of Irish traditional music. Willie, known more for his prowess as a set-dancer and festival organiser than for his forays into legal difficulties, explained how, in his view, the life of traditional music was being hampered by overzealous collecting on the part of IMRO as they took on the publicans of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland. The Vintners’ position was simple. While they respected IMRO’s right to property, they were unable to agree upon charges which, in their view, were inequitable and which, they felt, derived from IMRO’s monopolistic position.

Willie spoke quietly, and a little hesitantly, obviously not used to speaking in such terms in front of a crowd.

“You can picture the scene where a few lads and lassies who are fed up with competitions and fed up playing on their own, decide to find a place to play a few tunes on a Friday night, and they ask around, and one says,

– I’ve an uncle, he has a bar. He’ll let us play a few tunes for a few pints and expenses.

So the uncle, who pays all his bills to IMRO and PPI for the radio, is delighted to have a few tunes on a Friday night. He decides to put an ad in the paper. So, on the Friday night the group comes in and they take a seat in the corner of the bar for a night of music-making, working out tunes, and tune-swapping.

This is where the law steps in. The local representative of the collection society sees the advert and decides to visit the pub. The representative, seeing the live music, copyrighted music, visits the uncle the next day saying,

– Listen here, you’ve live music going on here. You have to pay £500 a year in advance for the session.

So what does the publican do in that situation?”

Willie continued, admitting that he found it difficult to find where all the pieces fitted into what was overall a very confusing puzzle. He admitted that even finding the smallest amount of information had been a time-consuming exercise. Questioning whether performance rights should cover traditional sessions, he claimed that musicians were finding it harder to find new places to play, and that publicans were cutting back on the number of sessions that they held each week. He expressed worry that the session, the “practice room of Irish traditional music”, was under threat: “No single person is responsible for that tradition. It’s the collective work of many generations of Irish musicians. What rights does it have? None.” Willie finished the talk with a suggestion that maybe it was time for a new society to be formed, a traditional music protection society. The room rang with considered applause. A number of hands were quickly raised to the chairman as people sought a place to speak in reply.

Dermot McLaughlin, then Music Officer for the Arts Council, was one of the first to speak. He expressed reservations about the tone with which the paper had been delivered. “The paper suggested,” he offered, “that copyright legislation is almost a bad thing, when, in fact, a fuller understanding of how the system works would actually suggest something quite different. I think the specifics of how traditional music fits in is actually catered for in law. I think the copyright agencies have certainly done, in my opinion, a fair bit of work to bring traditional music back into the mainstream, so that people who trade and who earn a living from it can do so, and can enjoy the full protection and remuneration that the laws have already put in place. They guarantee a future and an income for the music.”

Willie replied that his only area of conflict with copyright was where it interferes with traditional music. It was hard to hold Hugh Duffy of IMRO from speaking. He was obviously incensed. He stood up, barely waiting for permission to speak. Pointing out a number of inaccuracies in Willie’s presentation, Mr. Duffy sternly reprimanded that he had found a lot of the information very biased.

“Purists like yourself,” he began defiantly, “who defy innovation and question copyright-innovation have allowed the multi-national drinks industry to hijack you, and you are doing no service to the arrangers of copyright music! The arrangers of copyright have been pillaged for the last fifty years both in this country, in the UK, and in America. They haven’t got a penny out of it, and massive fortunes have been made.” “You make the case,” he continued adamantly, “about the poor publican. The publicans are in the business of selling drink. They’re not in the business of anything else …” He restated his accusation of misinformation, and pointed out the financial support that IMRO had provided for the conference.

Sitting next to Hugh Duffy was record producer, song collector and record label director, Robin Morton, now based in Scotland. He rose animatedly to make a number of points:

“I’ve been interested in this issue of copyright protection for twenty five years, and have been fighting the same battle that IMRO have won. I think there’s an awful lot of misunderstanding here of what IMRO’s about and the battle they won with an English organisation called the Performing Right Society. They can put an awful lot of money into an awful lot of people’s pockets in this country and they’ve done a damn good job, and you really should be talking to them. You shouldn’t be coming here!

“The picture you developed there was rather like the picture of an Ancient Ireland where we all sit around in the pubs, and I was nearly crying into my pint, and it was a very emotional scene you were drawing up! This man’s right,” he said, pointing to Hugh Duffy, “The pub owner, this guy’s uncle, is making a lot of money out of it, and you can rest assured that there’s absolutely no reason why that shouldn’t go back to traditional musicians. You can work out a system how that should happen and these people are open to it. I know, I’ve talked to them. They’re reasonable people. They’ve put up a battle for a lot of great musicians in this country to be properly paid. You really should be talking to them, not fighting with them. For Christ’s sake, get in there and talk to them and understand what they’re saying and let them understand what you’re saying!”

The Chair passed the right to speak to Tom Munnelly, a longtime folklorist and song collector from Dublin, now living in County Clare, a place often regarded as the heartland of traditional music.

“I live in an area of West Clare where there are quite a number of pubs and they do have music in them, and they supply a few pints. In fact, if the musicians were paid they’d probably be cheaper.” Laughter broke the tension somewhat. “But this is from personal experience. I am a great believer in ‘Public Domain’. I believe that traditional music and song genuinely belongs to anybody who cares to use it.” He detailed how certain songs he had collected from a singer named John Reilly, for example, The Well Below the Valley, Lord Baker, and the Raggle Taggle Gypsy, had been recorded by singer Christy Moore and the Irish group Planxty. This he had no problem with. “Where I do have a problem is when I get the Planxty songbook and I see ‘The Well Below the Valley, Copyright Phil Coulter.’ Now that pisses me off!”

Robin Morton jumped to Phil Coulter’s defence, saying that if Phil Coulter had not copyrighted the song the money would have gone to some corporation elsewhere. He also testified as a friend to Coulter’s good character, and insisted that there had been no malice intended in Coulter’s actions. “There’s money there to be earned,” Morton insisted, as the Chair repeatedly made attempts to call the session to a close on account of time restrictions, “For God’s sake, take the money from these big organisations! I think the real problem is that no-one knows where it’s coming from. It’s not a rip off!” At that the Chair called a halt to proceedings, joking that from that point on all were banned from speaking any more about this topic, as I raised myself gently from my bodhrán case.

In the context of such concerns, the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland’s fourteen-year dispute with the PRS, PRS-IMRO, and the later independent IMRO ended anti-climactically in late December, 1997. The written documentation of the agreement was accepted at a meeting in Tuam, County Galway, between the VFI President, Paul O’Grady, and the then IMRO Chairman, Brendan Graham. The negotiations had led to an agreed tariff for the collection of performance royalty charges from publicans outside the Dublin area, effective from the 6th January, 1998. Under the newly-agreed tariffs it was stated that “Irish traditional music in the public domain is exempt … but that copyright music will incur the full tariff. Disputes about matters such as the definition and categorisation of music, and the status of Irish traditional music, can be referred to the IMRO/VFI Arbitration Committee …” (Lyons 13). The agreement with the Vintners’ Federation meant that all of the groups that IMRO had targeted as the main ‘music users’ in Ireland had agreed tariffs with the Irish Music Rights Organisation. IMRO’s program of systematic expansion had, it seemed, been successfully completed. As the Irish Music Rights Organisation was to find out, however, the co-optation of ‘traditional music’ and the ‘session’ issue into the Vintners’ negotiations had a sting it its tail.

Musicians Take Note

A number of factors had contributed to the growing visibility of copyright as an issue within so-called ‘traditional’ contexts.[x] The growing popularity of what was labelled ‘Irish traditional’ or ‘Celtic’ music in music industry markets during the eighties and nineties created a climate in which PRS, PRS-IMRO, and then IMRO were called upon to meet the rising expectations of financial rewards from royalties. In turn, the growing recognition of financial reward for new compositions led to an increase in both the number of tunes being composed and registered, and in the number of arrangements being claimed as original and copyrighted. Until the mid-nineties, however, knowledge or awareness of copyright remained the preserve of those for whom financial considerations remained central to their experience of musical practice. For those who did not give much thought to commercial incentive, the issue of copyright remained irrelevant so long as it did not impinge on their lives. The tariff negotiations between the Vintners’ Federation and the Irish Music Rights Organisation made a difference. It still remained something of an esoteric issue, but copyright had begun to impinge.

The growing awareness of copyright and performing rights among musicians started to influence the choice of tunes in sessions at least by 1996. Working from understandings that were nothing if not confused, some musicians would refuse to play certain tunes suggested by other players at ‘traditional sessions’. This was because these tunes were considered ‘copyright’. It was thought that ‘copyright’ tunes couldn’t be played at a ‘traditional session’, as reported to me in 2001:

There was definitely that. I noticed that, that people were more aware of what they were playing and sort of said, ‘Look we’re not going to play any composed music, y’know, so we won’t be playing any Paddy O’Brien or Hammy Hamilton or …’ cause a lot of them would know the music. Yeah, I suppose it shows you that the musicians didn’t know anything about it if they thought that, like (Hammond).

Other musicians refused to play their own tunes until such time as they had been released on a commercial recording, for fear they would lose their copyright. This was very practically an issue of self-censorship in a new awareness of a dichotomy between ‘traditional’ and ‘copyrighted’: “the absurdity of that scenario for the musicians would be the equivalent of censoring pub conversation to exclude mention of ideas in contemporary Irish literature” (Vallely, “Copyright”, 6). Whether these concerns were based on correct interpretations of the law or on complete misunderstandings was of little matter. On the whole they contributed further to an atmosphere of confusion.

The initial reaction to the licensing of ‘sessions’ among many people was simple incredulity. They couldn’t see how the ideas of ‘copyright’, ‘intellectual property’ or ‘property’ of any sort could be applied to ‘traditional’ contexts, and specifically the ‘session’. There was a clear perception of a radical disconnect. This generally ran along the lines of: “But there is no copyright in traditional music?” It simply wasn’t considered to have anything to do with what ‘traditional music’ was all about. As Martin Hayes, one of the most respected Irish musicians on the commercial scene, commented in Seattle: “I mean, like, nobody owns the stuff. You can’t own this stuff” (Hayes). Another musician in Philadelphia phrased it similarly: “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” (Rogers). That the idea of copyright and performance royalties could be so far removed from musicians’ understandings of ‘traditional’ ways of thinking was exemplified by the colourful reaction of a commercially-successful and highly regarded Irish-American musician and composer to the news during an interview that ‘sessions’ in Ireland were deemed to be liable for performing rights licensing:

Get out of town! I can’t believe that. … Man that’s so sticky. Holy cow, though, I can’t even imagine them trying to pursue that. … Oh no no no. Wait a second, from a session? … So who pays? The pub or the musicians? So there would be somebody sitting there and marking down every tune that went by to see who it goes to? … How do they divvy it up? How can they decide? It’s bizarre. It’s really bizarre (Carroll).

Many people who played music and also compose tunes found it hard to reconcile the logic of copyright with the fact that they would be quite delighted if their tunes were played at ‘sessions’, even if no-one knew that they had composed them. The attitude of Maighréad Ní Mhaonaigh, fiddler with successful music group Altán, was typical: “The best thing is to compose tunes and not have people recognise them as newly-composed, that they slip back into the tradition. For me that’s the biggest thrill of all” (Ní Mhaonaigh). Vallely quotes fiddler Máire Breathnach, another commercially-active performer, as saying: “That kind of recognition is superior to any payment” (Vallely, “Session”), and elsewhere notes that many musicians and composers who welcome IMRO royalty cheques for their own work in overtly commercial contexts, are adamant that ‘sessions’ should not be liable (“Copyright”, 8). As one musician said to me rather bluntly: “You’re not entitled to a copyright if it’s being played in the session, because that’s alien to the whole culture to do something like that” (Hammond).

Save the Session

Some of the fears that ‘traditional’ supporters felt paralleled the concerns of the defenders of primary schools. There was concern, for example, that IMRO’s demands might discourage publicans from allowing ‘sessions’ on their premises at all. Some, like William Hammond (4), felt that IMRO’s actions were directly threatening the existence of ‘the practice room’ of ‘traditional music’. On the fourth of February, 1997, Fintan Vallely published a feature article in The Irish Times sensationally entitled “Save the Session”. It was the first nationally published statement on the matter, and the effect it had on conversations around the country, and, indeed, around the world, was swift. The issue of copyright briefly achieved celebrity status among musicians. The Irish traditional music mailing list on the internet, IRTRAD-L[xi], with about 600 members at any time, was informed of the article on the day of its release. A list-member posted the article in its entirety for those without world wide web access. For the next two days the list engaged in passionate discussion of the issues. “Save the Session” undoubtedly provided the clearest commentary on the issue to date. The main concern seemed to be clear, and echoed the concerns that had been voiced previously. IMRO was approaching publicans regarding licensing for performance royalties due to their members. Where ‘traditional’ music was concerned, ‘arrangements’ of tunes whose copyright had expired, played by IMRO members, were deemed to accrue royalties. Three things seemed to justify IMRO’s jurisdiction in this matter: these ‘arrangements’, the presence of newly-composed, copyrighted tunes at ‘sessions’, and the authority of legislation and international agreements. Many musicians expressed concern that this was inappropriate, and an intrusion, if not actually indirectly threatening the continuance of many sessions in pubs.

