Thursday, October 06, 2005

How Tradition Works

In his blog Wormtalk and Slugspeakthe other day, Michael Drout made reference to his in-press book How Tradition Works: A Memetic Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century.


Tradition shapes every facet of cultural production and change, but there exists no effectively descriptive theory of tradition that explains how traditions are created, constituted, modified and recognized. This book remedies this lack by showing how traditions are created and how they persist. Traditions are replicating entities that use human minds to copy themselves. They therefore can be studied using Darwinian theory, and in this book I have applied these methods (often called "memetics," the study of "memes," developed by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore) to the study of a sophisticated culture: the revival of learning and literature in England in the tenth century known as the Benedictine Reform.

While other authors have used Darwinian theory to examine hypothetical Pleistocene hunter-gatherer societies or elements of popular culture, How Tradition Works applies, tests, extends and revises meme-theory by engaging with the complexities of history and culture. In the book I show how the flowering of culture in the tenth century can be traced to the reliance by Anglo-Saxon monks upon unchanging written rules (the Rule of St Benedict and the Regularis Concordia) which provided a level of stability (tradition) upon which the monks were able to build a new English culture. The different ways traditions replicate and mutate are illustrated by Benedictine ideas and styles escaping from the restricted environments of the monasteries and spreading, like an epidemic, through the wider culture. Meme theory here not only explains how such a small minority were able to exert vast influence, but it uncovers previously hidden links between seemingly disparate texts and cultural practices.

Valuable for specialists in evolutionary theory and memetics, Anglo-Saxon studies, and scholars interested in Oral Traditional Theory, How Tradition Works provides researchers with new methodological tools as well as showing how these tools can work to untangle the intricacies of cultural change and stasis.

I can't wait for the book to come out and think it would have been really useful for my dissertation.

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