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Research Archives Events News

Gathering/Place: Folklore, Aesthetic Ecologies,
and the Public Domain


Session 1: Moving Folklore

Ana Cara, Amy Horowitz, Raquel Romberg, Amy Shuman
Discussant: John Szwed

Folklore performances occur at the site of cultural circulations. We explore the contours of cultural circulation when people, performances, and/or ideas travel separately--that is culture that moves, and we describe the ways that different genres are used to mobilize people and create cultural coalitions. Each of the panelists addresses the instabilities of cultural movements, whether as the creolizations or hybridities of cultural interaction, as the fragments or fetishes of disruption, displacement and relocalization, as claims for indigeneity, or as political protest.

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Session 2: Learning the Vernacular: Penn's Tradition in Public Folklore

Moderated by Nick Spitzer, with Robert Baron, Peggy Bulger, Steve Zeitlin.
Discussant: Debora Kodish

Graduates of Penn's Folklore Program discuss learning about community-based vernacular cultures and aesthetics at the University and how it has affected their practice as public scholars in government culture agencies, public radio and private non-profits. Over the last 40 years the Dept. of Folklore and Folklife at Penn has produced generations of students who have gone on to create highly regarded ethnographic writings, media documentaries, festival programs and museum exhibits in collaboration with a wide range of American cultural groups and traditional artists. Public folklore research and programs have created influential representations of community cultural expression as well as strategies for cultural conservation and theories of cultural creolization that have had a profound effect on public discourse in the humanities and human ecology, cultural equity and sustainable development. A public perspective increasingly shapes theory, practice and pedagogy in the study of folklore and vernacular culture.

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Session 3: Aesthetic Ecologies

Joann Bromberg, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Katharine Young
Discussant: Lee Haring

Different aspects of culture change at different rates. We, as folklorists, have been interested in the bits that change slowly, that hold out against the perceived rhythms of modernity and that thereby display an edge, a marked difference between themselves and the felt fluidity of the present. We occupy the present as instability and experience stability as the past. Stable things define themselves against the chronotope of the modern (to adopt Mikahil Bakhtin’s term for the merger of chronos and topos, space and time) as anachronisms or incongruities, events and objects that offer a resistance, stilled insurrections, objects under dust, as Nadia Seremetakis describes the things that have become immured in stillness, stubborn, crusty things that set themselves against the flow of everyday life. These objects and events are not, of course, static; they are arrhythmic. For that reason we perceive them as repositories of the past, as if in them, by them, time could be held still.

Our interest in difference, in archaism, in resistance and holding out, has distracted us from following folklore dissecting out into the matrix of the ordinary, fast folklore, folklore cutting to the quick. Context in folklore has more often been the stilled armature of tradition onto which the act or artifact in question has been mounted than the quick flux of phenomena within which it trembles. To say that folklore has an ecology is to register its fragility, its chemical flushes of responsiveness to an environment, its lithe tendrils infiltrating the body, space, and time, the broad history of its enmeshment in and disarticulation from the ordinary.

Aesthetics has at root to do, not only with an axiology of value, with the beautiful, with criteria of judgment and discernment, but more deeply with a phenomenology of pleasure, with the sensuous, with categories of experience and matters of taste, taste in the crude sense of tasting things, of devouring, incorporating, not in the prim bourgeois sense of discerning superiority. The word “aesthetics” comes from the Greek aisthetike, meaning sense perception. In tracing the filaments of folklore into the body, we are uncovering the habit pathways of the senses, the lures we follow into the world. Aesthetic ecologies pierce the body and pinion its parts to its worlds. Our job here is an anatomy of desire.

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Session 4: "The Environment is the Composition": Sites, Artifacts, and Structures of Feeling (Or, Folklore as Applied Kandinsky)

Anna Beresin, Suzanne MacAulay, Leslie Prosterman, Mary Hufford
Discussant: Bob St. George

Wassily Kandinsky's observation that "the environment is the composition" appears in the epigraph to John McDermott's germinal essay on aesthetic ecologies (see Resources). We seek to amplify McDermott's dialogue with Kandinsky through a conversation about aesthetic experience, social life, and the "environment." Harking back to Dell Hymes' notice of Blanche Tohet's appreciation for eels hanging on a line, and beyond that to John Dewey's focus on the "continuity of aesthetic experience with normal processes of living," we take up the most provocative of McDermott's arguments: that environment is an effect of how people feel about their situations, and that art and aesthetic experience engender/reproduce the social relationships that environments express, along with the feelings people have about their environs. What is the relationship between custom and positionings that are both social and geographic? How do art and aesthetic experience cultivate structures of feeling that lead people to care for (or despair for) their everyday settings?

McDermott argues that a primary difficulty with aesthetic ecologies is posed by the difference between rural settings, which are deeply mythologized, and urban settings, which he contends are not. He goes on to suggest that since urban settings are not mythologized in the way that rural settings are, they cannot provide the same kinds of experiences necessary to human growth. To provide such experiences, nature, like art, is sequestered into enclosures, sustained by structures of feeling that sever aesthetic experience from the processes of daily living. Failure to celebrate the settings for ordinary experience leads, McDermott argues, to conditions of deprivation. (In other words, the fault lies not in the stars, but in our arts!) In this vein, public folklorists have pointed out that the presence of folk arts in any community, rural or urban, is an indicator of community well-being. Examining Maori weaving technologies, an urban playground, the national mall, and Central Appalachian landform complexes, we ask how does folklore/custom/mythology cultivate the structures of feeling that sustain everyday settings both as networks of social relations and spaces of desire?

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Session 5: The Mother of Grace Club: Women, Vows, and Italian American Catholicism in Twenty-First-Century America

Leonard Norman Primiano, Joseph Sciorra, Kay Turner
Discussants: Joan Saverino and Maggie Kruesi

Working with professional photographer, Dana Salvo, we have been conducting an ethnography over the past year of the “Mother of Grace Club.” The Club represents an extraordinary social and religious alliance of Italian-American women from various generations who are primarily the wives of fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Having just returned from fieldwork within the community, our panel will begin with a slide presentation of their religious folkways as photographed by Mr. Salvo. These visuals will stimulate a discussion of the nexus of ethnic, occupational, aesthetic, and especially spiritual ecologies we see present in this environment of faith. We will especially center our attention on the women’s domestic traditions supported by the Club, including the elaborate home altars built in honor of St. Joseph, whose feast was recently celebrated on 19 March.

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