Rumours abounded that sessions were being shut down on account of pressure placed on publicans by representatives of IMRO. It is clear from the passage above that the Vintners’ Federation in no way sought to diminish these rumours.[xii] A number of publicans did not consider a ‘session’ a financial venture, but merely a favour to some local musicians. Were they obliged to think about it as a financial endeavour requiring a licence, they might well decide that not having a ‘session’ at all might be less hassle. But this would really only be an issue if no other music, of any sort, was ‘used’ on the premises. Any other ‘music use’ at all would require a blanket licence, rendering the ‘session issue’ largely irrelevant. All in all, the perceived threat to sessions was greatly exaggerated and largely erroneous.[xiii] It remained, though, a highly emotive and charged concern in the atmosphere of the Vintners’ opposition to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. Furthermore, it created a dubious cause and effect scenario which helped to justify negative impressions of IMRO’s role.

Blanketing the Issues

As noted before, however, it wasn’t necessary that IMRO consider the views of a disparate ‘traditional’ lobby at all. IMRO’s dispute with the Vintners’ Federation was purely a contractual and financial one, based on disagreements over the level of tariffs. To argue that IMRO had no jurisdiction in these contexts was hardly likely to faze an organisation that claimed absolute jurisdiction in all places outside of the family circle where there might be the possibility of even one copyright work being played. Sinacore-Guinn (29) reminds us that the licensing process is fundamentally adversarial – users and collectives ultimately wanting different things. There is no room to contribute to this equation unless one is either a licensor or a licensee. Furthermore, to argue that certain contexts were non-commercial was hardly likely to succeed in the face of an organisation whose representatives claimed that all contexts were commercial, and that the primary motivation of human life was economic.

Three binary oppositions were central to musicians’ confusion about the inclusion of ‘sessions’ within the regulatory authority of the Irish Music Rights Organisation: ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’; ‘commercial’ or ‘non-commercial; and, ‘for profit’ and ‘not for profit’. Each opposition was based on an assessment of the social and contextual elements of what may have been considered ‘sessions’. Elements which might have been considered by someone seeking to make a judgement of a ‘session’ on the basis of such oppositions might have included whether or not any of the musicians were paid, whether or not the ‘session’ was amplified, or whether or not the pub-owner was seen to benefit commercially from the ‘session’.

Ultimately, however, none of these concerns were really an issue for the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation. The issuing of blanket licences, as well as the all-embracing logic of performance royalty collection, ensured that anything judged by IMRO to be a ‘performance’ of a copyrighted work outside of the family circle was to be adjudged a ‘public performance’. Any ‘public performance’ was a commercial concern, and therefore subject to a royalty payment. This was the case regardless of the musical genre. With the law on their side, it didn’t really matter what anyone else thought. From the point of view of the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation there is no such thing as a non-commercial, not-for-profit ‘session’, because musical activity implies ‘works’, which implies ‘commercial interest’. Moreover, with blanket licences the onus was on the licensed premises to show that only non-copyright music was being played. If this were not shown to be the case, IMRO could claim complete and absolute jurisdiction without needing to consider the nature of the social conditions, or the genre of the musical activity. For ‘traditional sessions’, the representatives of the organisation could indeed claim complete jurisdiction, given that the presence of even one performance of a copyrighted ‘arrangement’, of a tune or song not itself considered to be in copyright, constituted a justification for licensing. Again, the burden of proof demanded disproof.

Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Opposition to IMRO

No organised ‘traditional’ lobby group grew out of the diffuse resistance to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. However, the major Irish traditional music organisation already in existence, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ) (‘Association of Musicians of Ireland’), provided somewhat more structured opposition.[xiv] At the time that ‘traditional music’ became a focus of the VFI-IMRO dispute the official position of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann as an organisation was one of unequivocable non-communication with regard to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. The full-time Ard-Stiúrthóir or Director-General of the organisation, Labhrás Ó Murchú, insisted to the members of his organisation that to talk to IMRO was to acknowledge their role and authority. In 1996, the members of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann overwhelmingly passed a motion at their national congress pledging non-involvement with the Irish Music Rights Organisation under any conditions. In the same year a representative of CCÉ’s subsidiary trade union, the Association of Irish Traditional Musicians, dismissed IMRO as “an English import”, while Ó Murchú himself could not even be drawn to make a comment on the matter (Vallely, “Copyright”, 9).

Labhrás Ó Murchú has been in charge of the operations of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann since 1968. The position he holds is a lifetime appointment, and one not included in the organisation’s constitution. Appointed as a trustee of the organisation, he also holds the position of main spokesperson for Comhaltas, and is the editor of the organisation’s journal, Treoir. In 1997 Ó Murchú was nominated and elected to the Culture and Education Panel of Seanad Éireann, the Irish Senate. He was at the time of these issues a member of Oireachtas (government) committees on education, heritage and Irish language, and the deputy government spokesperson on these matters within the Seanad.

What particularly focused Ó Murchú’s attention on the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and what caused him to break his public silence, was the passage of the Copyright and Related Rights bill through the Irish parliament. Said to be the largest piece of legislation ever to have passed through parliament, it was the first time that the issue of copyright had been specifically addressed in Irish legislation since the Copyright Act, 1963. The new legislation was to be a significant revision and expansion of the 1963 Act in line with advances in technology, international obligations, and the laws of the European Union. A draft of the proposed bill for the new Copyright and Related Rights Acts was published in early 1998, whereupon lobbying interests began to make their case known through the voices of Senators in the Irish Seanad.

In his role as Senator, Ó Murchú lobbied against the Copyright bill, which inconveniently placed him in opposition to the official line of the Chief Whip of his political party, Fianna Fáil. At this point it is clear that Ó Murchú’s role as Senator and his role as Ard-Stiúrthóir of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann were not clearly distinguished from each other insofar as his representative capacity was concerned. In March, 1998, Ó Murchú attended a UNESCO conference in Stockholm, “The Power of Culture”, as a member of a delegation from the Oireachtas. Quite by accident, he found himself at a session which discussed issues concerning the encroachment of intellectual property rights upon traditional cultures. The concerns expressed at this session, and the widely-expressed need that certain protective measures needed to be enacted, provided him with internationally-sanctioned conceptual support for the anti-copyright stance of his organisation and his lobbying efforts.[xv]

Ó Murchú’s, and hence Comhaltas’, position against IMRO very much reflected the concerns generally expressed around the country. They had, he felt, no expertise or appropriate understanding of what might be considered ‘traditional music’. Furthermore, as far as the mandate of the Irish Music Rights Organisation was concerned, Ó Murchú claimed that the number of people in traditional music for whom copyright was an issue, whether they were commercially active or not, was negligible. He gave the clear impression that the vast majority of musicians involved in the commercial world would never even consider the issue of copyright, seeing traditional music as a free music, in the sense that everybody could play it, without restriction, without consideration of ownership.[xvi] The other side of that argument, which Ó Murchú was very clear about, was that the copyright ethic of claiming ownership on tunes and songs that IMRO was promoting was anathema to the spirit of generosity which had sustained the types of “traditional” musical activity which Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann represented.[xvii] While for representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation “traditional” primarily means “anonymous” and therefore in the “public domain”, Ó Murchú was adamant that this position was not one his organisation could go along with.

This clash of approaches to music or musical activity was fundamental. Because of it, the development and expansion of copyright as an issue, and the expansion of IMRO as an organisation, would lead, he felt, to certain behavioural changes and the self-imposition of restrictions among traditional musicians.[xviii] He considered it the duty of his organisation to contribute to the debate in the Senate “before it’s too late”. He believed that once the debate was opened up, and IMRO’s intentions made clear, that it would have a considerable effect on musicians and the ways in which they thought about what they were doing. he stated in interview with me, “Their intent, whatever about their mandate, is to expand and expand”. Ó Murchú was also somewhat concerned that the public relations efforts of the Irish Music Rights Organisation in this regard were contributing to a veil of positivity which made it difficult to focus on the issues of conflict which remained to be debated. The Irish Music Rights Organisation, for example, had been increasing the level of sponsorship for ‘traditional music’ events in a bid to increase levels of support for their project. Ó Murchú’s stated aim at this stage, however, was to try to ensure that the ‘corpus’ of music that was already there could be protected by legislation. He expressed a need to sit down with the Irish Music Rights Organisation to work out some of the problems, rather than “doing this across tables and across headlines” (Ó Murchú, “Eagarfhocal”, 1).[xix]

It is questionable whether Ó Murchú would have been interested in the idea of copyright at all had it not been for the aggressive manoeuvres of the Irish Music Rights Organisation towards venues and events which ran under the auspices of his organisation. The Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann committee in Clonmel was, in 1996, billed by IMRO for the ‘use’ of copyrighted music during the course of the festival. At around the same time a Comhaltas centre in County Clare, Cois na hAbhna, and another in County Westmeath, Dún na Sí, also received bills for the ‘use’ of copyrighted music:

It was good in a way that it happened as it gave me ammunition subsequently. Luckily enough each of those three contacted me. There could always be the danger that one of them could have written a cheque and sent it to IMRO, but they all contacted me, and I rang IMRO and I said, “Look, back off.” (Ó Murchú, “Personal interview”).

It was of great concern to Ó Murchú that the Copyright and Related Rights bill not allow for some legislative possibility that would severely impede the musical practices of those in his organisation and allow the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation to continue unimpeded: “If anything gets into that which is going to create a loophole for IMRO or any collecting agencies we’ve a problem” (Ó Murchú, “Personal interview”). Assurance had apparently been given in writing by Minister Tom Kitt, however, that “under no circumstances would the corpus of traditional music be interfered with” (ibid.).

Treoir magazine published an article entitled “Irish Traditional Music must not be licensed” in the second issue of 1998 (Ó Murchú, “Eagarfhocal”, 1). The article was an almost verbatim report of Ó Murchú’s spoken contributions to a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Heritage to which IMRO representatives had been invited to speak. No other contributions were registered in this article. Stating that it was imperative that IMRO did not “stifle or inhibit the natural momentum of Irish traditional music”, Ó Murchú championed his organisation for having “ploughed a lonely furrow to save our music from extinction”. “To ask our musicians to take out a licence to play their music,” he added, “would be the equivalent of asking a young lad to pay for the privilege of hurling a sliothar [sic.][xx]”. What was particularly interesting, and most definitely a sign of things to come, was the final line of the article: “The IMRO representatives gave an assurance that Irish traditional music, as outlined by Senator Ó Murchú, would not be restricted or hampered by IMRO.”[xxi] 

The Agreement

Following a series of private meetings, Shay Hennessy, then Chairman of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and Labhrás Ó Murchú, Ard-Stiúrthóir (Director-General) of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, signed a ‘Letter of Agreement’ on the 21st December 1998. In this “wide-ranging agreement” CCÉ and IMRO agree to cooperate in the promotion of traditional Irish music, song, and dance, to the mutual benefit of members of both organisations. IMRO stated that they accepted that the provisions of copyright law “should not deprive Irish people of the right to make free use of music from their folk/heritage tradition in its original form”. According to this agreement, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann contracted with the Irish Music Rights Organisation for a blanket licence to cover all official Comhaltas functions and centres, excluding broadcasts, for the sum of £1,000 per annum. In return for the blanket licence, and allegedly in recognition of the cultural work that Comhaltas undertake, IMRO agrees to make a “financial subvention” to Comhaltas for the sum of £50,000 per year, commencing in January 1999. This sum is to be reviewed at the end of a five-year term. As part of the agreement, IMRO also agrees to refer all requests for support for Traditional music to CCÉ. An additional sum of money, a “financial subvention” of £25,000 per year, was also included, going to Brú Ború, a cultural centre affiliated to Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in order to assist a “millenium project to encourage the creativity and development of composers and arrangers writing in the traditional idiom”. CCÉ, in return, agreed to support IMRO’s submission to the Irish Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in relation to the proposed Copyright bill.

