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Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture
By BURT FEINTUCH
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Ideas about group are the most powerful and the most dangerous in folklore studies. Our influence as a discipline has often come from arguing for small groups against big groups. Against imperialism, we argue for the nation-state; denying the homogeneity of the nation-state, we argue for the ethnic group or the social class; at last, wary of the dangers of essentialism at any level, we turn to the face-to-face community.
It is less comfortable to recall that we have also argued for big groups against small groups: for the historical and racial unity of a nation against the diversity within it, for example. Today, on the left, we often participate in efforts to redefine and organize stigmatized social categories as "communities." On the right, we cringe as we see our abandoned structural- functionalist models reborn in claims for "community values." Applying for grants, we know we'll do better if we can frame our project around a "community"—that is, a viable political constituency—instead of a practice.
We prove the reality of a group by demonstrating that it has a culture, unified within and differentiable without (Handler 1988). In documenting, "preserving," and synthesizing this culture into canonical forms—the Kalevala, the Kinder- und Hausmärchen, the Catalan sardana, the open-air museum, the American ethnic festival—we diffuse and generalize it among that group's potential members, thus improving the isomorphy of group and culture (Klusen 1986 ).
And yet, working ethnographically, we are aware of the fragility of the group concept put to the test. We learn in interaction of the status differences within a group that may make men public, and women private, performers; we discover the creative individual whose influence galvanizes and directs performance in a particular milieu; we find that a festival declared by all to be a celebration of unity is in fact animated by vigorous factionalism; we discover the complex networks of contacts and influences feeding into and emerging from an apparently bounded community.
The impossibility of a neat definition of the group became clear to me one day in 1988 when, as part of fieldwork for the Philadelphia Folklore Project, I was visiting Italian Market Days, the autumn festival that promotes the market to the rest of the city. With a photographer, I had come to rest in front of the greased pole, a New World reflex of the albero di cuccagna. The Tree of Cockayne, a common feature of European carnivals, promises infinite satisfaction if only you can get to the top of it. Here it was, a twenty-five-foot metal pole planted by the city on the base of a streetlamp; from a little platform on the top there hung lengths of salami, whole legs of prosciutto, balls of cheese, and an envelope of money. The length of the pole had been generously rubbed with bacon fat.
A group of teenage boys clustered around the pole, trying to get up. By their looks they were working-class Italian Americans, the kids who work in the market. They had come up with a collaborative strategy, forming a tight circle of bodies at the base and a second layer of lighter boys on their shoulders. They had to decide on the best way of linking arms and scrambling up backs, and they tumbled down several times before getting it right. Then a few boys tried for the top, inching up with their knees, sometimes wiping the fat off with a towel, always sliding back down at the end. At one point a girl came in and climbed up to the second layer, but the hands and the jokes of the boys became too much, and she soon retreated. Later we were agreeably surprised to see an African American boy stepping in; he was dressed like the others and seemed to be a friend, remaining part of the group until the end. Exhibition label text began composing itself in my head: here was the freedom of the marketplace fostering multiethnic collaboration for the common prize. I checked myself—was my subconscious turning Republican on me?—and the boys also decided to take a rest. We and a large crowd had been watching them, rapt, for a good hour and a half.
The advent of a Southeast Asian man prevented that text from ever being written. Perhaps from the new Vietnamese neighborhood adjacent to the market, the man looked thirty; he was wearing nothing but a brief pair of white shorts, and he strode straight to the pole through the gap made by the relaxing boys. Then, with no help whatsoever, he started up, using his feet instead of his knees. On his second try he had reached the top and grasped the leg of prosciutto, grinning hugely.
The boys on the ground, who had been frozen with surprise, now began to stir. They shouted at him, struck at the low part of the pole. One, then another, threw a sneaker at him, narrowly missing. Then they began to shake the pole from side to side. The man decided to come down before the shoes became stones and, trying to treat it as a joke, smiled and walked away rather quickly.
As we caught our breath—imagining the consequences if there had been a larger Vietnamese presence in the crowd—the boys started up at the pole again. This time, galvanized by the competition and having observed the Asian man's technique, they made it up within a quarter of an hour. The boy on top scrambled onto the platform, enjoying his triumph, and gestured to the crowd, tossing small toys down to them and waving his clasped hands in victory. Eventually he took the envelope of money and slid down to the cheers of his companions.
The photographer approached him and asked what we were both wondering: "What happened? That black kid was with you, and that was okay. Why couldn't the Asian guy get it?"
