Wednesday, May 23, 2007

This is Your Life (and How you Tell it)

Calling all Folklorists:

This article from Sunday's New York Times addresses oral history and the life story in the context of psychotherapy. Yet another example of others re-creating the analytical work that we do. What do you think?

Published: May 22, 2007
NY Times

For more than a century, researchers have been trying to work out the raw ingredients that account for personality, the sweetness and neuroses that make Anna Anna, the sluggishness and sensitivity that make Andrew Andrew. They have largely ignored the first-person explanation — the life story that people themselves tell about who they are, and why.

Stories are stories, after all. The attractive stranger at the airport bar hears one version, the parole officer another, and the P.T.A. board gets something entirely different. Moreover, the tone, the lessons, even the facts in a life story can all shift in the changing light of a person’s mood, its major notes turning minor, its depths appearing shallow.

Yet in the past decade or so a handful of psychologists have argued that the quicksilver elements of personal narrative belong in any three-dimensional picture of personality. And a burst of new findings are now helping them make the case. Generous, civic-minded adults from diverse backgrounds tell life stories with very similar and telling features, studies find; so likewise do people who have overcome mental distress through psychotherapy.

Every American may be working on a screenplay, but we are also continually updating a treatment of our own life — and the way in which we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave, new studies find. By better understanding how life stories are built, this work suggests, people may be able to alter their own narrative, in small ways and perhaps large ones.

“When we first started studying life stories, people thought it was just idle curiosity — stories, isn’t that cool?” said Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of the 2006 book, “The Redemptive Self.” “Well, we find that these narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.”

Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent.

YouTube routines notwithstanding, most people do not begin to see themselves in the midst of a tale with a beginning, middle and eventual end until they are teenagers. “Younger kids see themselves in terms of broad, stable traits: ‘I like baseball but not soccer,’ ” said Kate McLean, a psychologist at the University of Toronto in Mississauga. “This meaning-making capability — to talk about growth, to explain what something says about who I am — develops across adolescence.”

Psychologists know what life stories look like when they are fully hatched, at least for some Americans. Over the years, Dr. McAdams and others have interviewed hundreds of men and women, most in their 30s and older.

During a standard life-story interview, people describe phases of their lives as if they were outlining chapters, from the sandlot years through adolescence and middle age. They also describe several crucial scenes in detail, including high points (the graduation speech, complete with verbal drum roll); low points (the college nervous breakdown, complete with the list of witnesses); and turning points. The entire two-hour session is recorded and transcribed.

In analyzing the texts, the researchers found strong correlations between the content of people’s current lives and the stories they tell. Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail. The pride of college graduation is spoiled when a friend makes a cutting remark. The wedding party was wonderful until the best man collapsed from drink. A note of disappointment seems to close each narrative phrase.

By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they say they felt singled out from very early in life — protected, even as others nearby suffered.

In broad outline, the researchers report, such tales express distinctly American cultural narratives, of emancipation or atonement, of Horatio Alger advancement, of epiphany and second chances. Depending on the person, the story itself might be nuanced or simplistic, powerfully dramatic or cloyingly pious. But the point is that the narrative themes are, as much as any other trait, driving factors in people’s behavior, the researchers say.

“We find that when it comes to the big choices people make — should I marry this person? should I take this job? should I move across the country? — they draw on these stories implicitly, whether they know they are working from them or not,” Dr. McAdams said.

Any life story is by definition a retrospective reconstruction, at least in part an outgrowth of native temperament. Yet the research so far suggests that people’s life stories are neither rigid nor wildly variable, but rather change gradually over time, in close tandem with meaningful life events.

Jonathan Adler, a researcher at Northwestern, has found that people’s accounts of their experiences in psychotherapy provide clues about the nature of their recovery. In a recent study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in January, Mr. Adler reported on 180 adults from the Chicago area who had recently completed a course of talk therapy. They sought treatment for things like depression, anxiety, marital problems and fear of flying, and spent months to years in therapy.

At some level, talk therapy has always been an exercise in replaying and reinterpreting each person’s unique life story. Yet Mr. Adler found that in fact those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being — who had recovered, by standard measures — told very similar tales about their experiences.

They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.

“The story is one of victorious battle: ‘I ended therapy because I could overcome this on my own,’ ” Mr. Adler said. Those in the study who scored lower on measures of psychological well-being were more likely to see their moods and behavior problems as a part of their own character, rather than as a villain to be defeated. To them, therapy was part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle.

