Cultural Transmission as Translation,
Exchange, and Reproduction


To respond to a Session Abstract, send your response to Brian Gregory, bgregory@sas.upenn.edu, and he will post it here.

FRIDAY, March 22, 2002
Session I Breakthrough into Technology

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Tweeters: Eric Miller, Steve Poizat-Newcomb
Woofers: John Szwed, Regina Bendix, Carol Muller

Chronic technological upheaval seems to produce "folklore" in its wake, along with a stream of constantly emerging ethical and practical issues for the folklorist. How is technology constitutive, socially and ontologically, of cultural forms or of mindsets? How is our position shaped and reshaped by technological change? How do we incorporate technology into habitus? Regina Bendix's call for ethnographies of technologies might be seen as taking a performance approach to material culture studies, as well as expanding their traditional purview.

What kinds of prostheses--means of extending ourselves into the world, toward others--and, conversely, what incorporations of the world into the self are implied in the examples on the Sounding Board: the sniffle-free CD, the musician who "came up through the cassette ranks," the Toelken tapes that remain undestroyed? What kind of Cyborg is the fieldworker?

The field's apparent reluctance to address technology should not surprise us (though as Steve Winick suggests, the conspicuous refusal of a minority probably distorts our perception of the ethnological panorama). Technological advance is not just a principal index of modernity in the master narrative, but marks historical change also in intimate experience: as Amies Horowitz and Shuman note, the introduction of new technologies is a principal means by which we parse time into "befores" and "afters." Folklore has usually been imagined as the "before" of familiarity -- in which we are the masters of our means -- to the "after" of a challenging new technology--when we imagine they master us. More recently, as Brian Gregory here observes, with the growth of late consumer capitalism we have seen folklore as emergent in the "afters" of new technologies -- the cars, cassette recorders, xerox machines, Internets, digital camera -- that empower and free us to express ourselves. This affective construction of technological binaries is itself a topic for the field.

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Session II Material Object, Cultural Form, Social Voice

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Tweeters: Rosina Miller, Brian Gregory
Woofers: Deborah Kapchan, Bob St. George, Steve Winick, Deb Shutika

The most perplexing boundary of the many in our field is the one between form and voice -- the reproducible cultural object, and the inalienable, irreducibly embodied subject who is the source of utterance. How do forms carry voice with them, and how many iterations or reappropriations does it take to shake it off? Objectifications -- literacy, heritage culture, etc. -- are often understood to suck the life from the interactions whence they derive, but then are felt to be haunted by that absence; at the same time, they lodge modes of practice in stable forms which can then be reanimated.

The linguistic ideology elaborated in seventeenth-century Protestantism and science imagined pure referential utterance, uncontaminated by an originating body: hence what Cara tells us of the condemnation of Baroque "excess" as racially and sexually tainted, blowsy, decadent -- form as body. Later, the Romantic notion of authenticity minimally restored the body in the notion of voice, identity-declaring utterance, but devalued form as mere vessel. Both of these formulations persist alongside a postmodern foregrounding of form, unmoored from either referent or voice.

Possession and habitation, two of the metaphors we've used here for the relationship between the subject and culture, imply a clear separability of the two without any commitment as to which is which. Is culture a thing that belongs to us? Are we the vessel through which culture speaks? Do we live inside culture, or it inside us? Absolute separability and absolute reversibility: what are we to do with this paradox of voice and form? Moreover, both metaphors declare the priority of the material world of objects and dwellings -- and ownership. Will the transformation of our material world into a "network society" of flows eventually make these questions meaningless?

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Session III Market and Exchange

Tweeters:David Samper, Soli Otero
Woofers: Ana Cara, Raquel Romberg, Amy Horowitz

As Roger's work has shown so compellingly, the marketplace bears on culture (both metaphorically and contingently) as a locus of the intermingling of cultural ideas and forms of exchange. In "Criolian Contagian," a paper he recently presented at OSU, Roger observed that "It is precisely in such environments charged with energy and moral compromise that creole genres of statement seem to arise most commonly." Terms for cultural processes deployed on the Sounding Board suggest that the market is indeed good to think with: borrowing, lending, exchange, fraud (Cantwell, citing Edmund Wilson), theft, "symbolic piracy, cannibalism, and poaching" (Romberg), and negotiation (Cara). In addition there are the metaphors of cultural commodification, social and cultural capital, and cultural brokerage, emerging in the context of market fluctuations on a global scale. The questions Roger raises about the relationship between the bourgeois ambivalence toward commerce/development and its fear of the cultural and racial melange achieved through creolization remain acute, as does Romberg's question about the social price (another market term) paid by white and colored Creoles for being "like but not quite" and the effort to keep "the public secret behind imitation away from public discussion." What can our understandings of creolization and hybridization bring to the study of cultural exchange in an emerging system of world markets and shadow economies?

