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The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity

February 15th, 2014

Salon magazine reports another instance of CP Snow’s observation that all ancient traditions date from the second half of the 19th century. This time, it’s the Tooth Fairy. As you would expect, the Tooth Fairy turns out to be a codification and modification of a bunch of older local practices, many involving a mouse or rat.

This seemed like a good time to rerun one of my posts that stirred up plenty of trouble at the time, making the point that we are “now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages”.

I’ll just add that CP Snow was writing in the 1950s, pretty much equidistant between the late 19th century and the present day, strengthening my observation that the “invention of tradition” is now something of a traditional concept (though the phrase itself, due to Hobsbawm and Ranger, is a mere 30 years old).

As was pointed out in the comments to my karate post, the observation that most traditions are invented is getting somewhat traditional itself, going back as it does to the exposure of the Donation of Constantine as a forgery.

So maybe it’s time to turn all this around, and make the point that we are now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages.

The traditionality of modernity

It’s striking, if you’re not aware of it already, to observe that Christmas, as we now know it, was invented in the 20 years or so between 1840 and 1860, However, what is even more striking that it’s barely altered in the succeeding 150 years. Even the complaints haven’t changed in decades.

And what’s true of Christmas is true of most of the favourite examples of invented tradition. Clan tartans were invented out of whole cloth (as it were), as soon as the actual clans had been destroyed by the Clearances, but this process was pretty much complete by 1850, and the system is now as inflexible as if the Scots wha’ wi’ Wallace bled had done so in defence of a dress code. Moreover, at 150 years or more of age, these traditions really can claim to be ancient (at least in the eyes of a non-indigenous Australian).

A variety of cultural niches, once subject to the cycles of fashion, seem now to have been filled once and for all. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean have all been dead for decades, but all are more instantly recognisable than any putative successor.

More significant institutions show the same kind of stability. Political systems and national boundaries are becoming more stable over time, not less. The collapse of the Soviet Empire led to the breakup of some federal states, but nothing like the wholesale resurgence of irredentist claims predicted by many.

One obvious factor assisting all this is technology. Just as printing has fixed languages once and for all, radio, TV and recorded music and video have a powerful effect in fixing cultural traditions of all kinds. Of course, this is the opposite of the usual story in which technology drives us to a postmodern condition of constant change. But that’s enough for me. It’s time to see what’s on at the (75-year-old) Commonwealth Games.

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  1. rog
    February 19th, 2014 at 07:55 | #1

    @alfred venison I suspect, but have no evidence, that the level of cultural dysfunction, irrationality or whatever was greater before electronic media.

    I believe that the current LNP govt is one which is having problems making its ideology fit reality and the electronic media is tracking this process piece by piece.

  2. Comrade Veidt
    February 19th, 2014 at 11:59 | #2

    http://dickens.ucsc.edu/resources/faq/christmas.html
    –Did Dickens really “invent” Christmas?
    No, he did not, not even in a figurative sense. People have been allowing themselves to believe something of the kind since the last years of the nineteenth century, however, and the notion was given its classic form in 1903 by one of the founding fathers of Dickens scholarship, F. G. Kitton, who published an article on the subject, entitled “The Man Who ‘Invented’ Christmas.”…—

    History has never been your strong suit. The same goes for the rest of CT.

    Change is a constant. That’s the absurdity of various versions of “originalism” and religious fundamentalism, and also of those who write as if future readers of their words will read them as the authors do. They won’t.

    Slow change isn’t permanent revolution. Corey Robin writes about neoliberalism and the new fad for capitalist “disruptors” while forgetting the origins as a Modernist and left wing trope, still popular with teenage anarchists. Robin attacks Disruptors one day and Burkeans the next. It’s absurd. Someone should ask Russell Arben Fox to explain why; he has more patience than I do.

    Modernism was a fantasy of escape from the past. So many traditions, so many aspects of older social relations and social life have vanished or faded, ground down by the machinery of corporate or state capitalism, that people fixate on those few things they want to think haven’t changed.
    It’s tragic.