The findings suggest that psychotherapy, when it is effective, gives people who are feeling helpless a sense of their own power, in effect altering their life story even as they work to disarm their own demons, Mr. Adler said.

Mental resilience relies in part on exactly this kind of autobiographical storytelling, moment to moment, when navigating life’s stings and sorrows. To better understand how stories are built in real time, researchers have recently studied how people recall vivid scenes from recent memory. They find that one important factor is the perspective people take when they revisit the scene — whether in the first person, or in the third person, as if they were watching themselves in a movie.

In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory, whether an argument or failed exam, when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students’ essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.

“What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you’re feeling upset,” instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study’s lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.

Taken together, these findings suggest a kind of give and take between life stories and individual memories, between the larger screenplay and the individual scenes. The way people replay and recast memories, day by day, deepens and reshapes their larger life story. And as it evolves, that larger story in turn colors the interpretation of the scenes.

Nic Weststrate, 23, a student living in Toronto, said he was able to reinterpret many of his most painful memories with more compassion after having come out as a gay man. He was very hard on himself, for instance, when at age 20 he misjudged a relationship with a friend who turned out to be straight.

He now sees the end of that relationship as both a painful lesson and part of a larger narrative. “I really had no meaningful story for my life then,” he said, “and I think if I had been open about being gay I might not have put myself in that position, and he probably wouldn’t have either.”

After coming out, he said: “I saw that there were other possibilities. I would be presenting myself openly to a gay audience, and just having a coherent story about who I am made a big difference. It affects how you see the past, but it also really affects your future.”

Psychologists have shown just how interpretations of memories can alter future behavior. In an experiment published in 2005, researchers had college students who described themselves as socially awkward in high school recall one of their most embarrassing moments. Half of the students reimagined the humiliation in the first person, and the other half pictured it in the third person.

Two clear differences emerged. Those who replayed the scene in the third person rated themselves as having changed significantly since high school — much more so than the first-person group did. The third-person perspective allowed people to reflect on the meaning of their social miscues, the authors suggest, and thus to perceive more psychological growth.

And their behavior changed, too. After completing the psychological questionnaires, each study participant spent time in a waiting room with another student, someone the research subject thought was taking part in the study. In fact the person was working for the research team, and secretly recorded the conversation between the pair, if any. This double agent had no idea which study participants had just relived a high school horror, and which had viewed theirs as a movie scene.

The recordings showed that members of the third-person group were much more sociable than the others. “They were more likely to initiate a conversation, after having perceived themselves as more changed,” said Lisa Libby, the lead author and a psychologist at Ohio State University. She added, “We think that feeling you have changed frees you up to behave as if you have; you think, ‘Wow, I’ve really made some progress’ and it gives you some real momentum.”

Dr. Libby and others have found that projecting future actions in the third person may also affect what people later do, as well. In another study, students who pictured themselves voting for president in the 2004 election, from a third-person perspective, were more likely to actually go to the polls than those imagining themselves casting votes in the first person.

The implications of these results for self-improvement, whether sticking to a diet or finishing a degree or a novel, are still unknown. Likewise, experts say, it is unclear whether such scene-making is more functional for some people, and some memories, than for others. And no one yet knows how fundamental personality factors, like neuroticism or extraversion, shape the content of life stories or their component scenes.

But the new research is giving narrative psychologists something they did not have before: a coherent story to tell. Seeing oneself as acting in a movie or a play is not merely fantasy or indulgence; it is fundamental to how people work out who it is they are, and may become.

“The idea that whoever appeared onstage would play not me but a character was central to imagining how to make the narrative: I would need to see myself from outside,” the writer Joan Didion has said of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her autobiographical play about mourning the death of her husband and her daughter. “I would need to locate the dissonance between the person I thought I was and the person other people saw.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Folklore process under a different name?

During the spring my graduate students and I read about the nature and history of folkloristics, and joined the debate about what constitutes folklore. This article from today's Washington Post addresses Jonathan Lethems's essay on "plagiarism" as a form of creativity. Lethem is enthralled by "the mysteries of authorship -- the idea that things arise in culture that don't quite belong to anyone."

Excuse me sir, but that's called folklore.

Take a look at the linked article. This is one of those moments when I believe the public folklorist should respond, to clarify and engage in the debate. And we should encourage Mr. Lethem to not use the sign that represents intellectual theft to describe the creative process of communities and groups. Calling it "plagiarism" is a shameless attempt to grab headlines (which of course, worked).

