Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

"Talking Shit" in Rayne: How Aesthetic Features Reveal Ethical Structures

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

"Talking Shit" in Rayne: How Aesthetic Features Reveal Ethical Structures

Article excerpt

"Talking shit" is a well-established social activity in many African American speech communities. This study of such talk by one speaker in a small south Louisiana town describes the dynamics of such talk as a negotiation, within a flexible set of forms, of the nature of the relationship between the speaker and the researcher in order to place the latter within a traditional framework of relationships between individuals. The study focuses on how the interactional order is embedded in the very structure of talk itself, revealing the potential logic behind what seems at first glance to be "verbal filler" but, I argue, actually is an extension of the larger worldview at work in speaking.

"talking shit" is a venerable tradition in many African American speech communities. As an umbrella term, it typically covers only a particular portfolio of genres, both in day-to-day as well as in analytical uses. In performance, individual speakers deploy forms that are largely made up of reported speech, reflecting an understanding of authorship as diffused in the space of the fictive present as well as across performances reaching back to the historical past. A close examination of the forms involved in fact reveals that not only are texts generated, variously, in dialogue but that they are constructed of dialogue as well, creating a continuum across semantic and pragmatic domains which speakers use to great effect. This study, located in a small south Louisiana town, highlights the flexible nature of the genres involved, allowing speakers to move into and out of the performance frame, which is itself sometimes considered a dimension of the performance.

Beginning with close attention to the details of two forms, the rhymed couplet poem known as a toast among folklorists and the joke, the essay examines how the two forms are assembled out of constructed dialogue, and, in doing so, reveal a preference for speakers to distribute semantic authority through an implied dialogue with a past interlocutor. The effect is to mirror the current pragmatic context into a prior, but fictional, pragmatic context. This doubling of distributed authorship mimics the nature of the performances itself, which usually occur with at least a handful of performers available within a group. In the case of the author's first meeting with the central performer of the essay, Oscar Babineaux, the traditional interactional order for such a distribution was not available, and so Babineaux had no choice but to shiftthe performance context to the telling of memorates in order to achieve the kind of reciprocity that "talking shit" in Rayne normally achieves. This essay tracks the series of discursive moves that Babineaux makes, genre by genre, as he carefully constructs, or reconstructs perhaps, a social event, text by text, that makes sense from within his worldview.

This is a small study, focused on a particular performance by a particular performer within a much larger speech community and tradition. The performance itself did not occur in anything like a "natural" context, which is why to this day it remains such a compelling bit of artistry. After more than a decade of research into the folk cultures of south Louisiana, as well as other American folk cultures, I have recorded dozens of performers of various abilities in a wide array of circumstances, often working within event frames that were far more comprehensible and comfortable for them. Only a few of those performances, however, call upon me again and again to marvel at the application of native competence to an alien circumstance in such a way that the nature and function of the genres themselves is revealed so clearly. For what it's worth, Babineaux himself only smiles when we talk about this, and then he tells me another story.

A World of Talk

A few years ago, as I played a version of one of the most famous African American toasts, "The Signifying Monkey," to one of my folklore classes, one of my students looked up, her mouth open in surprise and delight, and exclaimed, "My dad talks like that to my little girl when he's putting her to sleep! …

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