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Tradition within and beyond the framework of invention

Interdisciplinary workshop, organised by Dr. Susanne Klien and Patrick Neveling

Location:     Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
                  Advokatenweg 36
                  06114 Halle (Saale)
Time:          09.30 am - 4.45 pm


How the past is socially constructed has been explored widely across the humanities and social sciences in the past decades. The concept of the "invention of tradition" introduced by the British historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger has received particular attention. According to these scholars, traditions are influenced by socio-political interests rather than representing an accurate passage of historical events - i.e. ‘actual' history. In many cases, they are deliberately constructed to serve ideological purposes such as to foster national identity and unity. Traditions are thus equated with a dubious authenticity. While the relevance of Hobsbawm's and Ranger's framework has been widely acknowledged, its inherently static notion of tradition as an antipode to modernity, innovation and change has been increasingly questioned.

This workshop invites social scientists from various disciplines to engage issues related to "tradition" in a variety of meanings, introducing a range of theoretical contributions and case studies. Presentations in the first session examine issues of nation building, power and identity politics in Japan and Mauritius, two countries with highly diverse colonial and postcolonial histories. The second session discusses tourism, cultural production, ‘authenticity' and ‘tradition' in Japan, Réunion and Germany. Theoretical contributions in the afternoon session critically compare the application of the "invented tradition" framework in different socio-political contexts and various disciplines.


09:30 - 09:45  
Jürgen Paul (GSAA, MLU Halle-Wittenberg):
Welcome and introduction

09:45 - 10:00
Patrick Neveling (Institute for Social Anthropology, MLU Halle-Wittenberg): Introduction to the workshop

Session 1: Nation-
building, power, and identity politics
Chair: Patrick Neveling

10:00 - 10:20
Susanne Klien (GSAA, MLU Halle-Wittenberg):
Japan's horror vacui: The reinvention of Japanese national identity in Fujiwara Masahiko's Kokka no hinkaku (The Dignity of the State)

10:20 - 10:40
Steffen Johannessen (GSAA, MLU Halle-Wittenberg):
Cultural genocide and the role of tradition in Chagossian Resistance

10:40 - 11:00
Comparative discussion

11:00 - 11:20
Coffee break

Session two: Tourism, cultural production, and ‘authenticity'
Chair: Susanne Klien

11:20 - 11:40
Carsten Wergin (Institute for Cultural Research, University of Bremen):
Réunion Island Musics: Sounding out traditions that do not exist

11:40 - 12:00
René John (Institute for Social Sciences in Agriculture, University of Hohenheim):
Reframing the concept of tradition from the perspective of innovation: illustrated by the example of a Berlin city theatre

12:20 - 12:40
Cornelia Reiher (Institute for Japanese Studies, University of Leipzig):
Selling tradition in Japanese rural tourism

12:40 - 13:10
Comparative discussion

13:10 - 14:30
Lunch break

Session three: Theoretical approaches to traditions
Chair: Jürgen Paul

14:30 - 14:50
Christoph Brumann (Institute for Social Anthropology, University of Cologne):
The limits of invention: urban tradition in Kyoto

14:50 - 15:10
Bertram Turner (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle):
Reconceptualising tradition on a global scale

15:10 - 15:30
Comparative discussion

15:30 - 15:50
Coffee break

15:50 - 16:10
Jean-Yves Durand (Department of Anthropology, Universidade do Minho/Portugal):
‘Invented traditions' as local truths

16:10 - 16:45
Comparative and final discussion


Christoph Brumann: The limits of invention: urban traditions in Kyoto

Hobsbawm and Ranger's "invention of tradition" paradigm continues to dominate research on the social uses of tradition and heritage. Yet two traditions of Japan's ancient capital Kyoto - the traditional town houses (kyô-machiya) revitalised since the 1990s and the famous Gion festival - contradict the predictions of the paradigm. They are not forever fixed but do evolve; they are valued not only for their traditionality but also for other, substantive qualities; and rather than serving as tools for social exclusion and collective self-elevation, their social appropriation has become more egalitarian and democratic in recent years. Conducive to these deviations are several special factors: the two traditions have impressive documented pasts that need no embellishment; they address sophisticated local audiences; and they fall between the two categories - high culture and rural custom - that encompass most invented traditions in Japan. Even when accounting for this, however, the fact that traditions - particularly those in an urban setting - are not always a politically conservative force, can be an individual (rather than collectivist) concern, and must not stifle cultural creativeness should receive more attention in future research.

