The traditionality of modernity

by John Quiggin on March 16, 2006

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.

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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Early Modern Notes » Quiz for historians
03.16.06 at 1:19 pm



Brendan 03.16.06 at 6:00 am

Someone cleverer than me should really write a book about this. The problem is to really fix the definitions of ‘change’ and ‘tradition’.

Certainly, looking back at cultural histories of (say) the birth of Modernism 1908-1914, or the birth of pop culture 1956-1968, one gets the impression that culture changed a lot quicker and a lot more radically then than now. I mean, what is the difference really between 2006 and 1996? There have been political changes (but these have been mainly caused by a ‘one off’ phenomenon: the invasion of Iraq). And, sure there have been technological changes, although most of the things we take for granted now were in fact about in 1996 (the internet, mobile phones) and all we have seen is their mass acceptance.

Compare, for contrast, the change in the culture between 1904 and 1914, or between 1956 and 1966 (or 1966 and 1976).

I think the interesting thing about this, as John Quiggan points out, is that there does not seem to be a necessary and direct link between technological change and cultural change. It also calls into question the nature of modernity itself. Is modernity, as most people have assumed, an increasing process or event of constant change, flux, a world in which ‘everything solid melts into air’? Or is modernity (or is it just our post-modernity?) increasingly going to be a time of the lack of (cultural) change, the increasing solidification of tradition, and a world (like the 19th century, or the 13th, perhaps) in which most decades are pretty much like every other decade? Very different from the 20th century where every decade had its own individual ‘feel’?

Or is this just itself a symptom of reactionary 21st century thinking, and was the 20th century much more ‘traditional’ than we choose to remember it?


bad Jim 03.16.06 at 6:02 am

The next thing you’re going to try to sell us is that Saint Paddy didn’t eat potatoes and Julius Caesar never tasted spaghetti. So Marx had it backwards observing that “All that is solid melts into air”?

China’s “first emperor” built the Great Wall and burned all the books in an attempt to ensure that his reign would be the beginning of history. He needn’t have bothered; there have been numerous Year Zeros since then.


lollius 03.16.06 at 6:20 am

Yeah, true, as far as your general argument goes, but at the risk of pedantry, I really must protest your writing “we are now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than […] at any time since at least the Middle Ages.”

As you point out in your final paragraph, true homogeneity of tradition takes a lot of technology. The Middle Ages(c) lacked this technology — and many of its precursors, in spades! Thus, as you might expect, “medieval” “Europe” “lacked” many “modern” “traditions” (For example, see the “Index” under “Easter, Deaths resulting from disputes over the proper date of”)

But now I’m just showing off how well I hold down the “Shift” key while pressing other characters”…”

What really matters is to say that, after much research, it seems that medieval people were quite repetitive in their annual behaviors, but also quite diverse from place to place — and much more variable over time than people used to think 100 years ago.


Brendan 03.16.06 at 6:25 am

‘What really matters is to say that, after much research, it seems that medieval people were quite repetitive in their annual behaviors, but also quite diverse from place to place’.

That’s a good point. Perhaps even the middle ages weren’t as ‘samey’ as we think they were, given that, while most decades were pretty much the same there was a great variation in behaviour’s geographically (i.e. few changes over time, but many changes over space).

That’s just the sort of thing that you don’t get nowadays. Unless you really go for it and go to North Korea or those untouched tribes in South America, there is far more uniformity of behaviour (because of technology) than there used to be.

So perhaps the 21st century will be MORE traditional and uniform, overall, than the 13th century.


des von bladet 03.16.06 at 6:33 am

I think one or two wimmins or queerteoristes might have some pointed remarks to make on the way that the notion of the nuclear fambly has mutated in much of the civilised world over the last 50 years or so, and of course I would put washing machines and contraception towards the top of reasons why, being an old-fashioned sort of technological not-quit-deterministe. (One of the most striking recent inventions of tradition is the modern American stay-at-home mom, who doesn’t really seem to resemble her alleged historical precursor all that much.)

But as a straight white male in the glorious (but slightly Dutch) condition of undertrouw, I will argue instead that future generations may yet look back to the EU as the beginning of the end for the nation state system. (It would be fine by me, for sure.) The bellicose sword-rattling and “National Champion” rhetoric looks like a last gasp to me, for sure.