The Agreement was announced in the first 1999 issue of Treoir magazine, under the heading: “IMRO and Comhaltas Sign Agreement” (CCÉ 6), and in the June, 1999 issue of the IMRO Members Newsletter, in an article entitled, “IMRO and Comhaltas Céoltóirí [sic] Éireann Sign Agreement to Benefit Traditional Irish Music” (IMRO, “June”, 6). Although mention is made in both articles of both the blanket licence and the financial contribution to Comhaltas, no mention is made of the sums involved or of any other details. The IMRO Newsletter simply states that: “In recognition of the work being done by Comhaltas, IMRO will provide financial support to help encourage and foster the creativity and development of composers and arrangers writing in their traditional idiom”.[xxii] It continues:

Speaking on behalf of Comhaltas, Senator Labhrás Ó’Murchú [sic] said that the agreement will result in very significant benefits to both organisations. He also stressed the importance of a copyright-friendly environment as the digital age develops and pledged his organisations [sic] backing to the submissions made by IMRO to the Department of Enterprise, Trade & Employment in relation to the proposed Copyright Bill (6).

The article in Treoir further reported that: “Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, Ardstiúrthóir, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, said that the agreement will result in very significant benefits to both organisations. ‘Traditional Irish music is winning new audiences all over the world and this agreement will contribute further to its development in all its forms’” (6). Although this was offered as having been said by the Senator, these were also the exact words found in the text of IMRO’s 1998 Annual Report and Accounts (15). The two representative voices of the organisations had truly become one.

Then Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Tom Kitt, published sanctioning remarks in issue 2 of Treoir magazine in 1999, which gave official legitimation to the agreement between IMRO and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. In an article whose title proclaimed “Pure Tradition Copyright Free”, his own remarks clearly placed his understanding of the word “traditional” within cultural nationalist and romantic discourses of “the folk”. His remarks contrasted that which is authentically traditional, communal, non-creative, non-original, and non-copyrightable, with that which is authored, individual, creative, original, and copyrightable.[xxiii] Furthermore, his hope was that the agreement which had been signed would go a long way to ensuring the eradication of conflict within “the music community”.

Initially, when no sums were disclosed, some members of Comhaltas inquired officially as to whether a licence-fee had been paid to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. Some were worried that the payment of a licence-fee would constitute recognition that the Irish Music Rights Organisation was a suitable licence-granting authority in contexts of traditional music, setting a significant precedent for similar organisations worldwide. They were assured by official representatives of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann that no licence had been paid for. This assurance was given three months after the agreement with IMRO had been signed, at which time the full sums of money involved had not yet become public knowledge. When they became public knowledge, it was understood that the licence fee of £1000 obviously constituted little more than a nominal payment. What was important about the licence fee, though, was that it officially granted the Irish Music Rights Organisation full nominal jurisdiction in the contexts of traditional Irish music, insofar as Labhrás Ó Murchú and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann were recognised by IMRO as being the primary authorities in those contexts.

It later transpired that none of the members of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann had been informed in advance of the Ard-Stiúrthóir’s intention to sign an agreement with the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and in fact the first cheques were handed over before the official committees of CCÉ were able to approve the agreement as per the proper constitutional conventions of the organisation. As suggested above, neither were high-ranking members of CCÉ informed of the full financial details of the agreement until they had, in fact, become public knowledge following a series of possibly accidental information leaks.

One Year On

By Issue 1, 2000, of Treoir, the ‘Letter of Agreement’ had become “The Cooperation Agreement”, the first birthday of which had been reached by December 1999. In this article, “A Protection for Ethnic Music”, it was reaffirmed that ‘the Agreement’ “underlines the copyright-free status of Irish traditional music in its original form” (CCÉ, “Protection”, 19). This was stated despite any such claim being in the original letter of agreement. Neither had the agreement, or anything else for that matter, managed to arrive at a successful or adequate legal definition of what ‘traditional’ meant, never mind “Irish traditional music in its original form”. That the phrase used in the original agreement was “music from their [Irish people’s] folk/heritage tradition in its original form” simply added to the confusion. In the “Cooperation Agreement” article, more than a year after the agreement, there was still no disclosure of the sums of money involved, although at least now there was an admission that Brú Ború had received an undisclosed “financial subscription”. To mark the anniversary, the article reported, Shay Hennessy, then IMRO Chairman, and Hugh Duffy, then IMRO’s Chief Executive Officer, addressed the CCÉ Ardchomhairle (‘Advisory Board’). It was reported that the 27 member Ardchomhairle “unanimously[xxiv] expressed satisfaction with the relationship to date between Comhaltas and IMRO and endorsed the discussions which are ongoing between both organisations over a range of issues that are important not only to both organisations but to the future of Irish creators of all genres in the next century” (ibid.).[xxv]  At this meeting it was repeatedly stated during the IMRO address that the agreement had, indeed, achieved the “copyright-free status of traditional music in its original form”. [xxvi]

Ó Murchú was convinced that ‘the end of debate’ has been reached, that the ‘problem’ of copyright and traditional music has been solved, that the role of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann as representative of Irish traditional music has been vindicated and legitimated, and that all problems have been eliminated. He was to state during a presentation at the University of Limerick: “What we now have is legislation, the Minister on the record, and an agreement with the collecting agency that traditional music in its original form is copyright-free. And the second part of it, that we are not going to be interfered with in our activities” (Ó Murchú, “Lecture”). Likewise, the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation were satisfied that it had all worked out to the mutual advantage of both organisations. As the then-chairman of the organisation stated: “Comhaltas has about 37,000 members worldwide, which is a fairly large constituency of people, and certainly there are a potential 27,000 IMRO members in that constituency, or whatever percentage there might be of that 37,000, we’ll certainly be there assisting them and helping them to develop their creativity” (Hennessy).

Enclosure and the Diagnostic Opportunities of Resistance

I have discussed IMRO in the context of Irish traditional music communities before, in an article published in the journal Ethnomusicology (McCann, “All That is Not Given”). That article was structured with a binary opposition. On one side, I sought “to clarify the nature of the social relationships that are inextricably bound up with Irish traditional musical practice” (89). For this purpose I used the concept of the “musical commons”. I surmised that the social contexts of ‘Irish traditional music’ are “based on the idea of gift, which supports what could be seen as a characteristically non-commodified common property resource” (95). This “commons” of “gift” was presented as “inherently non-commodified” and “deeply embedded in cultural practice” (97). On the other side, in direct opposition, I placed the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO), and the commodifying constraints of copyright. Having established that the practices of ‘Irish traditional music’ constituted a commons of gift, I argued for the usefulness of the concept of enclosure: “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 Organisation as an example of enclosure in a musical context” (95). In this line of thinking, it was only through an analysis of a “commons” that an understanding of enclosure could emerge.

In that paper, then, the concept of the commons provided an analytic and, explicitly, a defensive focus. In this paper, however, I am arguing that it is not through an analysis of any defensively-constructed commons that understandings of enclosure helpfully emerge, but, rather, through the identification and analysis of moments and situations of resistance and conflict. If expansion is the primary characteristic of IMRO’s operations from 1995-2000, it is only through an awareness of resistance to that expansion that such dynamics of enclosure are rendered politically visible.

The flavour of the most public resistance to the organisation’s operations was undoubtedly oppositional. “Resistance,” in all three cases offered here, referred to a manifestation of opposition to the expansion, that is, authority, of the Irish Music Rights Organisation in such a way as to hinder the licensing operations of the organisation. Resistance, in this sense, was an indication of a refusal to comply with IMRO’s contractual expectations. In the case of both the primary schools and the Vintners’ Federation, resistance was vociferous. The claims made by IMRO representatives were characterised in both disputes as being unnecessarily aggressive. In the case of primary schools, the claims to jurisdiction were even portrayed as being both inappropriate and immoral, though undeniably “legal”. In the case of the Vintners’ Federation, the most obvious resistance took the form of adversarial legal action in direct opposition to the demands of the Irish Music Rights Organisation. But the most important aspect of people’s representations of resistance in these circumstances for me is not their oppositional character, but the ways in which such resistance can draw attention to very particular modalities of power. Despite the apparent victories achieved by the Irish Music Rights Organisation, resistance does at the very least provide an analytic window through which to uncover the fragilities of their authority and the discursive character of their forever questionable assertions (as any assertions tend to be).

Performing rights provided, and continue to provide, the focus for their assertions. Performing rights provide one of the main financial supports for the international music industry. When you clear away all the legal jargon, and it’s difficult enough to clear away, the primary function of performing or performance rights, as gleaned from copyright theory, is that they act as a justification for prescriptive control, suggesting that it is legitimate for one person to prescribe the actions of another unless a fee is paid. I have suggested elsewhere that there may be little basis to the logic behind IMRO’s licensing of “uses” of “music” in public spaces other than: “Obey me! Pay me money! (or else!)” (McCann, “For A Song”). For IMRO to operate successfully, or even to operate at all, licences for “music use” must be enforced on the basis of either persuasion or litigation, and the claims to authority that the organisation makes must needs remain unchallenged. Without resistance, such enclosing dynamics might well lead everyone to believe that there are simply no alternatives.

One formal definition of ‘resistance’ presents it as: “The act, on the part of persons, of resisting, opposing, or withstanding. … Opposition of one material thing to another material thing, force, etc. … esp. in the physical sciences, the opposition offered by one body to the pressure or movement of another” (Onions, ed. 1807). Similarly, resistance in social life is often defined in terms of dualisms. One popular dualism is that of resistance in opposition to power or domination: “The orthodox assumption seems to be that resistance is against power and that effective resistance will eventually overturn power” (Cresswell 264). Analyses of resistance, therefore, have tended to focus on social movements, organised in opposition to dominant forces of state or multinational capital (see Sharp et al.). Dominant understandings of resistance constitute a prime example of oppositional definition, resistance being most often defined in relation to its ‘opposite’, that being ‘power’ or ‘domination’. In some cases, indeed, the ‘power’ is represented as being so ‘powerful’ that resistance is the work of the powerless, and hence futile (Sharp et al 2). It would seem, perhaps, that to equate resistance with opposition is an obvious way to understand the examples of resistance to IMRO’s expansion presented here. However, the well-trodden analytic path may not be the most helpful way to proceed. To illustrate some of the problems with a purely oppositional understanding of resistance to corporate expansion it is perhaps helpful to take a look at a cyclical model of expansion found in the work of John Ryan.

In The Production of Culture in the Music Industry, sociologist John Ryan details the history of the ASCAP-BMI controversy over the collection of performing rights royalties in the United States. Ryan follows the development of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) from its establishment in 1914, and the subsequent conflict between ASCAP and a rival firm, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). Ryan notes that: “ASCAP’s early history was a continual cycle of laying claim to a particular domain, a challenge to this claim by concerned music users, legitimation of ASCAP’s claim by the courts, followed by a new expansion of domain” (31). The correlation in this regard between ASCAP’s early history and the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation after 1995 are striking. The dynamic Ryan has identified I think of as a “cycle of expansion”. This could be used to speak of the fundamental pattern of IMRO’s expansionary activities during the period 1995-2000. It can be simply restated as a cycle of expansion, resistance, and legitimation, followed by further expansion. The term “expansion” is here used in two senses. It refers to an enlargement in the scale of IMRO’s operations, and also to an increase in the number of domains or areas in which the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation claim jurisdiction.

It is important, if Ryan’s model is to be used in the contexts outlined, that it be used only to describe but not explain the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation in the period 1995-2000. Were it used as an explanatory model, the analysis would then privilege the cyclical and inevitable victory of the expansionary force over any resistance offered, render acquiescence to IMRO’s claims to unquestionable authority inevitable and politically unremarkable, and enact analytic capitulation to the discursive power of the truth-claims being made. The expansion is a profoundly political achievement, involving particular people in particular circumstances. The dynamic of expansion is, at heart, a manifestation of personal investments in ways of thinking and ways of doing. This expansion might be helpfully understood, indeed, as the political extension of authority-as-certitude, accompanied by sustained acquiescence to rhetorical assertions of unquestioned authority.

Thanks to the work of Foucault, some have claimed that, “Resistance is in danger of becoming a meaningless and theoretically unhelpful term” (Cresswell 259). This is largely on account of Foucault’s statement that: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (95). Foucault has argued at length for the ubiquity of power. It follows, therefore, that he must also be arguing for the ubiquity of resistance. As Cresswell remarks, however:

Something that is applicable to everything is not a particularly useful tool in interrogating social and cultural life. … Everybody is so busy resisting always, and already, that little more needs to be done. One problem is that an act such as an armed insurrection or a general strike is equated with the act of farting in public or telling jokes about the boss. The word resistance can apply to all of these and yet they are clearly more different than they are alike (259).

