Humanising Music and Copyright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

Nicolas K. Blomley. 1994. Law, Space, and the Geographies of Power. New York: The Guilford Press.

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

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

Lydia Goehr. 1992. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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Kenneth G. Gourlay. 1978. “Towards a Reassessment of the Ethnomusicologist’s Role in Research.” Ethnomusicology 22(1):1-35.
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Nancy Guy. 2002. “Trafficking in Taiwan Aboriginal Voices.” In Handle with Care: Ownership and Control of Ethnographic Materials. Sjoerd R. Jaarsma, ed. 195-209. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
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Peter Jaszi. 1991. “Towards a Theory of Copyright: The Metamorphoses of “Authorship”.” Duke Law Journal 1991(1991):455-502.
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Judy Lin-Eftekhar. 2002. “Who Owns the Music?” UCLA Magazine Summer 24. URL: http://www.magazine.ucla.edu/year2002/summer02_03.html

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Ingrid Monson. 1996. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

David Saunders. 1992. Authorship and Copyright. London: Routledge.

Anthony Seeger. 1987. “Do We Need to Remodel Ethnomusicology?” Ethnomusicology 31(3):491-495.
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Brad Sherman. 1995. “Appropriating The Postmodern: Copyright and the Challenge of the New.” Social and Legal Studies 4:31-54.

Christopher Small 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.

Stan Soocher. 1998. They Fought the Law: Rock Music Goes to Court. New York: Schirmer Books

Eric Steuer. 2004. “The Remix Masters.” WIRED 11:186.

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Michael Talbot, ed. 2000. The Musical Work: Reality or Invention? Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Martha Woodmansee. 1984. “The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of the ‘Author’.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 17(4):425-448.
—. 1994. “On The Author Effect: Recovering Collectivity.” In The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi, eds. 1-15. Durham: Duke University Press.

Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi. 1994. “Introduction.” In The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. 1-13. Durham: Duke University Press.

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

Roberto M. Unger. 1986. The Critical Legal Studies Movement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.


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

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

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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).

A Politics of Gentleness in the Practice of Coaching: The dynamics of enclosure and the possibilities of ordinary ethics.

Presented at EMCC Research Conference, Trinity College, Dublin, June 2013

Abstract

Following a brief analysis of some of the literature on presence I conclude there is need for clarity, many positions moving seamlessly between, on the one hand, the valuing of presence in and of itself and, on the other, the valuing of a particular quality of presence. I turn to the notion of relational field and offer a brief outline of a theoretical system of relational analysis, including: the method of register analysis; the dynamics of registers of enclosure; and an overview of what I term “ordinary ethics” and a “politics of gentleness”. I conclude with brief reflections on the relevance of this theoretical work for coaching practice.

Introduction

I entered coaching more by intuition than by decision. I found myself drawn to a professional practice that aligned with my 15-year academic journey in exploration of the political possibilities of gentleness. For me, coaching can be a gentle art, when practised ethically and sensitively. Coaching can invite people to the richness of possibilities in the art of being human. Coaching can, at best, invite people to a deep and shimmering embrace of the ineffable. Coaching also sits as a practice in that space between individual change and collective change, having the potential to catalyse those kinds of changes that ripple out through the pulses and echoes of individual hearts and human relationship. Unlike psychotherapy, coaching does not reach back into the darkness and stir. Sometimes it’s as simple as introducing someone to themselves, their possibilities, and the more hopeful realities of their life. To practise the profession of coaching is to practise a hopeful art.

Back in the 1980s I remember that visiting a supermarket tended to be a fairly unthinking activity. We would take down cans of food, or what approximated to food, and place them rather carelessly in the shopping trolley, before carting them home and eventually consuming the mysteries within. These days we tend to be quite a bit more discriminating about what we buy. Checking the ingredients list on the side of a can or a packet has become almost automatic; we now seem to have developed a keen sense that what we eat has an effect on our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our quality of life. And we don’t stop there; we also check where our food has come from, in light of anything from airmiles to sweatshops to the policies of nations.