As we consider the role of culture in global exchanges, we may want to query Bourdieus assumptions about the convertibility of cultural capital to other kinds, derived from the highly centralized, relatively stable French situation. But when the Caribbean populations described by Romberg lose their land and, often, their bodies and their labor, can we see much real power in their appropriation of the colonizers symbols? Or are the symbolic pirates simply, like Caliban, learning to curse? Mary Douglas long ago described the symbolic power of the marginal and residual. Today, the cultural visibility of, say, Africa and Latin America is increasing in an inverse relationship to their economic and political power. Is not the true slogan of global multiculturalism, Let them eat identity?

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Session IV Events and Emergence

Tweeters: Guillermo de los Reyes, Shannon Geary
Woofers: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbie Zelizer, Robert Cantwell

Distilling events out of experience, performances emerge as events in their own right. The Sounding Board registers a sampling of such events, some attributed to "metaforces" (Romberg, citing Comaroff and Comaroff, citing Silverstein) writ large (i.e. war, diaspora, natural disaster, electronic and cybernetic technologies), while others emerge in small but momentous encounters: the microphone entering the jazz idiom grafted onto the voice of Miles Davis (Szwed), the aporia opened in the wake of 9-11 (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett), tethered to spontaneous memorials in real and virtual space that forms a "space for. . .rebirth in the lives of real people" (Cantwell), the engendering through creolization ('Cara, Romberg) and digitization (Bendix, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett) of new styles and "expressive forms unlike anything the world has ever seen." (Cara, citing Walcott). In a recent conversation with students at Penn, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett asked, "How does the quotidian create an area that can't be touched?" -- one that is beyond the pale of instrumentalization and administration. Does performance itself protect the quotidian, frame it off?

After 9/11, many of us at a distance from that event worried, on the contrary, about how quickly genre filled up the silence. In the mediatic and political realms, established modes of representation and schemes of interpretation came back with a vengeance, as it were. Cantwell reminds us of Moses and his unrepresentable God, who destroys the golden calf. In Schoenberg's opera, Moses insists on "recognition," the I-thou encounter, as the only permissible mode of relationship between subjects and the numinous. But Aaron -- who today would have regular appearances on CNN -- says that the people need representations, and to a limited extent God agrees with him: while forbidding idolatry, God authorizes ventriloquism ("And thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do"). In the opera, Aaron adds, "Love will not weary of making images." Brian Gregory and BKG show us this: representations that yearn back towards the object, rather than seeking to bring it under control. These motivations are in tension with each other, but might both tend to resist listening to the event and so forestall new and perhaps necessary emergences?

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SATURDAY, March 23, 2002
Session V Voice, Attribution, Ventriloquism

Tweeters: Michael Murray and Cory Thorne
Woofers: Galit Hasan-Rokem, Chaim Noy, Mary Hufford

Ventriloquism, argues Hasan-Rokem, is a "garbed or even distorted voice," one directed though channels that conceal the speaking source. The metaphor of ventriloquism shifts the question of representation from "Who speaks for whom?" to "Who speaks through whom?" This question draws attention to the variety of positions and perspectives that may be taken up as a result of the detachability of voice from body, and even from the self that the voice ostensibly conveys. Voice, whether conveyed soundlessly in writing or wordlessly through music (Szwed), bears the stamp, the trace, the presence of inimitable personhood. How do we relate voice to self, and does this detachability imply, as Noyes asks, the possibility of an "authentic Self," one belonging to the "authentic mouth, forbidden to utter its speech?" (Hasan-Rokem). If folklorists are involved in the "unmasking of an ancient ventriloquism" (Hasan-Rokem), or of any ventriloquism what do we make of the capacity of voices to extend beyond the bodies and lifetimes of their sources? Among Israeli backpackers, the greeting "What is heard?" is a metadiscursive invitation to quotation (Noy). In responding, how do we situate ourselves along a flow of voices? Shuman and Horowitz suggest that it is part of the folklorist's ventriloquism to "inscribe the voices of our research associates within our academic presentations," and indeed the high incidence of citation in the posts illustrates their point. There's an ambiguity in quotation, wherein the speaker appears to be the ventriloquist, conjuring characters through whom she speaks as if it is they who speak, not she. But the possibility that others are speaking through the narrator is held out, that the narrator is constituting, as Noy suggests, a collective voice which hearers ratify as such. Is it actually possible in this mode to increase, as Briggs wrote, "the range and diversity of the voices that provide critical perspectives on discourse and social life?" In quotation, mimesis, copying, and other forms of appropriation, how does voice talk back?