If we ground Foucault’s understanding of the ubiquity of power in the affectual variabilities of any experience in social interaction, however, we can also perhaps reclaim the specificities and possibilities of resistance, without necessarily defaulting to either oppositional or hopelessly diffuse models. Resistance, I believe, can be helpfully understood as expectational difference, located in particular circumstances, lived and experienced by particular people, with very particular effects of power. This allows us to think of resistance in a way which is not necessarily opposed to power or domination. In many ways resistance, then, might be understood as the tension of difference within social life. Its ubiquity might render it totally useless were it not for the benefits of the identification of resistance as an invitation to diagnostic possibilities for the analysis of the dynamics of enclosure.

Cresswell’s use of resistance as a diagnostic tool stems from Lila Abu-Lughod’s anthropological fieldwork among Bedouin women. The complex realities of Bedouin life challenged Abu-Lughod’s search for resistance as the absence or incompleteness of power. The ‘romance of resistance’ with which she had originally approached her work had led her to foreclose her analyses of power and social life among Bedouin women. It was ultimately more useful to allow resistance to “tell us about forms of power and how people are caught up in them” (42). Tim Cresswell combines the work of Abu-Lughod with the insights of Foucault, thereby inverting Foucault’s dictum, that where there is power there is resistance, to come up with the slogan that “everywhere there is resistance there is also power” (265):

It is important that we do not stop thinking about everyday forms of resistance, but equally important that we do not romanticise and essentialise them. Rather than telling us how people are free or partially free from forces of oppression inscribed in space, resistance can be used strategically to reveal how people are caught up in a multitude of often invisible modes of power (266).

In my work I use manifestations of resistance, such as those above, to provide diagnostic opportunities (rather than ‘tools’), with which to identify the process and practices of enclosure. In previous work I have, like many others (see, for example, May), equated enclosure with commodification, and, indeed, have done so with regard to IMRO’s claims to jurisdiction in the realm of Irish traditional musical practice (McCann, “All That Is Not Given”). When I speak of enclosure now, however, I adopt a more social-psychological approach. I have come to understand enclosure as a broader social process, an expansionary social dynamic involving accelerative commodification of everyday life, emerging from dominant dispositional tendencies to “eliminate” uncertainty (McCann, “Beyond The Commons”). It is in this sense that I politically contextualize the discursive absolutisms of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and in this sense that I take resistance almost as a homing beacon for the identification of such discursive politics as a particular modality of power enacted in social relations. The expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation from 1995-2000 relied almost entirely on the assertion and extension of authority-as-certitude, that is, authority about which there was to be no doubt tolerated.

I proceed in the spirit of Stuart Hall’s remark that “The effects of power are particularly visible when attempts are made to fix meanings” (10).[xxvii] We might say that we are only able to identify the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, the extension of the organisation’s authority-as-certitude, by identifying and highlighting the moments and sites of people’s greatest resistance to that expansion. Importantly, where authority-as-certitude is concerned there can be no middle ground. The claims of authority-as-certitude must be met with either acceptance or rejection. One of the primary features of resistance in situations of enclosure, then, is that it is characteristically negotiated within discourses of obedience and disobedience, loyalty and disloyalty, orthodoxy and heresy, truth and error. This is clearly evident in the polarization of legality and illegality that overshadows the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and, indeed, any operation reliant on the certitudes of legislation.

Hegemony

The representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation are now allowed to assert absolute authority to undertake activities and deploy strategies in all domains within the Irish state. This includes the unquestioned status of the meanings and prescriptions that they propagate in the name of copyright, performing rights, members, and market economics. With the accession of primary schools, the Vintner’s Federation, and Comhaltas to IMRO’s demands, the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation moved further towards an intensification of hegemony.  This includes the power of hegemonic definition (Anderson 130). One of the key features of hegemony, as developed in the Marxist tradition from the writings of Antonio Gramsci, is the political and personal force of very particular ways of making sense of experience:

It is different in this sense from the notion of ‘world-view’, in that the ways of seeing the world and ourselves and others are not just intellectual but political facts, expressed over a range from institutions to relationships and consciousness. It is also different from ideology … in that it is seen to depend for its hold not only on its expression of the interests of a ruling class but also on its acceptance as ‘normal reality’ or ‘commonsense’ by those in practice subordinated to it (Williams 117-118).

One of the most significant effects of IMRO’s achievement of hegemony is that the “unquestionable” authority of “self-evidence” comes to be vested in the organization. With the achievement of hegemony, the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and the assumptions upon which they are based, become naturalized, assuming a patina of necessity and inevitability.  The existence of the organization “becomes experienced as an axiom, a fait accompli: children all too soon stop asking ‘Why?’” (Jenkins 107). With the self-evidence of the existence of the Irish Music Rights Organisation comes systematic reinforcement of the organisation’s authority-as-certitude. Something as simple as an IMRO sticker on the door of every commercial premises in the country quietly reinforces the position of the Irish Music Rights Organisation as a taken-for-granted presence in the social interactions of everyday life in Ireland. Many music festivals are sponsored by the organisation, increasing brand recognition and garnering bucketloads of positivity-by-association. IMRO showcase gigs are held regularly to showcase the musical talents of IMRO members in major Irish population centres such as Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, and Wexford. Such exposure allows the organisation to consolidate the unchallenged position it holds in virtually all contexts of Irish life. The unquestioned status of the organisation is perpetuated, the hegemony of IMRO’s influence maintained.

Such aspects are vital in considering the discursive implications of the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation. As Bocock (63) notes, in hegemony the representatives of a group or organisation successfully achieve their objective of providing a dominant, prioritised, and centralised outlook that operates in all aspects of social life. The Irish Music Rights Organisation provides just such an outlook, at least insofar as copyright, music, and ownership are concerned.

By participating unquestioningly in the discourses of music and copyright we also participate actively in the accelerative commodification of musical practice. One of the key implications of IMRO’s resource management discourses is that they depoliticize the discursive terrain, immunizing IMRO against sustained ethical interrogation, frequently co-opting resistance by providing the scaffolding of more authoritative discourse as the only (near-sighted) horizon of possibility: “Past experience is encapsulated in an institution’s rules so that it acts as a guide to what to expect from the future. The more fully the institutions encode expectations, the more they put uncertainty under control, with the further effect that behaviour tends to conform to the institutional matrix: if this degree of coordination is achieved, disorder and confusion disappear” (Douglas 47-48).

The hegemonic dynamics of IMRO’s operations effectively sustain the impression of ‘the end of debate’; resistance to the foundation of IMRO’s authority is consistently rendered ineffective, politically irrelevant, and, especially now, discursively invisible. Law, legal doctrine, legal practice, and, by association, the role, activities, and expansion of bodies such as the Irish Music Rights Organisation are implicated in our everyday interactions and social relationships. Legislation, in any jurisdiction, consists of a set of prescriptions which specify the way in which legal subjects ought to behave. But law also “exists in the sense that it is embodied as a set of expectations or understandings about behaviour” (Cotterrell 155), and it “only ‘exists’ if the prescriptions of conduct actually have some effect on the way people think or behave” (9). The law, then, takes on a very palpable presence in our lives. However, it is always possible to raise questions even while the absence of questioning may have become the air that we breathe and the lifeblood of our financial wellbeing.

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[iii] “The Oireachtas or National Parliament consists of the President, a House of Representatives (Dáil Éireann) and a Senate (Seanad Éireann). The Dáil, consisting of 166 members, is elected by adult suffrage on the Single Transferable vote system in constituencies of 3, 4 or 5 members. Of the 60 members of the Senate, 11 are nominated by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), 6 are elected by the universities and the remaining 43 are elected from 5 panels of candidates established on a vocational basis, representing the following public services and interests: (1) national language and culture, literature, art, education and such professional interests as may be defined by law for the purpose of this panel; (2) agricultural and allied interests, and fisheries; (3) labour, whether organized or unorganized; (4) industry and commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture; (5) public adminstration and social services, including voluntary social activities. The electing body comprises members of the Dáil, Senate, county boroughs and county councils” (B. Turner 2000:439).

[iv] Fianna Fáil is the republican nationalist political party in the Republic of Ireland.

[v] A similarly public outcry opposed the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ decision in the Summer of 1996 to approach Girl Scout Camps in the United States for performance royalty licences. The Wall Street Journal reported that ASCAP had informed camps across the U.S. that they must pay licence fees to use any of the four million copyrighted songs written or published by ASCAP’s 68,000 members. SESAC, another performing rights organisation, also announced their intention to ask camps for royalties. Rather than risk lawsuits, many camps were provoked into excluding copyrighted songs from their activities. The Wall Street Journal article left the enduring image of 214 Girl Scouts at the Diablo Day Camp 3 p.m. sing-along, learning the Macarena dance: “Keeping time by slapping their hands across their arms and hips, they jiggle, hop and stomp. They spin, wiggle and shake. They bounce for two minutes. In silence” (Bannon 1996).

[vi] As early, relatively speaking, as November 1993, IMRO had secured a licensing agreement with the Licensed Vintners’ Association (LVA), which represented publicans in the Dublin area (Lyons 1999).

[vii] ‘Sessions’ can be adequately or inadequately described, but never adequately defined, for the term ‘session’ can now be used as a label for any context in which two or more musicians or singers are gathered in social activity. In The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, Colin Hamilton describes a session as: “A loose association of musicians who meet, generally, but not always, in a pub to play an unpredetermined selection, mainly of dance music, but sometimes with solo pieces such as slow airs or songs. There will be one or more ‘core’ musicians, and others who are less regular” (1999:345). Scholars such as Hamilton (1977), and Vaysse (1996), have noted that the character of each ‘session’ ultimately arises from the personalities and social interaction of those engaged in the activity. In this sense, the meaning of the ‘term’ session can only really be adequately accounted for by looking to the particular circumstances implied by those who use the term. Some would look to the metaphor of casual conversation to characterise the musical activity taking place in what they would term a ‘session’: “Going to the pub, it’s just like going for a drink and telling stories, or telling jokes or whatever. We’re just telling tunes” (J. McCarthy quoted in Vaysse 1996:165). This view would be consistent with the view of Foy who, half-jokingly, describes a ‘session’ as:

… a gathering of Irish traditional musicians for the purpose of celebrating their common interest in the music by playing it together in a relaxed, informal setting, while in the process generally beefing up the mystical cultural mantra that hums along uninterruptedly beneath all manifestations of Irishness worldwide … an elaborate excuse for getting out of the house and spending an evening with friends over a few pints of beer (1999: 12-13).

Perhaps the most important word in this description, for the purposes of this article, is “beer”. A detailed examination of relatively recent manifestations of the relationship between public houses and the “traditional session” is beyond the scope of this thesis, but this has already been explored in the works of Laurence Vaysse (1996), Colin Hamilton (1977), Hazel Fairbairn (1993), and Moya Kneafsey (2002).[vii] To date, however, Reg Hall (1995) is the only person to undertake a detailed historical investigation of this type of music-making in pubs before this date.[vii] Interestingly, Hall’s study focuses on an English context. In a complex overview, Hall shows that among Irish immigrants in London such music-making was to be found in the local Irish pubs by the 1940s. Landlords who tolerated musicians carefully negotiated licensing laws that allowed only two musicians at a time, and, “As musicians became confident in their new surroundings and as publicans realised their music-making attracted custom, the one-off, risky session became institutionalised as a regular weekly event, expected and looked forward to by musicians, landlord and customers alike” (1995:5). As sessions became a regular occurrence in London pubs during the early 1950s a shift occurred: “it became common for landlords to pay two or three musicians for a session. The established practice of other musicians joining in was unchanged, and there was no embarrassment about some being paid and others not” (1995:7). Vaysse records that in Ireland payment for the ‘anchoring’ of sessions has really only become frequent since the 1970s (1996:86). As Hamilton notes:

As the session became a standard aspect of Irish musical life, publicans, keen to have their bars known as centres of good music, began, from around the middle of the 1970s, to pay one or two musicians to turn up on a regular night, to ensure that a session would happen. If this ‘seeding’ worked, the publican was guaranteed a regular core of perhaps half a dozen musicians at a small cost. Almost all the current regular sessions are based on this principle, but at festivals and other like events, sessions are still normally impromptu and non-commercial (1999:345).

As Fairbairn has found, however, payment is not always an issue, and often a more informal arrangement between musicians and publican “allows them an elevated status of desirable clients, rather than that of employees. This means that the landlord is beholden to the musicians, he knowns that the music attracts custom, but has no contractual security. In this way the musicians ensure good treatment” (1993:159). There are certainly some publicans with a personal fondness for particular musicians, and, indeed, with an interest and investment in what they consider ‘traditional music’. These ‘landlords’ are often well-known and well-loved, and are often musicians or singers themselves. Often the relationship with a publican is nondescript, but functional. Hamilton notes that “Even in cases where the host provides no encouragement to the players in the way of money or free drink, he at least provides a place for them to play” (1977:49). Many publicans, however, maintain a relationship with musicians that is at best business-like, and at worst testy and volatile. One city publican, for example, barred so many musicians from entering his pub during the 1990s that those nominated for prohibition gained a certain credibility among fellow musicians. That particular publican now runs a disco bar.