Sometimes when I think of theory I think about shopping in a supermarket. In mind of the spirit of Marx who commented that we make our own history but not quite as we please, when we think our thinks we do indeed think our own, but not quite as we please. We are born into conditions of thought not of our own making, and, for the most part, we tend to take our cans of ready-packaged thought down off the supermarket shelf with little regard to content or provenance or ethical import. Ready-made thought, ripe for consumption. We often give little thought to the ways that particular kinds of thinking can affect our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our quality of life. And they can.

What, then, do I mean by “theory”? I understand theory as thinking about your own and other people’s thinking, feeling and doing … to reduce possibilities of violence, coercion, domination, and oppression in everyday life … and to increase the possibilities of human flourishing and enhance our understanding of the art of being human.

Literature review

“Presence” is a term that is gaining caché in coaching, and one which I find useful to explore as a gateway to my reflections on gentleness. Interestingly, as a positive term it seems to be finding more fertile ground in reflective professional practice (for example, in coaching, the performing arts, management, and healthcare) than in the more abstracted realms of philosophical academic thought. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the emphasis in professional practice on literally ‘being present’ in the company of another or others. Professional practice, practised ethically, invites a pragmatist immediacy of grounding and response on account of the quality of work-calling-to-be-done in and through relationship.

Writing on presence and presencing seems to fall into two main camps, which might be characterised as optimistic and pessimistic respectively.

In the optimistic camp, writers present presence as an available quality of existence and relationship in the here-and-now. For such writers, presence is both possible and desirable. It tends to be experienced in gradations; more presence, it is assumed, is better. Presence can also be cultivated; it is something we can train ourselves to do better. This is exemplified, for example, by the writings of Silsbee, Topp, or O’Neill within the field of coaching. Elizabeth Topp (2006) writes that “Presence” is “one’s quality of relating to the here and now or present-moment”. Silsbee likewise writes, “Presence is a state available to all of us at any moment. While acquired habits and tendencies greatly constrain our experience of presence, our access to it can be intentionally and systematically cultivated” (2008, p. 3).

The pessimistic camp provides a useful foil with which to temper the possibility of romanticism. In the pessimistic approach, those who consider presence desirable are doomed never to achieve it, as we can never fulfill the promise of an unmediated or non- representational existence. As Cormac Power writes, in discussing the work of Derrida, Fuchs, Blau and others in the context of theatre studies, “Perhaps the idea of presence – of whatever kind – is itself a kind of fiction, an example of theatre’s capacity to create the ‘powerful illusion’ of the ‘unmediated’” (2006, p. 128). A more developed version of this approach can be found within philosophical discourse on “metaphysics of presence”, as found within poststructuralism and deconstructionism, building on Heidegger’s critique of temporality within Western philosophy from Aristotle to Nietzsche. Derrida and others characterise and critique the “metaphysics of presence” as the foundationalist tendency to anchor truth, reality, and being in a privileged fixed point of presence, essence, or identity.

From the perspective of coaching practice, such critiques cannot be brushed off lightly. Indeed, even within the work of presence-based coach Doug Silsbee there is a hint of circumspection about the stability of access to presence, “Realization, and the state of presence, disappears as soon as we observe and name it” (2008, p. 53).

My own position lies somewhere between the two camps.

I am happy to optimistically think of presence as a way of talking about the proverbial water in the lives of the proverbial fish. Two little fish are swimming along, and a big grouper swims by slowly, saying, ‘Good morning. The water’s lovely and warm today, boys.” The grouper swims out of sight, and one little fish turns to the other fish and says, “What’s water?” For me, presence is the water. I take presence to be an available quality of existence and an existant quality of relationship. I don’t, however, consider presence desirable. It’s not that I think we are doomed never to experience or achieve presence, it’s just that I don’t see any point desiring that which you cannot avoid.

