Humble Theory: Folklore's Grasp on Social Life

Humble Theory: Folklore's Grasp on Social Life

by Dorothy Noyes


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Celebrated folklorist, Dorothy Noyes, offers an unforgettable glimpse of her craft and the many ways it matters. Folklore is the dirty linen of modernity, carrying the traces of working bodies and the worlds they live in. It is necessary but embarrassing, not easily blanched and made respectable for public view, although sometimes this display is deemed useful. The place of folklore studies among modern academic disciplines has accordingly been marginal and precarious, yet folklore studies are foundational and persistent. Long engaged with all that escapes the gaze of grand theory and grand narratives, folklorists have followed the lead of the people whose practices they study. They attend to local economies of meaning; they examine the challenge of making room for maneuver within circumstances one does not control. Incisive and wide ranging, the fifteen essays in this book chronicle the "humble theory" of both folk and folklorist as interacting perspectives on social life in the modern Western world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253023148
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/03/2016
Pages: 470
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dorothy Noyes is Professor in the Departments of English and Comparative Studies, a faculty associate of the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, and past director of the Center for Folklore Studies, all at the Ohio State University. Her books include Fire in the Plaça: Catalan Festival Politics After Franco and the forthcoming Sustainable Interdisciplinarity: Social Research as Social Process, coauthored with Regina Bendix and Kilian Bizer. A Fellow of the American Folklore Society, she teaches courses in folklore and performance theory, American regional cultures, fairy tale, poetry and politics, the cultural history of trash, and cultural diplomacy.

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Humble Theory

Folklore's Grasp on Social Life

By Dorothy Noyes

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Dorothy Noyes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02338-4


Humble Theory

Some of you will remember the dictionary definition of the word humble, as propounded by Charlotte the Spider: "not proud and near the ground" (White 1952). Just as Charlotte found the epithet appropriate to Wilbur the Pig, perhaps we can agree that it is appropriate to folklorists and the kind of theory-making to which we should aspire. We who wear the scarlet F upon our bosoms are perhaps in no position to be proud, and for the present I think we should stop worrying about it: we would be better off cultivating shamelessness. If we are proud of anything, to be sure, it is of being near the ground. I enter, therefore, a plea not for grand but for humble theory.

Folklorists occupy a certain historical and institutional ground; we have built on it for a long time and our theoretical aspirations necessarily take it as their launch pad. Two issues lie behind the question posed for the AFS forum, "Why is there no grand theory in folkloristics?"

One, as I've suggested, is straightforward status anxiety. We labor under the stigma of the F-word and are constantly having either to explain it or to invent in its place new euphemisms. Since the latter arise from the desire to flee the stigma rather than an emergent reordering of the discipline, they are doomed to failure.

I have limited faith in collective campaigns for disciplinary respectability. As everyone from Castiglione to Moliere to Bourdieu tells us, the quest for social distinction is doomed to undermine itself. I would also remind us that we are not the only discipline suffering from status anxiety. Even political scientists, who occupy a space far higher than we do on the imagined ladder toward transcendent knowledge, characteristically experience what international relations scholar Ned Lebow likes to call "physics envy." In the course of interaction with specialists in international relations over the years, I have discovered that not a few suffer also from folklore envy. Their grand theories having failed to predict such non-negligible matters as the end of the Cold War, they find themselves attracted to disciplines closer to the ground and attuned to contingencies, softer voices, and the constraints of language and history.

Folklorists, likewise, envy actors both below and above us on this stairway to heaven. Closer to the ground than we are the artists and activists who make social life and whose collective labor shapes its forms. We long to be creative writers or makers of the revolution, not parasites upon such endeavors.