[viii] Why was the issue of ‘traditional sessions’ brought into the dispute at all? Ultimately, as mentioned earlier, the aim of the Vintner Federation’s negotiations with the Irish Music Rights Organisation was to reduce the level of tariffs for performing royalty blanket licences. Many publicans felt that the issue of ‘traditional sessions’ could lead to a reduction in payments for licences. It was assumed that the ‘use’ of ‘traditional music’ or the hosting of ‘traditional sessions’ were qualitatively different from other ‘uses’ of music. Two claims were made by publicans. The first was that they shouldn’t have to pay performance royalties for ‘traditional sessions’ at all. The second was that ‘traditional sessions’ shouldn’t be charged as much as other musical events.

The first claim made by publicans stemmed from the assumption that music that was considered ‘traditional’ was automatically ‘non-copyright’. This ran along the same lines as a much-repeated exclamation I have regularly encountered in conversation: “But there is no copyright in traditional music!” The answer that the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation offered to this argument was the following, from a letter to a publican:

I wish to explain that our interest lies in the public performance of copyright music and as traditional does not automatically mean non-copyright we are therefore pursuing royalties with you for these performances.

There are two ways in which this line from IMRO may be interpreted. One is to assume that the word ‘traditional’ refers to anything that for all intents and purposes ‘sounds traditional’, that is, sonic forms which seem to conform to the genre-limitations of what, in the opinion of the IMRO representative or the publican, is commonly considered to be ‘traditional music’. The other is to assume that the representative of the Irish Music Rights Organisation is equating ‘traditional’ with ‘anonymous’ and, hence, with ‘public domain’. In this scenario the IMRO representative would be referring to the practice in which some musicians engage in copyrighting ‘arrangements’ of ‘traditional’, understood as ‘public domain’, tunes or songs. They thereby secure a 100% performance royalty for any performance of the arrangement which they have recorded in some form, and, importantly, which they have registered with IMRO or some other performing right organisation. Every time they or someone else plays that ‘arrangement’, they are due a royalty. By contracting with IMRO for a blanket licence, the publican gains permission for the ‘use’ of the worldwide repertoire of copyrighted material. The onus, then, was on each publican to prove that not one copyrighted work or copyrighted arrangement of a ‘public domain’ work was ‘used’ on whichever night might be in question. This was an impossible task for publicans. They had no way of predicting or prescribing what might be played or sung after they had paid for the blanket licence in advance. Also, it was unlikely that they would bother to record and classify each incidence of music or song on the nights in question in order eventually to show that no copyrighted material was ‘used’. It was easier to pay the few extra pounds for the tariff.

The second claim, that ‘traditional sessions’ shouldn’t be charged as much as other musical events, stemmed from the understanding that the majority of tunes played or songs sung at ‘traditional sessions’ were ‘traditional’, implying that they were therefore ‘anonymous’, therefore ‘public domain’, and that therefore a reduction in the amount paid could be justified. It was also argued that a standard tariff for ‘sessions’ did not discriminate between different premises and the vast range of social contexts to be found in pubs. Vallely quotes the then Vintners’ Federation Chairman, Tadhg O’Sullivan, as saying:

The pub session is not full-blooded, public entertainment, and players’ arrangements are not new tunes … and anyway, the way that IMRO levies charges, why should a Kerry pub that has only a handful of customers at a session for the whole winter be obliged to pay the same as a similar premises in Dublin that is packed the year round? (quoted in Vallely 1997).

Again, with both blanket licences and the practice of copyrighting ‘arrangements’, there was no need for IMRO to concede a reduction in tariffs on this account, at least not on the basis of the publicans’ reasoning. It was interesting that an issue was made of ‘traditional music’ at all, or that the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation were drawn into a discussion concerning it. If one were to follow the logic dictated by copyright there should have been no distinction drawn between one type of music and another on the basis of genre (see WIPO 1997b). Within the logic of copyright discourse a ‘work’ has either been copyrighted or it has not, is either in copyright or is not. If the status of a ‘work’ is in question, genre should not enter into the issue, in the same way that aesthetic worth should not be taken into consideration for a work’s originality requirement (Sherman 1995). Concessions, however, were granted to publicans, on a number of occasions.[viii]

The ‘session issue’ was arguably, then, only brought into negotiations by the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) in order to seek further reductions on the blanket licensing tariffs which they were contesting with the Irish Music Rights Organisation.

[ix] As Terry Eagleton (1999) has noted, the word ‘crack’ or ‘craic’ is ‘rapidly approaching the status of ‘begorrah’. Most likely of Anglo-saxon rather than Gaelic etymology, the term most commonly refers in Ireland to an atmosphere of comfortable and pervasive conviviality, a complete absence of distrust in pleasant, relaxed, and relaxing company, most likely among friends. Heightened euphoria is not a necessary requirement. Those who wish to understand, participate in or experience ‘crack’ or ‘craic’ must commit themselves to its creation. Ciarán Carson indulges in a digression on the subject during his book Last Night’s Fun: “‘crack’… popularly and recently Gaelicised as craic and advertised in countless retro-renovated bars throughout the land, as in ‘Live Ceol [Music], Sandwiches and Craic’. Non Irish speakers in particular will insist on its ancient Gaelic lineage and will laboriously enunciate this shibboleth to foreigners who take it for a pharmacological rather than a social high. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary dates crack, ‘chat, talk of the news’, to 1450” (1996:83). Carson suggests that ‘crack’ as a term was, until fairly recently, primarily confined to the North of Ireland.

[x] It’s really only in the last ten years that the issue of copyright has become familiar to people in ‘traditional’ social circles. Before then it was of interest mainly to collectors and archivists, and to the commercially-viable performers who always seemed to learn more about copyright in the aftermath of a shady deal than they ever knew going into one. But even then, it wasn’t of any major concern to most people. As Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, remembers it: “One had heard various stories, say, about how Planxty were ripped off, and they weren’t making any money from their own records and that kind of thing, but that was so far removed from the experience of most people involved in traditional music. It was interesting but that was all it was. It wasn’t personally pertinent” (Personal interview, Dublin, 2000).

[xi] You can find IRTRAD-L at http://listserv.heanet.ie

[xii] The reasons that a publican might have for closing down a session are many and varied, and musicians would be as likely to find as many reasons to move on to another venue. Regular reasons include personalty clashes, changes to new ownership less appreciative of ‘traditional music’, or changes in the personality of an upwardly-mobile ‘local’ that gets transformed into a spacious and trendy ‘superpub’ in a bid to maximize income. Hosting a session might simply not be financially viable. A restaurant proprietor in Galway once expressed surprise to me, not that musicians were paid so little for a session, but that they were paid so much. Apparently, she felt, to offset the expense of musicians a publican would have to sell three times as much in value of alcohol to make it worth their while. For smaller pubs this is unlikely to happen. This would suggest either that musicians in these smaller venues would be unlikely to be paid. It might also suggest that any ‘traditional’ musical activity in these pubs at all is an indication that neither musicians or publican are particularly interested in framing the ‘session’ in terms of financial potential.

[xiii] According to one musician, the only direct knock-on effect of IMRO’s licensing demands on sessions was that many publicans placed a moratorium on new sessions. Even this attitude lasted for only a short period, however, and, following the VFI agreement, things pretty much returned to normal (Personal interview, Cork, 2001).

[xiv] An overview of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann has already been provided by Henry (1989) and Vallely (1999a). A number of key points will be here drawn from these accounts, and from examination of the CCÉ Constitution (CCÉ 1996). The constitution of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann lays claim to nondenominational and nonpolitical status. The constitution indicates that membership is open to all who sympathise with the aims and objectives of the organisation, and who undertake to abide by its Constitution and Rules. Those whose actions are interpreted as being in opposition to the aims of the organisation are liable to suffer expulsion. The specific goals of the organisation, set forth in the constitution, are as follows:

1. To promote Irish Traditional Music in all its forms;
2. To restore the playing of the Harp and Uilleann Pipes in the National life of Ireland;
3. To promote Irish Traditional Dancing;
4. To foster and promote the Irish language at all times;
5. To create a closer bond among all lovers of Irish music;
6. To cooperate with all bodies working for the restoration of Irish Culture;
7. To establish Branches throughout the country and abroad to achieve the foregoing aims and objects (CCÉ 1996:3-5).

There are reportedly over 400 branches of the organisation in Ireland and internationally. The primary roles of these branches are the recruitment of new members and the teaching of Irish traditional music and dance. A series of competitions are held every year on a pyramidal county, provincial and national basis. The final competition is an annual festival called Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, or All-Ireland Fleadh, which draws competitors from an international catchment who have qualified from earlier rounds.

Administrative levels of the organisation include the branches, the county boards, and the provincial councils, all of which are overseen by a central exective council (CEC), based in Dublin. The CEC has a president, general secretary, five vice-chairpersons, a national treasurer, a national registrar, a competitions officer, a music officer, a public relations officer, and two delegates from each provincial council. Permanent trustees are appointed by the CEC. They are responsible for instituting any criminal or civil proceedings on the organisation’s behalf. The property of the organisation is vested in the trustees. The Central Executive council meets three times a year to direct the policy of the organisation and to decide on the venue for the All-Ireland Fleadh. Once a year a congress is held, which is attended by the members of the central executive council, two delegates from each branch, and two delegates from each county board.

[xv] In the editorial of the second issue of Treoir, 1998, it was stated: “At the Stockholm conference there was widespread concern at the possibility of a nation’s store of traditional music falling into private commercial hands as has already happened in some countries. This has obvious connotations for Ireland” (Ó Murchú 1998). What those connotations might be was not stated.

[xvi] “Now there’d be a very small section of musicians, and I’d say it would be very small, and particularly in more recent times, may see some advantage in a copyright-type situation but it raises huge questions, then, for the whole body of Irish traditional musicians” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xvii] “Now obviously a newly composed song could be copyrighted, if that is the wish of the author. Our hope would be that they wouldn’t do that, that they would contribute that song to the corpus of traditional music like they themselves had got their songs from previous generations. We’d be looking for a degree of generosity there” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xviii] “But once it becomes widely known through debate as to what the intention is, then I think yes there will be alarm bells set off in the minds of a lot of musicians each time they go to play a tune, whether they’re playing in a pub, or in a concert, or in a session, I think they’re going to say, ‘we can play the first two reels, but we can’t play the third reel’. Now you can see what that will do to music making” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xix] “I think it’s still vital that the individual musician feels free to hear a tune or tape it and replay it and not be wondering whether somebody is policing them and whether there’s a royalty involved. I think IMRO have to alter the equation. They tell us they have, IMRO are telling us there’s no danger to traditional music” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xx] A sliotar is a leather ball, approximately the size of a tennis ball, which is used in the game of hurling, one of Ireland’s ‘national’ sports. A sliotar can also be referred to as a “hurley ball”. To “hurl a sliotar” is to hit the ball with a hurling stick (camán), which stands waist-high and is normally made of ash.

[xxi] This apparently did not stem the flow of opposition, however. In a representation to the Irish Senate in June 1998, Labhrás Ó Murchú likened the “inherent dangers in copyright law” to the decree by “a Queen of England” which called for all pipers and harpists to be hanged. This refers to a request made by Elizabeth I to Lord Barrymore to “hang the harpers wherever found” (see Thuente 1994).

[xxii] By October of 1999 the IMRO Members Newsletter extended the remit of the agreement in paradoxically more vague and more specific terms: “Under the agreement IMRO will provide sponsorship for various events and will make available its experts for lectures and curriculum design. CCE [sic.], in return, will support IMRO and its activities both nationally and internationally” (IMRO 1999a).

[xxiii] “Clearly, for pure traditional music which is, by definition, without an author, and for which the question of originality cannot arise, there is no reason primary copyright should attach to it at all. Copyright considerations would not affect the right of players to play music which is part of a genuine traditional community resource and over which no primary copyright interest can exist. … With regards to how disputes in this grey area might be avoided, I believe that interested parties, both in respect of traditional music and of music copyright, have a serious responsibility to behave sensibly and reasonably towards each other in asserting their respective rights. In this context, I welcome the recent demarcation agreement between Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the Irish Music Rights Organisation which should go a long way to ensuring that unnecessary and damaging disputes on such issues within the music community are avoided” (Kitt 1999:15).