I find it helpful to step away from the notion of presence as being helpful in and of itself. For me, presence is a more or less descriptive term, referring simply to the qualities of hereness (‘being present’) and withness (‘being with’) that I assume are part and parcel of the experience of being human. Any claims made for presence beyond hereness and withness are, for me, not only beyond the scope of the concept but also distract us from the more political dimensions of relational life. If presence is always-already present, then it is not so

much a background of presence itself that interests me as a coach but rather the variable quality of the relational field, couched in presence, that is in play.

When people write optimistically and aspirationally about presence in and of itself, they seem to me to be more writing about a particular quality of being present, a particular quality of awareness, a particular quality of relationship, a particular quality of participation in relationship. Take this statement from psychotherapist James Bugental, for example,

“Presence is a name for a quality of being in a situation or relationship in which one intends at a deep level to participate as fully as she is able. Presence is expressed through mobilization of one’s sensitivity – both inner (to the subjective) and outer (to the situation and the other person(s) in it) – and through bringing into action one’s capacity for response” (1987, pp. 26-27).

Bugental is advocating not just being present, but a particular way of being present with someone, a particular attitude with a honed awareness and a deep quality of listening, listening both to one’s self and to one’s situation.

Similarly, executive coach Mary Beth O’Neill speaks of presence in the context of the coaching relationship as a particular kind of orientation. She writes that presence involves the development and sustenance of tolerance for “ambiguity, daunting challenges, the anxiety or disapproval of others, and your own personal sources of stress” (2007, p. 20). For O’Neill, the cultivation of presence is also the cultivation of courage and strength in the face of challenges. In the context of a framework developed with the aid of systems thinking, what she calls “signature presence” is the quality of being most yourself when your self is most needed, “moving through these moments in your own unique way, thus making the most of your own strengths, interests, and eccentricities” (ibid).

The Relational Field

It seems to me that something more than “presence” is needed to speak of the variabilities of affect, power, and movement at play within relationship. One way to think about different kinds of presence, or different qualities of being present, is to consider presence (hereness and withness) in the context of a relational field. Within coaching literature relating to presence we find the concept of relational or social interactional field in the work of both Doug Silsbee and Mary Beth O’Neill. O’Neill’s understanding of the term is the closest I have come to my own understanding of the term:

When any two or ten or one hundred people interact with one another over time, they create a social interactional field. It operates through the relationships of those involved, but it develops a character, shape, and set of rules transcending any of the individuals who contributed energy to its creation. … It has its own anchor points, resiliency, and breaking point, and it is most often invisible to the members within it. When anyone within the field moves, all members feel the effect, though differently, based on their positions. Other metaphors for the interactional field are the gravitational and magnetic fields. We are immersed within their invisible forces and we feel their influence, though most often that influence is unconciously experienced (2007, p. 49).

The relational or social interactional field, then, is a way to speak about the continuous play of influences in a particular situation, the dynamic poetics of difference and differentiation whereby the personal experience of hereness and withness combines with a dynamic and relational ‘nearness’ of attraction and aversions, movement and currents.

I am reminded here of the Irish-language phrase, “bheith in áit na garaíochta.” It roughly means, “to be in the place where you are close enough to help.” The word “garaíocht” is a verbal noun, a noun with the quality of an action, and is derived from the adjective “gar”, meaning “near”. It communicates, then, that quality of hereness-withness-nearness and response-ability. For me, “garaíocht” is the epitome of the relational field.

Methodology

The method that I use to make more specific sense of the relational field is “register analysis.” I draw the term “register” from sociolinguistics (e.g. Halliday, 1978; Butler, 1999). As Michael Halliday has written:

“The notion of register is at once very simple and very powerful. It refers to the fact that the language we speak or write varies according to the type of situation. This is itself is no more than stating the obvious. What the theory of register does is to attempt to uncover the general principles which govern this variation, so that we can begin to understand what situational factors determine what linguistic features. It is a fundamental property of all languages that they display variation according to use; but surprisingly little is yet known about the nature of the variation involved, largely because of the difficulty of identifying the controlling factors.” (1978, pp. 31-32).

