Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Handing Down and Writing Down: Metadiscourses of Tradition among the Bandanese of Eastern Indonesia

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Handing Down and Writing Down: Metadiscourses of Tradition among the Bandanese of Eastern Indonesia

Article excerpt

The topic of this article is the reproduction of tradition among the Bandanese, an Eastern Indonesian people. I analyze the style and rhetoric of songs that tell about ancestral sea voyages. The question I address is what happens to the value of the songs as tradition when they turn from oral performances into circulating texts. I explore several contexts of performance and transmission and argue that the songs can be embedded in lived realities in different ways. By writing the songs down, the Bandanese reorganize their tradition into new genres of text and performance. Their metadiscourse of tradition affirms that these genres represent the exemplary, complete language of the ancestors. Although singers and writers affirm the artistic, textual, and cultural completeness of their arts, they are reluctant to pass on their knowledge in an already integrated form.


AFS ETHNOGRAPHIC THESAURUS: Indigenous peoples, musical genres, written tradition, ethnopoetics, human migration

Modern folkloristics and linguistic anthropology have given up the view in which tradition consists of fixed linguistic forms and texts that one generation hands down to the next. People living in new times and places receive tradition as sediments and fragments of past discourse. In order to maintain their status as emblematic cultural items, these fragments must either be re-performed and re-embedded in actual discourse contexts or turned into new, distinctive texts that somehow resemble speech and knowledge of the past (Silverstein and Urban 1996:13). In this article I ask how this happens during rapid social change. How can people recover the pow- erful meaning of traditional genres if they no longer hear them being performed? What models of tradition do they follow when they turn ancestral songs and stories into written records?

There are at least two ways in which traditional language can be reproduced as a significant part of social practices. Recent linguistic anthropology has explored situations in which "exemplary uses of language" (Errington 1998:40) survive even though the sociolinguistic context in which they used to mark and mediate the difference of status has vanished. Joel Kuipers (1998:65) argues that traditional forms of language survive because they continue to offer meaningful models for self-expression in new historical situations. But there are also situations in which people historicize new situations in traditional terms. When people refer to ancestral songs, sacred myths, public oratory, and other types of exemplary language as the grounds of their place in the socio-cul- tural world, they are sometimes less concerned with their authenticity than their per- suasive effects. Attention shifts from the performance of traditional discourse to con- testations of its meaning. In this case, tradition is present as a metadiscourse: talk and behavior that stand for memory about the past.

I aim to apply a communicative approach to both kinds of situations and to look at them as different phases in the same historical process. Tradition is clearly not handed down as stable genres that are either recovered or lost. But instead of giving up a focus on genre and performance, I find it useful to expand the use of these con- cepts beyond clear-cut domains of traditional performance. Ethnopoetics has stressed the connection between linguistic forms and rhetorical purposes, which, in skillful traditional performances, amounts to a narrative organization of cultural experience (Blommaert 2006:260). Such performances "hand down" tradition by putting the audience in the presence of moral instructions and powerful existential insights.

Recent linguistic anthropology has stressed that performances can also have the opposite, entextualizing effect (Bauman and Briggs 1990:73). The increasing poetic and rhetorical patterning of discourse creates the impression that it exists outside the current dialogic setting, as a text-like entity inherited from the distant past (Kuipers 1990:4; Keane 1997:40). …

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