Academic journal article Western Folklore

Rethinking Psychoanalysis, Poetics, and Performance

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Rethinking Psychoanalysis, Poetics, and Performance

Article excerpt

Scholars are well aware of the tremendous complexity of folklore, the heterogeneous range of ways it both creates and acts on subjects. There are times, however, when we get captured by a performance ourselves, forced to stretch our senses and analytic capacities in order to grapple with its power and multifaceted intricacy, only to realize that we fall short of grasping its richness and power. These are moments that can catalyze efforts to transform folkloristics, giving rise to conversations between approaches that have existed in isolation or opposition.

This article was bom of a rupture that emerged in the middle of a disconcerting experience. By July of 2008, a mysterious epidemic in the Delta Amacuro rainforest of Venezuela had already killed 37 children and young adults, stumping doctors and epidemiologists for a year. Parents, some of whom had lost two or three children, demanded action. When health officials seemed more interested in hiding than stopping the epidemic, two indigenous leaders, Conrado and Enrique Moraleda, started their own investigation. Clara Mantini-Briggs, a Venezuelan public health physician, and I had worked in the Delta Amacuro for decades. Having recently returned to the delta, they recruited us, along with healer Tirso Gómez and nurse Norbelys Gómez. Our first step would be to hold a meeting in the small coastal community of Muaina; there a young man, Mamerto Pizarro, had just died. Arriving at dawn, we were greeted not by sober voices discussing epidemiological details but a group of women and one adolescent clustered around a coffin, performing laments. Their voices not only articulated memories of Mamerto but told us how the six of us should go about our investigation and what we should do with our findings-take them to socialist president Hugo Chávez Frías. The lamentation continued all morning as the meeting unfolded, saturating each word of the stories told by parents and community representatives and discussion of epidemiological hypotheses with the eerie poetics and acoustics of laments.

My focus in this article is not on laments per se but on thinking theoretically about how we can more adequately grapple with the complexity of such performances and their capacity for reshaping subjects and social relations. I juxtapose two frameworks that have figured significantly in folkloristics but have generally existed in what linguists refer to as complementary distribution-never located in the same place at the same time. First, Alan Dundes championed psychoanalysis as a privileged framework for analyzing folklore, simultaneously complaining that "as far as mainstream folkloristics is concerned, it is as though Freud never lived" ( 1987:ix). Secondly, the influence of performance-centered approaches was inescapable in the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps it was due more to the wide uptake of this mode of analysis in folkloristics and other disciplines than critiques that called for more attention to gender and power (Limón and Young 1986; Sawin 2002) that a focus on poetics and performance seems to have slipped into the background as many folklorists incorporated its insights into a basic disciplinary toolkit. Despite their visibility in the discipline for decades, a broad conversation between psychoanalytic and performance-centered approaches did not emerge. Performance-centered scholars largely just turned their backs on psychoanalysis. Dundes, for his part, actively opposed the two approaches, casting performance-like feminist perspectives-as unworthy candidates for achieving the status that he conferred on psychoanalysis, that of "grand theory" (2005).

My goal in this article is to lay a different foundation for psychoanalytic folkloristics, simultaneously arguing that a concern with poetics and performance-as well as a broadening of our archive of psychoanalytic texts and authors-is required. I emphasize Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams ( 1965 [ 1900] ) and The Joke and Its Relationship to the Unconscious (2002 [1905]) which, Dundes suggests, "pointed out the enormous potential of psychoanalytic theory as a tool for deciphering the symbolic content of myths, folktales, legends, and other forms of folklore such as custom and belief' (1987:viii-ix). …

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