Jean-Yves Durand: “Invented traditions” as local truths

Social scientists, and especially anthropologists, are now generally prone to treat as "inventions of traditions" the cases of revitalization of rituals, festivals, food products, crafts, etc., which have proliferated in the last decades, especially in Europe. They stress the reification and manipulation which are inherent to these deliberate attempts at reinforcing imagined communities. References to the past are not however always necessarily or entirely mystifying. Moreover, within the general model of the "invention of tradition", it appears necessary to acknowledge the differences (not only in scale), between the elaboration of grand narratives of identity by abstract entities, such as the State or "intellectuals", and the specificities of much smaller and localized cases. Often motivated by more direct instrumental preoccupations, the latter sometimes openly present invention processes as legitimate elements of local truths.

Steffen F. Johannessen: Cultural Genocide and the Role of Tradition in Chagossian Resistance

Between 1965 and 1973 the total population of the Chagos Archipelago was expelled to make way for the construction of a joint UK-US military base in the centre of the Indian Ocean. In attempts to bypass UN international agreements, the occupying authorities dispossessed the community of central rights by redefining them as a ‘floating population' of contract-workers before deported them. Claiming to have suffered a ‘cultural genocide' as a result of these expulsions, the Chagossians have become increasingly engaged in (re)producing cultural practices or traditions for promoting central political objectives of their community. As part of their ongoing struggle for return and compensations, ‘traditions' are politicized and performed to gain support within the community and on a wider international arena. Following their claims of cultural genocide, traditions as ‘mobile cultural practices' serve as testimonies of a formerly settled community where predominantly bodily aspects of the performances are referred to as ‘traditions'. Heavily politicized and increasingly standardized through this processes, ‘traditions' are transformed and take on new forms that rather comment on the status of Chagossians in exile. Exploring the seeming contradictions between traditions and the claim to cultural genocide, the paper focuses on the recent political transformations of Chagossian traditions as a means of resistance among a displaced community in Mauritius.

René John: Reframing the concept of tradition from the perspective of innovation: illustrated by the example of a Berlin city theatre

Tradition and innovation are concepts of social change. Tradition points to the past as innovation to the future. Thus both concepts indicate different directions of temporal reference from the present perspective. For that reason innovation cannot be seen as an antipode or destruction of tradition as tradition cannot be seen as a living past. Tradition and innovation are both results of the present society, which becomes aware of its interim state between past and future. Schumpeter defined innovation as creative destruction. This definition fits also for tradition. Both concepts have the same effect: by selecting a particular history or future they destroy other possibilities. The argument of Hobsbawm and Ranger, that tradition does not have its roots in the past but is invented for current purposes, can be seen today in the light of the postmodern criticism of modern thinking what to some extent cumulated in Lyotard's formulation about the end of all great tales. Those post-modern arguments express doubts about the causal lineage of social development, they are markers for a new uncertainty of the present about its past and future because there are several ones. As a result of this development of ideas the connection between the temporal references was exposed. Therefore the so-called post-modern art and architecture should not be so much understood as an eclectic period but as a demonstration of the awareness of this connection. This period was also the successful trail for a new strategy of coping with the uncertainty of the undeniable but highly risky social change. Since then innovation and tradition have been functioned as attributes making the acceptance of change more likely. This will be discussed by a case study of the new „Schaubühne", a Berlin city theatre, which longed for a future of more political importance of its art by orienting itself along a glorious past.