The study of register, then, tends to allow for analysis of context and the structuring of expectation that occurs within any context. Through a study of linguistic variation, for example, it is possible to come to a more nuanced understanding of how some linguistic forms might be considered appropriate-to-context within a particular situation and others might not.

Register theory allows sociolinguists to compare particular qualities of language, and I find it provides a useful launching-off point for comparing particular qualities of relationship within the play of influences of a relational field. In using register theory to make better sense of our experience of structuring of expectation, and of our participation in structuring of expectation,

I find it helpful to take language away from the centre of the theoretical model of register. Instead of a language focus, I am interested in architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing. I want a theoretical model that will allow me to better understand how those architectures and dynamics vary from situation to situation. How and why will one coaching session with a client feel so completely different to another? What distinguishes the dynamics of a coaching session from a casual conversation with a friend? What are the general principles of appropriateness-to-context which govern variations in thinking, feeling, and doing from situation to situation?

There are certain assumptions that I bring to this work. These are drawn from the range of my disciplinary explorations (see McCann, 2003), and might be characterized as social interactionist in inclination:

  • our experience of uncertainty is both present and variable;
  • to assume that uncertainty can be or should be ‘eliminated’ is to deeply disrespect the character of that experience;
  • humans respond to their environment on the basis of associative, cumulative, adaptive, and structuring meanings that emerge for them as social individuals; these meanings are modified through individual negotiation within social interaction;
  • as our experience of meaning is reconfigured, so, too, is our discursive relationship to uncertainty, our experience of affect, and our experience of power.

The heart of the framework is the identification of three key variables in the relational field which I regard as the most important governing variables in the structuring of social interaction:

  1. Intensity of affect (ranging from more to less intense)
  2. Character of influencing (ranging from more to less directive)
  3. Discursive relationship to uncertainty (ranging from the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty to
    the acceptance of uncertainty)

The important point in this work is that I have found these three variables to be direct correlates. For example, the more intense the affectual environment, the more appropriate directive influencing becomes, and the more ‘elimination’ of uncertainty thinking is likely to dominate within the situation. Likewise, the more ‘elimination’ of uncertainty thinking is used within a particular situation, the more likely it is that responses will be directive and the affectual environment will intensify.

I use a register-based framework, then, to identify and evaluate the governing dynamics of structuring of expectation and, hence, of culture change to assist me in making sense of the coach-coachee relationship and the challenges of coaching practice. Every day we move in, through, and out of different registers or environments of expectation. The differences in our experience of everyday life, the multiple transitions from one kind of situation to another, are so commonplace as to usually evade analysis. But it is precisely those differences that make us who we tend to be, and it is precisely their commonplace character that invites analysis. To reduce this to very simple terms, register analysis can be understood as a way to “listen to yourself, listen to your environment; listen to your client, listen to their environment.”

An important concept here is what I call “the adjacent probable”. I have developed this term from an insight in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex systems researcher. As reported by Stephen Johnson (2010), Kauffman’s work on evolution and self-organisation gave rise to the notion of “the adjacent possible”. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field …. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary things, but only certain changes can happen.”(Johnson 2010, p. 30-31).

In the context of register analysis, I take the concept of the adjacent possible and move it towards a notion of “the adjacent probable”. What the adjacent probable tells us is that at any moment we are capable of many things, but we tend to reach for architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that already dominate in the situation we find ourselves in. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses, both tacit and explicit, in a particular relational field that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant register of that relational field.

Discussion

One of the primary reasons for the development of this theoretical work has been to allow me to more readily identify and respond to architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that contribute to the possibilities of increased violence, coercion, domination, and oppression in relationship. Through more helpful identification of such architectures and dynamics we might come to a clearer understanding of the political possibilities for human flourishing.