On the other side we have theory envy. The theory in question is typically not the grand theory of social science but the high theory of literary studies and philosophy. The latter has more glamour but can also be more resonant to folklorists, for in its poetic or world-making ambitions it mimics the primary symbolic systems we study. Sometimes we throw up our climbing ropes and haul ourselves painfully from the ground of social experience to the heights of, for example, poststructuralism — often hanging by a thread from a cliff rather than finding a secure footing, step by step. I would remind us of our historical position on the slope or, better said, in the middle. The folklorist has characteristically been a provincial intellectual, and while this position has no glamour whatsoever, it's more significant than we think. The nation-state was made stable by the labor of provincial intellectuals trying to integrate their local realities and the overarching order into a viable whole. Today provincial intellectuals are wrestling with globalization. It's a position that poses strong temptations, to which some folklorists in a variety of historical situations have succumbed — hence the stain of the scarlet F — but it's also a position that offers constructive and critical opportunities possessed neither by the top nor the bottom. We need to learn to live with the ambivalence of the middle position.

The second issue we face is the need to map out useful work in the world for the people who call themselves folklorists. Here I feel there is something to be done. So let me stress that while I don't find the notion of grand theory useful to us at this stage in our disciplinary life — or perhaps ever — I am absolutely not refusing theory as such either in general or for folklorists: I am rather trying to define our right relationship to it.

First, we need to recognize the necessary complexity of folkloristic practice. If you will indulge a lapsed Episcopalian, folklore is a trinity, of which the three persons are indivisible. The field cannot theorize without strongly grounded, in-depth ethnography of particulars. The field has no purpose without engagement in the world, trying to understand and amend the social processes that created the F-word and other, far worse stigmas. Practice in the world has no lasting efficacy without theory to clarify its means and ends and make its efforts cumulative. The ethnographer, the practitioner, and the theorist are mutually dependent and mutually constitutive: they cohabit, to different degrees, in singular folklorist bodies. We tend to forget this and too often moralize the differences between these three tasks because historically they have informed three different types of institution: the archive, the public practice, and the academic program. We who are lodged in these institutions acquire their local dispositions and can hardly help knowing where our bread is buttered. But when any of these three labors is neglected, the discipline suffers. We are currently at the end of a long phase of reaction to an earlier overemphasis on theory, when the lures of science and of objectivity tore us painfully from both grounded understandings and the pursuit of social justice. A restored focus on ethnography and practice has resulted in enormously improved ethnography and more successful practice. But the field has paid a price in fragmentation, no longer knowing how to draw intellectual connections between one situation and another. This fragmentation doesn't only impoverish theory per se: it also saps our ability to understand ethnographic particulars and to create coalitions towards practical ends of liberation.

Instead, we need to render unto theory what is due to theory. In part that means getting over our anxiety about reductionism. Thought is reduction. But humble theory recognizes that all our work is essay, in the etymological sense: a trying-out of interpretation, a provisional framing to see how it looks. In the absence of a better alternative, there is much to be said for the Enlightenment project. Science reduces reality in an effort to understand it but it also lays itself open to an ongoing process of collective correction and revision. While science as converted into institutional practice has often not lived up to its own ideals, so that its authority has legitimated various kinds of oppression, we can nonetheless recognize that science's own ideology gives us the tools to make this critique. And there is still a qualitative difference in openness to revision between, let's say, evolutionary theory and intelligent design.

While I would like us, in a humble spirit, to reclaim theory, I would not go so far as to look for grand theory. Grand theory constructs for itself grand objects: human nature, the nature of society, and so forth. Folklore does not have the resources to set up in competition with sociology, psychology, or anthropology. Our history has given us a smaller garden to cultivate, but not an infertile one.

We have our scarlet F to think about. Those forms and practices that have historically been labeled as folklore do not reside in dramatically different and distant cultural worlds from that of the labelers. Folklore is the intimate Other of modernity, the remnant that can be swept out of sight but not easily disposed of. Dell Hymes and others have long argued that the stone the builders had rejected should become the cornerstone of the human sciences. There is no reason we should not work toward this goal — but we must recognize our immediate practical limitations. Folklore is also the intimate Other of the academy. We are there and not going away, but we will continue to make our colleagues uneasy and we are not going to have armies of scholars out saving the world for folklore any time soon — which may be a good thing. Dealing with the residual, the emergent, and the interstitial gives us quite enough ground for the few of us there are to occupy it.

