Salon magazine reports another instance of CP Snow’s observation that all ancient traditions date from the second half of the 19th century. This time, it’s the Tooth Fairy. As you would expect, the Tooth Fairy turns out to be a codification and modification of a bunch of older local practices, many involving a mouse or rat.
This seemed like a good time to rerun one of my posts that stirred up plenty of trouble at the time, making 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”.
I’ll just add that CP Snow was writing in the 1950s, pretty much equidistant between the late 19th century and the present day, strengthening my observation that the “invention of tradition” is now something of a traditional concept (though the phrase itself, due to Hobsbawm and Ranger, is a mere 30 years old).
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.
The traditionality of modernity
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.