Key here is the identification of what I call “registers of enclosure”, that is, relational fields in which the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be ‘eliminated’ has become dominant. Registers of enclosure become highly toxic and deeply unpleasant environments of interaction, and they tend to be (among other features):

a)  expansionary – they spread
b)  accelerative and intensifying – they get worse
c)  Highly commodifying – involving dynamics of commodification
d)  dominated by discourses and practices of resource production and management
e)  dominated by chronic heightened intensity
f)  dominated by chronic heightened directivity

Within these characteristically chronically intense and chronically directive environments, the adjacent probable of the corresponding relational field becomes the discourses, practices, and dynamics of enclosure. What that means is that what people will tend to reach for as a response within an enclosing environment will tend to make that environment worse. Discourses, dispositions, and dynamics characteristic of enclosure become normalized as the way things are, and frequently, at least rhetorically, as the way things must be.

I would argue that the institutionalised orthodoxies of academic disciplines, and of political and economic practice, can be characterised as registers of enclosure. Most of what people generally consider ‘powerful’ or ‘authoritative’ interaction takes place within enclosing environments, where the enactment of ordinary ethics and the nourishment of human flourishing becomes incredibly difficult. Further, deeply unhelpful, enclosing understandings of human nature, power, agency, learning, and change are what become most available to us within the dominant, institutionalised discourses and practices of social, political and economic practice. Much of what we reach for from the supermarket shelf of thought throughout our professional lives will tend to double us back into enclosing dynamics; often despite our best intentions, and sometimes because of them.

Ordinary Ethics: Towards a Politics of Gentleness

Registers of enclosure also tend to be characterised by a significant chilling effect. Not only do the architectures and dynamics of enclosure come to feel appropriate, but architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that might help the situation become less enclosing come to feel inappropriate – “the adjacent unlikely”.

In practical terms, this means that in registers of enclosure it becomes increasingly unlikely that people will turn to the generosity, hospitality, nurturing, caring, gentleness, compassion, kindness, or trust that tend to be characteristic of human flourishing. Indeed, I would go as far as to suggest that the entire range of what I call “ordinary ethics”, the social glue of human flourishing, will become “the adjacent unlikely” of environments of enclosure.

This where a “politics of gentleness” comes in. What I call a politics of gentleness is a political positioning on behalf of the crucial importance of ordinary ethics. Advocating a politics of gentleness is, for me, to advocate for the vital importance of building and maintaining the optimal conditions for sustainable human flourishing. These conditions will simply happen, I believe, if we allow space for them to happen, if we trust in the hereness-withness-nearness that is available to us.

How is it a politics? Very simply, it involves a re-imagination of the notion of power. Instead of power being understood as the ability to control others or the ability to manage resources, power is here understood as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another. Power, then, is ubiquitous, dynamic, and specific in its effects, with a very sizeable nod in the direction of Michel Foucault (1990). Agency, then, becomes the exercise of power, understood as response-ability. Agency is our ability to respond in every moment by virtue of our experience of presence combined with the relational field, our experience of hereness- withness-nearness. Garaíocht.

Where others have written optimistically about the possibilities of presence, I write optimistically about the possibilities of ordinary ethics and a politics of gentleness. I believe ordinary ethics to be an available quality of existence and relationship in the here-and-now, both possible and desirable. The greater the possibility for ordinary ethics in relationship, the better. Ordinary ethics and a politics of gentleness can be cultivated; it is something we can train ourselves to do better.

