Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Hybrid Tactics and Locative Legends: Re-Reading De Certeau for the Future of Folkloristics

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Hybrid Tactics and Locative Legends: Re-Reading De Certeau for the Future of Folkloristics

Article excerpt

In his call for a closer merger of the practice and performance approaches that have characterized European ethnology and American folkloristics respectively, Simon Bronner persuasively argues that a reconsideration of the role of practice theory in folklore studies and ethnology may offer a way to more richly understand the connections between individual past and present action and between the individual actor and the collective tradition. While Bronner builds his argument primarily on the work of two key practice theorists, Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, folklorists and ethnologists would also benefit from a more detailed and robust consideration of the works of a different theorist, Michel de Certeau, whose work constitutes a different take on the idea of practice. I make this case partly because, as a wide body of scholarship already suggests, de Certeau's unique sensitivity to everyday operations within the totalizing forces of modernity make his work a natural basis for developing a rich understanding of vernacular cultures in our current heavily mediated and commercialized neoliberal societies (for example, Jenkins 1992; 2009; Manovich 2009). But perhaps more importantly, I make this case because de Certeau himself made what American scholars would call folklore and folklore studies a centerpiece of his intellectual opus. Despite the widespread popularity of certain Certeaudean concepts in American folkloristics, the centrality of folklore and folkloristics in his work has been all but overlooked.

A close reading of de Certeau's corpus of scholarship reveals his longstanding interest in folklore along two distinct lines. First, tied to his critical historical evaluation of the development of scholarly epistemology in the context of modernity, de Certeau traces the emergence and evolution of the powerful ideologies that shaped the "modern" discipline of folklore studies, especially in France, and examines how this ideological process has operated on our understanding of culture more broadly. I make the case that de Certeau understood this work on the historical development of folklore studies as vital to the understanding of his larger theoretical program, both because he reiterates and reexamines these issues in a number of his significant works, and because he tied this same history to his critique of the history of secularism, a matter that--despite his professional move away from the clergy--remained a key issue for the Jesuit scholar throughout his career.

With this historical understanding in place, I will then discuss how it is tied importantly, if sometimes tacitly, to de Certeau's generalized framework for understanding the everyday sociocultural experience of individuals living within modernity's terrain of power. Much of this discussion is drawn from his most famous work in the English-speaking academy: The Practice of Everyday Life (1988a), a work that is intimately tied to understanding of what he often refers to as "the popular," but which can easily be understood as analogous to what American scholars might call "folklore."1 Deepening this discussion by linking it to some of his other more historical work, I will also present aspects of his broad framework within the context of the often overlooked second volume of this work, in which several of his colleagues discuss their ethnographic work within this broad frame.

Finally, I will offer a critique of de Certeau's generalized framework on the basis that it tended to overemphasize, or at least has often been understood in a way that overemphasizes the everyday experience of individuals in modernity, to the detriment of a richer understanding of the vernacular relations between the individual and the social. In that vein, I will discuss one of de Certeau's most well-known concepts, the idea of walking as a kind of expressive tactic, in the context of geospatial digital technology. Using two key examples drawn from geospatial digital technology use in the Boston area that reflect some of the diverse contexts in which vernacular expressions and everyday interactions take shape, I will show the way in which de Certeau's concept should be usefully expanded to make room for a more robust examination of vernacularity in both online and offline spaces, and how this expression, in turn, opens up space to reconsider one of the central concepts of performance theory: the event. …

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