“I’ve Seen Things…”

Picture 3This semester I taught our senior seminar, required of all majors and minors before they graduate from the department. It was on the topic of tradition.

Well, not really.

It was on the topic of the discourse on tradition.

That’s a difference that matters, I think.

The point of the course was to start with the commonsense view of tradition, as a priceless antique baton passed forward from yesterday’s runners to us today, as I described it one day in class, and then, by taking a detour via such scholars as Hayden White —

no given set of casually recorded historical events can in itself constitute a story.

— to see if the students could, instead, consider something too few scholars (in my opinion) are themselves able to entertain: that studying things we call traditions means overlooking (and, by overlooking, implicitly authorizing as natural and inevitable) the devices we all commonly employ to represent uniformity over time. For in the archive of the past there’s all sorts  of happenings from which to select — and it is we, in the present, who are doing that choosing — so as to justify almost any present, by portraying it as if it is rooted in antiquity, flowing from it as a necessary development.

In a word, as if it constitutes a tradition….

It seems to me that you can’t entertain this shift in scholarly focus — from studying tradition, as a noun that names a thing that coheres over time, to studying traditioning techniques, which are verbs that are always at work in the hands of actors in the present — unless you take seriously not only that the past is past but that much of it is gone, forever, never to be retrieved either by oral tale or by finding a clipping in the local newspaper’s archives. Because archives burn down or get flooded, and their contents are lost. And as for the people who tell tales? They leave the scene, whether they want to or not, thereby leaving the tale to a new teller, which new interests, exercising new choices, thereby changing the story.

But working hard to portray it as conserved.

As authoritative.

As our heritage.

And voila, traditioning techniques are at work.

If this is where we start, then our gaze, as scholars of tradition, ought to be focused tightly on the forever untethered present continually reaching into the inevitably flawed, limited, and yellowed archive, based on whatever present needs we have, selecting from among a variety of options and picking what works for us now, instead of assuming that we just passively hold out our hands, awaiting hallowed batons to land in them.

But how to end a course like that, in which students finish it all up by tackling the issue of the so-called Elgin or Parthenon Marbles, as a test case for how the same rhetoric of tradition is employed to achieve diverse interests today?

Well, why not order some food and show “Blade Runner” (1982)? 120 minutes of classic scifi, old enough to be alien to many of the students.

But why? (I left that for them to figure out…, and invited them to read this post the day after.)

Perhaps to play with the notion that all of our memories might be planted in us by others? Maybe we’re all replicants, in a way….

Or maybe to point toward how the past is always a narrative that we create in the present, using what’s at hand — like “precious photos” that we can thumb through, when we need to…?

Or…, maybe it’s worth showing just to get to this one point, near the end of the film:

I’ve … seen things you people wouldn’t believe….  Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion…. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those … moments … will be lost … in time…, like … tears … in rain. Time … to die…

Yes, this seems to me to be a worthwhile reason.

For this is the view, I think, that we, as scholars, have to take very seriously — the insight of Roy Batty, a rebellious Nexus-6 replicant, as his life nears its end — if we’re going to study traditions rather than just participating in them, as do the people we’re studying. For the present that we all take for granted is continually slipping away, putting us, like Roy, always on the brink of that great unknown — in our case, it’s called tomorrow.

How people deal with that — how they create the impression of continuity over time and place — is the discourse on tradition.

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