What is crucial here, though, is that the desirable condition of gentleness is not defined as a state which we are working to achieve, but rather as an orientation, an approach, an invitation to a consistency of response to relationship and the world. Gentleness, the optimal quality of the relational field for ordinary ethics, is here understood as the uncommodifying quality of relationship (hereness-withness-nearness) that becomes most available when the “elimination of uncertainty” does not dominate as an expectation in any particular situation. In this way, discernment, evaluation, and political critique are built into this understanding of gentleness. Not only this, but self-discernment, self-awareness, and self-critique come along with it, too. Understanding one’s own contribution to the elimination of uncertainty dynamics within a relational field is the sine qua non of response-ability in the cause of ordinary ethics.

An environment suffused with ordinary ethics provides an informal, uninstitutional, and uncommodifying realm of vernacular ethics that supports us in generating subtle and spontaneous responses of possibility. When the conditions are right for ordinary ethics to flourish, those same conditions will support human flourishing more generally. The relational fields we shape also shape us. When the conditions are not right, when we maintain environments where ordinary ethics becomes the adjacent unlikely, we reduce our possibilities for helpful change and hamper our work as catalysts of the art of being human.

Implications for research and practice

Unfortunately, there is not room here for a full discussion, but there are certain issues that I see as important in the discussion of enclosing dynamics within the coaching profession. The allure of the gravities of the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty are strong. They have been experienced time and time again by each profession as people seek to stabilise the community they have created. Among the issues that come to mind are the following:

  • Codification, Certification, and Professionalization: the gravities of bureaucratization and administration are strong, and sometimes appropriate. It is important to keep the purpose of codification, certification, and professionalization in mind, and never to allow them to become ends in themselves;
  • Complicity within enclosing institutional environments: often in executive coaching we find ourselves working within organisations which are, to say the least, unhealthy. As coaches it is important to clarify our role and influence as catalysts within enclosing institutional environments, and to signal our potential complicity as cogs within institutional systems that offer much less than the optimal conditions for human flourishing;
  • Quietly manipulative techniques and techics: As the character Dream says in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Chronicles, “Tools, of course, can be the subtlest of traps.” Tools are used a lot in coaching. It is important to know where tools come from, from values are embedded within their quiet directivities, and whether the particular tools we choose may, indeed, be more in line with the dynamics of enclosure than we might wish;
  • Excessive goal- and solution-focused language/practice: both the goal-that-must-be- achieved and the problem-that-must-be-solved are classic elimination-of-uncertainty structures in thought and practice. The language we use can either foster and facilitate the dynamics of enclosure or it can allow us to challenge them;
  • Excessive branding, trademarking, and proprietary practice: with professionalization comes a concern for individual commercial protection. However, it may be that branding, trademarking, and proprietary practice have become adjacent probables in the coaching world. When this happens it can run counter to the openness required for the healthy development of a community of research and a recognised discipline;
  • Enclosing theoretical models: theoretical models are tools, too. Where do they come from? Why do we choose the ones we choose? In what ways might they limit or facilitate our research imaginations? I have stated above that the institutionalised orthodoxies of academic practice tend to be enclosing in character. This goes for theoretical models as well;
  • Personal dispositional inclinations: we only ever make the contributions that we make, and the disposition we bring to our work will characterize that contribution. Be the change that you want to see.As noted above, the approach that follows from the register analysis above could be summarised as “Listen to yourself, listen to your situation; listen to your client, listen to your situation.” Coaching can be an enclosing art. Like any profession, it can be practised badly. We have the potential to do harm. It is not enough to know that we are on the side of the angels. I work to find a more subtle theoretical model to understand the governing dynamics of attitude, behaviour, and interaction so that I might be less likely to do harm.Coaching can also be a vital change tool for a more hopeful world. Through a coaching relationship people can be invited to become more themselves, in the sense that they can come to a greater awareness of the part they play as actors and agents in the conditions of their lives. Coaching draws people into an alchemist’s cauldron, where transformations are not only possible, but expected, remembering that “When all is said and done, the only change that will make a difference is the transformation of the human heart” (Joseph Jaworski, in Senge et al. 2005, p. 26). To practise the profession of coaching can indeed be to practise a hopeful art, a gentle art.

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