Along with the external constraints on our disciplinary space, our internal intellectual history provides us with a limited but important ground to build on. We should remember that the American Folklore Society was founded as an act of opposition to the grand theory of the period: evolutionary biology as it was mistakenly generalized to account for cultural and social difference. Franz Boas' message was that anthropologists were theorizing in advance of the facts, as Sherlock Holmes would say: they did not yet know how to read the particulars of cultural situations. William Wells Newell deliberately brought together Francis James Child and Franz Boas — one looking at the English stock then celebrated as the apex of cultural evolution, one looking at Native Americans, seen by many anthropologists as savages at the bottom of the ladder. By putting the expressions of both of these groups under the common lens of German philological method (cf. Bauman 2008) and by explicitly setting up these two groups along with new immigrants and once-enslaved Africans as the range of subjects whose lore the AFS should examine, Newell was insisting on the common humanity and common historicity of the people whom grand theory had set asunder (1888). Our field was thus at the inauguration of what Jason Baird Jackson has called "the Americanist tendency toward theoretical modesty, grounded in an appreciation of the complexities of history and ethnography located in actual places and times" (2004, 202). As the presidential address of Dell Hymes in 1974 strongly reminded us, this is a usable past (1975).

For the moment, we are better equipped to criticize grand theory than to build it. At the same time, however, we can continue to address that middle territory between grand theory and local interpretation. Performance theory, it's often said, is only method, but method takes us to theory. We begin to think in the act of describing and see particulars in the act of comparing. We need an analytical vocabulary allowing us to move across situations. We cannot leapfrog from the local into transcendent meaning, and my political scientist friends are encountering the reverse problem as they try to plummet in the other direction. The questions proper to our field are in the middle of the ladder. They are not Why-questions but How-questions, about the life of forms in society. They are our old topics: transmission, performance, and differentiation. How do forms move across time and space and remain recognizable? How do the people who recurrently interact in a given situation generate forms in common, and how do those forms work back again upon their makers? How is form marked by voice, such that we can recognize it as folk, or as Cajun, or as mine or as Other? We have two centuries of scholarship built upon this ground, which in recent years we have neglected. Humble it may be, but we have a there there. We have a there here and need not go looking to the stars — cosmic or academic — for salvation.



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". Looking to 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 [1967] 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. In this realization it was a twenty-five foot metal pole planted by the city on the base of a street lamp; from a little platform on the top there hung lengths of salame, a leg 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.


Excerpted from Humble Theory by Dorothy Noyes. Copyright © 2016 Dorothy Noyes. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Part I: The Work of Folklore Studies
1. Humble Theory
2. Group
3. The Social Base of Folklore
4. Tradition: Three Traditions
5. Aesthetic is the Opposite of Anaesthetic: On Tradition and Attention

Part II. Histories and Economies of Tradition
6. Voice in the Provinces: Submission, Recognition, and the Birth of Heritage
7. The Work of Redemption: Folk Voice in the Myth of Industrial Development
8. Festival Pasts and Futures in Catalonia
9. Hardscrabble Academies: Toward a Social Economy of Vernacular Invention
10. Cultural Warming? Brazil in Berlin
11. Fairy-Tale Economics: Scarcity, Risk, Choice

Part III. Slogan-Concepts and Cultural Regimes
12. On Sociocultural Categories
13. The Judgment of Solomon: Global Protections for Tradition and the Problem of Community Ownership
14. Heritage, Legacy, Zombie: How to Bury the Undead Past
15. Compromised Concepts in Rising Waters: Making the Folk Resilient

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