Informant Disavowal and the Interpretation of Storytelling Revival

By Heywood, Simon | Folklore, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Informant Disavowal and the Interpretation of Storytelling Revival


Heywood, Simon, Folklore


Abstract

The scholarship of traditional arts revivals is often ironic. Revivalists' activity has been understood as a rational, politically nostalgic, and symbolic re-enactment of a fictional past. In this, scholars have underestimated the significance of disavowal; that is, informants' neutral or negative responses to analytical methods and conclusions. Interviews with English storytelling revivalists reveal a coherent and significant consensus of disavowal, showing their primary concern to be not with nostalgic self-rationalisation, but with basic practical issues of artistic and sociable interaction. Storytelling revival involves nostalgic displays that are actually fragmentary, superficial, and subordinate to practical concerns. This suggests that revivalists are seeking not to symbolise an imagined past for political purposes, but to familiarise recently appropriated performance genres for artistic purposes. This conclusion is hypothetically applicable to the uses of nostalgic rationalisation within other revival movements.

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The study of folklore can be characterised by two complementary yet competing perspectives-the delineation of ideology and the discernment of art (Oring 1996, 325).

The Interpretation of Revival

A conventional scholarly view of the traditional arts revival [1] is encapsulated in the title of Georgina Boyes' historical study of English folk music revival, The Imagined Village: Culture and Ideology in the English Folk Revival (1993). In this title, bucolic fantasy takes centre stage. The actual incidence of dance, song, music and other specific forms and genres of folk culture is passed over in silence. This is no accident. The title summarises an ironic critique of revival, which the book itself, like other scholarship on revivals, expounds at length. According to this critique, folk revival purports to be an artistic enterprise based on enthusiasm for certain genres; but these artistic considerations are largely a pretext for a coded political statement on a very large scale. Boyes describes the revival itself, the movement, as a large but rather shallow re-creation of a romantically conservative idealised past, contrasted with the mainstream of modernity, and enacted quite irrespective of any practical function the movement might serve in appropriating specific forms of vernacular art. This over-arching symbolic quality, by implication, distinguishes revival from mature tradition, because mature tradition never really symbolises or expresses anything in and of itself; it is simply a natural part of the life of the tradition-bearing community (Boyes 1993, 2, 47, 54 and 123).

This view exemplifies the general scholarly preoccupation with context--historical, political, cultural and social--as the royal road to the successful interpretation of folklore. Here, however, the logic is applied not, as usually, to specific genres and items of folklore, but on a much larger scale, to the whole folk group or vernacular milieu (Pickering and Green 1987) whose very existence is itself seen as a deliberate statement of meaning. Folklorists have sometimes neglected interpretation in favour of taxonomy, structural analysis, historical study, and the like (Holbek 1985), but when folklorists have attempted interpretation, they have mostly been preoccupied with context. They share this preoccupation with other disciplines and interdisciplinary subject areas in the humanities. Whether folkloric or not, the scholarship of contextualisation is always a scholarship of more or less benevolent irony. It can be, as in this example, a scholarship of outright debunking. Early diachronic theories of historical development on a very large scale, such as comparative mythology and cultural evolution, were themselves effectively theories of context-specific meaning that blinded scholars to the distinctness and competence of the folk themselves as makers and interpreters of their own culture (for example, Frazer 1927). …

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