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Africa Today 48.4 (2001) 86-88

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Uncoupling the "Traditional" vs. "Modern" Opposition

Michelle Kisliuk

In Daniel Reed's case study in this issue, music and dance forms that are self-defined as "traditional" are also defined as "modern." His consultants assert that "Ge performance has always operated this way in relationship to the world around it"—in effect they are claiming a tradition of modernity. This leads me to wonder why is it that we as scholars are still obliged to theorize our way out of reified and hegemonic categories like "tradition" or "modernity," tending to split these into binary opposites. Along with some of the African performers in the case studies collected here, we often find ourselves mired in a colonial and postcolonial, modernist set of categories and attendant language that engenders this split. In a kind of after-the-fact colonial domination of our consciousness, the opposed categories and reified ways of thinking linger. Consequently, we do not yet have the freedom to take process and change, play, and performativity as given. We are obliged to spend a good deal of energy first ferreting out and discarding the binary assumptions before delving into the relevant ongoing socioesthetics—the detailed, grounded, micro and macro negotiations within performance. An intellectual and creative emancipation from this binary thinking is long overdue.

The papers in this collection take some important steps toward leaving the hegemonic conceptual shackles behind. They can help us to think our way out of limiting categories (e.g., that something is either "traditional" or "modern") by focusing expressly on pockets or loci of cultural processes where these categories are in fact reshaped and often courageously resized and reincorporated into ongoing, dialectical, local experience.

One way of understanding the difference between binary and dialectical thinking is in terms of what I call "the fixed/mixed dialectic" of cultural process—always in dynamic tension (see Kisliuk, in press). Here "fixed" might be glossed as "the traditional" and "mixed" as "the modern," but each depends on the other in ever-evolving performative redefinition. It is when the relationship is conceived of as an opposition instead of as a dialectic, that a conceptual mistake arises—in essence the modernist worldview—in which the terms of the dialectic become instead a binary opposition. The conceptual mistake is then entrenched when it really needed to be dislodged in order for us to perceive the redefining, renegotiating, and reincorporating that takes place within ongoing experience. [End Page 86]

In this sense, Mganda in Stephen Hill's study might be understood as a strategy for making sense of the complexities of colonial experience, weaving those experiences playfully (as in "deep play") into new identities. Yet perhaps Mganda was only a temporary strategy tied to a particular moment, and is therefore no longer relevant and so need not be mourned. Gedro in Côte d'Ivoire (Reed) is a striking example of a practice that has defied reification and ensures ongoing relevance by its very structure. Like the Mami Wata complex across West and Central Africa, and like some contemporary African-American hip-hop, Gedro is about the experience of modernity and therefore can model cultural processes more generally—it is about the reincorporation of perceived otherness (or past-ness) into a performance of modernity as local experience.

But of course all living traditions, all meaningful performance is in fact a temporary product of an ongoing creolization process - like language. Some processes are simply more visible as processes than are others. Conversely, some political agendas are invested in making their own creolization processes invisible, as in Lisa Gilman's article. This perspective moves us out of the "syncretism" model of perceiving cultural process which can be another conceptual trap that ends in reification. In other words, it is not that certain processes are "syncretic" but that all cultural process is syncretic; some simply purport not to be, so as to claim unquestioned authority. Rather, we can begin thinking about the rich and particular details of performance processes, and especially about why and under what circumstances these details have...


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