Scholastic before and Scholarly after? Ukrainian Folklorists and Their Folklore after 1991

By Shostak, Natalia | Ethnologies, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Scholastic before and Scholarly after? Ukrainian Folklorists and Their Folklore after 1991


Shostak, Natalia, Ethnologies


Since Ukraine's independence in 1991, Ukrainian folklorists have been facing the pragmatic dilemma of reformulating the primary objectives and philosophical essence of their discipline. This presupposes a thorough revision of the subject matter of their discipline, including the concept of folklore itself, which was conceived in terms of Soviet Marxist methodology in Soviet times. One could anticipate that the disintegration of the Soviet system and the emergence of the new political order with its wide range of competing ideologies would trigger critical re-evaluation of former paradigms developed under the intellectual and political pressures from Moscow, the Soviet Center. Is this the case? Did these political changes really foster conceptually new discourses within the discipline, and new approaches towards its subject?

Having posed these questions as a starting point for discussion, I examine in this paper (re)definitions of folklore suggested by Ukrainian folklore scholars in 1990-1997. Examining the historical roots of today's readings of folklore and of its principle of narodnist' (pertaining to the people), I contrast current visions of folklore with those formulated in different historical conjunctures in support of various ideologies. Analysing various publications on folklore that appeared in Ukraine in the early 1990s, and bringing in the opinions of leading folklore scholars on this issue, I explore current (re)definitions of folklore as rooted in and affected by the post-Soviet nature of Ukraine's intellectual and national projects.(2)

Throughout history, ruling ideologies and folklore scholarship intervened in each other's domain, resonating in and in some cases promoting each other, helping to formulate and narrate each others' stories. The current national project as well as the ongoing intellectual project of Ukraine to revive its national scholarship has been conditioning (and disciplining) the discipline of folklore as well. This to a great degree determines the direction in which folklore studies proceeds. All this affects conceptualisations of folklore itself. The Soviet nature of Ukrainian folklore studies as an institutionalized discipline up to 1991 continues to affect the project of national revival. Looking through the interpretations of the terms "folklore" and the "folk" can be quite revealing. It is in their terminologies that national scholarship and the nationalist agendas are conceived. Their vocabularies have become a huge cultural reservoir for legal conceptualisations of a new nation. Though rarely consulted directly by Ukrainian law-makers, these interpretations help to identify ideological positions and points of departure for formulations of Ukrainian nationhood.

Narrating the nation through folk legacies presupposes a certain language, an elaborate terminology and a sufficient vocabulary. The language of "those who narrate the Nation" and its role in nation construction are widely attended to in contemporary Western criticism. In fact, the intersection of language and its narrative strategies with political rationalisation of the nation has become the key theoretical inquiry in the fields of literary, cultural and post-colonial studies. It is not merely verbal fixations and narratives, but the actual process of producing them, the discourse itself, that becomes part of the national culture. As Fanon put it, it is in the efforts of intellectuals to describe, justify and praise the folk that the people creates itself and keeps itself in existence (Fanon 1968). Benedict Anderson turned to this question in 1983. His vision of first nationalisms, born from the formations of national languages with further establishment through the media, can easily be applied to Ukraine. Homi Bhabha, referring to national processes in the post-colonial world, develops this position further by asking:

If the ambivalent figure of the nation is a problem of its transitional history, its conceptual interdeterminacy, its wavering between vocabularies, then what effect does this have on narratives and discourses that signify a sense of "nationness" (Bhabha 1990: 2)? …

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