Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Vernacular Turns: Narrative, Local Knowledge, and the Changed Context of Folklore

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Vernacular Turns: Narrative, Local Knowledge, and the Changed Context of Folklore

Article excerpt

(American Folklore Society Presidential Address, october 2013)

NUMEROUS AFS PRESIDENTS HAVE COMMENTED OVER the years on the daunting nature of the task that now stands before me. A presidential address is an intimidating endeavor, particularly as it signals movement toward completion of your time in office, time which inevitably comes to a close in the blink of an eye, before one can accomplish even the tiniest of the earth-changing initiatives that only yesterday seemed so achievable. The genre itself is intimidating, generally conceived of as an attempt to take note of the state of one's discipline-assessing the field's past, considering its present, or charting its future (roberts 1999:166), all the while being widely relevant and yet specific in a way that reflects our discipline's situated ethnographic focus. Perhaps the most important challenge of this effort for me is conveying the passion i feel for our field. Attending AFS over the years has meant being continually nurtured by the insight, strength, and enthusiasm of the many mentors, colleagues, teachers, students, and friends who made it possible for me to always feel that we were the keepers of a special secret, a field of study with wisdom, heart, breadth, depth, endless inspiration, and enormous potential for facilitating social change.

But, as i outline for you the difficulties of this task before me, i have to be honest and tell you that the real problem is that on november 2, 1974, in Portland, oregon, Dell hymes gave my talk. "Folklore's nature and the Sun's myth" (hymes 1975) was, and is, exactly the talk i would want to give, if only Dell had not.1 of course, there are many things that Dell wrote that i wish i had written instead, but "Folklore's nature and the Sun's myth" explored the distinctive center of the discipline, the fundamental perspectives that identify us as folklorists. i tell my students often that the special secrets are hidden there, in Dell's now almost 40-year-old words. Dell was my teacher, the chair of my dissertation committee, and someone i deeply admired-so preparing to write this talk, i went to him for counsel. Since he is sadly no longer with us in body, i went back over his presidential address looking for the wisdom and direction i so often found there. And what i found, apart from the fine words and ideas i had remembered, was a place of difference. Writing of limitations on our field, Dell noted that "the discipline grows where there are dedicated individuals and interests not otherwise met, but it is difficult to define a general nature for folklore, such as would demand a place in any institutional or theoretical scheme of things" (hymes 1975:346). "to too great an extent," he wrote, "folklore is perceived as the study of things neglected by others, the leavings of other sciences," and "[a]s kroeber once observed of anthropology, a residual science cannot permanently justify itself " (1975:346).

Forty years ago, i think Dell would have been correct in characterizing folklore as perceived as the study of things neglected by others and the leavings of other sciences. but we have seen a profound sea change in the academy and in the world around us in the last 40 years, which i think we haven't paid enough attention to in our discipline, and which i wish to make the center of my talk today. i will argue that over those 40 years, our intellectual context has pretty radically changed in light of a growing populism in the intellectual, bureaucratic, and popular world around us that (for better or worse) now pays greater attention to the voices and knowledges2 of vernacular culture. not to be naïve, that move toward appreciation or at least consideration of the vernacular is deeply tied to the theoretical and political crisis brought on by the poststructural and postmodern turn away from positivist modes of inquiry and the related lack of faith in grand or master cultural narratives (lyotard 1984). nevertheless, while i still continually encounter individuals who do not know or understand our discipline, my interactions with people in the humanities and social sciences, medicine, and law, or at the post office and the corner store suggest a residual trivialization of our discipline, but a stronger appreciation of the things we study. …

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