On Traditions

Everybody is of course familiar with the excellent Tango Cynic videos. I was reminded of this video when reading about traditions in completely different context. The same two sides repeat in all of such discussions with such accuracy that is becomes a farce.

If we make a caricature, the traditionalists seem to believe there was some magical place in history, in our case Buenos Aires in the 1920’s where they danced the “authentic tango”. And that if you violate the traditions, you are violating this holy authentic tango. Sometimes you see people claiming “this is how they do it in Buenos Aires” which is similar.

There was probably no single place and point in time where all these traditions were followed. Some of the traditions may actually be quite modern. For example, some people think dancing in the darkness is romantic and authentic, but then some believe that laser-sharp cabeceo to the other side of the room is even more authentic. These two “traditions” are in conflict. (Yes, I know, there are solutions to this “conflict”)

The caricature view of the progressives is that they collectively complain about most of the traditions, although each progressive person typically has only few traditions they personally strongly dislike. The justification goes that in our modern age the specific traditions are outdated, or worse. We modern people now know better. (This does not prevent progressives from abusing some traditions for their own benefit.)

There is a problem with both of these views, but in my experience¬†the traditionalists are closer to the truth. However, if you angrily justify anything as “this is how they do it in Buenos Aires” you are actually alienating people from the traditions. Anybody who has been there knows how easy it is to find counterexamples of any tradition. What is worse than alienating others, they are probably preventing themselves from getting the full benefits of the tradition.

My approach to traditions is pragmatic. I don’t believe in traditions just by themselves. But on some level I respect them even more than the traditionalists.

I believe that it is useful to view traditions as a mechanism that transmits understanding to us from previous generations. By repeating some tradition, if we are open to it, we may begin to understand why somebody started the tradition, and we may learn something valuable. (No, I do not mean that they necessarily thought about us when starting the tradition.)

The things you might learn may be be more valuable than mere knowledge, and they are things that typically cannot be explained verbally. The traditions are more robust as a communication mechanism than books or word-of-mouth.

But if you justify the traditions angrily, you are not approaching the tradition from open perspective, and you will not be able to receive what is being communicated. For example, on a very basic level, it appears to me that many traditions have originally been invented to facilitate better emotional connection within couples and between couples. If we are too strict about the traditions, it is no longer fun, and we block this emotional connection in another way.

The progressives are more lost. If they cannot justify the tradition to themselves immediately, or worse, if it goes against something they believe is “modern”, they angrily reject the tradition. The idea is that “we now know better”, meaning of course that they themselves are much wiser than people used to be. But in a way this is a tautology, because the progressives believe in progress, everything is always better than it used to be.

And this attitude makes it almost impossible to learn anything in this way, because learning requires you to be humble and first believe somebody else may know something valuable. The lessons that would be most useful to us are typically the ones we reject the quickest.

Of course these are caricatures of the extreme positions to highlight the differences. There are no such people as such. But the attitudes are similar. And these attitudes are actually very fundamental to us humans. Consider the following quote:

Recall Claude Levi-Strauss’s exemplary analysis, from his Structural Anthropology, of the spatial disposition of buildings in the Winnebago, one of the Great Lake tribes, might be of some help here. The tribe is divided into two sub-groups (“moieties”), “those who are from above” and “those who are from below”; when we ask an individual to draw on a piece of paper, or on sand, the ground-plan of his/her village (the spatial disposition of cottages), we obtain two quite different answers, depending on his/her belonging to one or the other sub-group. Both perceive the village as a circle; but for one sub-group, there is within this circle another circle of central houses, so that we have two concentric circles, while for the other sub-group, the circle is split into two by a clear dividing line. In other words, a member of the first sub-group (let us call it “conservative-corporatist”) perceives the ground-plan of the village as a ring of houses more or less symmetrically disposed around the central temple, whereas a member of the second (“revolutionary-antagonistic”) sub-group perceives his/her village as two distinct heaps of houses separated by an invisible frontier… The point Levi-Strauss wants to make is that this example should in no way entice us into cultural relativism, according to which the perception of social space depends on the observer’s group-belonging: the very splitting into the two “relative” perceptions implies a hidden reference to a constant – not the objective, “actual” disposition of buildings but a traumatic kernel, a fundamental antagonism the inhabitants of the village were unable to symbolize, to account for, to “internalize”, to come to terms with, an imbalance in social relations that prevented the community from stabilizing itself into a harmonious whole. The two perceptions of the ground-plan are simply two mutually exclusive endeavors to cope with this traumatic antagonism, to heal its wound via the imposition of a balanced symbolic structure. It is here that one can see it what precise sense the Real intervenes through anamorphosis. We have first the “actual,” “objective,” arrangement of the houses, and then its two different symbolizations which both distort in an anamorphic way the actual arrangement. However, the “real” is here not the actual arrangement, but the traumatic core of some social antagonism which distorts the tribe members’ view of the actual arrangement of the houses in their village.

— Slavoj Zizek: The Parallax View.

This traumatic kernel is what currently interests me most in the tango world.

About Mikko

A man hopelessly bitten by the argentine tango bug.
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