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Invention of Tradition and "the other"


I was recently arguing about the United States and their lack of a long term history, which distinguishes them from other states and ethnic groups.
But I have to start from the beginning of my thought.
There's a term in anthropology, "invention of tradition" which was introduced twenty or thirty years ago and describes the fact, that in many states tradition and history was "invented". For example, the idea of the Indian caste was a concept build in colonial India by the British, but the society stated it to be older (correct me if I am wrong with this example)(1)(The first book dealing with this idea was Hobsbawm, E. and Ranger, T (Eds.): The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1983) .
First of all, this invention of tradition, or at least its constant redefinition, is not only bad. It could enable communities to change themselves, without "officially" changing its values. Change without a revolution.
In many ethnic groups we have those kind of movements, with refer to a time so far away, not exactly being present in the common memory of a society anymore. Its so far away that the community could interpret and define those traditions in a new way, while still keeping the basic ideas of its self identity.
My argument now was this. The United States lack this kind of "old enough history". Or in other words, the one they have, is not suitable for most Americans. And because of that their own steady definition of "itself" as a nation is not able to rely on this "old enough history". They have to define themselves by defining "the other". But this definition of the self by the outer world instead of the inner world probably is one source for the constant confrontation with other states.
Well, this was my argument. Now, as I wrote it down, it seems rather simplifying. But maybe it has still a true point.
Another question I have is if I borrowed this argument from another debate. Is this a common claim, that the Americans have to define themselves by the "other" because of their lack of free interpretable, "old enough history"?


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This relates to your concerns only remotely, but as I was just reading Hobsbawm's preface to the volume which introduced invented traditions, I was wondering: what distinguishes invented from non-invented traditions? (And, to wit, some traditions are NOT invented, though I must say that from the inflationary use of the notion "invented tradition" in the kind of media I read you'd get the impression that tradition itself is inherently invented.)

Does common memory play a part in this?

More to your question, your idea seems to presuppose that one defines group identities either through tradition (invented or not) or through contrast with others. But what about utopia, future, promise? Should the quite pervasive self-understanding of Northern America as the land of the free etc. not be considered here? Sure, this utopian myth also depends on contrasting yourself with others, but perhaps the utopian aspect is more important than the contrastive one - just thinking.

(Hey, what about some of these superb footnote fields in comments? They are wonderful, by the way. The footnote gadgets, I mean.)

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Yes, this was the main critic againt that concept. Its always difficult if you declare somthing as truly, and other thing as false. The interesting part in this concept is, that it show, that history and thus also tradition is always an interpretation, and the perception of the past never determinated.

Well, I thought also about the myths the US-americans produced in their short common history. I think my idea was wrong. Their are still enough histories and traditions they can interprete. Think only of the german humanistic movement, which is so strongly relying on the ancient greek history, without beeing ethnical or national a descendant. Why the amercians should not rely on greek history and traditions? They already do with italian culture. The think they invented pizza ;-)

For the footnotes: You already can use them also in the comments, theoretically, but I don't wan't to complicate the input window with this footnote form. And in the comments its no problem if the text gets longer, as it is on the main page.

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Facade and Hollowness in Las Vega$

I'm not at all sure if I really got your point, but I'll throw in my two cents anyway. My recent visit to the USA -- I was in Las Vega$ for one week (and yes, I was in THE show of Siegfried&Roy when the tiger attacked Roy) -- resulted in some thoughts which seem to go with yours. What astonished me was the ever-present celebration of the US, the flag, and the constitution. Even the generators inside the Hoover-dam are decorated with flags like they were birthday-cakes, or July 4th cakes. On the big billboard-screens, which are scattered all over the strip, every ten minutes or so a US-flag is to be seen flapping in the wind, and a text-overlay says: God bless America. Even showstars (in this case Penn&Teller) reflect on the flag and the constitution on stage during their show. All this becomes quite annoying to the european visitor after a short time (at least to me). [US-friends told me that all this sprang up after September 11.]
On the other hand whole Las Vega$ is a celebration of "good ol' Europe" -- the majority of the huge hotels are european-themed: There's the "Paris" (with a gigantic replica of the Eiffel-tower), the "Monte Carlo", the "Venetian", "Caesar's Palace", the "Bellagio" (resembling a resort at Lake Como, Italy), the "Excalibur", the "Aladdin", the "Luxor" (the last two are not european-themed, but old-world, too) and so on. There is an Asia-themed hotel ("Mandalay Bay") and one South-Sea-themed ("Mirage"), but interestingly enough no American-Indian styled one. Vega$ itself is only about one-hundred years old, but (on the surface) it tries to emulate all kind of history which dates back for centuries, in the case of the "Luxor" even milleniums. But everything is hollow, not only in a metaphorical sense, but literally. If you touch the statues of Julius Caesar or the enormous egyptian-style obelisks, you find that they're made of plastic, and indeed are hollow. If you enter the hotels you find that it's all about slot-machines (ok, this is Vega$, I know), food, entertainment and costly boutiques ... almost exclusively displaying european brands like 'Armani' and so on. Europe is THE metaphor for history and luxury. But everything is facade, nothing points to a deeper sense of history or even to a cosmopolitan lifestyle. In all those grand hotels (5000+ beds, several theaters, innumerable restaurants and shops) you can't find a bookshop. And the only newspapers you can buy in the whole town are the 'Los Angeles Times', the 'Las Vegas Review', and 'USA Today' -- there's no international newspaper, not even the 'Washington Post' on sale.
Now you may say, Vega$ isn't the US. Agreed, but the majority of the tourists and visitors are US-citizens and they like the town big time. (I am judging this by conversations I led and heard.) They're completely overwhelmed by it and there's not the tiniest fraction of dislike or even criticism 'cause of the ubiquitous hollowness and lack of meaning.
Are all those points born out of my european snobism and arrogance? Honestly, I don't know.

P.S.: There are pleasant points, too. E.g. everyone is friendly -- now you say that's only on the surface. But hell, I can't touch more than the surface of someone who rides with me on the city-bus, and whom I'll never see again in my life. And the bus-rides in Las Vegas are just great; everyone is cheering and joking and interacting with the bus-driver -- it's a big show, too, but a good one.

/end of rant.
--zeph

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YOU WAS IN THE SHOW WHEN THE TIGER ATE ROY?
You didn't tell me! How was it?

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It was drop-dead gorgeous [multi-level pun intended].

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oh wow. it is as I said, man--this blog is a galaxy.

thx once more.

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