Crafting Gentleness

Monday, January 18, 2010

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

What might I like my kids to learn about life?: in search of “tradition” (excerpt)
Anthony McCann

(Full version to be published in the conference proceedings from Local Knowledge and Open Borders: Creativity and Heritage, University of Tartu, July 30 - August 4, 2009.)

I was living the dream. There I was, 1997, sitting back in my chair in a café in Galway city, the sun (unusually) streaming through the window, me playing the role of music journalist. I was working part-time as a writer for a local free-sheet newspaper as a way to pay the bills while doing a Masters at the local university. This writing thing all happened somewhat by accident – I had written a short promotional article about a local songwriters’ collective that I was involved with, and the editor liked it. He asked me if I could write him more, so I did. I soon found myself with a regular spot in the paper. One day I was asked if I could write about Irish traditional music. I hadn’t any experience doing so, but why not? thought I.
So there’s me, an Irish traditional music journalist, working away, interviewing one of the local music entrepreneurs about a show she was producing down at the Town Hall. The interview had gone well, and I had all I needed for a one-page feature on the forthcoming show. All being well, it would be published by the weekend. I switched off my tape recorder and relaxed a bit. What follows is a half-remembered rendering of the conversation that ensued.
“So, where is it you’re from,” she asked.
“Warrenpoint, Up North, over in County Down. Along the coast, not too far from Newry. Up a bit from Dundalk.”
“Oh. Did I not hear a bit of the South in your accent?”
“My accent’s more than a little weird, all over the place. I grew up in New Zealand when I was a kid, then we spent a while in Dublin and Meath before settling in the North.”
“And were your parents into traditional music?”
“No, not really. There wasn’t much Irish music in the house, mainly just Dubliners records or The Clancy Brothers. I think there were a couple of Gallowglass Céilí Band records lying about, but they didn’t get played much.”
“Oh.” A pause. Her tone changed, perhaps resting somewhere between disappointment, betrayal, and disdain. “I thought you came from a traditional family.”

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

My father passed away last year. 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 notions 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 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. I am not interested in what “tradition” is. I am interested in what “tradition” can mean.


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. 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.


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. We can do better. 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.


There are two workaday approaches to “tradition” that I will remain cautious about. The first is the dominance of discourses of resource management in descriptions and explanations of “tradition” and processes of “tradition”, where discussions become more about stuff than people. The second is the common characterization of “tradition” as prescriptive invariance, ways of thinking or doing that do not change, and that become rules that we feel obliged to follow. For me, these approaches to “tradition” do us few favours, ... fostering and facilitating damagingly reductionist stories about what it might mean to be human.


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.


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 Adimanda 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).


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. 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 nor readily articulable when the main 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, dominant understandings of “tradition” leave little room for heart, for love, for people, or for hope.

Models of “tradition” based in resource management and prescriptive invariance 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. 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. There are few stable conversations, few developed discourses, available for people who would like “tradition” to 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 there can be more helpful ways to think about “tradition” in the context of the social, political, and environmental challenges we face?


I thought a lot about that moment in Galway 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, ways of doing considered within a learning context of relationship or community.”

This isn’t offered as a definition. I find definitions tends 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.

The inclusion of “context” is to invite me to specificity. I want my understandings and analyses of “tradition” to 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).

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.


If I understand my own “traditions” as ways of thinking, ways of doing, considered within a learning context of relationship or community, then yes, 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 (future possible) kids to learn about life? 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 who 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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