[xxiv] The claim to unanimity was patently untrue, as some dissension had been voiced at the meeting, and the ‘ongoing discussions’ between the organisations primarily meant that Labhrás Ó Murchú was still communicating with officials from the Irish Music Rights Organisation.

[xxv] An interesting development in the discourse available to Treoir readers in this article was the presence of acronyms, phrases, and taxonomy more familiar to the members of IMRO than the members of Comhaltas. Using the rhetoric of ‘protection’, ‘challenge’ and ‘opportunity’ , in the space of three short paragraphs the article managed to shore up the joint activities of CCÉ and IMRO with the legitimating support of the WTO (World Trade Organisation) intellectual property negotiations, the EU (European Union) Rental and Lending Directive, and of Comhaltas members in the US and the UK. “The possibilities,” it reported, “of Comhaltas members in the US and the UK who create new music in these territories joining IMRO is at an advanced stage [sic.]” (CCÉ 2000).

[xxvi] The fact that this was simply a rhetorical phrase to paper over conceptual cracks and stop people asking questions, was certainly not a point that any of those leading the meeting were willing to dwell on. It remains a catchy phrase that doesn’t really change anything as far as copyright or legislation is concerned.

[xxvii] I am reminded of the words of poet John Clare, that “enclosure had a terrible but instructive visibility” (cited in E. P. Thompson 1993:180).

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Living with the heart of a folklorist

I have always worked under the assumption that the conversations, communities, and contexts of folklore can take their place as key players in the social sciences and in the world of practitioners in areas from design to conflict transformation.

I have consistently looked to folklore/tradition studies as a way to ground my social, cultural, political, and economic analyses, believing that, at heart, folklore can be an exploration of the art of being human. In this, I find folklore to have much affinity with transdisciplinary areas like social ecology.

Throughout my career I have been developing what I term a “critical vernacular ecology.” I have developed my critical vernacular ecology approach on the basis of four axioms:

  1. Vernacular (e.g., informal, non-institutional, tacit) culture tends to be theoretically illegible and discursively invisible within the orthodoxies of the social and political sciences – it has consistently been one of the roles of Folklore to redress this illegibility;
  2. Nevertheless, both the historical and contemporary study of vernacular culture provide fertile sources for new, relevant, and integrative cultural, social, political, and policy insight into the possibilities of human flourishing and the art of being human, for now and for the future;
  3. Vernacular culture also provides keys to understanding and addressing the dynamics of particular kinds of expansionary, intensifying, and generally negative cultural, social, and political change;
  4. Realising the theoretical and practical potential of vernacular culture as a tool in culture change, social and political action, cultural sustainability, and intergenerational learning requires the development of new theory from old wisdoms to make the transformative possibilities of vernacular life theoretically legible, discursively visible, and politically relevant. As folklorists, we are well placed to develop these new theoretical perspectives.

At the heart of this is the development of a political theory of transformative action emerging from a theoretical exploration of what I call ‘ordinary ethics’ (e.g., gentleness, kindness, hospitality, trust, compassion, generosity). I think as folklorists we get to hang out with the experts in ordinary ethics, and occasionally even practice such ethics ourselves. That matters, I think, more than we have imagined thus far.

In truth, I believe that the experience of folklorists and, more importantly perhaps, the people we work with, opens a window to the best of political possibility in its broadest sense, raising the quieter people to a position of respect, listening to people who do not tend to be listened to, and valuing gentle strength.

In passing, when I say ‘theory’ I mean ‘thoughtful practice’, in two main ways:

  • working to better understand what happens in order to reduce the possibilities of coercion, violence, domination, and oppression in this and future generations;
  • working to better understand what happens in order to increase the possibilities of optimal human flourishing in this and future generations.

Folklore, for me, includes explorations of creativity, entrepreneurship, power and politics, cultural sustainability, policy, education and learning, complexity, emergence, presence, parenting, community, quality of relationship, trust, generosity, hospitality, innovation, culture change, conflict transformation, poverty, indigenous politics, and much more more. Many of the key concerns in folklore are also key issues, questions, and themes in cutting-edge education, management, leadership, politics, design, activism, environmentalism and so on. If folklore as a discipline isn’t respected as a key contributor within the political and social sciences, it should be, but for that to happen we need to always find new ways to restate old wisdoms, to declare the relevance of what we do in ways that matter.

I think it is important for folklorists to have confidence in their place in the bigger picture, wherever they are, however they are employed or not employed. I don’t think living with the heart of a folklorist has very much to do with our position (or not) in an administrative structure. I think it can be an invitation to the heart of what it can mean to be human, a communicated invitation to others to continually reimagine their own possibilities for being human, and a clarion call for dignity and a deeper humanity. The folklorists I admire are people who care about people, who continually remember and testify to what human decency means. The folklorists I admire understand that the notion of ‘applied’ folklore is superfluous to requirements. Either we make a difference or we don’t. I assume that we always do.

Questioning Educational Strategies: The Challenges of Radical Pedagogy in Discussions about Irish Traditional Culture.

2013. “Questioning Educational Strategies:  The Challenges of Radical Pedagogy in Discussions about Irish Traditional Culture.” In Crosbhealach an Cheoil – the Crossroads Conference 2003: Education and Traditional Music. F. Vallely et al., eds. 288-298. Dublin: Whinstone. URL: http://www.whinstone.net/books-on-music/

Abstract:

Scholars in the field of radical pedagogy have critically analyzed the role and effect of institutional education in our lives. Thinkers such as Paolo Freire, Ivan Illich and others have highlighted the negative contribution of many formal educational strategies to relations of domination, oppression, and dehumanization. The intense commodification of knowledge experienced in many educational contexts, they argue, can be profoundly disempowering. Illich calls for the disestablishment of the schooling system itself. More recently, Prakash and Esteva make the case that formal education constitutes an assault on the values of traditional communities. They interrogate the relationship between the socializing power of education and a globalizing capitalist ethos, arguing that “education” often constitutes an insidious continuation of colonial ideologies.

In postcolonial Ireland such concerns must be taken seriously. This paper is an opportunity to further interrogate the relationship between formal education and the value systems of vernacular or traditional culture in Irish contexts. By critically addressing the issues raised by the increasing presence of formal educational authorities in the discourses and practices of “Irish traditional music”, we can perhaps assess the effects of formal education on the ways we understand “tradition” and “wisdom” in our lives.

Introduction

Until now I have been most interested in the way that ‘intellectual property’ is increasingly accepted as an authorised way to make sense of our experience of ‘Irish Traditional Music’. I have analysed this acceptance as an example of the process and practices of enclosure (McCann 2001, 2003), looking at the difference such acceptance makes in our everyday lives. In this paper I turn to the ‘enclosure’ implicated in the increasing acceptance of formal education. I will draw on writings within the field of radical pedagogy to suggest that formal education is furthering the diminishment of present, powerful, humanising, and transformational social dynamics in Ireland (and elsewhere). I will suggest that formal education is, more likely that not, undermining particular values that prioritize relationships in favour of others that don’t, often in the name of “Irish Traditional Music”. I will also suggest that we ourselves participate in these processes of diminishment when we promote, accept, or ignore the effects of formal education upon the ways we understand our lives and experience.

In a very straightforward fashion, the critique that I present in this paper is also a critique of my own experience. I am a profoundly institutionalised human being. This is perhaps more so in relation to what I have considered “education” than in relation to anything else. I have, in fact, spent twenty five years in formal, institutional education: six of these in primary schools, seven in secondary school, and twelve in third-level education. I have also spent three years as a traditional music journalist, and I was definitely one of the Great Obsessed. I have been for many years an unquestioning convert to the concept of “Tradition” and the discourses and practices of “Irish Traditional Music”, so anything I say here in critique is very much a critique of my own experience.

Radical Pedagogy

A dictionary will probably tell you that pedagogy is ‘the science of teaching’. Radical pedagogy, explored elsewhere in this volume by Stan Reeves, has grown out of the critical theory of the early Frankfurt School of philosophy. Members of the Frankfurt School were profoundly suspicious of any activities legitimised as “science”. Such activities, they argued, were likely to support and facilitate processes of commodification and reification (where commodities seem to take on a life of their own independent of human life) within capitalist consciousness and related political systems of domination and oppression. Within this tradition of social critique, proponents of radical pedagogy seek to identify, understand, and critically evaluate the effects, consequences, and power relations implicated by particular methods, modes, and environments of teaching and learning in formal, institutional contexts. That means assessing the effects that issue from  particular kinds of teaching and learning environments, gauging the consequences of particular ways of thinking and doing in which we participate as educators and as students.

Commodification

It is probably fair to say that a common claim among radical pedagogists is that environments of formal education (classrooms, lecture theatres, examination halls, schools, universities etc. etc.) are sites where we learn to accept and reproduce the increasing commodification of our experience. What can commodification mean? Commodification (also commoditization) is a popular word among mainly left-wing thinkers, due to Karl Marx’s enthusiasm for the term “commodity” as part of his anti-capitalist arsenal in Das Capital. It is interesting that people who write about the process of commodification concern themselves almost exclusively with attempts to quantify or define the qualities of ‘commodities’ (e.g. Appadurai, ed. 1986). This seems to me a somewhat counterproductive strategy. To focus on commodities-as-things, to focus on the exchange, movement, access, control, and ownership of commodities in these discussions is ironically to adopt a peculiarly commodifying approach, as I understand it. I would further suggest that to consider commodification as primarily or solely an economic issue is further to diminish its usefulness as a concept in the analysis of areas such as education by making commodification in educational contexts invisible. I don’t accept that commodification is a primarily or peculiarly economic process, or that it overly concerns the abstract exchange and movement of commodities.

The Effects of Commodification

So, in using the work of radical pedagogists to speak of the commodifying effects of formal education, what do I mean by commodification? In my own terms, commodification is when we engage in strategies of ‘closure’ and ‘separation’ in the way that we make sense of our experience. We close ‘things’ off, ring ‘things’ round, identify, isolate, eliminate variables, and thereby separate, distance, things from other things, people-as-things from other people-as-things, separate ourselves from acknowledgement of many of the realities of our own experience. Think, for example, of the way that thinking, speaking, and acting in military terms (e.g “collateral damage”) can keep actual effects on people in social situations out of the picture. Commodification allows us to not look too closely at ‘what is actually going on’. By focusing on ‘things’ we can distance ourselves from ethical concerns, distance ourselves from the subtle and complex (power) effects involved in what happens, and keep ourselves from thinking about the character of our own attitude towards others and towards our experience. As long as commodification dominates our experience, we are unlikely to personally, ethically challenge ourselves, nor personally, ethically challenge the negative effects of the dominant authoritative voices wherever we are.

“Commodifying Environments”

It seems there are degrees of commodification, depending on the circumstances. For example, the more formal, rigid, or rule-bound the situation in which you find yourself, the more commodifying the environment. Or, the more unquestioned and unchallengeable authorities, roles, positions, icons, or symbols in your experience, the more commodifying will be your environment. I say ‘commodifying’ instead of ‘commodified’ to underline that commodification as I understand it is a process in which we engage and participate. To speak of a commodifying environment, then, is to speak of particular situations in which the predominant ways we make sense of things are in terms of closures and separations; often voiced in terms of atomised things, abstract entities, isolated individuals, or bounded communities. To reference Karl Marx, in commodification social relations between people come to assume, it would seem, “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (in Kamenka, ed. 1983:446-447). That is, the relatedness that we experience as humans-among-humans comes to be understood as separateness.

Alienation is a key point here. When the closure and separation strategies of commodification become the dominant ways for us to make sense of a situation, then that situation will be one in which we are often alienated, and often unknowingly alienated, distanced from ourselves, from our experience of relatedness. With increasing commodification in the situations of our lives comes increasing deferral to other people’s authority for making sense of things, increasingly unquestioned acceptance of the call to “Believe and Obey”. The commodifying environments of formal education are among those that can contribute forcefully to the alienating and disempowering commodification of our experience.

Paolo Freire and Ivan Illich

There are two key figures in the field of radical pedagogy: Brazilian Paolo Freire (1921-1997), and the peripatetic Austrian Ivan Illich (1926-2002). Freire, was concerned to reform the education system from within. Illich, on the other hand, is seen by many as a trenchant critic of ‘the system’ who sought to disestablish formal schooling.

Paolo Freire engaged in a lifelong political project of humanizing educational reform, which he lived in and through his own activities as an adult educator in Latin America. Perhaps his most influential publication was The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970).  Working from a postcolonial, Marxian perspective of oppression, struggle, revolution, liberation, and freedom, Freire highlighted, for example, the negative, dehumanizing effects of what he termed “deposit” or “banking” education, where people are regularly viewed by educators as containers that just need to be filled up with information. In contrast to this, he drew attention to the importance of dialogue in educational contexts, which holds out the possibility to transform a classroom environment from an authoritarian hierarchy to a transformational learning laboratory. Freire also advocated situating educational activity in the lived experience of participants. In this way, each person can win back the right to ‘say his or her own word’, to ‘name the world’. This would happen, he claimed, in and through acknowledgement of the social and political oppression in which they find themselves, and this acknowledgement in turn arises from a process of ‘conscientization’ or the awakening of ‘critical consciousness’. People, Freire taught, could then become aware of possibilities for positive transformation in their lives.