He was not at all embarrassed. "We know that kid," he said. "We go to school together, he works in the market with us, he's a friend. But this Chinese guy—" ("Chinese! I hate Chinese!" interjected one of his friends) "—just came out of nowhere. This is an Italian festival, an Italian should get it. He's got his own festival to win at." Then he excused himself: he was ready for a beer.
The first time I told this story in class I learned that the incident was not unique: a student interrupted my recital to say that he had seen an Asian shaken off the pole that year. The story highlights many of the familiar contradictions of contemporary American identity politics.
— "Italian Market" is in fact an outsider's term, a tourist label. Locals call it the Ninth Street Market and are aware that it used to be Jewish and that its clientele is increasingly African American. Nonetheless, the market sells itself to the city at large as Italian. And the Asian man, though a neighbor, was clearly not a member.
— Ethnic and racial prejudice diminishes with frequency of interaction and—crucially—with common economic interests. The Italian owners of Ninth Street businesses depend on African American labor and customers. The Vietnamese, however, shop in their own stores and compete in the restaurant business. They have only been around for fifteen years or so, having "come out of nowhere" and been resettled in this depopulating neighborhood. To most Italian Americans in the neighborhood, they are still strangers.
— As we know from the theorists of creolization, childhood is the key moment of mixing: those you grow up with are Americans, the ones who come after are strangers.
— Festival politics in Philadelphia today territorializes, essentializes, and compartmentalizes ethnicity. Each group that has arrived at political representation has its "own" festival, in which others are invited as spectators and consumers, but in which the "insiders" alone have the right to participate. Ideally, festivals are located in centers of historical settlement that still retain a high residential concentration of the group celebrated. The miniaturization of the ideology of the bounded nation-state in the urban village can be seen in the T-shirts, sold during Italian Market Days, that layer the map of Italy over the map of South Philadelphia. In contrast, the pan-African diaspora celebration of Odunde has suffered continual harassment from claiming a site on South Street, a historical center of African American culture but now the border of a gentrified area. Odunde has repeatedly been treated by the city as requiring containment, and the city has sponsored alternative festivals in more clearly African American and less "central" locations, such as North Philadelphia. Alternatively—and better yet from the city's point of view—festivals are put in the neutral spaces of Penn's Landing and the Parkway, each group getting its turn at these barren sites devoid of everyday resonances. Here one finds the ethnic festival at its most formulaic: only the colors of the flag and the spice in the sausage change from Sunday to Sunday.
— White people cannot tell Asians apart: hence, to obtain civic recognition and civil rights, such historical enemies as the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, both possibly seen as "Chinese," are obliged to form Asian American Associations and work together as a bloc. The same goes for Latinos; the diverse Africans brought to these shores by slave traders went through the process long ago, and new African and Caribbean immigrants are confronting the issue of "blackness" as a social category that erases their own distinctiveness.
— The most spectacular performance genres of such festivals are marked explicitly as ethnic but might just as well be labeled by gender. The exclusion of the Asian man was breathtakingly visible; the exclusion of the Italian-American girl was effected by a quieter and more intimate transgression of her person to inform her that she was transgressing male space. This level of "intimate difference" (Mills 1993) easily goes unnoticed in larger political-economic debates.
Several definitions of collectivity are at play (at war?) in this incident. The group created in everyday interaction, the group united by common interest, the group made by exoteric ascription, the bounded descent group, the group defined by territory, the gendered peer group, the group as a category of political and touristic representation, and the group emerging from performance all make their cases here.
But perhaps we may simplify the problem. At bottom, folklorists have been interested in the group as the locus of culture and as the focus of identity. Our difficulties with such concepts as "folk," "nation," "race," and so on may be seen as resulting from the confusion of the two. Starting from the formulations of the "Toward New Perspectives" paradigm, we can distinguish between the empirical network of interactions in which culture is created and moves, and the community of the social imaginary that occasionally emerges in performance. Our everyday word group might best serve as shorthand for the dialogue between the two.
Toward New Perspectives on the Folk: Small Groups and Differential Identities
The essentialism and othering inherent in the word folk are now such commonplaces of our discipline that I need not discuss them here: it is for this reason, I am sure, that I was assigned the less loaded term group for this volume. Certainly the prestige of Dan Ben-Amos's definition of folklore was another reason. When, as part of the would-be scientific revolution that culminated in the publication of Towards New Perspectives in Folklore, Ben-Amos defined folklore as "artistic communication in small groups" (1972), he intended the sociological conception of small group to overcome some of the difficulties inherent in the notion of folk. The classist, racist, and antimodern connotations of folk were all problematic in an American context; moreover, the word was tied to an old paradigm that understood the people as bearers, not makers, of tradition. Following Alan Dundes's assertion that a folk group could be "any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor" (1965:2), Ben-Amos identified two conditions that must hold "for the folkloric act to happen": "both the performers and the audience have to be in the same situation and be part of the same reference group" (1972:12). The face-to-face criterion of the sociologists focused attention on the interactions of the performance situation and the shaping role of audience; the notion of reference group carried this concern with audience into the interpretive realm, implying the specificity of meaning to a particular group with shared codes and values, a common identity.