And while the pantheon of rock is stable, qua pantheon, new entries are allowed — there are few things more depressing than contemporary teens in Nirvana sweatshirts, unless you could the refusal of three-chord punk rock to crawl off and die in a corner, but surely we all listen to rap all the time these days anyway? (I, for one, have lived for some decades in the hope that the balding middle-aged white tossers who inflict sub-mediocre “blues” on British pubs will one day transmogrify into Old Skool Rap revivalistes.)


yabonn 03.16.06 at 6:35 am

One obvious factor assisting all this is technology.

Maybe a society that accumulates technology will accumulate all other kinds of stuff too?

I was thinking about sushi-style food. I suppose it began because people had rice, fish, and found that putting one on the other was yummy. Now there are schools (yes?) teaching the Ancient and Noble Art of Rolling the Rice Ball and Putting the Fish on it.


abb1 03.16.06 at 6:39 am

Hmm. The way I see it – traditions and cultural icons change faster than ever and nobody under 30 knows who James Dean is.


Anders Widebrant 03.16.06 at 6:50 am

There is, I think, a difference between tradition-bound and tradition-preserving. Taking off from what someone posted above, we do not so much kill each other over the right date to observe Easter these days.


abb1 03.16.06 at 6:55 am

Isn’t there a school principal in Chicago who forces students to listen to Sinatra songs as a punishment?


des von bladet 03.16.06 at 7:04 am

One tradition that has died and died hard and died till it’s very dead and stayed that way is the teaching of Latin in schools. I trailed that edge, but the edge is no more.


abb1 03.16.06 at 7:12 am

They sure teach Latin in my daughter’s school, Geneva public school. Along with English and German.


JO'N 03.16.06 at 7:36 am

Naively, I would have thought that technology would have forced an exchange between “space-like diversity” (e.g. the completely different cultures of two neighboring villages that remains stable over centuries), to “time-like diversity” (e.g. the whole world having the same constantly-changing culture). However, if there’s a complete elimination of cultural diversity in both time and space, that’s pretty depressing. I guess we already see something similar in the vast language die-off currently going on in the world — in which it’s expected that during the 21st century the number of language in the world will go from 6,000 to 300 — and at the same time we see each surviving language become more standardized and uniform.


John Quiggin 03.16.06 at 7:48 am

“traditions and cultural icons change faster than ever and nobody under 30 knows who James Dean is.”

He’s certainly a more dubious case than the other two, but since you’d have to be at least 60 to remember him when he was alive, I don’t think he’s much of a counterexample.


Chris Bertram 03.16.06 at 7:58 am

Locke, 2nd treatise:

“… in the beginning, all the world was America…”

He forgot to add, “in the end, too.”


des von bladet 03.16.06 at 8:28 am

… In betweeen, thankfully, it is mostly Belgium.

But I forgot to note that Lollius’s point about spatial variety is also true of now: Dutch Sinterklaas (no relation) and Zwedish Tomten are by no means the same things as your silly Engleeesh Santa.


y81 03.16.06 at 9:37 am

I’m not so sure about the durability of popular icons (as opposed to Christmas and tartans). Isn’t the durability of the ones named here a function of the baby boomers’ disproportionate cultural influence? And won’t those names fade once the baby boomers die? And Marilyn Monroe become a name no more recognized, in 2100, than Lily Langtry and Britney Spears?


asg 03.16.06 at 9:43 am

What karate post?


JRoth 03.16.06 at 11:58 am

I think that, for Marilyn at least, her iconization (?) was so thorough and complete that she will persist in a substantively different way than her putative predecessors. I know many in my cohort (b. 1965-75) who have gone through periods of Marilyn obsession. Which in turn leads to another decade or more of cultural relevance. Not to mention the effects of Warhol and Madonna (for example) in perpetuating her image.

I don’t think we can really make a comparison to an earlier generation – as JQ says, mass media technology came of age in the mid-20th C., allowing those icons to speak for themselves to new generations in a way that Jenny Lind or even Mae West (most of whose career was vaudevillean) couldn’t. I think Marilyn will, inevitably, fade, but never be replaced on her pedestal.

