Academic journal article Western Folklore

Solo Folklore

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Solo Folklore

Article excerpt

Like sex, folklore can be performed in groups, in a dyad, or alone. Most folklorists have felt comfortable enough with Dundes' definition of the "folk group" as "any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor" (Dundes 1965:2; emphasis in original). Oring (1984) reduced even further the size of the potential folk group by showing how rich can be the folk culture of a high-context dyad, a folk group consisting of only two people. I then upped the ante by arguing that what would pass for a "folk culture" could be found in the high-context communications between a human animal and her nonhuman mammalian pet animal, and I ended that essay (Mechling 1989) with the claim that we might even have something strongly resembling folk communication with inanimate objects, including automobiles, temperamental lawnmowers, and the computers that we alternately praise, cajole, and insult. I still consider that 1989 "Banana Cannon" essay my most important theoretical statement on folklore, but perhaps I erred in making the point in an essay that seems to so many, at first reading, devoted to a fun but trivial matter-playing with our dogs.

In this essay I want to return to the claims I made in those closing paragraphs of "Banana Cannon." I want to explore here what it means to insist that there is such a thing as solo folklore-something I think I can do fairly easily with apt examples-and then to tackle the much tougher challenge of showing that these musings on solo folklore actually open up some very interesting and important epistemological, neurological, and even sociobiological questions usually ignored by folklorists. So the questions are: can we go solo in folklore? Do we really need another animate partner in folklore, or can we do it alone? And if we can do it alone, what does that fact mean for folklore studies?


Brief reflection leads us to see how common solo folklore is in our everyday lives. I should remind us at the outset that the folklorist's quintessential question-a version of Kenneth Burke's pentad of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose in his "dramatistic" approach to rhetorical criticism (Burke 1973; Rueckert 1963)-guides our study, even when not asked explicitly. That is, the interpreuve act by the folklorist asks and answers this compound question: who performed what traditional communicative act, how, for what audience in time and place, under what circumstances, and for what surmised reasons? What was the outcome?

Note that the performer is always part of the audience for the performance, even when there are two or more people present. As a performer of a folk text, I (mainly unconsciously) monitor my performance and the audience's response, so much so that I might alter a joke or story text or texture during the performance. If I intend my folk performance to communicate something about my individual identity or about my identity as a member of a group, my performance makes real for me (as well as for others present) the identity signaled by that performance. So in many ways, I am always part of the audience for my folk performances. Of course, in the present essay I mean to argue a more surprising view-that I can be the audience for my folk performances even when I am alone.

Take the range of everyday folklore genres that Abrahams (1968) discusses in his essay, "A Rhetoric of Everyday Life." People will use a traditional conversational genre-boasts, taunts, prayers, spells, charms, blessings, proverbs, and superstitions are his examples-to take some power over social or natural or supernatural forces that create in us fear and anxiety. Many of us perform some of these genres when alone. If I'm cooking or eating alone and spill salt, I'll toss a pinch of it over my left shoulder. If I think to myself or even mutter a thought that I hope comes true or I hope will not come true, I'll knock wood. I might wear a lucky charm of some sort. Every time I choose how to navigate a ladder angled over a sidewalk, every time I choose not to endanger my mother by stepping on a crack, or every time I pause even a step as a black cat crosses my path, I am performing a folk belief for myself. …

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