(Note: This essay is a companion piece to “heresy,” a work that defines folklore as the study of groups with emotional investment in shared intimate identity. Mickey Weems)
In “heresy,” folklorists are encouraged to display professional vanity when dismissed by non-folklorists for not being scholarly enough. But more should be said why folklorists have reason to be vain. The following nine points explain how folklore studies is situated within all academic knowledge, and why the lofty ideal of cosmopolis (humanity as citizens of a universal city, with a set of rules for all) must include the ground level connections of the cosmolaikos (the universal presence of different folk groups within humanity, each group establishing its own rules).
Scholars tend to take for granted that all academically certified knowledge is part of a coherent whole, but rarely do we step back and try to figure out where our own particular fields fit in relation to the entire range of knowledge from physics to human studies. It is time for folklorists to take a look at the bigger picture of collective human awareness, and the importance of our role in it. I begin with the following claim:
1. At this time in the known universe, there is nothing more progressively complex than person-to-person communication.
In order to illustrate this point, let us start with the basics of physical existence. The formations of matter-energy that make up everything from interstellar bodies to subatomic particles can be explained by sciences associated physics and chemistry. But an emergent level of complexity occurs with life, self-replicating biochemical compounds, that neither physics nor chemistry is equipped to explain. Nevertheless, biochemical compounds obey the laws of physics and chemistry as well as their own rules.
Life made from biochemical compounds produces further emergent complexities in cellular, multicellular, and interactive species outlined in sciences associated with biology. These complexities fall outside biochemistry, even though all life forms follow the laws of biochemistry as well as the laws of physics and chaemistry. But biology cannot account for further emergent forms found in human populations. Relationships between individuals and groups take on new patterns concerning ethics, aesthetics, and intellectual discourse in human studies (social sciences, humanities), even as humans remain mammals and are bound to the rules that govern life forms as well as inanimate matter.
When observing ourselves, we can trace our evolution as social beings in our bodies. Biochemistry and biology are crucial to understanding how our emergent social forms are grounded in our physiology, which differs from other animals in the ways we are designed for person-to-person communication. These things mark us as human: intricate facial muscles, articulate hands, exposed whites of the eyes, distinctive throat configuration for voice, and brain development for processing and expressing the following: patterns, time, right and wrong, emotion, reason (the ability to organize information submitted for consideration by others), narrative, drama, and transcendence. In sum: Progressively emergent orders of complexity in the universe- outlined in physics, biochemistry, biology, and human studies- reach their most comprehensive manifestation in embodied person-to-person communication.
The overwhelming majority of humanity is adept at face-to-face communication in real time. In fact, we are experts at it. That same wiring extends beyond the grammar of language to the evocative grammars of aesthetics.
2. Without exception, all human knowledge is based on witness, when people report their experiences to another person. History is established through collaborating testimonies of events, philosophy through debate concerning insight as experience, mathematics through shared observation and application of abstract models created by the mind that measures, the sciences through independent witnesses who test and contest empirically derived data, religion through declaration and enactment of transcendent experiences, arts through display, and human studies through partnership with multiple witnesses concerning community and individual. These things may also be done through texts as witness.
Given that each of us is an intrinsically creative witness when we recount lived experience (our own and others, verbally and otherwise), all humans contribute to the common knowledge base when they speak their minds.
3. Human groups take on characteristics of folk groups when their witnessing is framed by shared ethics and aesthetics that allow them to resonate with each other at a personal level. In-group resonance is different from the detachment associated with nonpersonal public spheres such as bureaucracies and institutions, and a person’s folk identity cannot completely encompass one’s existence as an intrapersonal individual. To paraphrase Dundes: We are all the folk, but not all the time.
4. Folklore as process (in-group witness expressed in art, ethics, and intellectual debate) informs all human discourse, including the official discourse of non-personal public spheres such as science and bureaucracy. Yet science and bureaucracy cannot examine folklore without serious distortion due to resistance from the folk to the impersonal, detached, and bureaucratic. In their zeal to appear detached and bureaucratic, scientists and bureaucrats also resist expressing themselves as folk groups within their own official discourse.
5. This same resistance to meaningful encounter with intimacy can be found in human studies outside of folklore. Such resistance marks a weakness in scholarship that folklorists can avoid by being flexible enough to include the vestiges of creative, ethical, and emotional force found in the material we gather. It is what separated Zora Neale Hurston from her less agile mentor, Franz Boas.
6. Folklorists realized long ago that folklore was necessarily interdisciplinary. We need anthropology (cultural and physical), sociology, the arts, literary studies, history, psychology, philosophy, biology, medicine, linguistics, etc. It is about time other disciplines realize they need us too. They are not configured to do what we do, and are often unable to do it as well. They are still concerned with elitism that differentiates them from the people framed as the object of their study, scholarship that alienates the people from their works in scholarship that is purposely inaccessible to all but certain specialists.
7. Simplicity is the essence of elegance. It takes intelligence to avoid unnecessary jargon just as it does to use jargon adroitly. Our elitism, our vanity as folklorists comes from intimacy with, rather than detachment from, the folk. We confirm our scholarship as folklore-based (rather than any other discipline with which we may be aligned) when we bring it before the folk and make it accessible to them. Going a step further, we privilege accessible scholarship as sophisticated when it is written in a way so the folk can understand it.
The folk are not limited to being informants or sources. They are partners (or at the very least, collaborators in a positive sense) and should be recognized as such. Even if we never meet them, if we find them repugnant, too dangerous to encounter face to face, or if they are already dead, we nevertheless position them as human beings worthy of respect and whose witness counts.
8. Accuracy is preferable to precision. Because we as folklorists are the means by which intimate communication and expression of the folk can be accessed within the framework of scholarship, we should not attempt clean breaks between ourselves, our discipline, the folk, and their folklore. Borders are best acknowledged and then left unfenced. The muddy and imprecise use of the word “folklore,” referring to both the discipline and those things the discipline examines, is appropriate. By not clearly separating the two, and by acknowledging the intimate connection we have with the folk, we present a more accurate picture of how folklorists and the folk interpenetrate. We are bridges, not guard posts.
9. If we need to be insufferably arrogant to make a point, here is one way to do it: Scholars involved with human studies who do not acknowledge the crucial role of folklore in the production of all knowledge (including their own field of study) are ignorant, plain and simple.