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Session VI Habit, Emblem, Vernacular: Form and Community

Tweeters: Meltem Turköz and Anika Wilson
Woofers: Amy Shuman, Charles Briggs, Janet Theophano

Along with the extreme case of performance -- the explosive, multimodal, all-encompassing celebration -- Roger has also urged us to pay attention to the everyday: the habitual, untheorized, unmarked. Both ends of this performance continuum are frequently invoked as touchstones of community: the display event which broadcasts a collective identity as it creates it through performance, and the unspoken, taken-for-granted assumptions and procedures that create intimacy and a sense of natural belonging. This session asks us to consider these complementary means by which communities are made real to members, potential members, and others.

Communities are imagined, by definition, through forms. Such objectifications range from the compressed emblem into which community members may project themselves -- a flag or an icon -- to elaborate, self-reproducing apparatuses exercising multiple forms of control over community members, such as the state. As folklorists, we are most familiar with intermediate forms -- the festival, the historical narrative, the monument -- encouraging direct sensory and intellectual engagement between the imagined community and its members. In addition to providing a content for community, these genres turn networks of people who interact into communities by drawing a boundary around participants, reinforcing the interaction of those within and marking them as visibly distinct. The forms often survive their inhabitants, or remain available to be reanimated by periodic interaction even after their everyday surround has dissipated. Or, on the contrary, community forms may be externally imposed and so compelling presented as to foster everyday interactions in their midst and wake.

Habit, as Haring points out on the Sounding Board, is forgotten choice-or, in most cases, forgotten submission. Habit, as we know, is the mechanism by which ideology naturalizes itself. Habit is also where comfort is, and does not welcome disruption or scrutiny -- hence the uphill struggle of "political correctness" of all stripes.

Habit becomes visible through contrast: with neighbors whose habits differ from ours, or with the codified practices imposed by schooling and other institutional means. In the first case, habit becomes "ours" and forces "us" to name ourselves. In the second case, habit becomes "the vernacular" -- and a potential locus of resistance, but also of codification that will make it resemble what it resists. Do these two kinds of visibility differ in kind, or have similar effects on the reflexive awareness of participants? When habit is noticed, has it already changed?

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Session VII Wholes, Fragments, and the Folklorist

Tweeters: Kwali Farbes, Steve Reynolds
Woofers: Lee Haring, Dorry Noyes, Dan Ben-Amos

Lee Haring asks whether the translator/folklorist can sometimes see and articulate more clearly the coherence of a cultural production than its creator. The question raises a very practical issue: What is the value added by the folklorist, especially in an age of rampant autoethnography? Are we technical support, translators between local and academic idiom, codifiers who transform habit and practice into rules and norms, critics revealing hidden determinants, or something else? Are we, as both Lee and Regina suggest, fundamentally artisans, crafting well-formed objects out of more inchoate realities?

This session queries the office of the folklorist in the light of what Konrad Köstlin calls our "passion for the whole." It exists at multiple levels. We rely on the holistic method of ethnography to grasp the imagined totalities of culture or worldview or community or genre systems. In our practical engagements, we attempt to constitute whole cultures and polities out of residues, rumps, emergences. And here is our paradox: in pursuit of nostalgic or utopian visions of completeness, we are drawn in the present tense to just the opposite: evocative fragments that seem to invite us to complete them. Do we seek a power of making denied to us as participants in hegemonic systems? Or are we gleaners and recyclers by trade, seeking simply not to waste human energies?

The Sounding Board offers several examples of a third motivation: desire (cf. Cantwell's Ethnomimesis, a folklorist's "cover" of Aristophanes' speech in the Symposium). Folklorists and folk alike imagine compensatory wholes for the fragments they must live with. Brian Gregory talks of how the radio program and virtual shrines are not enough: people want to round out the sensorium through actual contact, bodily encounter. Deborah Kapchan's piece recalls the diasporic practice of locating people from one's village by humming particular tunes, and El-Gourd says "We are all leaves on the branches of Mother Africa" a striking image in that Africa itself is only branches, a part of something larger and deeper-rooted ("Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?" Yeats asked). Kapchan shows how the project of imagining wholes and articulating linkages between parts has taken on a global dimension -- which is also the intellectual task of critical regionalism, a project recently integrated with folklore studies by Mary Hufford. Given the recent overwhelming weight of "realism" in its political, economic, and technocratic versions, perhaps folklore's openness to desire has something new to teach the academy?

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