(Un)changing Theoretical Trends in the Study of Folklore in South Africa

By Thosango, Cleopas Mphela | Critical Arts, July 1999 | Go to article overview

(Un)changing Theoretical Trends in the Study of Folklore in South Africa


Thosango, Cleopas Mphela, Critical Arts


Abstract

In this paper, it is argued that as an antidote to the current theoretical paralysis which seems to have gripped folklore studies in Southern Africa, folklorists should welcome the profound influence of contemporary cultural and literary theories into the discipline. The judicious application of these self-conscious theories would dynamically transform folklore studies by exposing it to the newer, postmodern approaches which increasingly challenge the basic presuppositions of the mainstream, traditional ones whose orientation is primarily `formalist' and therefore suspicious of change.

From the outset, let me state unequivocally that this brief paper is an unapologetic attempt to conscientise folklorists about the prevalent theoretical stasis surrounding folklore studies in South Africa to which they (un)consciously make substantial contributions. The paper should therefore not be peremptorily condemned as a pernicious means of pointing out the theoretical naivete of folklorists, nor the epistemological imperfections and shortcomings discernible in the diverse critical approaches applied to folklore; rather, it genuinely wishes to encourage South African folklorists to develop an even more efficacious critical-theoretical apparatus to deal adequately with the fast-paced global changes that characterise folklore studies. Even less portentously so, as the suspicious adversaries of theory are wont to conclude prematurely, the paper does not intend to solicit the wholesale importation of any theory, Afrocentric or Eurocentric, into South African folklore studies since it fully recognises the salient issues at the fulcrum of folkloristics.

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CONTEMPORARY CULTURAL AND literary theories undoubtedly play an indispensable role in all academic disciplines and cultural practices, and surely, folklore is not insulated and isolated, through impassable boundaries, from the parameters of these lines of inquiry. In order to survive the incessant pressures of the developing society and achieve a stable, autonomous identity as a "popular" discipline not exclusively practised by, and reserved for, the esoteric academia and the dwindling few remaining "folk", folklore must continuously strive to secure a habitable space for accommodating the all-pervasive influence of various disciplines and theories. After an observation of recent cultural and literary activity, Steven Connor draws a conclusion which implicitly justifies the feasibility of intertwining academic scholarship and the hitherto ignored folklore: `recent years have seen an explosion of interest in a whole range of cultural texts and practices which had previously been scorned by, or remained invisible to, academic criticism' (1989:184). Connor's statement is especially pertinent for folklorists who have for a long time taken false comfort in notions of theoretical purism, thus ignoring the myriad critical and theoretical forces that contribute to the healthy development of folklore studies.

Despite their provenance in oral forms and traditions, some folklore genres, notably folktales, ballads, epics, fables, fairytales, and proverbs, closely resemble literary narratives and can therefore be subjected to rigorous scrutiny and critique through the methods and principles of textual analysis; however, we should, at all costs, guard against `the risk of oversimplifying, even falsifying their essential differences' (Barnes 1979:16) because `each of these genres has its own poetics (literary syntax and semantics) and pragmatics' (Jason 1995:281). (2)

The blame for rebutting the interaction between folklore studies and cultural and literary theories could be rightly apportioned to misguided scholars who, in the saintly name of conservation and preservation, apocalyptically stress the latent potential of these theories to defile and, worse still, even completely drive folklore into an untimely extinction. Instead of pronouncing the seeming disjunction between folklore studies (mythology) and cultural and literary theories (modernism, in this case), Surette points out the complexity and intricacy of their affinity when he writes:

   The relation between modernism and the occult is complex and intricate, but
   one line of filiation is clearly the importance of myth as both stylistic
   resource--as in the "mythical method"--and as a source of inspiration and
   thematic enrichment (1993:18). … 

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