Academic journal article Western Folklore

Paying to Play: Digital Media, Commercialization, and the Scholarship of Alan Dundes

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Paying to Play: Digital Media, Commercialization, and the Scholarship of Alan Dundes

Article excerpt

Shortly after being accepted into the Folklore Program at the University of California, Berkeley in 2004,1 received a telephone call from Alan Dundes. He called to encourage me to come to Berkeley rather than to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy, the subject in which I had written my undergraduate thesis a few years earlier at Oberlin College. Now, a decade later, I recall very little of what he said, but this call made an impression on me for several reasons, not the least of which was that no other professor had made this kind of effort, and it certainly was a deciding factor in my ultimate decision to pursue a career in academic folkloristics. This was, as his many students will attest, exactly the kind of personal approach that made Alan Dundes such a valued teacher and mentor, and what enabled him to shape generations of young folklorists at the University of California, Berkeley.

At the end of the call, however, I do remember casually asking him for an email address to which I could address future correspondence. Since by the time I had entered college, the use of email on college campuses had become commonplace, I was a bit surprised when he gave me an email address that did not contain any reference to his name. Only later was I to learn that the address belonged to his wife, who handled his electronic correspondence, since he rarely used a computer.

Dundes' minimal use of computers in his day-to-day work was, of course, rather ironic since he was among the first folklorists to write about computers, and he was well known for his resistance to the Romantic oppositional dichotomy between technology and folklore. His 1965 piece "On Computers and Folk Tales," for instance, was one of the earliest considerations of the potentials for the application of computer analysis to the study of folklore. In this piece, even though Dundes is quite critical of the proposals made by Colby, Collier, and Postal (1963), it is also clear that, even from this early point, he saw great potential for the application of computing technology to the study of folklore (Dundes 1965b).1 But in a retrospective sense, it is also true that Dundes' many works on Xeroxlore with Carl Pagter (1975; 1987; 1991; 1996; 2000) have come to serve as important early precedents for folklorists working in digital spaces, and that Dundes and Pagter's analysis of the folkloric dimensions of photocopier lore continue to be discussed in relation to the study of digital culture.

These latter works were not important just because they examined the role that technology could play in the reproduction and transmission of folklore, but, as I have argued elsewhere, because they developed a rhetorical framework that has become central to many studies of technologically mediated folklore. The most widely used portion of this framework consisted of a kind of folkloristic "Turing Test":

Except for the oral criterion, these materials would doubtless pass muster as folklore for most American folklorists. Had we lied and claimed that we had elicited all of the texts orally from informants, these materials would surely be considered authentic folklore by folklorists. Since the materials are not in oral tradition, there are two possibilities; one can either throw out the data or throw out the theory! (Dundes and Pagter 1975, xix; emphasis in original)

This rhetorical framework has been employed frequently in more recent studies in attempts to extend its claims about technological reproduction and transmission of folklore to digital contexts as well (for example, Dorst 1990; Fox 2007 [1983]; Blank 2009; Bronner 2009; Frank 2009).2 While well developed in the context of studying photocopier folklore, the framework has become something of a false friend to folklorists working on digital technology, suggesting a system of dynamics that is radically different, though superficially similar, to the ways that folklore is performed in digital spaces.

Growing out of my previous critique of the way in which Dundes' work on technology has been read (Buccitelli 2012:6264),3 this essay seeks to contribute to a more complex view of Dundes' thinking on the relationship between technology, commericalization, and folklore. …

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