Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

Bagels and Genres

Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

Bagels and Genres

Article excerpt

Conversations about bagels have something to teach us about the nature of genres and the study of material culture. I realized this a few years ago as I was sitting in an Einstein's Bagels in Las Vegas that was decorated with standardized murals imitating 1930s Bauhaus design. I remembered a conversation with a friend a decade earlier about the authenticity of modern-day bagels--or lack thereof. But as I glanced at the "traditional" preparation with lox and capers alongside the sun-dried tomato variants, it occurred to me that it might be a false competition. Both "official" bagel forms and their variants--bagel types and bagel versions, as folklorists would have it--were part of the same process of representing and creating a tradition.

What do I mean by this? Many debates about authenticity boil down to the exclusion and inclusion of objects related to a category: poppyseed is genuine, blueberry is not. I would like to suggest that these discussions suffer from a basic category error. Attempting to understand an object through classification--as an example of the genre "bagel," in this case--is both necessary and misleading. What makes something a bagel? One might ask the same question of lasagnas, Panama hats, duck decoys, folk songs, novels, longhouses, bebop, or romantic comedies. Charlotte Smith, breaking a few rules, introduced her 1784 Elegiac Sonnets with the preface, "The little poems which are here called Sonnets have, I believe, no very just claim to that title" (1993, 3). Although her violations of the sonnet genre wouldn't even be noticed by a modern reader, her anxiety over the production of a "true" sonnet is telling. Part of understanding a genre, especially a genre one has strong feelings about, involves thinking about it as a taxonomic class or collection of observable traits. "Real" and "fake" versions of a genre always come into play. In order to describe a genre, one must provide examples that fall within that genre--and also those objects that lie outside it. But, I would like to argue, the feelings are ultimately as important as the traits. "Genre" is a subject that represents cultural discussions about objects, not objects in themselves. A bagel is not a "real" bagel because of any of its physical features.

Before you become upset, it is worth noting that folklorists have a rich vocabulary for describing these kinds of cultural discussions. Richard Handler and Jocelyn Linnekin pointed out a long time ago that tradition may or may not refer to the past, but the creation of tradition is a constant part of cultural practice:

   The origin of cultural practices is
   largely irrelevant to the experience of
   tradition; authenticity is always defined
   in the present.... The prevailing concept
   of tradition, both in common
   sense and social theory, has envisioned
   an isolable body or core of unchanging
   traits handed down from the past.
   Tradition is likened to a natural object,
   occupying space, enduring in time.
   (1984, 286)

In other words, an "authentic tradition" is something quite different than historical fact, but nevertheless insists on being historical fact. Even if the tradition is objectively a recent development, it insists that it is not. Practitioners of a particular tradition may or may not be aware of this paradox; Handler and Linnekin found that they often were. Whether they were or were not aware of this possibility, however, tradition demands an insistence on "unchanging traits handed down from the past." Those supposedly unchanging features then require a set of rules in order to maintain them, and rules are what genre is all about--whether in music, religious practice, or bagels. Maintaining these rules means guarding the true form of a genre from fake, modern, nostalgic reenactments like the murals at Einstein's.

Nevertheless, this problem lands us in some murky territory, since nostalgia is everywhere--including in the works of scholars and historians. …

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