  3. alfred venison
    February 19th, 2014 at 20:30 | #3

    mr rog – respectfully – and i mean this not as a cant word – i don’t mean to be snarky.

    but which electronic media are tracking the lmp’s bad fit with reality?

    and more importantly to whom, and just how many of them, are they projecting their tracking – who is receiving it? who is receptive to it?

    newspapers are in decline – t.v. bulletins are entertainment – there are in effect a thousand channels – fewer & fewer people read to keep informed.

    here’s how i epitomise the difference between the visual oriented print / reading culture you (i assume) & i grew up in & imbibed our values in, and the hearing oriented acoustic world of speed of light electronic communications – between that sector of the population who remember when their family got its first t.v. set & that sector of the population who remember when their family got its first mobile phone.

    back when print was king – when writing & reading kept the gov’t accountable – and someone wanted to repair a lawn mower, they read a manual.

    nowadays – when telling & hearing are king – and someone wants to repair a lawn mower, they watch a video.

    i think the difference that widespread speed of light electronic communications makes to our society & all its institutions is profound & underestimated: it is not a case of the old literate world, now with computers, and still in possession of the full & unimpeded range of its inherited values – its a whole new world, the emerging values of which are not grounded on literacy.

    >> we’re playing the old story backwards, but you should know what the stakes are: the stakes are our civilisation versus tribalism and groupism, private identity versus corporate identity, and private responsibility versus the group or tribal mandate. <<

    [ http://www.nextnature.net/2009/12/the-playboy-interview-marshall-mcluhan/ ]

    cheers, a.v.

  4. jungney
    February 19th, 2014 at 20:52 | #4

    @alfred venison

    alfeed, I’ll quote that genius of modernity who famously said of the epoch of capitalism that is one in which “…all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”. There is no evidence that electronic media are ‘fixing’, that is, keeping in stasis, cultural practices and institutions. There can be no evidence for this because those raised and acculturated exclusively on electronic media have no historical memory. They are ignorant of what a tradition might be except as certain protocols surrounding family events at holiday times. They can’t imagine that such evidence might exist and therefore see none.

    Today’s dominant cultural producers, including everyone from intellectual to artists, have been raised in a culture of individual entitlement far beyond anything imaginable at the beginnings of modernity. The dominant subjectivity of liberalism is that of individual entitlement; it is infantile.

    [That subject is a favourite. I'll spare you any more other than this: every human epoch produces a dominant subjectivity. That is, one that fit the subject best for survival or success within the material conditions of the epoch. Some did better than others. In a liberal period, the self obsessed and historically uninformed are free to literally float, with the conditions, to dominant positions].

    If electronic media are in any way fixing ‘culture’, which we ought to understand as ‘product’, it is only in the way that a plug holds a sewer but only until the back pressure blows it all to smithereens.

    I recommend Therese Brennan’s ‘History After Lacan’. Perhaps you could recommend some music to soothe the savage breast.

  5. jungney
    February 19th, 2014 at 20:53 | #5

    ah, I see I’ve somehow latinized you or so it seems to me, not alfeed, but alfred. :)

  6. alfred venison
    February 20th, 2014 at 22:27 | #6

    ah jungney – thanks for the book reference. what i know of lacan is second hand but i think i see what she’s getting at enough to want to follow it up.

    i listen to a lot of music, many genres, many periods, experimental, medieval, renaissance, classical, romantic, modernist, neo-classical, minimalist, 2nd viennese school, folk, jazz, electronic, extemporisation. even accordion.

    if you want something reasonably contemporary& of historical interest tangential to what has been discussed here – on the cusp of modernism & post-modernism – to sooth the savage breast, i recommend you go to ubuweb, locate the search window, and type in “obscure records”.

    obscure records was a u.k. record label which existed from 1975 to 1978. it was created & run by brian eno, who also produced the albums. there are ten albums. they are a veritable time capsule & together constitute an historical record of where the “soft avant-garde” was before the archetypal post-modern idiom of minimalism took over. in addition to being an historical record (no pun intended) i think the music beautiful, restful and intellectually engaging. these were composers who knew how to use “dialectic” in a sentence.

    you need to navigate from the main page to each album where you may listen on-line or download each track individually using right-click down-load. i suggest saving them into a folder for each album and burning them to cd for playback on your system.

    a note if you’re wary: ubu web is an archive of the avant-garde founded on the web in 1996 by the poet kenneth goldsmith – goldsmith teaches at uni of pennsylvania & is senior editor of the archive “pennsound” – he reads poetry at the white house, he is bona fide. all content on ubuweb – text & music & film & t.v. (like “ways of seeing”) – is genuinely out of print & not available to buy anywhere – this is not a pirate site, this is an academic archive site for the avant-garde. -a.v.