PS – Same deal with the Beatles, although their icon is more talent- and less image-based.


Simstim 03.16.06 at 12:09 pm

Des, my old school introduced Latin lessons a couple of years after I left, but I suspect that can be put down to the new “Christian Values” headmaster they had. I don’t know if they still do (my younger siblings have long since left it), so that new tradition might have bit the dust by now.


burritoboy 03.16.06 at 12:23 pm

well, yeah. cultural modernity stalls in 1968 and we’ve essentially been dancing around and around the same things and unable to move forward since the failure of ’68.


Sharon 03.16.06 at 1:12 pm

Now hold it right there a minute.

The fact that many of our current ‘traditions’ date only from the the 19th century does not in itself demonstrate “that we are now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century” (or whenever).

To show this you would need to present some evidence that people in the 19th century (or whenever) did not have their own array of now lost (and no doubt invented) ‘traditions’. Or, if they did (and I don’t think there’s much of an ‘if’ about it but I’m tired and I’m not looking stuff up for you right now), you’d have to evaluate whether they were more or less ‘bound’ to those traditions than we are to ours.

It’s possible that the 19th century specifically (in Europe and America anyway) was less tradition-bound than any previous or subsequent historical periods, but you’ve got some homework to do before you can make this hypothesis work.


Kenny Easwaran 03.16.06 at 2:12 pm

“printing has fixed languages once and for all”

or maybe not


Andrew 03.16.06 at 2:36 pm

Kenny Easwaran: Slang changes all the time, but proper written language isn’t changing. I can read a 100 year old newspaper in English (or in Japanese, your other example) and understand about as much as one I buy today.


Tracy W 03.16.06 at 3:16 pm

23. Actually written language is. I don’t know about 100 years ago, but Jane Austen’s written language is subtly different from modern day English. E.g. for a long time I thought Sensibility referred to something like Sensible, when actually it means something like “open to emotions.”

Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan dramatists wrote language that is even more different to modern English. And I find raw Chaucer nearly unreadable.

Personally I think while geographic cultural-diversity has reduced, individual cultural diversity has increased. E.g. 200 years ago my brothers and I would most likely have been listening to the same music, whatever we could get. Now I have a CD collection revolving around Middle Eastern music (I’m into bellydancing), while one brother goes for rap and the other for grunge. Our parents get pulled around in multiple directions – dragged off to Hazam Ramsay performances, fed weird Vietnamese dishes, invited to attend Ironman events, etc.


John Quiggin 03.16.06 at 3:35 pm

‘So Marx had it backwards observing that “All that is solid melts into air”?”

As with so many things, Marx was spot-on in his assessment of the past, wrong in projecting it into the future. Things really were melting in C19. Social mobility in the US was far greater then than now, for example.


JRoth 03.16.06 at 3:51 pm

Relevant story in Slate, talking about the rise of The Irish Pub Co., which makes and sells “authentic” Irish pubs to be shipped around the world. The article describes how “tradition” has been evolving in Ireland in just the last 10-15 years.

Oh, and Tracy, don’t forget that Chaucer was pre-printing press. Which is the point – from Chaucer to Shakespeare (200 yrs) the language changed more than it has in the subsequent 400 years.


John Quiggin 03.16.06 at 4:34 pm

Sharon, the ancient traditions of blogging, handed down from the legendary Haloscan say that the commenters have to do the homework.

Seriously, though, you’re asking for proof of a negative. What’s needed here is a counterexample. Ideal would be a tradition inherited by C19, passed on unchanged to C20 and then abandoned or radically transformed.

dvb mentions “wimmins or queerteoristes”, but I think only the second of these examples works. Feminism is a 19th century innovation, and its biggest wins (the vote, married womens’ right to property, access to higher education and the professions) date back to C19.

dvb also mentions the EU which I meant to cover in the post, but didn’t manage enough time or clarity of thought. It deserves a whole post to itself in this context.


Peter 03.16.06 at 5:03 pm

” Ideal would be a tradition inherited by C19, passed on unchanged to C20 and then abandoned or radically transformed.”

