Crafting Gentleness

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Recommended Article, and some commentary

Why the Theories of John Dewey and Paulo Freire Cannot Contribute to Revitalizing the Commons

C.A. Bowers (University of Oregon)

"The commons are not a theoretical abstraction. Rather, their many dimensions exist in the knowledge, embodied experiences, practices, and patterns of moral reciprocity that characterize those aspects of daily life that have not been co-opted by the market. The commons vary from culture to culture, but a key feature of all the world’s diverse commons is that they are not created anew by each generation or by individuals who rely exclusively on critical reflection. “Tradition” is the best word for describing the varied characteristic of the commons--with some of the traditions being sources of injustice and environmental degradation while others contribute to community self-sufficiency and are sources of resistance to globalization (sometimes within the same culture). Instead of continuing to be captives of the Enlightenment thinkers’ narrow and culturally uninformed understanding of tradition, which been passed down over generations and reproduced in the thinking of many current progressive theorists, there is a need to learn about the traditions carried on within what remains of the local commons—traditions that include the language of moral reciprocity and that sustains the memory of the civil institutions and practices that are safeguards against the forces of fascism and economic exploitation that are now again on the rise."


Although I myself do not tend to use the term 'commons', I am also in favour of a reinvestment in the term 'tradition', but one that invites specificity of context in relation to people and what they value and the consequences of their attitudes. 'Traditions' for me are important, but understood as 'ways of thinking, ways of doing considered within a context of relationship or community'. I wrote the following a long while back (and have changed bit of it here and there for this purpose):

It seems to me that "tradition", like "culture", tends to be a concept that facilitates debate, argument, and worse (see, for example, Eisenstadt, ed. 1972; Shils 1981; Hobsbawm and Ranger, eds. 1983; Handler and Linnekin 1984; Hellas, Lash, and Morris, eds. 1996). Most ways of talking about "tradition" in academic circles tend to rely heavily on what can be termed "naturalistic metaphors". Any metaphor that is "naturalistic" is used in such a way that there is an assumed exact equivalence between what actually happens and what the metaphor says is the case. To use an extreme example, if I say someone is a banana, and continue to talk and act as if the person is actually a banana, then I am using that metaphor naturalistically. The two most common metaphors used when people talk about "tradition" are 'tradition is an entity' and 'tradition is the passing of things from one person to another'. The thinking runs as follows:

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

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

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

It has become commonplace in anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and folklore to draw attention to the inadequacies of thinking about experience in terms of bounded entities. Life, thankfully, is more complicated than that (although that doesn't stop entity-speak continuing to be a major aspect of many academic ways of thinking). To insist upon understanding “tradition” as an entity or as a process of entity transaction, or even as a processual entity, is to participate in the construction of reified commodities, whereby we are encouraged to think of “tradition” or the “units of transmission” as somehow having a transcendent, stable existence independent of the uncertain lives we lead and experience. It may be comfortable to think this way, but they aren’t actually bananas.

Nevertheless, academics and other analysts often use the term “tradition” in either or both of these ways, dazzling us with terminological halls of mirrors, blinding us with shifting meanings and marshy conceptualization. We are often convinced that such naturalistic metaphorical excursions are valid, accurate ways of speaking in analytical ways about reality by virtue of their supposedly legitimate academic history.

These naturalistic metaphorical constructions of "tradition" seem to me to be profoundly commodifying in terms of the abstract understandings they afford us of our experience. All three versions rely heavily on the existence of discrete, bounded entities. As a consequence, discussion about "tradition" in these terms tends to revolve around issues of access to, and control and ownership of the entities that constitute "tradition". In other words, discussions generally concern 'resource management', or rather, "tradition management". We become managers, concerned with choosing among various management regimes in order to transmit, protect, and/or preserve.

What this sort of approach leaves out, for me, is any consideration of the implicitly educational possibilities of whatever people might mean by 'tradition' other than understanding education as the delivery of information. Speaking as an educator, I find that approaching education as information transmission, protection, and/or preservation can easily lead me to ignore the richness of educational encounter, the personal, present, affectual dimensions of how education can work. Education in face-to-face contexts can be understood to be predominantly about being with, about living 'withness', about the attitudes of the people in the room, about the respect or lack of it within the interactions. When education or 'tradition' are understood as entity-transfer of some sort, it is very hard to even have discussions about respect, attitude, presence, or, dare I say it, gentleness. It's all too easy to default to those attitudes that facilitate the most efficient transaction of resources, those attitudes that allow us to distance ourselves from being us-and-no-one-else and instead allow us to play the roles of 'providers' in an exchange relationship (if you're lucky).

I'm very fond of something that Sunday Business Post journalist Tom McGurk once wrote in the context of a discussion of the term "traditional": "While it doesn't matter what you call it, it does matter what it is supposed to mean" (1995:25). So, let me turn it around. I want to start not with things, but with the way that I (we?) make sense of life. I would suggest that we each craft or negotiate our experience with the aid of working assemblies of ways of thinking and ways of doing that we work out as we go along. I can use many different terms to refer to these: for example, habits, routines, norms, guidelines, principles, procedures, protocols, belief systems, philosophies, ways of life, rules, training, rituals, standards, laws, and the list goes on. I would further suggest that these working assemblies of ways of thinking and ways of doing are often considered specifically within a context of community (where, with my theoretical hat on, I understand community as expectational resonance in social interaction). When this happens, I refer to these 'working assemblies' (when speaking in English) with terms such as "convention", "custom", "education", "culture", or "tradition".

