Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Folklore's Cybernetic Imaginary, or, Unpacking the Obvious

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Folklore's Cybernetic Imaginary, or, Unpacking the Obvious

Article excerpt

THE ONCE STATELY HISTORIC-GEOGRAPHIC METHOD drifts now through the fog of folklore's remote past. Sighted only fleetingly by the few academic vessels that still patrol our field's methodological history, this ghost ship will not likely ever reappear in its former transatlantic opulence.1 We might profit, though, from re-mapping its location along a course that runs athwart the familiar coordinates we normally use to chart folklore's past ports of call. conventional histories of academic fields typically navigate according to a familiar map of emergence (the antiquarians, herder, the grimms), slow transformations (the rise and fall of the cultural evolution model, for example), occasional revolutions (the performance paradigm, perhaps [see laudun and goodwin 2013]), defining moments (the Folklife preservation Act), lineages of significant persons (make your own list), and all the other safe sea lanes of narrative intellectual history.2 Anti-presentist vigilance, anti-essentialist reflexivity, and, above all, rigorous specificity of historical context are the beacons that guide us away from ahistorical generalization and idealist naïveté. We might ask ourselves, though, if, in scrupulously observing the historiographical laws of our disciplinary seas, we don't miss some sights worth seeing. These may not be tangible, measurable entities, but who would be better than folklorists to recognize that even the mermaids of our field's becalmed imagination are, in some sense, "real"?

It is precisely with the imagination, or rather the imaginary, that i begin here; more specifically, i want to highlight one aspect of folklore's field-Imaginary, rather an obvious one, that i believe to be an actual, if unmeasurable, artifact-that is, one without the mappable narrative linearity of standard intellectual history. in fact, in the register of the imaginary, it is precisely iteration-the incessant replaying of the same few elements (tropes, binaries, core scenarios)-that defines the domain, rather than cause-and-effect sequence. The historic-geographic method will be my embarkation point for an expedition pursuing one particular repetition-compulsion distinctive of folklore's field-imaginary.

To borrow an old definition from a not-too-remote scholarly relative, American studies:

By the term field-imaginary i mean to designate a location for the disciplinary unconscious. . . . here abides the field's fundamental syntax-the tacit assumptions, convictions, primal words, and the charged relations binding them together. (pease 1990:11; see also kennedy 2009)

It is not, then, our theories and methods, grand or humble; nor our institutional identities, academic, public sector, or independent; but rather our field's peculiar desires and aversions, its tacit tropisms that urge our practice in some directions and deflect it from others. bound together in "charged relations" operating mostly outside active awareness, these forces or vectors are constantly leaving traces in the form of patterns in scholarly discourse, selection of research topics, and the compulsive repetition (if not fetishizing) of certain "comfortable" objects of celebratory attention. Above all, these energies in the field-imaginary fuel the professional tribalism that prompts certain persons, myself included, to say with some form of satisfaction (perverse pride, embattled self-righteousness, small-group insider-hood?): "i am a folklorist."

A field specialist depends on the field-imaginary for the construction of her primal identity within the field. once constructed out of this syntax, the primal identity can neither reflect upon its terms nor subject them to critical scrutiny. The syntactic elements of the field-imaginary subsist instead as self-evident principles. (pease 1990:11-2)

Although this point about the deep sedimentation of the imaginary is approximately accurate, i obviously do not accept it unequivocally since what i propose to do here is pull up one feature of folklore's field-imaginary precisely for critical scrutiny. …

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