Susanne Klien: Japan’s horror vacui: The reinvention of Japanese national identity in Fujiwara Masahiko’s Kokka no hinkaku (The Dignity of the State)

In this paper I examine Fujiwara Masahiko's 2005 bestseller Kokka no hinkaku as an attempt to reinvent Japanese national identity in the face of growing horror vacui about the hollowing out of "national character." Fujiwara stresses the importance of allegedly traditional Japanese values such as emotionality and form, opposing them to so-called Western terms such as logic or ratio. Fujiwara's permanent emphasis on Japan's uniqueness is being interpreted here as an attempt to achieve national identity construction against the background of growing discontent about Japan's salient dependence on the United States. A survey of opinions about this book listed on the Japanese amazon site provides an immediate sense of the looming identity crisis and ensuing defensive urge to re-establish a tangible sense of cultural specificity, while the "other" (the monolithic West) is being used as a foil for internal reflection. Fujiwara's manner of referring to so-called traditions and national traits is a classic example of a selective perception process that aims at creating a sense of continuity for a country in transition. While Hobsbawm & Ranger's "invention of tradition" still constitutes a relevant concept that is worth applying to Fujiwara's volume, its limits are also demonstrated here: The Dignity of the State is shown to be a case par excellence of tradition being re-interpreted and used for the purposes of the present, thus incorporating a sense of tradition which is permanently evolving, rather than a stable entity as envisaged by Hobsbawm and Ranger.

Cornelia Reiher: Selling tradition in Japanese rural tourism

In the 17th and the late 19th century, Arita, a small town in Japan, was a site of porcelain production for global markets. By now its international and national significance has become marginalized. Different local actors try to revive the town by increasingly focusing on tourism linked to its traditional crafts. In 2005 the Arita hina no yakimono matsuri-campaign was designed to attract mainly domestic tourists by combining local handicrafts with the nationwide celebrated girls` festival (hina matsuri). To help tourists to create a cultural imaginary as opposite to their every day life, the producers select and modify aspects of a ‘suitable past' and relate them to an environment or a commodity - a process Hobsbawm and Ranger called "invention of tradition". In this producer-oriented case study I will show that the hina matsuricampaign in Arita is based on such invented traditions. The campaign itself claims to unify old customs and is institutionalized through annual repetition. Processes of social change in which this phenomenon is embedded and the network of relevant actors will be analyzed as well. Thus it appears that rather than to equate invented traditions with inauthenticity, they contain a creative, dynamic and real cultural dimension because they are based on but at the same time evoke solidarity within the local community.

Bertram Turner: Reconceptualising tradition on a global scale

The paper analyses the re-emergence and revitalisation of tradition in the current era of globalization and transnationalisation. In the shape of traditional institutions, normative regulations, inventories of knowledge, in social practice and as a source of legitimation, tradition became a global commodity. The continued vitality and revitalisation of tradition in inter-scalar global dynamics seems paradoxical, however. Common explanations consider the renewed emphasis on tradition in very different contexts as an indication of the failure or the imminent breakdown of the state or see it primarily as a rejection of dominant globalisation processes. In both approaches, tradition primarily figures as a relic from the past and attempts to revitalise it are seen as inward and backward looking. The paper argues that these explanations are unsatisfactory. Looking at the legal sphere as one prominent field of the reconceptualisation of tradition, I argue, that a wide range of actors - from global players to local people - refers to tradition as a strategic tool in the legal repertoire in order to bring forward their respective interests in very different fields ranging from development goals such as sustainability, natural protection and good governance, to absolute hegemony in the religious field. Not conservatism but discontent with the distribution of resources and power motivate actors to look for alternative legitimisation of their claims. Tradition has become an argument in a global context. Simultaneously, as a global good worth to be protected, ‘tradition' becomes an object of transnational legislation. This attempt, in turn, challenges the processes of continuous negotiation and reconstruction of tradition.

Carsten Wergin: Réunion Island Musics: Sounding out traditions that do not exist

Cultural actors invent traditions in order to draw attention to themselves and their local culture. These inventions are in turn influenced by others' perception of it. Within a global system of exchange, flux and flow such representations are subject to various restrictions. World Musicians for example must transport an image of authenticity if they are to be successful on a trans-regional level. Their musical performances subsequently (re)invent traditions to signify unique local forms of identities and cultures. Such creative performances turn certain ‘traditions' into fundamental components of local culture. In Réunion Island, an Overseas-Département of France in the Indian Ocean, this process becomes even more apparent since the island before colonisation was uninhabited. Traditions here are not original or rooted, but are indicators of cultural transition and routedness. Musicians re-territorialise themselves within a translocal soundscape, where Réunion Island becomes one of many points of reference. In my presentation I will make this audible with some musical examples.