  7. Ootz
    February 21st, 2014 at 00:03 | #7

    “i think the difference that widespread speed of light electronic communications makes to our society & all its institutions is profound & underestimated: it is not a case of the old literate world, now with computers, and still in possession of the full & unimpeded range of its inherited values – its a whole new world, the emerging values of which are not grounded on literacy.”

    Bien sure monsieur venison, and no better to demonstrate the scrambling and de-contextualisation of the cultural fixtures of modernity in present times than Jean Baudrillard.

    ” …History itself has become a dustbin. It has become its own dustbin, just as the planet itself is becoming its own dustbin.”

    Take his ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ thesis, it is a fitting tool to understand, for example, the ANZAC Gallipolli memorial event coming up. JB’s “precession of simulacra” (in simple terms) would postulate that this event has nothing to do with the past historical event and represents the image of war that will precede real war. A possible hyperreal manifestation of an event in future of our Nation?

    JB offers a natural extension to the insights of Marshall McLuhan, particularly when it comes to understanding of the media and the contemporary ‘unthinking’ of modernity, but is not without flaws.
    http://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell26.htm

    As for the soundtrack and knowing your taste a.v., Brian Eno – Music for Airports

  8. alfred venison
    February 21st, 2014 at 00:46 | #8

    thank you, mr Ootz, and nice to be interlocuting with you again. i shall read that link at lunch today and i shall enjoy you video later this morning when no one’s asleep. i am often reminded these days of umberto eco’s essay “travels in hyper reality”, i’m sure you know it. and i think i get what you’re saying about anzac on this centenary, i expect to be sickened in my heart for long periods this year. -a.v.

  9. Ootz
    February 21st, 2014 at 09:34 | #9

    of course Faith in Fakes, the original title of translation of Eco’s Il costume di casa has very much in the same angle on contemporary culture and its ‘unthinking’, de-contextualising, recycling or down-cycling of estabished knowledge in modernity particularely by contemporary ‘carpet bombing’ mass media.

    Here Neil Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death should be referenced too. He makes a very good argument of your point a.v., as in “the medium is the metaphor” where he points out how oral, literate, and televisual cultures radically differ in the processing and prioritization of information. That is why we have ended up with a veritable global Collosseum where the punters thumbs up/down, to give them the impression of determine the outcome of a gladiatorial contest, as happens now on blogs and social networks. So while concepts of modernity have persisted, they are being transmogrified by the knowledge sausage factories which started of by Hollywood dream factories and of late progressed into being an endemic entertainment panglossicon in every living room, hospital waiting room, et al, predominantly via imperial media corporations. So yes, while modern traditions persist, they are often ‘consumed’ as popular packaged fakes of the original experience or meaning in post modern times.

    But cheer up monsieur venison, there is hope in the ingenuity of humans and there are signs that the cultural tide will peak. Perhaps sooner than later, so I look forward when shovelware will become the new expression of individualism and ‘free markets’ in the cultural domain, it surely looks like fun.

    Hence, my alternative soundtrack suggestion.

  10. Ootz
    February 21st, 2014 at 09:39 | #10

    Merde, my comment ended up in auto moderation, I’ll try splitting it up …

    Of course Faith in Fakes, the original title of translation of Eco’s essayIl costume di casa has very much in the same angle on contemporary culture and its ‘unthinking’, de-contextualising, recycling or down-cycling of estabished knowledge in modernity particularely by contemporary ‘carpet bombing’ mass media.
    Here Neil Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death should be referenced too. He makes a very good argument of your point a.v., as in “the medium is the metaphor” where he points out how oral, literate, and televisual cultures radically differ in the processing and prioritization of information. That is why we have ended up with a veritable global Collosseum where the punters thumbs up/down, to give them the impression of determine the outcome of a gladiatorial contest, as happens now on blogs and social networks. So while concepts of modernity have persisted, they are being transmogrified by the knowledge sausage factories which started of by Hollywood dream factories and of late progressed into being an endemic entertainment panglossicon in every living room, hospital waiting room, et al, predominantly via imperial media corporations. So yes, while modern traditions persist, they are often ‘consumed’ as popular packaged fakes of the original experience or meaning in post modern times.

