Newfolk: The Manifesto
After you read THE MANIFESTO, take a look at the responses



Mention that Folklore is in a state of crisis and the likely response will be a yawn or a shrug of resignation these days. Any grad student who has made it beyond the first year is aware of this. Graduate students complain about the inadequate instruction, poor training, and the intolerant, dated, backward, inflexible definition of folklore. Many protest, and make an effort to raise questions, to open the dialogue, to affect some change on some level that will allow them to pursue their interests and make a contribution to the understanding of human knowledge. And, as the conventional wisdom tells us, no one really gets anywhere by rocking the boat. Most students that intend to make folklore their life's work learn one thing: keep quiet. And they do. Students from Penn might complain, but only to each other, not with other students from Indiana, Texas, or UCLA. If they did they would find that their complaints are similar: Trivial courses, confused curricula, nonexistent teaching, poor administration and hopelessly archaic disciplinary goals.

Recent graduates continue to voice similar complaints, combined with the very real concern of not being able to find jobs. Mention folklore to anyone outside the discipline and their eyes glaze over, just before they make some authoritative, knowing statement about a field they know nothing about. What they do seem to know is that your specialty is irrelevant, trivial, marginal; that it can make no significant contribution to their departments. And it becomes harder and harder for us to refute them. The rigid definition of what is and is not folklore has been a hindrance to the further development of the field. When academic downsizing conspires to turn most of us into scholarly day laborers, this state of affairs has made us more invisible, contributed to our further marginalization, as well as the general intellectual impoverishment of the field.

Long time scholars that have been out there find themselves forced to either participate in the marginalization of the field by churning out work that adheres to a dated paradigm, or risk finding themselves ostracized if they turn their attention to current, more relevant topics. They learn quickly that there will be no institutional support for the type of research they do. It is remarkable that so many of attempt to study contemporary culture, especially when the field's response has been to turn their back on it.

That this situation exists is an open secret, which is precisely why we have decided that an open statement needs to be made. Secrets are maintained through silence, and the pretense of an open secret perpetuates the harm being done. We need to talk about this, we need to understand how we this crisis came to be because if we do not, Folklore will commit nothing less than ritual suicide.

What we need to understand most of all is how we came be in this situation. To paraphrase Oliver Stone, who benefitted? Who had the power to pull it off? Survey the discipline and the only ones who aren't experiencing anxiety are the Old Boys; the Generation of '68, the once young turks who were there when Folklore experienced an unprecedented surge of interest. Today, the old boys seem intent on sucking the life out of a once vital field. They remained fixated on the past, content to go out and collect another version of the same damn thing for the hundredth time. Despite their former declarations about the importance of context in folklore, about the need to be interdisciplinary, about the importance of utilizing theory in our analyses, they do none of this. They are indifferent to contemporary culture, and to the people that use and create it and often incapable of understanding and applying theory to their work in any meaningful way. They remain intolerant to new ideas, contemptuous of contemporary culture, and are increasingly hostile to their students, who are interested in the world around them. Instead, they pursue a twentieth century version of 19th century peasant ethnography, mimicking the pretentious, obscurantist manner of other scholars , a style that has become routinely criticized and parodied.

This predicament is not new. As far back as 1964 Gershon Legmon wrote "Modern folklorists, by and large, are not attuned to the developing folklore of our own time. They tend to concern themselves almost entirely with collecting the vestiges of the past--as they find them, barely surviving, into the present--or else concern themselves totally with the past, in the form of its printed record. The excuse generally made, when any is thought necessary, is that the past is disappearing and that the present will remain, to be studied later on". The result is that Folklore maintains an antiquarian reputation, led by bitter selfish, complacent careerists who seem intent on choking the life out of a potentially vital discipline. It is ironic since we do have so much to contribute to the mission of the higher learning. If our purpose is to understand human knowledge and human experience, our methodologies are uniquely suited to the task. We can expand the comprehension of literature, music and art. We can enhance the study of human behavior. We can make significant contributions to religion, philosophy, psychology. And most of all, we can advance the awareness of some of the most crucial current issues of the day--the issues of race, gender, ethnicity, class, sexual preference-- issues which are continually misunderstood and are being increasingly devalued.