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sharing the Forum

Dear contributors,

I just wanted to let you know I have made a feed link to this blog from Facebook. So that anyone who visits it through Facebook knows the original writer of each post, you may want to include your names in the post. Seemed like a good idea to give the blog more exposure. I hope that was all right!


Sunday, April 29, 2007

Community folklore in changing communities

Today I performed (well briefly before injuring my foot and spending the rest of the afternoon sitting with my foot elevated and iced) at Belvedere Planation in Spotsylvania called "Take a Walk through out Past and into Our Future." The event was planned by Spotsylvania county and intended to showcase Spotsylvania's past. The reality is that it was a conglommeration of various reenactment groups representing the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Virginia Renaissance Faire. There was also a group of Native reenactors, although I'm not sure if they were representing a particular tribe or time in history. Ironically the Renn Faire was there to represent Spotsylvania's future as the county hopes to turn it into a tourism draw, it doesn't really have much to do with the county's past.

What caught my attention though was that all the staff from the plantation that I saw were Latinos. Judging by the carneceria, Latin grocery store, and "Se Habla Espanol" signs I saw, Spotsylvania, like many locales, has a growing Latino population. Latinos were nonexistant as patrons, however, and there were certainly no groups representing Latinos as part of the county's past or future.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with a man who ran a museum in Manasses; he said they were often criticized for not involving the local population in activities, but he was having a hard time gathering public interest in Civil War battlefields, because the demographics of the area had changed so much with the influx of immigrants. He didn't know how to interest the new community in a past that was not really thir own.

I'm wondering how this affects public sector folklorists--if you're struggling to maintain the cultural traditions of an area, what do you do when the population changes? How do you keep the community involved?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Authenticity and Value

In class on Monday we discussed Regina Bendix's book on authenticity, its relation to the commodification of culture, and its legitimizing powers, both for culture and for folklore as a discipline. I ran across an item on an arts e-marketing blog that touches on authenticity from a different angle. The blogger, Gene Carr, reported on a Poynter Institute study that said the following:
Live, documentary news photos -- photos of real people doing things in real time -- got more attention than staged photos. Studio or staged photos received little attention. [emphasis in original]
Carr encouraged marketers to use action, candid, or backstage images instead of publicity stills, adding that online,
"Authenticity is more important than almost anything else."

Why is that? Authenticity, or at least the perception of authenticity, clearly adds value. I think that for one thing, people want to feel knowledgeable, to feel like insiders. That includes getting a peek behind the slick, packaged images that we see everywhere. We like being able to know the difference between reality and virtuality. It's that eternal quest to be (or seem!) smart enough to get at the truth. More than that, however, maybe it's another way that we look for connection. We've talked in class about how folklore has been seen as an antidote to the alienation of the modern world, and that latching on to tradition - any tradition - simulates community and a sense of being grounded in time or place with other people.
Seeing a candid photo of an artist gives the illusion of really knowing him or her as a person, of being a part of that community (though this feeling is as artificial as the staged publicity photos). And it seems that this feeling of connection, of being one of the savvy few, adds value to a cultural experience.

What do you think?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

"He loves me..., He loves me not..."

“He loves me..., He loves me not…” Some thoughts on the authenticity issue.

I have not finished the reading for this week yet but I wanted to pull together a few thoughts on the authenticity issue as I understand (?) it at this point. Regina Bendix writes, of folklore studies at the turn of the century, that:

“The marginality of the field institutionally, however, sharply contrasts with the deep attraction of folklore across society, an attraction not least to be explained by the connections of folklore to diverging searches for authenticity. Ultimately, it may be the poorly verbalized spectrum of authenticity cravings, from the treasured to the spiritual, from the purifying to the existential, that have allowed for the subject’s maverick status.” (153)

As I was thinking about this I was reminded of that game we used to play as kids, you know the game where you pick a daisy and pluck off the petals one by one, chanting while plucking the first petal: “He loves me..” and, while plucking the next: “He loves me not…”, and so on, until all the petals have been plucked. The idea being that whichever of the statements coincides with the last petal plucked must in some secret way coincide with the way the other person feels. The poor flower, as we know when we are quite rational, cannot actually have anything to do with how someone feels about us, but love is not quite rational. It seems to me that there is an element of this lover’s perspective in the folk song collecting that was being done outside of the academy by people like the Lomaxs. There is a certain sincerity, a kind of emotional authenticity, to this way of plucking at culture. It is understandable even if it is destructive of both the flower (the songs) and of the beloved (the people), as both are supposedly joined in and to the lover by this process. Do you suppose that it was a matter of indifference to the singers that their songs were actually inspiring to those who came collecting?