    But cheer up monsieur venison, there is hope in the ingenuity of humans and there are signs that the cultural tide will peak. Perhaps sooner than later, so I look forward when shovelware will become the new expression of individualism and ‘free markets’ in the cultural domain, it surely looks like fun.

  11. Ootz
    February 21st, 2014 at 09:42 | #11

    Ok, and here my alternative, happier and more sustainable suggestion for the soundtrack

  12. jungney
    February 21st, 2014 at 10:10 | #12

    @Ootz

    ‘Panglossicon’, by which I think you suggest a panopticon run along the principle that we live in the best of all possible prisons? If it means other than that please tell me because I would add it to my lexicon.

  13. Ootz
    February 21st, 2014 at 12:09 | #13

    Apologiez Jungney for my crude attempt on neologism. If I retrace the various input signals for “Panglossicon”, perhaps then take gk. pan glossia or über-tongue and -con, -kon and -ken are old Alemanic suffix/postfixe, denominating a place, usually following the name of the head honcho. In latin it is -cum, hence Aventicum or Turicum (and giving away may heritage here) So yeah, my stream of consciousness invented the sign for the place of über-tongue if you like.

    One of the advantages of being bilingual is being able to mesh cultural expressions more freely. More so, it gives a much more nuanced perspective on cultural processes and thus constructed realities. I am sure a.v. would agree with me here.

  14. jungney
    February 21st, 2014 at 13:47 | #14

    @Ootz

    Thanks for that Ootz. I shall claim it as my own then as a neologism derived from panopticon and the ever admirable Dr Pangloss. But feel free to vigorously dispute it :)

  15. Ootz
    February 21st, 2014 at 14:35 | #15

    Great synchronisity jungney, they both point into the same direction. Now may I point back to the the Gallipoli Centenary, that would be a good topic to test JQ’s assertion of fixed traditions.

    It looks like the Premium and Comfort as well as associated Major or Sergeant Tours are a Disney World version from the experience a Major or Sergeant nevermind common digger experienced in 1914.

    An for that matter, considering that just as many Australians lost their life on Australian soil in Australias foundational war, as was lost in WWI, what does it say about our deafening silence about that? There is evidence that a hundred or more years ago there was more open discuorse about that fact, then there is now.

  16. alfred venison
    February 22nd, 2014 at 09:06 | #16

    ahhh, bang on a can, mr ootz , how nice, we’re enjoying it now. and the malawi mouse boys, too. thanks.

    speaking of the home front, i don’t expect anyone is going to organise guided tours of capital city and/or regional centre town halls to relive what it would have been like to vote against conscription. or what it would have been like to have been a striking railway engineer or a striking railway engineer’s wife.

    i learned from the great german musicologist carl dahlhaus about “reception history” – there should be more of it. -a.v.

  17. Jungney
    February 22nd, 2014 at 15:03 | #17

    @Ootz

    The silence on the frontier wars, the absence of public recognition of the massacres, the sites and the warriors, including the absence of representation in the (holy of holies) National War Museum is ongoing denial. As a nation we’re rather good at denial, I reckon.

    I do like the idea of different levels of guided tours and cultural events for Gallipoli. Imagine a premium tour with Andrew Bolt as a guide. Or Rusty Nails, if he’s still with us. With a complimentary and compulsory southern cross tattoo thrown in.

    Some years ago I made a proposal to some mates on a Land Council that we could run cultural tours of the sites of Jimmy and Joe Governor’s murders. I suppose a premium tour would include a mock attack during an evening cup of billy tea and damper around a campfire under a darkening sky. Oddly enough they rejected the idea outright, once they stopped laughing.

    http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/governor-jimmy-6439

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