(Note: After watching the discipline of folklore get pummeled by critics who claim that folklorists are not serious scholars, I’ve written two eassys to outline and defend the field. The first is “heresy,” which outlines the parameters of the discipline, and the second is “vanity,” which situates folklore studies in the vast ocean of scholarship in general. Mickey Weems)
As folklorists, we inadvertently apologize every time we cannot answer the simple question, “What is folklore?” in a coherent fashion. If we pause like a deer in headlights, smile, and say, “It’s complicated,” as if we are talking about a love affair, we apologize. If we say we are concerned with “local,” “informal,” “tradition,” or “culture,” our answer is in itself inadequate without a lengthy explanation that our audience may not be prepared to hear. To other disciplines, we may appear undisciplined, simplistic, or cute. We thus invite a patronizing attitude towards our work and out-of-hand dismissal as frivolous (I was once told by a professor at The Ohio State University that folklore was “going fishing” and not true scholarship). Too often, we are not taken seriously.
Our discipline is deeply rooted in a fascination with intimate group identities, the ethics and aesthetics that mark such identities, and the desire to present these groups and their works as worthy of academic attention. In the process of describing our folk, we access other forms of scholarly/rhetorical expression such as literary criticism, history, ethnomusicology, museum curation, fine arts, and popular culture, but these worthy fields are tangential. We should not be afraid to give an answer that sets us apart from others when people ask us what we do.
Communication/information access and quality have undergone a massive shift since the end of the twentieth century. Starting with the telephone and accelerated by the internet and other forms of global communication, the local has become increasingly international as we form or strengthen folk groups over the phone and online, groups that are no longer based on geographic proximity. We have more reliable data at our fingertips than ever before, and the volume is growing.
Our models for incorporating dynamic movement need updating and fluidity in ways that would have been rejected only a few decades ago. We are obliged to acknowledge the importance of trend (especially fad) as well as tradition in defining rather than undermining folklife. The same can be said for culture and interculture (those forms that exist among rather than within cultures, folkways that resist ethnicity and refuse to conform to any one cultural system). Otherwise, we risk imagining our folk as something that they are not.
Rather than focus so much on what the folk share as the basis for folklife, might it profit us to consider that the folk share?
The definition of the folk would shift from the manifestations of what they share to the dynamic bonds in which the sharing takes place. Thus we may speak of intimacy as well as affinity, resonance, desire, and emotional investment as bases for production of culture/interculture, tradition/trend, and informal/formal. Sharing could then be contrasted with (but not necessarily in opposition to) bureaucracy, government, corporation, and non-personal institutional forms. This would include the non-personal aspects of the discipline of folklore itself, affirming the importance of scholarly detachment yet allowing folklorists to be a folk group with the interpersonal resonance implied, and recognizing that we are often quite close to our folk-in-question.
Means of describing the ways of the folk using the senses (including sight, hearing, and touch, with sight the most detached and touch the most intimate), hot-cold, and close-distant are important metaphors in our discipline. Embodied, sense-based language is necessary because aesthetics (from the Greek word “to sense”) is so crucial to folklore. When considering folklife-as-process, we best understand folklore in somatic terms that allow us as scholars-with-bodies to describe our own dynamic experiences of resonance and dissonance with our various folks and non-personal institutions.
As we ground our discipline in the senses, we include emotional senses that inform our thinking and that of our folk, such as feelings of joy, anxiety, grief, suspicion, loyalty, rebellion, solidarity, propriety, security, arousal, and rapture. Emotion is not the enemy of reason. There are times when what we feel clarifies rather than clouds what we think. I submit that emotion is the fuel and mirror by which the folk develop ethics, rhetoric, and intellectual discourse, as well as being the inspiration for aesthetics.
Ultimately, the question would not be “Are they a folk?” but rather “How folk (resonant and sharing) are they?” and “How are they a folk (how are resonance and sharing expressed in culture, interculture, tradition, and trend)?” in which folk identity in general is a matter of degree, and specific folk identities are a matter of kind.
1. Intimacy is what differentiates a folk from a bureaucracy, government, and any other non-personal institution. Folklore-as-discipline is the study of groups with resonance (dynamic emotional investment in shared intimate identity) that is manifested in particular ethical and aesthetic expressions. Folklore differs from culture (and cultural anthropology) in that culture is a broader term- it need not be limited to resonance.
2. Resonance generates a frame for interpersonal relationships, including negative relationships in which people despise one another. Resonance sets rules of engagement for bitter conflict as well as expressions of solidarity.
3. Folkness (when people express themselves as a folk) is apparent when the folk generate an environment of and for themselves, one in which they follow their own rules. If these rules are represented and enforced by non-personal institutions, intensity of folkness may be determined by the pressure exerted on those institutions to modify their behavior according to the will of the folk rather than the other way around.
4. The folk may be contrasted with non-personal institutions as long as we realize the two constantly interpenetrate. Bureaucracies have folk groups within them, and the folk may have their own bureaucracies. What may have been an institution can, after being conquered or superseded, become the basis of a re-performed folk (such as groups prior to colonization, including Aztec, Hawaiian, and Yoruba elite) once they no longer control the official discourse. The shift may also go the other way from folk to institution, as we see with the LGBT community influencing legal issues concerning gender expression, same-sex erotic-romantic relationships, embodied sexual identity, and family.
5. The division between folk and institution is not simply an intellectual exercise. It is important for generating interdependent relationships between two sources of social power that result from distinctive intimate and non-personal identities. It is commonplace for the folk to seek legitimization (i.e. certification) beyond their own number, and for institutions to seek ways to become internally more personable (folksy). It is equally important, however, for folk and institution to polarize. This is due to the tendency for institutions to enforce rules, behaviors, and forms of material culture over more people than just themselves, and the tendency for folk to resist institutional control from outsiders.
6. Folklore-as-discipline is a bridge between the intimate and the non-personal. As folklorists, we must embrace an ethos of informed naiveté and humility with regards to our folk (we must trust them), and ethical/aesthetic elitism with regards to government-affiliated agencies, business-oriented corporations, and other academic disciplines (we must exhibit professional vanity). Otherwise, we cannot expect the trust of the former, nor (as Dundes and Dorson so admirably demonstrated) will we earn the respect of the latter.
7. Here is how we bridge the folk with the Ivory Tower: whatever scholarship we produce aims for accessibility, especially for those about whom we write, and we present this preoccupation with accessibility as what earns us the right to consider ourselves elite.