Experience of these working assemblies I would think varies from person to person. They can run the gamut from being gently guiding and loosely provisional, to being highly-directive and deeply engrained (and then very much in the domain of duty, obligation, and absolutes). How a person experiences these working assemblies depends on the circumstances they find themselves in, and their attitude to those circumstances. To discern the more hardened 'working assemblies' in your own experience, what Prakash and Esteva refer to as "arrogant particularisms" (1998:2), ask yourself: "What am I willing to argue about?" or "How often do I use the word 'should'?"

If "tradition" might be one way to speak of ways of thinking and doing in our experience, then, it seems to me, not so helpful to abstractly define "tradition" as a universal analytic category that somehow refers to timeless entities that are separate from experience. It might not be so important, then, to argue what is or isn't "tradition" or "traditional", but rather to ask what ways of thinking and doing are influential in my, your, people's experience. What's the harm in suspending the word 'tradition', hanging it up on a coat hook, until I have a clearer idea what I'd like to use the term to discuss. It would be a terrible shame if by focusing on the words "tradition" and "traditional" I managed to evade the issue of people's particular experiences and lived differences in favour of the commodifying allure of verbal games. What I believe to be helpful, particularly in the light of persuasive rhetoricians who deploy the terms "tradition" and "traditional" to serve very particular agendas, is to ask for a little specificity: 'Whose ways of thinking and doing?', 'In what circumstances?', 'In the promotion of which values?', 'With what effects?'.

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

That said, I wish to leave four questions hanging:

What is valued, where, and how, and by whom?
What values are fostered by formal education?
What values are not fostered by formal education?
What do we want our kids to learn about life? (I don't have kids, but I can hope :)

Prakash and Esteva speak of "traditional values" in terms of a "commons": "... the children of a community, pursuing the promises of education, systematically learn to forget the languages of their commons and their communities" (1998:8), and again: "However passionately committed to cultural diversity, the classroom must necessarily be the cemetery of sensibilities cultivated in commons and communities ..." (1998:26). A little care is called for here, however. The term "commons" is most often a defensive concept, called upon in the context of a perceived threat of encroaching and commodifying enclosure. This is clearly how the term is used by Prakash and Esteva. There are, however, generally two different understandings of the term 'commons':
The first and dominant understanding is that the "commons" is a store of resources that people hold in common. To speak of the "commons" in this way is, I would suggest, to present an always-already commodifying and commodified space. Typically, then, debate about a resource-commons tends to be largely limited to discussions over access, control, and ownership. Further, action arising from defense of an always-already commodified space is always unlikely to curb the commodifying influences of enclosure.

A second take on the concept of "commons" (and one more in line with Chet Bower's approach, as far as I can make out) is more concerned with people and how people relate to each other. In these cases, the concept of the "commons" is again used as a defense against commodifying enclosure, but refers to a particular character of relationships rather than to resources. The uncommodifying attitudes of the people who participate in the "commons" are felt to be incompatible with the commodifying attitudes ushered in with the effects of enclosure.

On the basis of research done and research still to do, I now suggest that what many of us have long referred to as "traditional culture" in Ireland (and elsewhere) is often the second of these, a particular character of social life which arises in particular circumstances from a general and personal orientation in which relatedness and relationship are not only acknowledged but fostered and facilitated. I think of certain house ceilidhs I've been to in the company of extended family, for example, or some of my best evenings in the company of friends.

I think it's good to ground what I'm saying in some way. To do this I am simply going to give a randomly-selected list of provisional principles which I have come across as "wisdoms", that is, emotionally-healthy, humanizing ways of thinking and doing. In my experience, these are not inconsistent with the uncommodifying attitudes of which I speak, although this will really depend on the circumstances in which they play out. This isn't by way of prescription. It's not that I think these are principles everyone should follow, simply that I have found them helpful, and you may too. Where did I learn them? From other people, to state the oft-forgotten obvious. From my parents and their parents before them. From people I have met and admire. One of the joys of my work as someone who studies anthropology is that I get to talk to people, read what people have written, learn from people, and it's my job. No-thing was "passed down" or "transmitted". They simply speak of ways in which I can orient myself in my experience in relationship to my experience. These are some of the "traditions" that I would like to dominate my life:

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

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

    What I want to suggest is that, despite much wishful thinking, such values are highly unlikely to be fostered by the environments of formal education (nor, indeed, by traditionalist institutions, festivals, tourism, representational government, archives, competitions, or the legal system). Uncommodifying values are inappropriate to the commodifying values of formally-conceived situations, and vice versa. For example, in discussions about "traditional culture" and formal education in Ireland it is often assumed that the inclusion of "Irish traditional music", "Irish traditional dance", or "Irish traditional song" in formal education curricula unproblematically promotes the transmission of "traditional culture". For me, such thinking is not at all unproblematic. Indeed, I think we often systematically forget, ignore, or wilfully turn away from powerful, uncommodifying, and humanizing politics, and replace them with the commodifying strategies and commodified resources of formal education. And we do this because we are often led to believe, by way of the miracles of naturalistic metaphors and mystifying terminology, that they're the same. They're not.

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


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