Humble Theory: Folklore's Grasp on Social Life

Humble Theory: Folklore's Grasp on Social Life

Humble Theory: Folklore's Grasp on Social Life

Humble Theory: Folklore's Grasp on Social Life

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Had it not been for the stern advice of more than one friend, I would have relieved my own anxieties by entitling this introduction, “What’s Wrong With This Book?” Better scholars than I have introduced their work with “disclaimers of performance,” even or especially since Richard Bauman first called our attention to the practice (Bauman 1977; Jackson 2013a). in a book called Humble Theory, I cannot help feeling that I have much to be humble about. the essays here are likely to satisfy neither ethnographers nor theorists, and assuredly they will not satisfy historians.

But life is short and art is long and fools rush in where angels fear to tread. (At this point in my career I no longer fear clichés: they save time.) By temperament, circumstance, and my sense of a need at this period in the history of folklore studies, I have found myself again and again in the discussant’s chair: hazarding generalizations, drawing up provisional schemata, trying to connect the dots across a field of fragmented engagements and localized knowledges. These essays record some of my attempts to capture the big picture.

Some scholarly trajectories are the product of will and focus. My more winding path owes everything to serendipity and context. a formative context was of course the Department of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, from which I obtained my PhD in 1992. As Karl Mannheim long ago observed, intellectuals take direction from the crisis of their generation ([1923] 1952), and my graduate education coincided with the height of the postmodern and postcolonial critiques of the ethnographic disciplines. I remember it as a time of tears and tension at folklore meetings, followed for many years by fragmentation and a sense of paralysis. Everything seemed impossible, both ethically and intellectually. Ethnography was appropriation, comparison was reduction, and theory was playing . . .

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