What is most galling about the situation that we find ourselves in is that it is the result of conscious effort. There was a time during the Eighties when Folklore was poised to move and take advantage of the interest in such questions. Instead, the jobs that opened up in order to pursue the study of these issues went to the newly fashioned field of cultural studies. We could have had those jobs, if only those in charge were willing to simply open their minds and expand the scope of the field. We could have been the ones examining popular culture, media fandom, contemporary responses to race or gender. We could have expanded our field, because jobs would have been available to us in universities, in the public sector, and in social institutions.

We damn sure would have done a better job than the practioners of cultural studies, who did nothing more than apply abstract literary theories to contemporary cultural practices. We would have known better. Sensitive as we are to the nuances of actual human practice, we would have made use of what cultural studies is fearful, no incapable of; ethnography. We know never to theorize in advance of observation; we should know the difference between abstract theorizing and the practical application of theory. And because we do, cultural studies has been closed to us because our training would reveal their work for the fraud that it is. Instead, these positions and these issues were intentionally ignored. Students and faculty interested in pursuing these areas of study were discouraged, overtly and covertly, from doing so. If one did so despite the heavy opposition, little institutional support could be found for one's work and ideas. And new students who display an interest in the study of contemporary culture at risk because expressing this interest is often enough to deny them entrance into a graduate program. All at the cost of maintaining an antiquarian paradigm dedicated to what one of us had incisively called the study of dancing peasants.

The roots of this problem are found in the history of Folklore as an academic discipline. This field has suffered from an inferiority complex from the beginning, which has contributed to its ongoing identity crisis. In recent years, the field has attempted to disguise its antiquarian roots by applying the latest theory to the same old subjects. The ethnography of speaking, discourse analysis, performance theory, sociolinguistics, and ethnopoetics have all been invoked in order to demonstrate that our field is capable of doing theoretical analyses, just like other more respected disciplines. And that's the hell of it. We have used the theories of literary criticism, anthropology, sociology, psychology, you name it, and the result has not been a more unified approach. In fact, it has often led to increased marginalization. By reducing subjects like narrative, religion, foodways, or vernacular architecture to examples of tropes, metaphors or dialogic voices, we merely reproduce work that is already being done by others outside the field. If all we can do is say amen, then we shouldn't expect to be listened to.

Folklore's entrenched focus serves only to demoralize the field. A few will find positions, and they will see no reason to address the problems. Why should they? They have jobs. But for those of us who want to do something different, who hope to pursue this field as our life's work, who want to make significant contributions to human knowledge, we have no one to blame if we remain quiet. Despite the mistakes, missteps and mismanagement of the old boys who have come to represent what we do, in the end we can't really blame them. No one likes to be told that their life's work is dated and useless. The truth hurts.

What we find interesting is that there are so many out there who have reached the same conclusions. Look at the work being produced and a notable amount of it does in fact address the issues that we have talked about. There is a desire to open this field up, because it is in our interest to do so. And if we don't act in our own interest, then we deserve to be seen as marginal. What remains to be done is simple; We have to make our own opportunities. We have to organize and do the work we are capable of doing. We have to challenge other disciplines. And most of all we have to stop being silent.

To this end, we propose that we form a network for those of us interested in and intent on applying folklore theories and methodologies to the study of contemporary culture. This network will be open to students, recent graduates, established scholars and those who hope to establish themselves. Rather than accept the inertia of the field, we can provide support to one another, exchange information, share research and ideas, and build a place that responds to and respects the work that many of us wish to pursue. In the information age, we no longer have to be limited by geography; we can interact with one another anytime, anyplace. We don't have to toil in isolation. We can open up publishing opportunities, we can attract scholarly attention, students, and opportunities for employment. We may be able to draw more financial support for our work. By uniting in this way, we can affect long overdue changes in the field.


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