For different historical reasons, German Volkskunde also found itself uncomfortable with the Volk in this period. Klusen, in his article "The Group Song as Group Object" (1986 ) proposed the same terminological shift as Ben-Amos: he would use the social-science notion of the primary or face-to-face group. Group, he declared, is more objective a conception than "community"—like "folk," an idealization of a more complex reality. Instead, group "defines an exact unity of people who interact" (1986 :186). It can be ad hoc or short-lived and need not be grounded in a historical identity. "It must be guaranteed that they all know each other, that all can communicate directly with each other and that they can interact directly, i.e., from two to a few dozen people. It is necessary that every group have at least one dominant element in its make-up and function, what folklorists have called the 'creative thought'" (1986 :187)—that is, Dundes's common factor or the unity of Ben-Amos's reference group.
Like Ben-Amos, Klusen begins to suggest a redefinition of the group in his critique of the notion of community. He insists that the community sought by folklorists is not a vanishing survival, but a project for the future, and likewise, that the national song did not exist until Herder created it. The diffusion through print of the songs collected by early folklorists turned them into national culture (Klusen 1986 :198–99).
Intimations that the group is a product of interaction rather than its precondition were followed up by the Texas school. The Texas approach emerged from the quiet insistence of Américo Paredes on the role of cross-border gazing in both performance and scholarship and from the awareness of folklorists (themselves often African American or Latino) doing fieldwork on the borders that the face-to-face group is by no means the only and certainly not the most dangerous locus of performance (see Kodish 1993). The Texas concern with "neighborly names" and interethnic performance both hostile and hospitable, culminating in Abrahams's concept of the display event (1981), called on an implicit network model of interaction between different social positions. Bauman pointed out that scholars had previously tended to conceptualize the folklore-bearing group as a social category, that is, as people sharing a given status or label. Instead, the sociological idea of group proposed by Ben-Amos depended not on shared identity but on the fact of regular interaction (1972). As Bauman demonstrated, much folklore in fact takes place in regular interaction between people belonging to different social categories and plays upon this very fact of difference. Boasting, competition, denigration, hospitality, teasing: all depend on and highlight the difference in social location between performer and addressee. The large-scale display events that have become characteristic of plural societies draw boundaries as loci of political, economic, and cultural conflict.
The Texas approach lets us see how, in the greased-pole contest, the category of "Italian" is situationally invoked as a boundary device: it quietly encompassed the African American male, silently excluded the Italian American female, and noisily expelled the Asian. The genre of display event, or, more specifically, ethnic festival allows us to understand the rules unwittingly—or deliberately?—breached by the stranger. There at the "traditional" core of the festival, the part most highly marked as esoteric, instead of watching and admiring as his role called for, he showed the Italians up on their own turf. In punishing this serious breach of display event etiquette, one of the boys proffered the culturally sanctioned alternative: "He's got his own festival to win at."
The display event model presumes a larger society of complex linkages within which boundaries are regularly drawn and redrawn. Performance, sanctioned and unsanctioned, becomes a key means of boundary construction and maintenance, each festival or demonstration declaring difference between copresent individuals.
Network, Transmission, Boundary Drawing
That groups are not homogeneous is the first realization of any scholar doing fieldwork. The first stages of fieldwork are a trajectory through a social network, from the margins toward the center. Initially we are often sent to the high-status marginals of a network: its "brokers," those accustomed to dealing with outsiders and representing the inside to them. If we show ourselves to be at all open, the low-status marginals also gravitate to us—eccentrics, alcoholics, "street-corner philosophers." All of these, high and low, transform their enforced social distance into critical distance: attempting to defend their distinction, their exclusion, or their chosen exile from a group and its habits, they think a great deal about the group and develop a discourse that sounds rather close to our own theory. Initially, at least, we may find them the most articulate consultants. From us, bearers of alternate and sometimes more prestigious values, they in turn seek validation for their own distance.
Excerpted from Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture by BURT FEINTUCH. Copyright © 2003 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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