Modernity vs. Tradition

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I found this image circulating around and realized that I had a rote speech from my lecturing about the categories ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ and thought I’d share.

The term ‘tradition’ is new. It is an innovation. It is a signifier that only makes sense in relation to ‘modernity’. The two terms are mutually necessary pairs that evoke each other, stated or not, whenever deployed. That is, tradition is modern construct. To use the term ‘modern’ is to be traditionally modern.

The most interesting thing I take from these insights is really quite practical. Tradition is a modern recreation of a fictional past–the imaginations of innovators make tradition. Any invocation of tradition is actually a ruse. The moment we can conceive of the modern is the exact moment we create tradition. Before we imagined the modern, there was no tradition in the sense that we use the term now. It was just the way that things were. With the modern, everything is up for grabs and we’ve forgotten the way things were. To remember tradition, it must be re-created. It is made anew.

Thus, tradition is actually the most modern of phenomenon. Let’s see some examples.

In India, tradition, when invoked, often points back to the infinite past of Hindu culture and speaks of norms, like those of the Laws of Manu, that are in all actuality the joint construct of British scholars, missionaries, administrators, and Indian elites, be they pandits, rajputs or brahmins. That is to say, what is constructed as tradition is actually something made wholly new in the 19th century by the complex process of colonial and cultural exchange with its notions of cultural essentialism.

In West Asia, the various ‘fundamentalisms’ of Islam were created as anti-colonial responses to European colonialism. Immasculated and denegrated, Arabs and other people of color found a united resistance through this shared recreation of Islam. It is actually somewhat more complex than this, as much of the Islamic revolutions of the 60s-80s were undoubtedly also resistance to the fact that secular leadership in West Asia was concieved to be too much under the power of the West. And then when the West turned on West Asia, as it did in Iraq (which was the most ‘progressive’ part of Asia), this tendency only continued. My hypothesis is that the West, perhaps only partially unwittingly, actually played a large role in creating what it now calls Islamic fundamentalism.

Look at Asian diaspora in North America or Europe. It often holds on far more stridently to what it sees as ‘traditions’ of the homeland.

The global resistance to alternative sexualities and genders under the guise of tradition fits the same pattern: before colonialism, most regions had come to terms with it in their own way, were convinced to denounce it through colonialism, and now in the postcolonial moment understand that denunciation as ahistorical tradition.

There are many more examples that can be made. Often we find it oxymoronic, strange or even hypocritical when those who we associate with ‘tradition’ take advantage of what we see as ‘modern’ (like technology… twittering monks for example). In fact, it is the same activity under different labels. We only think this way because these terms modernity and tradition serve the purpose of obfuscating and calcifying power-relations, both real and discursive. Fundamentalists get much credence for their traditional stance, and can hide their innovations behind the veil of ‘tradition.’ Modernists too, can veil their conservativism behind the seemingly progressive stance of the ‘modern’ (take for example, the old-timey racism of the New Athiests).

Monks owning cellphones is no different than an Atheist with the bible on the shelf.

What does this insight allow us to do? It allows us to see far more clearly the ways in which people strategically use the categories (and all their associated semiology) modernity and tradition to get other people to do what they want, for one.

It may also allow us to see way to step past these categories–either in a dialectical way, or in a revolutionary way–and conceive of a world that cannot so easily use the enmity attached to this binary for divisive purposes.

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