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  • Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Locating the Role of the Past in the Present ed. by Trevor J. Blank and Robert Glenn Howard
  • John H. McDowell
Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Locating the Role of the Past in the Present. Ed. Trevor J. Blank and Robert Glenn Howard. (Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press; an imprint of the University of Colorado Press, 2013. Pp. xii + 256, acknowledgments, introduction, index.)

The editors of Tradition in the Twenty-First Century are to be heartily congratulated for assembling a lively set of readings that raise important issues, ask useful questions, and offer lines of thought with the capacity to focus, refine, and extend the folkloristic encounter with perhaps its core intellectual construct, the elusive yet necessary concept of tradition. Trevor J. Blank and Robert Glenn Howard are forthright in their introduction about wanting to stimulate discussion rather than provide facile answers, and the essays gathered here can hardly be said to advance a coherent program for dealing with tradition in the present century. Indeed, they do not even advance a consensual definition of the term. What they do accomplish, and this is perhaps a fitting accolade, is to convey a conviction that tradition remains a fruitful topic of contemplation, and, moreover, that folklorists have a vested interest in pursuing this field of contemplation and indeed have something special to say about it.

This book features contributions from eight folklorists as well as an introduction by the editors; all except the entry from Elliott Oring, “Thinking through Tradition,” appear to be freshly composed for this volume. If these essays do not espouse a clear program or definition of the key term, they do formulate a broad agenda for orienting our thinking about tradition in the new century. To a greater or lesser degree, each of these contributions engages with the following queries:

  1. 1. To what extent are we inhabitants of a brave new world, where the spread of enhanced communicative technologies has profoundly reconditioned the human experience?

  2. 2. What is the fate of tradition, and folklore, in this brave new world?

  3. 3. What ethical obligations accrue to scholars in this setting?

There is unhesitating agreement among these authors that we have entered a brave new world shaped by the speed and reach of digitized, online communication. Robert Glenn Howard, in his “Vernacular Authority: Critically Engaging ‘Tradition,’” sees, in this new reality, the rise of vernacular authority with its potential to liberate, but also, to insulate, online communities. Tok Thompson, in his “Trajectories of Tradition: Following Tradition into a New Epoch of Human Culture,” views the effects of the digital [End Page 112] revolution to be “more profound than even those of the printing press” (p. 151), and, in a prophetic vein, he heralds the advent of “postnational identities” (p. 169) and even “the new humanity” (p. 168). Merrill Kaplan, in her “Curation and Tradition on Web 2.0,” finds several interesting parallels in the work of pre-digital-age folklorists to the open, participatory flavor of the Internet, but also concludes that “the high-speed online environment” (p. 124) is something new and different.

Armed with this conviction that we are now in a world qualitatively different from the one people have previously inhabited, the authors undertake an inspection of the role of tradition, and by extension, folklore, in this world. All affirm, against a line of thought emanating from such worthies as Friedrich Nietzsche and Anthony Giddens, that tradition will not perish in modernity and postmodernity but, rather, will persist while becoming reconfigured, and maintain the same vital functions it has always performed. Lynne McNeill, in her “And the Greatest of These Is Tradition: The Folklorist’s Toolbox in the Twenty-First Century,” expects that we will find the new stuff of tradition to be “both familiar and unfamiliar” (p. 179), and Simon Bronner, in his “The ‘Handiness’ of Tradition,” makes a strong case for tradition, which he conceives as a process of cultural reproduction, as a force that will remain “necessary to human interaction” (pp. 208–9) as long as humans remain human. Indeed, if vernacular authority is in fact on the rise, as Howard, Casey Schmitt, and...


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