How about the building of public memorials to the dead of wars in local communities, which seems to have begun after the Crimean War? Every small town in Britain and the former British settler colonies (Australia, NZ, Canada, South Africa, even Rhodesia) has a memorial to the dead of the First World War, many to WW II, and sometimes also to smaller wars of the period (e.g., the Anglo-Boer Wars). But few have memorials to later wars.


John Quiggin 03.16.06 at 5:40 pm

This doesn’t work as desired, because this tradition began in the 19th Century. What’s needed is traditions that began before C19 and continued through it before being lost.

One obvious, and pleasing, reason this tradition has declined is the absence of war dead to commemorate. Australia lost 300 in Vietnam, and there are monuments in most big cities, but few if any in country towns.

But I think there is a real change here, part of a general decline in traditional public statuary.


Chris Williams 03.16.06 at 5:59 pm

Industrial-strength religious sectarianism
Funeral clubes
Saint Monday
Washing on a Monday
Rough Music
Convalescence on the Isle of Man

That’ll do ya?


Another Damned Medievalist 03.16.06 at 6:26 pm

um … can you say, mos maiorum?? Can you say, umpteen Egyptian dynasties? Can you say, Chinese architecture after the Song? Homer?????

You may be right that modern society is obsessed with creating tradition, e.g., “the All New Classic Christmas Movie Tradition,” but I think Sharon is right. You have to have some kind of proof.

Oh … English Common Law? Germanic inheritance law? Any number of seasonal folk/religious rituals?


John Quiggin 03.16.06 at 6:27 pm

The temperance movement, sabbatarianism (at least industrial strength) and funeral clubs were all 19th century innovations that didn’t last, as I assume was convalescing on the Isle of Man.

As for religious sectarianism, it declined drastically over the course of the 19th century, notably in Britain. You had the Gordon riots and Church and King mobs still active at the end of the 18th.

Washing on a Monday sounds right, though. I’ve never heard of Rough Music, but it sounds interesting. Linky?

Saint Monday (aka the Long Weekend) was alive and well in Oz until very recently, and is I think on the way back. As a generally accepted day off, though, I don’t think Saint Monday survived the 19th century.


Uncle Kvetch 03.16.06 at 7:08 pm

Saint Monday (aka the Long Weekend) was alive and well in Oz until very recently, and is I think on the way back.

One more Billy Bragg song explained for me. Thank you.


Chris Williams 03.16.06 at 7:09 pm

So you want things that arrived before 1800, and left between 1900 and now? Sectarianism still fits, as does sabbatarianism. If you really think that either arrived in the nineteenth century, then I have a civil war to tell you about.

Saint Monday got hammered (boom boom) from the 1880s, but saw out the nineteenth century, justabout. Ditto rough music, AKA charivari.


John Quiggin 03.16.06 at 7:19 pm

Actually, adm, I can’t say mos maiorum. When I learned my little bit of Latin, we still had ‘j’ for ‘i’ and it was pronounced as spelt .

But in any case, I’m not making a comparison with ancient Rome or Egypt, only with the 19th century.

As for “Any number of seasonal folk/religious rituals?”, that’s surely the point. Our existing rituals seem mostly to have been invented 100 to 150 years ago, and to have been preserved essentially intact for the last 100 years.

As to Common Law, I don’t know the facts, but the claim would be that many “traditional” elements, like wigs and gowns for example, and modes of pleading, are actually relatively new and took their present highly codified form in the 19th century.


John Quiggin 03.16.06 at 7:48 pm

Chris, my claim on sectarianism is that it didn’t survive past 1900, certainly not in the form that was inherited in 1800. In between you had Catholic Emancipation, the repeal of the Test Acts, Irish Disestablishment and lots more. By contrast, the whole 20th century passed without even managing to remove the anti-Catholic provisions of the Act of Settlement or the Established status of the CofE.

I’m willing to concede on sabbatarianism, though.


y81 03.16.06 at 7:55 pm

Arrived before 1800, left after 1900? Women riding sidesaddle.


Another Damned Medievalist 03.16.06 at 8:55 pm

Well, John, you did have that “more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages” thrown in there ;-) And it’s hard to think of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment without considering their reappropriation and redefinition of classical and medieval tradition. And one might argue that Luther and some of the other early Protestants were (re-) creating traditions.


