Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Narratives of Nation or of Progress? Genealogies of European Folklore Studies

Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Narratives of Nation or of Progress? Genealogies of European Folklore Studies

Article excerpt

Folkloristics, like all disciplines, has its story to tell. Avant la lettre, in Herder's conceptualization, folklore narrated a national tale that (in its francophobia) looked forward to a world without grand narratives. To William Thoms, who coined the word, folklore could be understood through a narrative of progress. It described a passing world of curious cultural forms to be replaced by superior ones, but which deserved nonetheless its modest place in the genealogies of nation and humanity. Folklore then was defined either aesthetically by the var- ious narrative forms of Volkspoesie or socially by certain cultural forms proper to the lower classes of the residual agrarian world.1 When understood as an aesthetic narrative form, it had its greatest impact. Artistic texts are self-contained and in principle are not bound by the parameters of the concrete world. Oral narrative could soar above the hardships of rural life, and in its artistic fullness, free from the vicissitudes of history, prefigured other kinds of independence. On the other hand, to define folklore socially, the only narrative that gave meaning to it was that of progress: it was not without value, but was destined to be superseded in the onward march of modern civilization.2

The establishment of chairs, university departments, and research institutes devoted to modern scholarly disciplines derives in large part from the proliferation of nations, nation-states, and, indeed, colonial empires. But political boundaries set de facto limits to the remit-geographical, at least-of scholarly disciplines.3 It is important, nevertheless, to make a distinction-ambiguous and all though it may be-between a field of study and a discipline. A field of study exists without formal professionalization; a discipline cannot. This essay sketches the two orientations in folklore studies traced above and argues that the narrative and aesthetic definition of the field privileged the national frame while the social definition privileged the provincial and the colonial. The distinctions are not always clear cut, but it is hoped that the reflections on these questions may contribute to the history of folklore studies (cf. Bauman and Briggs; Briggs and Naithani).

I.

The modern European nation-states that developed from the late eighteenth cen- tury had two different origins. In one, the early modern dynastic state developed under a preexisting ethnic high culture, with a rich accumulation of historical and artistic heritage along the way-the best examples being England and France. In the other, distinct ethnic groups occupied compact territories. But they lacked their own aristocracy and a continuous high culture, their ruling class was of foreign origin, and they were impoverished insofar as the accumulation of a historical and artistic heritage that could be understood in national terms was concerned, since this was, to a large extent, the legacy of a state.4 There was also, of course, an intermediate type, Italy and Germany before unification, but also Poland- though not Lithuania-after partition (Hroch 79-80; Gellner 139). Norbert Elias argued that the English and French notion of civilization represented a process of expansion and assimilation, reflecting the history of England and of France. Civilization, deriving from civitas, "city," by implication grows at the expense of the local and provincial: it universalizes. The opposing German notion of Kultur, on the other hand, emerged from a nation that was consolidated very late, was unsure of its boundaries, and self-conscious about its identity. If civilization described a process of moving outward from a center, Kultur delimited, stressed differences between peoples, particularized, and referred to cultural products "in which the individuality of a people expresses itself" (Elias 4-5).

The folklore studies that developed in the first type of state might be called metropolitan folkloristics. The word folklore, originating in this context, is "not the happiest of terms, savouring as it does of the mental slumming of a victorian savant," as one folklorist put it (Ó Danachair 5); to apprehend folklore, in this socially based definition, one had to seek out the people (of whom, by definition, one was not a part). …

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