Meanwhile the academics take a different look at the relationship. While acknowledging the emotional attraction (at least of the white race toward the customs and peoples of other races deemed, by them, to be somehow more authentic than their own) they strive to be more rational about the whole affair. I wonder if any studies have been done concerning the attraction of the “primitive” person to the cultures and articles of (or even to the individual) outsiders who come to study them. The academics want to question the beloved himself, to hear from his own mouth some profession of love or at least a confession to the fact that he has in fact plucked a daisy and chanted this chant as we once did, or would like to do, except that we know better now. Instead of asking if we are loved in return we ask to see the daisy field, and to watch the rituals, to record the chanting and photograph the whole process. Does this protect the beloved from our love while leaving him pure in his, or does it perhaps destroy his love while we somehow get to keep ours; by having renounced it in exchange for the privilege of collecting evidence of “belovedness” from others? I’m not sure Bendix will address these questions but I am looking forward to reading her next chapters.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Nomination and Name

Hi everyone,

I hope I’m doing this right. I’ve never created a blog before. I’m very sorry I missed our class tonight.

In light of our reading for the past week and in lieu of an opportunity to participate in discussion I wanted to share a few thoughts with you regarding the term “folklore” as a name for a subject, discipline and practice.

What happens if we consider “biology” alongside “folklore?” We can study biology and we can study folklore but we don’t usually think of biology as a thing in itself except as we think of it as a field of study. We don’t go out and collect biology as we do (or have thought we could do) with folklore. We do study the biology and folklore of various places and things. We understand that we are biological but, when it comes to folklore, we have thought that only some of us, sometimes, are “folklorical.” That seems to be changing with the shift in emphasis toward performance based studies.

I can understand the material importance of the debate over folklore as a name. Many people’s careers hinge on the field’s chances for funding at universities, and certain names, like folklore, can have a negative connotation. The authors we read for tonight point out the importance of folklore scholarship to other departments like anthropology, sociology and linguistics (and more recently to the business world) while folklore departments themselves seem to languish. Some of this languishing is attributable to the name but I wonder if the debate over the name improves this situation for university folklore departments. On one level I think it does. BKG quotes Raymond Williams on the value of explicating keywords not as a means of resolution but as a means of attaining an extra "edge of consciousness."

BKG concludes that the issue for folklore is “what our future might look like as a postdisciplinary formation informed by a distinctive intellectual history whose character we more fully embrace.” She says that: “As we bring that formation into focus, we will find its name.” I get the impression that she is saying we shouldn’t dwell on the name too much, that folklorists will do more for their field (whatever it ends up being called) if they get on with their work wherever they find it. She seems to be nominating folklore – not the name “folklore” but the entity – almost like nominating someone for office. From the perspective of the nominator the name of a candidate is not so significant as a belief in her abilities. If the candidate is a person named Folklore does she decide she can never be president because her name is odd? Does she have to change her name to get funding or to get elected? BKG seems to be saying that, if Folklore found herself nominated for president and got there by being who she is, she ought to consider her name but ultimately trust her nomination and look to her campaign. After all, her definition only exists, and is only going to continue to be effective, interactively.

I wonder if others read this the same way. I would be interested in hearing your perspectives if you have time to respond.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Film and Folklore

We've discussed the use of fairy tales and fairy tale themes in the movies in class. There are the Disney "classics" that forever cement one version of a tale in the collective minds of late modern consumers, and there are films that play with fairy tale genres to varying degrees. Julia Robert's Pretty Woman (Cinderella) is such an example.

In many of these films, the fairy tale references are very obvious or even commented upon by the the characters (Julia Robert's character does just that). I saw the DVD Just Like Heaven over the weekend, and I was surprised to find that this film is clearly an adaptation of Sleeping Beauty.

The film stars Reese Witherspoon (clearly the Beauty) and Mark Ruffalo, two people who need to be loved and saved from themselves. Sleeping Beauty is eventually awakened by Ruffalo's kiss, yet the film made no other direct references to the fairy tale. It is one of the best film adaptations of Beauty and the Beast that I have watched, however.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Folklore, Fairy Tales, and the Market

The link above will take you to a product promotion site by Caress body wash. They are promoting a new line of "exotic oil infusions," and to promote their products they've created fairy tale variants of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. There is even a link to upload your photo (and your prince charming!) so you, too, can be part of the Caress on-line fairy tale.

