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Second Nature:
Vernacular Systems of Understanding

Inaugural Conference of the Center for Folklore and Ethnography

March 31-April 1 2000, at the University of Pennsylvania

The Center for Folklore and Ethnography, established last fall within the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, will host its initial conference on the theme of "Second Nature." We have chosen this subject as a way to renew the discussion on vernacular theories of implicit knowledge, things learned "in the mother's milk." Included in the subject will be how performances at all levels of experience enter into the daily lives of specific populations, and what kind of cultural, in-common attitudes, techniques and practices are carried into these activities.

In the 1960s and 70s there was an unusually rich conversation that took place, centered at the University of Pennsylvania, arising from the work of Dell Hymes and his colleagues and very gifted students in the Ethnography of Communication; Erving Goffman, through his analyses of the cultural constructions of everyday life, explored through the metaphors of theatrical play, game play, ritual practice, and aesthetic framing; and Ray Birdwhistell, whose discussions of the microbehavioral dimension of cultural practice enlivened the intellectual environment here and elsewhere. Between them, they deeply affected the way in which ethnographic observation is now carried out.

Now twenty-some years later it seems useful to bring together many of those involved in this discussion, not to lament its passing, nor to celebrate its accomplishment, but to bring back some of the questions that arose then that remain unanswered.

One of the areas of knowledge receiving little discussion during this interim has been how much of the communicative system is learned, how it is incorporated into the life of the communicating group, and what strategies might be developed to discover how much of the system is subject to being revealed. To put it plainly, how do the habits of the hand, the heart, the viscera, the ear and the voice play themselves out in expressive communities. And how much of such implicit knowledge becomes explicit in situations of cultural questioning - in times of war, social stress, but even in embarrassing situations, or at points of passage in the part of the growing-up process as adults monitor the practices of children?

By bringing together a number of folklorists and ethnographers who have been actively engaged in carrying out studies that focus on specific groups, some comparisons and generalizations are certain to emerge. But more importantly, the vernacular practices of those engaged in the interactions will become the subject of investigation. In many of the studies which have emerged during this interim, performing individuals have been discovered who not only have the ability to perform within a particular tradition, but who speak about it in extraordinarily useful terms. Sometimes called "street corner philosophers" "native intellectuals," even "indigenous exegetes" such figures have taught now one ethnographer, now another, just how naive and bumptious their enterprise can be.

In the process of discussing such matters, older notions of performance and behavior, worldview and even national, regional and local character may be rethought. This conference will provide the occasion for deep talk on this subject. The finale for the conference will be a reception held Saturday night for those attending. We especially hope our alumni can come and end the day of discussion with the chance to socialize, see old friends and faces, and catch up!

 

Participants

Dell Hymes, Emeritus Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Virignia

Hermann Bausinger, Emeritus Professor, Ludwig-Uhland Institute, Tuebingen

John Szwed, Chair, Department of Anthropology, Yale University

Dick Bauman, Distinguished Professor of Folklore, The Folklore Institute, Indiana University

Henry Glassie, Professor of Folklore, The Folklore Institute, Indiana University

Alan Dundes, Professor, Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

Robert Cantwell, American Studies Program, UNC, Chapel Hill

Don Brenneis, President-Elect, American Anthropological Association and Chair, Department of Anthropology, UC Santa Cruz

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Professor of Performance Studies, New York University

Lee Haring, Emeritus Professor, Department of English, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Dorothy Noyes, Department of English, Ohio State University

Deborah Kapchan, Director of the Center for Intercultural Studies in Folklore and Ethnomusicology, The University of Texas at Austin

Our colleagues in the Folklore faculty and graduate group:

Steve Feierman, Greg Urban, Barbie Zelizer, Bob St. George, Regina Bendix, Dan Ben-Amos, Janet Theophano, and Galit Hasan-Rokem, visiting professor during the spring semester from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

 
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