Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

What We Should Have Learned from Américo Paredes: The Politics of Communicability and the Making of Folkloristics

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

What We Should Have Learned from Américo Paredes: The Politics of Communicability and the Making of Folkloristics

Article excerpt

Critically revising genealogies of folkloristics to reflect how Américo Paredes attempted to reorient the discipline half a century ago entails grasping how he radically redefined folklore and repositioned folklorists within complex generic, social, and political networks. This article uses a new theoretical framework, based on the notion of communicability, that analyzes the vernacular models used by performers, audiences, and folklorists in projecting the production, circulation, and reception of cultural forms. It suggests that Paredes brilliantly grasped that these cultural models are as multiple, contested, materially grounded, and consequential as the folkloric forms whose circulation they chart.

IN THE FALL OF 2007, as I taught Américo Paredes's With His Pistol in His Hand to several hundred Berkeley undergraduates, I realized that the following year would mark the book's fiftieth anniversary. I soon came to the conclusion that the occasion should be marked by an event that would not only detail Paredes's many contributions to the discipline but also explore why, as José Limón (2007) has pointed out, Paredes has been virtually erased from dominant genealogies of American folkloristics. I am pleased to be part of this special issue of the Journal of American Folklore, particularly because Paredes edited this journal from 1968 to 1973.

As early as 1958, Paredes articulated a radically different agenda for folkloristics, providing insights that could have fundamentally reoriented the field's epistemological, methodological, and political points of departure. He redefined the basic object of study, offering a principled challenge to the legacy of European perspectives of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries that view folklore as consisting of shared cultural elements that exist apart from modernity. Recent scholarship on Paredes has illuminated the ways he transformed understandings of folklore and culture and the politics of race, both within the academy and beyond, anticipating later revolutions in ethnography and postmodern scholarship.

This situation confronts us with some important questions. How can we account for Paredes's marginalization within the field of folkloristics? Should we concern ourselves with rewriting genealogies of folkloristics in order to accord Paredes his proper role, particularly in light of the way that genealogical narratives-not as objects of deconstruction but as positive acts of constructing memory and scholarly canons- are often disparaged these days? What are the implications of this injustice, not simply for Paredes's legacy but for the field itself? Another way to put this last question is, if we take Paredes's insights seriously, how might we rethink folkloristics?

Here, I rethink Paredes's work from a different angle, one that requires a theoretical intervention. Science studies scholars argue that modes of representation shape objects of scholarly analysis not only in terms of their content but also how they are produced and circulate (Knorr-Cetina 1999; Latour 1987; Rabinow 1996). Just as Paredes anticipated shifts in ethnographic representation and in the politics of culture, he pointed to a different way of thinking about how diverse actors, including both folklorists and laypersons, produce knowledge about folklore. I argue that Paredes's research challenged a notion that had guided research on folklore since its inception in the seventeenth century, the assertion that the social life of folklore constitutes a sui generis circuit of circulation for cultural forms that are naturally occurring elements of the social landscape-folklore-a circuit that is defined through its autonomy from and opposition to other modes of knowledge production and circulation. Moreover, Paredes presciently offered an alternative formulation, one that is very much in line with contemporary understandings of power and difference in social life.

The major thrust of the contribution I hope to make here is to identify foundational assumptions about how knowledge about folklore is produced and circulated. …

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