Ivan Illich shared Freire’s concern with the dehumanizing effects of education, but Illich diverged from the Freirian perspective, having less or, rather, no faith in the formal educational systems he encountered. Illich’s most notorious publication on educational issues was Deschooling Society (1970). Illich was, in fact, committed to a lifelong and sweeping critique of institutionalization and professionalization in a variety of fields, and to the disestablishment of formal educational systems. Finger and Asún (2001:10) identify four aspects to Ivan Illich’s anti-institutional position (See Smith 2001).

  • Illich identifies that institutions are more and more part of the intimate experience of our everyday lives.
  • Expert systems and professionalization, he claims, produce negative effects which far outweigh potential benefits, obscure the political conditions that render society unhealthy, and expropriate the power of individuals to heal themselves and shape their environment.
  • Illich drew attention to the problem of commodification. Professionals and the institutions in which they work tend to define processes we experience in social interaction, for example, learning, as commodities, for example, “education”.
  • Illich identified the tendency for institutions to suffer the problem of ‘counterproductivity’. Through institutionalization, he argued, fundamentally beneficial processes or arrangements are often turned into negative ones.

Sometimes it has been assumed that Illich was a totalizing rejectionist, condemning schools in an absolutist fashion. Finger and Asún clarify his position: “Illich is not against schools or hospitals as such, but once a certain threshold of institutionalization is reached, schools make people more stupid …. And more generally, beyond a certain threshold of institutionalized expertise, more experts are counterproductive – they produce the counter effect of what they set out to achieve” (2001:11). Prakash and Esteva state it more forcefully:

“Neither interested in improving the educational system nor in shutting down schools, Illich offered evidence that saying “NO” to education was a matter of decency and courage. Educational alternatives or alternative schools simply cover up the fact that the project of education is fundamentally flawed and indecent … (Illich 1996, 258-259)” (1998:97).

Prakash and Esteva

I recently read Escaping Education: Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures (1998) and was impressed by the convictions of the authors, educationalists Madhu Suri Prakash and Gustavo Esteva. As radical pedagogists, Prakash and Esteva follow on in the tradition of Illich rather than Freire. To summarise, in their book they make four key points:

  • Formal education constitutes an insidious continuation of colonial ideologies
  • Formal education inculcates inappropriate Western values of the First World
  • Formal education supports a globalizing capitalist ethos
  • Formal education furthers the destruction of traditional communities by undermining traditional values

I am interested in asking to what extent their critique of formal education might be drawn into discussions about formal education and “Irish Traditional Music”. It is tempting to follow Prakash and Esteva in identifying formal education as the continuation of colonial ideologies within an Irish postcolonial context, as perhaps the work of Declan Kiberd in Inventing Ireland (1995) might also invite us to do. It seems to me, however, that such an approach has more in common with the simplistic oppressor/oppressed dichotomies that underlie Freire’s work than with the work of Illich. Similarly, the use of categories such as “Western” and “First World” invite the criticism, especially in the Irish context, that “It’s more complicated than that”. As for formal education supporting a globalizing capitalist ethos, I might well agree, but that is very much a discussion for another day. The direction I want to take here relates to their fourth point: does formal education further the destruction of traditional communities by undermining traditional values? Is the increasingly enthusiastic application of formal education to “traditional culture” concerns crowding out an ethical system of powerful, humanising social dynamics in Ireland (and elsewhere) by undermining relationship-centred values in favour of others? I suggest a cautious “Yes”. I also suggest that often happens in the name of “Irish Traditional Music”, and we participate in this process when we promote, accept or ignore this. To come to a clearer understanding of these dynamics I want to now briefly consider the issue of “tradition”.

The Naturalistic Metaphors of “Tradition”

“Tradition”, like “culture”, is a concept that often facilitates debate, argument, and worse (see, for example, Eisenstadt, ed. 1972; Shils 1981; Hobsbawm and Ranger, eds. 1983; Handler and Linnekin 1984; Hellas, Lash, and Morris, eds. 1996; McCann 2010). Most discourses of “tradition” rely heavily on what can be termed “naturalistic metaphors”. Any metaphor that is “naturalistic” is used in such a way that there is an assumed equivalence between what actually happens and what the metaphor says is the case. To use an extreme example, if I say someone is a banana, and continue to talk and act as if the person is actually a banana, then I am using that metaphor naturalistically. The two most common metaphors used when people talk about “tradition” are ‘tradition is an entity’ and ‘tradition is the passing of things from one person to another’. A third metaphorical structure is a combination of the two. The thinking runs as follows:

1) There is a thing called “tradition”. It can be understood as a bounded, discrete entity, and often refers to a stable, sometimes fixed, store of core aspects of a group’s identity. Recourse is also taken to the Roman etymology of the term “tradition”, which suggests that “tradition” refers to a traditum, any thing handed down from the past to the present, or a traditio, which suggests the transferral of ownership over a thing. If we do enough scholarly work, the case goes, we can identify any particular “tradition” and characterize it in terms of its contents and essential characteristics.

2) “Tradition” exists, but it’s not a bounded, discrete entity. Rather, “tradition” is a discrete process of “handing down” or “transmission”, in which discrete, bounded entities of various sorts (e.g. folklore, folkways, symbols, songs, tunes, stories etc. etc.) are passed down from one person to another, usually “from generation to generation”.

3) “Tradition” exists, but it’s a discrete process as well as being some sort of entity. “Tradition” works as an agent in our lives, in the manner of an “invisible hand,” similar to the invisible hand of the market. “Tradition,” understood in this manner, can often be assumed to have a life of its own (“Living Tradition”), can often be assumed to evolve (“The Evolution of Tradition”), and can also often be assumed to exercise aesthetic judgment (“Tradition-as-aesthetic-filtration-process”).

It has become commonplace in anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and folklore to draw attention to the inadequacies of thinking about experience in terms of bounded entities. Life, thankfully, is more complicated than that. To insist upon understanding “tradition” as an entity or as a process of entity transaction, or even as a processual entity, is to participate in the construction of reified commodities, whereby we are encouraged to think of “tradition” or the “units of transmission” as somehow having a transcendent, stable existence independent of the uncertain lives we lead and experience. It may be comfortable to think this way, but they aren’t actually bananas. Nevertheless, academics and other analysts often use the term “tradition” in either or both of these ways, dazzling us with terminological halls of mirrors, blinding us with shifting meanings and marshy conceptualization. We are often convinced that such naturalistic metaphorical excursions are valid, accurate ways of speaking in analytical ways about reality by virtue of their supposedly legitimate academic history.

These naturalistic metaphorical constructions of “tradition” are profoundly commodifying in terms of the abstract understandings they afford us of our experience. Both versions rely heavily on the existence of discrete, bounded entities, entities which we construct in and through the intersection of strategies of closure and separation. As a consequence, discussion about “tradition” in these terms tends to revolve around issues of access to, and control and ownership of the entities that constitute “tradition”. In other words, discussions generally concern ‘resource management’, or rather, “tradition management”. As with any commodifying way of speaking about experience, such approaches frequently leave actual experiences unarticulated, as we keep actual effects on people in social situations out of the picture. We avoid looking too closely at ‘what is actually going on’. To repeat, By focusing on ‘things’ we can keep ourselves from thinking too critically about the character of our own attitude towards others and towards our experience. We can, often naïvely, persist in thinking that there is necessarily an equivalence between what actually happens and the ways we talk about what actually happens.

Re-evaluating “Tradition”

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). So, let me turn it around. I want to start not with things, but with the way that I (we?) make sense of life. On the basis of previous research, presented in detail in Beyond the Commons (2003), I would suggest that we each negotiate our experience with the aid of working assemblies of ways of thinking and ways of doing (I refer to these in previous work as “structures of expectation”). We use many different terms to refer to these: for example, habits, routines, norms, guidelines, principles, procedures, protocols, belief systems, philosophies, ways of life, rules, training, rituals, standards, laws, and the list goes on. I would further suggest that these working assemblies of ways of thinking and ways of doing are often considered specifically within a context of community (where, with my theoretical hat on, I understand community as expectational resonance in social interaction). When this happens, we refer to these ‘working assemblies’ with terms such as “convention”, “custom”, “education”, “culture”, or “tradition”. Experience of these working assemblies varies from person to person. They run the gamut from being gently guiding and loosely provisional, to being highly-directive and deeply engrained (very much in the domain of duty, obligation, and absolutes). How a person experiences these working assemblies depends on the circumstances they find themselves in, and their attitude to those circumstances. To discern the more hardened ‘working assemblies’ in your own experience, what Prakash and Esteva refer to as “arrogant particularisms” (1998:2), ask yourself: “What am I willing to argue about?” or “How often do I use the word ‘should’?”

If “tradition” might be one way to speak of ways of thinking and doing in our experience, then, it seems to me, not so helpful to abstractly define “tradition” as a universal analytic category that somehow refers to timeless entities that are separate from experience. It might not be so important, then, to argue what is or isn’t “tradition” or “traditional”, but rather to ask what ways of thinking and doing are influential in my, your, people’s experience. It would be a terrible shame if by focusing on the words “tradition” and “traditional” we managed to evade such a question in favour of the commodifying allure of verbal games. What I believe to be helpful, particularly in the light of persuasive rhetoricians who deploy the terms “tradition” and “traditional” to serve very particular agendas, is to ask for a little specificity: ‘Whose ways of thinking and doing?’, ‘In what circumstances?’, ‘In the promotion of which values?’, ‘With what effects?’.

A Powerful Politics for Being Human

Prakash and Esteva make the case that formal education furthers the destruction of “traditional communities” by undermining “traditional values”. In light of the above discussion, to use the terms “traditional” or “education” as analytic categories is, for me, almost entirely unhelpful without looking specifically at the particular social circumstances we are referring to, which people are thinking the thinking and doing the doing, what exactly they are thinking and doing, and with what effects. This approach to analysis is personally demanding, requiring constant vigilance against overstatement and overgeneralization. That said, I wish to leave four questions hanging:

  • What is valued, where, and how, and by whom?
  • What values are fostered by formal education?
  • What values are not fostered by formal education?
  • What do we want our kids to learn about life?

Prakash and Esteva speak of “traditional values” in terms of a “commons”: “… the children of a community, pursuing the promises of education, systematically learn to forget the languages of their commons and their communities” (1998:8), and again: “However passionately committed to cultural diversity, the classroom must necessarily be the cemetery of sensibilities cultivated in commons and communities …” (1998:26). A little care is called for here, however. The term “commons” is most often a defensive concept, called upon in the context of a perceived threat of encroaching and commodifying enclosure. This is clearly how the term is used by Prakash and Esteva. There are, however, generally two different understandings of the term ‘commons’.

The first and dominant understanding is that the “commons” is a store of resources that people hold in common. To speak of the “commons” in this way is to present an always-already commodifying and commodified space. Typically, then, debate about a resource-commons is largely limited to discussions over access, control, and ownership. Further, action arising from defense of an always-already commodified space is always unlikely to curb the commodifying influences of enclosure.

A second take on the concept of “commons” is more concerned with people and how people relate to each other, In this case, the concept of the “commons” is again used as a defense against commodifying enclosure, but refers to a particular character of relationships rather than to resources. The uncommodifying attitudes of the people who participate in the “commons” are felt to be incompatible with the commodifying attitudes ushered in with the effects of enclosure.

