The International Museum of Folklore

February 13, 2015 § 6 Comments

In his Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History & Social Memory, Guy Beiner talks a lot about folklore in Connacht, the western-most Irish province.  This is where the failed 1798 French invasion took place, and Beiner attempts an archaeology of the folklore of the region in relation to the invasion and its relation to the wider 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.

I’ve never really worked in the realm of folklore, but I’ve always been fascinated by it, dating back to my undergrad years, though my profs were all insistent that folklore did not belong in a history class. In grad school, I read Ian McKaye’s book, The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, which was about the collection of Scots and Irish folklore, especially in Cape Breton by Helen Creighton and others in the early decades of the 20th century, around the same time that folklorists were running all over Ireland, England, Scotland, the United States, and various other countries, collecting the folk stories of the region.

Beiner argues that

It is often claimed that modernization struck a deathblow to ‘traditional’ oral culture.  Yet, developments in communication and information technologies also provided new media for the transmission and documentation of folklore.

Beiner goes on to discuss all the ways in which modern technology has aided in the collection and dissemination of traditional cultures and folklores.  But he is clearly overlooking the fact that modernization DID work to kill traditional oral culture, a point made brilliantly by Angela Bourke in her The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story.  This point is made all the more clearly by Keith Basso in his Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Languages Among the Western Apache.  Most of the events described by Basso, in terms of his ethnographic amongst the Western Apache of Arizona, take place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, yet his book was published in 1995.  In his epilogue, Basso notes the massive change that had come to the community of Cibecue in the fifteen years between his ethnographic work and the book, and what is clear is that modern technology and modern life was killing the traditional way of life for the Western Apache, and with that, traditional relations to the land and the ancestors, which came through in what could be called folklore.

Ireland was no different (nor was any other folk culture anywhere).  Modernization has worked to kill traditional oral culture.  And while the stories still exist, and we can sill read them and listen to story-tellers, the culture they describe no longer exists.  Folklore, through the very act of collection in the early 20th century, was made static and museumized.  It became something to be fetishized and studied, and ceased to be a living thing.

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§ 6 Responses to The International Museum of Folklore

  • Brian Bixby says:

    The folklore does become something else, since among other things it becomes static, as folklore. But does it sometimes still get put to similar uses? What does folklore do? Entertain, educate, pass along traditions. Sometimes it gets appropriated to do those things again, but as fiction, not as folklore.

  • johnberk says:

    Do we have to be scared about the possibility that the folklore and culture will slowly unite to a broader globalized consciousness? I don’t think so, but it is definitely interesting to observe its advance. This is why I would rather believe claims made by Beiner (which is not the point, of course). We are constantly changing our perception of reality. We have to learn from it rather than struggle to maintain the old and safe ways how to do things – instead of producing museumized and idealized versions of the past.

    • Good question. What I note from my sidelong glances at the folklore of Scandinavia, Germany, France, England, Ireland, and the modified folklore of European settlements in North America, as well as the folklore of indigenous North American cultures is the general similarities. If the stories vary, and they occasionally do, the values and morals of the stories do not, at least not all that much.

      However, I am not as excited about a globalized consciousness and culture, as this leads to homogenization, so that all our cultures look the same and the variances that once existed, whether of language or religion, etc. go away. That part I don’t find as much fun.

      • johnberk says:

        I believe you are not excited by the disappearance of diversity around the globe. But it is a fact. I would recommend you to check Robert Sapolsky’s lecture on Language. He talks in this lecture about the disappearance of the languages, which was predicted to be faster as the disappearance of ecosystems. He basically states that it is highly probable that in a very near future, only four languages will still exist. And if we take a language as a base for forming a particular independent culture, then we should assume that some kind of culture reduction to a series of globalized themes is inevitable.

      • I am familiar with the argument. I think Sapolsky’s argument is massively over-stated, and at the same time, I don’t see how homogenization of culture is a good thing.

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