This is the use of folklore that would make Richard Dorson scream fakelore! It is an interesting use of fairy tale form, although there are too many puns and mixed metaphors. I particularly loathe Carson (of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy fame) as the "fairy" god mother.

Thanks, Christina, for bringing this site to my attention.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

One of the more interesting uses of folklore on the web is the site I have linked above, When I first came upon it, I thought it must be a mulit-topic site dedicated to occupational or workplace folklore. I was right, sort of. The site is actually subtitled "The Original Macintosh," and chronicles the development of Apple's original Macintosh computer through a number of stories and anecdotes about the process and the people who were involved.

The site is in some ways a surprise. The Mac founders get it in a way that most folklorists can tell you a lot of people do not: they seem to understand that folklore is linked with storytelling and storytelling is linked to people who share at least one common feature. Also surprising is that they decided to name their blog "" as opposed to any other number of names that might have been more accurate or precise to fit their site's content. MacLore, for instance, is the first thing that comes mind, but that would probably raise copyright and other issues.

Another cursory web search will show that the understandings of the term "folklore" are pretty broad, and in many cases, imprecise. For instance, the site Living Folklore is the business site for a company of the same name. The site does not offer much in the way of information about the organization, although it is clear that they have theatrical productions that include clowns. When i wrote to Jacob Devany about the groups connection to folklore, he responded saying,
Our connection to folklore is more traditional than academic, though we have a lot of academic viability. Clowns and tricksters are in every culture around the world, and often relate cultural wisdom through humor, metaphor. We came to our work as artists, performers because of the need to make the stories live through art. In that way we are participants in evolving culture, sharing it, etc. instead of looking at culture in a box like traditional academics often do. We picked the name Living Folklore to remind people that life is a story, and it is our responsibility to live that story with respect to past and future generations, and the web of life on earth. We felt that too many people are disconnected from the life-blood that stories and myths share about who we are.

There is a lot to consider in this statement. My first response is, "well, they must never have worked with folklorists in the field," as it has been a long time since folklorists looked at folklore as "culture in a box." But more importantly, it isn't clear from the site that Living Folklore (the organization) has much to do with folklore at all. They are a performing arts troupe, they do base their work on characters and motifs associated with folklore, and they do cite connections with Native American groups. Yet none of this is necessarily folklore--depending on how you define it.

My question this morning is, what are the associations of the word folklore for others, those "civilians" and others who have not dedicated their lives to the study of folklore? Should folklorists be more involved with the use of the term, and if so, how should we interface with the world, particularly those who feel a strong connection to the idea of folklore, but might not have a connection to folklore in its varied professional contexts?

Monday, April 2, 2007

Folklore on the Web

If you do a basic Google search on "folklore," you will hit thousands of websites, many of which are published by amateur folklorists. The content and quality of these sites vary greatly (like all web material), but if the web is any indication, there is more than a casual interest in folklore at the moment.

The result of one of these searches was the discovery of "Home Town Tales," a public access cable television show dedicated to folklore and stories of unexplained or bizarre events across the nation. The voice over at the start of the show rattles off a number of folklore genres with the slogan, "We call them Hometown Tales, because every town has one."

The shows are all brief,about 6 minutes in length, and appear to be filmed with hand held cameras and edited with lots of special effects to make the creepy stories seem a wee bit creepier, darker, and mysterious.

The Hometown Tales creators definitely document community folklore, as the episode below, "The Legend of La Llorona" demonstrates. What is missing here is context, particularly the fact that the Santa Fe legends presented are not the only location of the La Llorona legend, that there are many variants of this tale and that it originated in Mexico.

Nevertheless, Hometown Tales is one example of amateur folklore, or as I prefer to refer to it, folklore collected by the folk. The broader question I would like to pose here is how should professional folklorists respond to folklore by the folk? There is a move within public sector folklore to train community member to collect their own folklore. That level of collaboration empowers communities to make decisions about their traditions regarding what should be collected and preserved, which is (I believe) the heart of folklore scholarship. We are collaborators; the material belongs to the people who produce it.

But what of the web-based collections? Some of these are not necessarily community based projects collected from local insiders. Similarly, a number of folklore books written by non-folklorists effectively divorce the content from its creators.

I encourage you to take a look at, and comment upon, the "Legend of La Llorona" presented here.