On the basis of research done and research still to do, I now suggest that what many of us have long referred to as “traditional culture” in Ireland (and elsewhere) is the second of these, a particular character of social life which arises in particular circumstances from a general and personal orientation in which relatedness and relationship are not only acknowledged but fostered and facilitated. I think of certain house ceilidhs I’ve been to in the company of extended family, for example, or some of my best evenings in the company of friends. It is sometimes hard for people unfamilar with such social dynamics to accept that there are ways of thinking and ways of doing that are not commmodifying, that do not foster and facilitate commodifying attitudes, but for those who have experienced the transformational potential of such circumstances the dynamic couldn’t be more real. It’s not that you won’t find people with commodifying attitudes in such circumstances. These days you probably will. But what is important is that such strategies are just inappropriate to the uncommodifying circumstance. Crucially, if commodifying strategies begin to dominate the situations we find ourselves in then the possibilities for an uncommodifying character of social interaction are diminished; closures and separations become par for the course, with the negative effects of commodification going along for the ride.[1]

I think it’s good to take this away from being an abstract discussion about social dynamics, to ground what I’m saying in some way. To do this I am simply going to give a randomly-selected list of provisional principles which I have come across as “wisdoms”, that is,  emotionally-healthy, humanizing ways of thinking and doing. In my experience, these are not inconsistent with the uncommodifying attitudes of which I speak. Where did I learn them? From other people, to state the oft-forgotten obvious. From my parents and their parents before them. From people I have met and admire. One of the joys of my work as someone who studies ethnomusicology, folklore, and anthropology is that I get to talk to people, read what people have written, learn from people, and it’s my job. No-thing was “passed down” or “transmitted”. They simply speak of ways in which I can orient myself in my experience in relationship to my experience. These are some of the “traditions” that I would like to dominate my life:

  • Respect, humility, gentleness, generosity, and compassion are important
  • Wisdom is more important than knowledge or information
  • Silence is okay
  • You don’t have to be conspicuous
  • People are more than the sum of their resources or talents
  • There’s more to life than collecting tunes or songs
  • Absolute authorities or certitudes have no place among friends
  • You don’t need Press Releases, certificates, diplomas, or degrees to be a decent human being, and having them may not get you any closer to being one
  • Your personal experience is valued and respected, and you value and respect the personal experience of others
  • If you’ve got nothing good to say, say nothing
  • I am/you are not a lesser being because I/you do not:
    – play such and such an instrument
    – play, sing, or dance professionally
    – read musical notation
    – have a certificate/diploma/grade/degree/Ph.D.

They aren’t easy “traditions”, in fact they are sometimes difficult to live by, but that’s the challenge. There is a wealth of wisdom there for us among people we can know and love, if we’d just listen occasionally. These and other similar “traditions” constitute a powerful politics for being human, a powerful politics with which to counter the increasing commodification of experience.

What I want to suggest in this paper is that, despite much wishful thinking, such values are highly unlikely to be fostered by the environments of formal education (nor, indeed, by traditionalist institutions, festivals, tourism, representational government, archives, competitions, or the legal system). Uncommodifying values are inappropriate to the commodifying values of formally-conceived situations, and vice versa. In discussions about “traditional culture” and formal education in Ireland it is often assumed that the inclusion of “Irish traditional music”, “Irish traditional dance”, or “Irish traditional song” in formal education curricula unproblematically promotes the transmission of “traditional culture”. As I hope will now be clear, such thinking is not at all unproblematic. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if we are systematically forgetting, ignoring, or wilfully turning away from powerful, uncommodifying, and humanizing politics, and replacing them with the commodifying strategies and commodified resources of formal education. And that we may be doing this because we are often led to believe, by way of the miracles of naturalistic metaphors and mystifying terminology, that they’re the same; that calling something “traditional” guarantees that we’re on the side of the angels.

So what am I advocating? I am suggesting that we try to spend more time fostering and enjoying the uninstitutionalized, unscripted, uncommodifying situations that come about when people simply hang out together. I am suggesting that we stop assuming that formal education is necessarily the right tool for what we are trying to do. I am suggesting we learn to identify the various ways in which we close and separate, learn to identify the different masks that we wear as we commodify our experience. I am suggesting we notice how important ‘things’ have become and maybe consider life a little more in terms of our relationships and relatedness to others. I am suggesting that we encourage less misrepresentative and less mystifying analyses of ‘what is actually going on’. I am suggesting that we take time to identify our absolutes and certitudes, and challenge them. I am suggesting that we be less enthusiastic about all-out lobbying for the increasing inclusion of “tradition” in formal education (Again, which “traditions”?, whose values?). I am suggesting that we be less enthusiastic about all-out lobbying for unity where “tradition” is concerned, or where anything is concerned, for that matter. I am suggesting that each of us takes a moment to bring the chickens home to roost, asking ourselves: “What are my “traditions”? What are my values? Have I ever questioned the legitimacy of educational authorities? Have I ever questioned the validity or necessity of formal education? What has been my experience of formal education?” The commodification of our experience doesn’t take place without our participation. We aren’t victims. As long as there are people there are humanizing possibilities.

 

Discussion

Floor (Stan Reeves): Thanks for the paper I enjoyed it very much, and I share your interest in radical pedagogies. I have been working in adult education for twenty-three years doing this sort of thing. I concur with what you were saying in the very early part. When I first started practising teaching traditional music in a participative manner, we had to find places to go to, so we went to the secondary school. We had ten classes in the secondary school, and the first thing you have to do when you interact with participative educational methodology in an established institution is you have to deconstruct the room, you literally have to take it apart. On about the fourth night the janitor came up to me, and he just leaned fairly aggressively towards me, and he just said ‘Furniture’, which meant that our student and teachers were not replacing the furniture in the correct fashion. Three months later, I’m in my office, about a half a mile from the school, and a small dark man bursts into the office and says, ‘I want to see the man in charge of the music programme’, and he ran right up to the end of the office and he said, ‘I want to talk to you about the arrangements of the desks in my maths class’. The man had veins standing out in his neck because we had put the desks back in an inappropriate manner. Really, this is to reinforce some of what you are saying about the formal education. I think I want to challenge as well, Paulo Freire, he talks about the inherent contradiction in education, in that yes, it does suffer from narration sickness, and yes, it is inherently de-humanising and domesticating, but there are also books in there that you can read on your own, and make your own interpretations of it and the people you will meet in formal institutions, and experiences that you will have, which are inherently liberating because of who the people are, and the way that they interpret the bodies of knowledge that they get. So the question really is about how within a domesticating formal education sector human beings can find the space to humanise that space, and bring some of  those values into the classroom, and create the humanised classroom. Ira Shor worked all his days in community colleges, the most de-humanising of education establishments, and he was able to find a way, and helped us think through that one. Is there any hope for us?

Reply: There are two things there. One is I am very interested in the tensions between Paulo Freire  and Ivan Illich because Paulo Freire believed that you could reform the educational system, you could actually find those humanising politics in the education system, and Ivan Illich seems to have basically said, I’m sorry, we have got to start somewhere else. He was a lot more subtle than that, but that was basically the main point. My own personal response to that is that first of all, hope for me lies in inviting every person, I am avoiding using the word student here, to acknowledge how they participate in meaning and power in their own life. Now, that can happen anywhere. The issue with this, as far as my own research is guiding me to think, is where that is more likely to happen and where that is less likely to happen. What I am finding is that the more formal education environments become, the less likely it is going to happen. The more formal educational environments become, the more it becomes about persuasion and coercion, the more it becomes about these binaries of students and teachers, the more it becomes appropriate to the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy that Paulo Freire would use quite often. So for me, wherever you have got human beings in a room, wonderful things can happen. As long as you can identify and acknowledge the effects of the environment that you find yourself in. Now, the main problem with the educational environments is that most courses aren’t geared towards saying, ‘Well, let’s start by looking at how what we are doing here is limiting the way we are thinking’, and if you are going to stay in the educational environment and work to reform it in that sense, you need that intensive structural awareness from the start, to say, ‘Well, we are guided in highly directive ways to think in commodifying ways about our experience, by simply being where we are.’ In that sort of expectational environment, in which we find ourselves, how can we challenge that? What things are we not challenging in this environment right now for example? The ideas of a university, all these sort of layers upon layers of things happening here right now. What things do we accept without question? What things are we willing to argue about, which is a very important question? What are we willing to argue about? I find it very important to focus on the issue of attitude. The attitude and the disposition of a person is where the hope comes from. The more they tend towards fundamentalism, the more they tend towards certitude, the more limiting will be their own experience of experience. So for me the issue becomes, in the teaching experience, to challenge people to identify their own certitudes, to challenge people to identify what they are willing to argue about, so that they can then challenge themselves, and bring the chicken’s home to roost.

Floor (Anon): All my formal educational background has been in fairly technical areas, medicine and then in business, and much of the business of the higher institutes in that area has been to attempt to humanise them, so it is exactly the opposite dialogue, beginning with something where the public expectation would be a very rigorous environment. The internal structure of those formal environments is recognising a need to try and humanise it. In turn, here we are taking a human experience and by applying rigour, inadvertently or overtly objectifying it, and then going in the opposite direction, my point would be, I think that there are some techniques and skills from the technical higher learning centres, because they have had to deal with some of these humanising techniques that might be useful in answering some of the questions. But how does one avoid the objectification and commodification of an essentially human study of a traditional culture.

Reply: One of the things I am very interested in is the issue I refer to as the ‘masks of enclosure’. One of the ways in which people often respond to these commodifying forms is with other commodifying strategies, but ones that that don’t necessarily look like commodyfing strategies. That is one thing I am always concerned about, especially in relation to the business and scientific environments. What I am interested in looking at are particular circumstances, what is actually happening, in a particular situation. What are the main dynamics in this particular situation, I’m not interested in ‘Irish Traditional Music’ in general, I’m not. I don’t think there is such a thing. I am interested in looking at where I am in my life, who is around me, what is happening, to what extent are these certitudes and absolutes creeping in, and are there any ways, in any way, that we can find them? Are there any strategies where we can begin to humanise environments? Sometimes that actually means identifying those things which grossly misrepresent the relationship or interrelationship of everyone at all times, that basically lead us to believe, for example, that we are all self-interested, or lead us to believe that we are all atomised individuals, or lead us to believe that everything is closed off and separated.

Floor (Stan Reeves): I’ll tell you how we solved the problem of the janitors. It’s very important because the janitors represent the negative power of the powerless, they have nothing in their lives over which they have any power accept the bloody furniture, and we resolved that problem by humanising the classroom situation. How we did that was we gave them bottles of whiskey, and we began to treat them with respect. We began to say, yes, your job is very difficult and you have been here since six o’clock this morning, and we want to be here till nine o’clock at night, and if we want to get through this relationship together, we are going to have to oil the wheels of love in this situation. So we introduced respect to a relationship with the janitors, and we introduced whiskey, and gave them free tickets to all the concerts, and invited them to bring their families to them all. They had never been treated like that before by academics, and I think it was a lesson not just to the janitors, but also to the other academics,  that it is always, always, always, possible to humanise any situation and it doesn’t always acquire a great theoretical perspective, it just acquires a bottle of whiskey! Every teacher should carry a bottle of whiskey.

 

References

A. Appadurai, ed. 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

S. N. Eisenstadt, ed. 1972. Post-Traditional Societies. New York: W. W. Norton.

M. Finger and J. M. Asún. 2001. Adult Education at the Crossroads: Learning our way out. London: Zed Books.

P. Freire. 1970. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

R. Handler and J. Linnekin. 1984. “Tradition, Genuine or Spurious”. Journal of American Folklore 97 (385): 273-290.

P. Heelas, S. Lash, and P. Morris, eds. 1996. Detraditionalization: Critical Reflections on Authority and Identity. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

I. Illich. 1970. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper and Row.

E. Kamenka, ed. 1983. The Portable Karl Marx. New York: Penguin Books.

D. Kiberd. 1995. Inventing Ireland. London: Jonathan Cape.

A. McCann. 2001. “All That is Not Given is Lost: Irish Traditional Music, Copyright, and Common Property.” Ethnomusicology 45(1): 89-106. http://www.beyondthecommons.com
___. 2003. Beyond the Commons: The Expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, the Elimination of Uncertainty, and the Politics of Enclosure. Warrenpoint: Anthony McCann. URL:  http://www.anthonymccann.com.
___. 2010. “What might I like my kids to learn about life?”: in search of “tradition.” Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics 4(1): 75-92

T. McGurk. 1995. The Sunday Business Post April 25.

M. S. Prakash and G. Esteva. 1998. Escaping Education: Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures. transl. Volume . New York: Peter Lang.

E. Shils. 1981. Tradition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

M. K. Smith. 2001. “Ivan Illich: deschooling, conviviality and the possibilities for informal education and lifelong learning.” The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. URL: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-illic.htm


[1] This is often the case in defensive “commons” analysis; the shifts in understanding what might be happening from “what we do”, to “commons” under threat of enclosure, to “resource-commons” are often subtle but profoundly damaging in terms of long-term strategies against commodification.

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

Ethnomusicology  2001, Vol. 45, No. 1

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

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

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

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

The Irish Context

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

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

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

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

The Session

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

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

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

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

Intellectual Property and Commodification

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

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

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

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

Common Property Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All That Is Not Given Is Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

6. See Fairbairn (1993).

7. See Malcolm (1998).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In search of “tradition”

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

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

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

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

A wish-list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words of caution 

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

Resource management

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

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

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

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

Prescriptive invariance

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

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

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

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

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

 

Consequences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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”.