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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.1 (2001) 55-74

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The Places of Tradition:
Modernity/Backwardness, Regionalism/Centralism, Mass/Popular, Homogeneous/Heterogeneous

Ileana Rodríguez
Ohio State University

THE TOPIC OF MY WORK IS TRADITION. IN WHAT FOLLOWS, I REVIEW THE different hermeneutic places of "tradition" for the purpose of pinpointing the discussions on the relationship between modernity and backwardness, regionalisms and centralisms, the mass and the popular, the homogeneous and the heterogeneous. I also pay attention to how the discussion on "tradition" involves the spheres of the state and of civil society (Martín Barbero), 1 and the party and the trade unions (Hobsbawm), 2 and the critical philosophies of praxis and common sense (Gramsci). 3 Such reflection also demands examination of related theories and philosophies of history, above all the relationship between "determination in the last instance" and social struggles, willfulness (voluntarism), economic determinism, and popularisms (Laclau, Mouffe). 4

Tradition as and in Folklore

Tradition has been theorized in relation to (a) the patrimony as that which is kept and preserved in and by the popular but which is always in the [End Page 55] process of vanishing (Canclini, 1994); 5 (b) the subaltern-popular ontologies and productivities (Ortiz, 1992); 6 (c) the mass media and its mediations (Martín Barbero, 1993); (d) the subaltern which historical narratives occlude (Guha, 199); 7 (e) the invented or adapted in relation to the formation of hegemonies and counter-hegemonies (Gramsci; Hobsbawm, 1982).

The multilocalization of tradition in different hermeneutic spaces is generally interpreted as a lack of precision of the object. The object itself can be understood in some cases as (a) "tradition" itself, or (b) "the popular." In other cases, this multilocation is interpreted as a symptom of the anxieties of the absence of the object within the domains of elite culture. And in others yet, it is interpreted as the necessity to untangle concepts that have served to entwine the different disciplines amongst themselves. Renato Ortiz, for instance, argues that folklore, as the science of "tradition," flourishes in the shadow of the social sciences of the nineteenth century, which made possible the founding of positive sciences in all domains of knowledge. But Ortiz himself suggests that it is difficult to find in folklore an explanation of the methodology it uses, given that it limits itself to loose compilations of popular daily ways of life and belief systems.

The necessity of incorporating the term "tradition" and of assigning it a space within the theories of knowledge also underscores, for Antonio Gramsci, a problem of method. As an object of folklore, tradition is studied as the "picturesque," rather than as "'a conception of the world and of life' [philosophy or ideology] implicit... in determinate... strata of society and in opposition... to the 'official' conceptions of the world... that have succeeded one another in the historical process" (360). Though Ortiz argues that in folklore the casual seems to predominate, Gramsci argues that this science consists in large part of "methodological studies on how to collect, select, and classify such material, i.e., of the investigation of the practical precautions and empirical principles necessary for profitably carrying out a particular aspect of scholarship" (360). Gramsci's observation concerns a critical point: a particular descriptive stage in which there is no science but only compilations of facts. This is the cultural mesh that Michel de Certeau and Foucault describe as the construction of archives to form taxonomies—conceptual networks that undergird the definition of an object. Folklore, according to Gramsci: [End Page 56]

Can be understood only as a reflection of the conditions of cultural life of the people, although certain conceptions specific to folklore remain even after these conditions have been (or seem to be) modified or have given way to bizarre combinations. (361)

In folklore "one finds surviving evidence, adulterated and mutilated, of the majority of these conceptions" (360) of the people, conceptions that have not yet been systematized and that include different, juxtaposed, stratified, and hypostatized elements.

Tradition, reinscribed in folklore as its science, becomes...


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