“Traditions are actually a very democratic thing compared with fashion, which is always a tool of the plutocracy.” (Andrew Collier, ”Marx and Conservatism.”)
Where are you from? A perennial question, a fundamental question, not of geography but of a more occult science of spatial archetypes, of decoding the aura of places that shapes identity. Knowing glances once the questioner has the answer– “Now I know where you are coming from. Now you make sense to me.”
The claim to discern truths about people on the basis of their origin presupposes clichés of regional or local cultures, of the seamlessness of traditions; it mistakes guidebook generalities for concrete truths.
The educated ones, the cultured ones, the critical ones, the radical ones know better. They leave the places they are from. Whatever traces they find of the original place lingering they work to expunge. The educated ones, the cultured ones, the critical ones, the radical ones try to come from nowhere, to make themselves strangers to settled ways, family, dialects, in-jokes, and difference rooted in knowing how things are done around here (rather than everywhere). They make themselves strangers to all things local so that they can become cosmopolitan friends to all. Strangers to humans, friends to humanity.
At a conference once I asked an activist what should be done about intensifying threats to freedom of inquiry in universities. He replied that such problems were irrelevant, the institution as such was the problem. ”Burn them down,” he said. I asked him how he would finish his Ph.D if the institution of the university were burned down.
To change the world you not only need a lever, you need a place to stand. Must we not stand within the traditions constituted by old solidarities, disciplines of inquiry, practices of creation, friendship, bonds of mutual support, and local lifeways? Where capital expands through the disintegration and destruction of every evolved practice by which people might shield themselves from the dependency and subservience it demands, when it re-integrates by inculcating a mindless neophilia endlessly stimulated by its “innovations,” its cultures of “constant improvement,” when it appropriates the language of cool, do not defensiveness, protection, and letting be become radical values?
How much can we abstract ourselves from/abstract from ourselves without becoming inhumanly empty? The struggle against parochialism can lead right back to it– a small group of the like-minded, strangers to everyone but each other, having nothing to say in a way that can be understood, because they speak from grammar-books and not the feel of the place.
True, perhaps, and yet: the feel of places differs given one’s position in the established social hierarchy. All beautiful things are built on the bones of the exploited. Laughter bruises the butt of the joke. The coffee is exquisite, it has been rinsed of the sweat of the plantation workers. A magnificent dress, scrubbed of the ashes of the garment worker who died in a fire sewing it. An attractive woman, but only viewable through a patriarchal gaze.
But must one therefore close one’s senses to beauty and one’s mind to laughter?
A good question.
“The essence of humanity is not an abstraction inherent in each individual, but is in reality the ensemble of social relations.” (Marx, 6th Thesis on Feuerbach) By like reasoning: the ensemble of social relations is not a set of abstract forces and dynamics, but meaning-laden contradictory histories to which people have contradictory relationships. In a social contradiction, both sides are real and exert a dynamic tension on each other. That goods are bound up with bads does not mean that goods really are bads, but only that they cannot be experienced free from the opposed force.
Hence, a political project: a) to determine which present institutions, disciplines, values, practices, languages, modes of relating to one another, jokes, music, bodies, desires, are under assault by political and economic power, b) to distinguish that in them which lays them open to attack, and c) to see whether that which lays them open to attack tells us anything about their value and why it might be worth preserving.
An opening gesture: Those traditions which are attacked are attacked because: i) they are not easily assimilated to commodification, ii) are unconventional, and therefore not mass marketable, iii) affirm values that are not readily measureable by quantitative metrics, and as a consequence, iv) not amenable to effective centralized control, because v) dependent upon intimate knowledge accessible only to the practiced initiate and serious student, vi) liable to lead to at least boredom with and at worst (best) active opposition to the centralizing, commodifying, uniformity-imposing money-value system that the attackers serve, and finally vii) that edify, educate, entertain, enliven, embolden, and energize people because of i-vi.
A provisional distinction between the good worth preserving and the bad that must be fought: that which is not commodifiable, unconventional, unique, incommensurable on all scales of quantification, created through intimate knowledge that can be acquired only through practice, frees people from subservience to the money-value system, and helps them understand that what makes life valuable is not money and its acquisition is good. The opposites, therefore, are bad.
To want to preserve such traditions is not reactionary sentimentality, but proof of abiding concern with that which enables us in the present to go creatively beyond it. Against the void o=groundless innovation and change for the sake of money-value accumulation we ought to take our stand in the midst of traditions of inquiry, practice, and solidaristic relationship that express values i-vii. The stand is first of all defensive, in that the aim is to preserve, but also revolutionary, in that the aim is to build outward and upward from there.