'As you know' Bob 03.16.06 at 9:44 pm

This seems to be the cultural evolution version of punctuated equilibrium: a decade or two of innovation and change followed by a century or two of stasis.


Chris 03.16.06 at 10:00 pm

English common law changed massively in the nineteenth century; not so much by what it did itself, but because it changed from being to all intents and purposes the law — to a first approximation all the law there was — to being no more than an adjunct to statute law.
Men’s clothes, too, were set in the early nineteenth century and have lasted essentially unchanged ever since (a man from 1806 could easily walk into 2006, but not into 1606) except, and it’s a major exception, for the hat, which after a reign of a millenium died in a remarkably short period after 1945. The hat surely qualifies as “a tradition inherited by C19, passed on unchanged to C20 and then abandoned or radically transformed”. My grandfather’s letters from 1903 record an occasion when he lost his hat and had to lurk at work till after dark when he could sneak home by the laneways, as if he’d lost his trousers.


Sharon 03.17.06 at 4:09 am

I wasn’t really asking to prove a negative, and whether traditions have survived or not is irrelevant to the more fundamental point I was making, which was that it is just wrong to make the form of statement “today we are more [whatever phenomenon] than [in a previous time in the past]” if you only give evidence about today and none for the earlier period(s) with which you’re making the comparison (as you put it: “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”).

Traditions change, adapt, die out, new ones are created; this is an implication of the whole invented traditions concept. Chris gave several past examples. From Wales, another invented tradition of the late 17th/18th century that died out by the mid-19th century was the gwylmabsant (parish wake). And now I have to go to work to teach a bunch of students about the moral economy of the early modern crowd.


Sharon 03.17.06 at 4:59 am

A clarification here, since I think we might be losing sight of an important distinction: “a tradition”, a specific ritualised phenomenon supported by an appeal to the past, is not the same as “tradition” in general. Specific traditions change and that’s relatively easy to trace; the cultural importance of tradition (or “custom”) is more enduring but much harder to evaluate and compare across cultures.


rollo 03.17.06 at 5:13 am

What are traditions members of the class of?
Things that people do as individuals in common with a collective?
Does tradition-bound mean having more traditions or being more bound by the ones we do have?
What did people do in the 19C? Work, eat, go to church on Sunday, unless you were part of the aristocratic minority – but then most of us try to imagine middle-class lives as counterpart to ours now, thinking the majority then were like the majority now. But there wasn’t much of a middle-class for most of the 19C was there? Most men worked long-houred 6-day weeks, and women worked the bulk of their time in the home, and they amused themselves as families with local home-made things. Novelty was not a widely available drug in those days.
My unresearched impression is virtually every aspect of daily living was colored by if not conformed to some kind of tradition.
One example of something most of us view as solidly historic, but that’s completely fabricated and less than a few generations old, is the “tradition” of the diamond ring as central to marriage, esp. to the proposal and engagement.


John Quiggin 03.17.06 at 5:33 am

Chris, the hat is right, but as you imply, it’s the exception that proves the rule, and ceased to be obligatory quite early in C20 (Orwell comments on a story by Gissing where the loss of a hat leads to fatal disaster – the fact that the story could be written is an indication that the norm was on the way out). Apart from hats, the changes in male dress since about 1850 have been trivial by comparison with any comparably long period since (at least) the Middle Ages. Women’s fashions have been more changeable, but I think the pace of change is slowing.

adm, I agree with everything you say in your most recent comment, which is why I see C20 and C21 (so far) as stable by comparison with the Renaissance, Reformation and so on.

y81, sidesaddle riding as a cultural norm was killed in late C19 by the bicycle.

sharon, my claim is that there are no (well, very few) examples of traditions inherited from hte past surviving C19 unchanged, whereas many traditions remained fixed for much or all of C20. The obvious approach to disproof is by counterexample. Sabbatarianism and Monday as washing day seem to fit the bill, but are, in my view, not enough to invalidate the claim.


agm 03.17.06 at 6:23 pm

I mean, what is the difference really between 2006 and 1996?

iEverything. (refering to iPod and people chasing its success).


NDR 03.18.06 at 12:27 pm

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