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?


Jeanne said...

I’d like to respond to your question because the answer I want to give is closely tied to an aspect of my paper topic for our class and to an aspect of my situation as a student of folklore studies. I have only very recently become aware of and involved with the study of folklore as a discipline. It wasn’t long ago that I was a civilian, just a year ago in fact. I was very interested in how human beings relate to one another, to ideas and to places, but I had not found a particular way of engaging with others about this interest. I think I had a strong connection to the idea of folklore but didn’t know that was the name for it. I found the folklore department at GMU by a process of elimination. In search of a community of people interested in a similar kind of study and conversation about humanity and culture I began browsing college catalogs. I looked for classes I thought were interesting and then looked at which departments were hosting those classes and the folklore department began to turn up more and more often.

I remember asking myself if “folklore studies” could possibly be what I was looking for and wondering what in the world folkore studies really was. I had heard of folklore and knew there were those who wrote about it; like Bruno Bettelheim, Maria Tatar, Robert Bly and Clarissa Pinkola Estes etc., but I thought they studied it more as modified classical mythology, philosophy or psychology, or even creative writing, and that one of those departments would probably be the best place to look for the kind of thinking I was interested in. What I found was that these rare and interesting authors were actually working at the outer fringes of those departments on what seemed to me to really belong at the heart of those departments. Or perhaps what they were working on was once the heart of those departments, but a heart that had been broken somehow and replaced with a more scientific and mechanical heart long ago. Having come up through the dry ranks of traditional disciplines they had emerged literally where they started, which was where I wanted to start. After studying this it seemed to me that their arrival at this very interesting beginning point didn’t do much to recommend the various departments they might have come up through except as a ground to move away from.

My point here is that it wasn’t easy for me to discover the study of folklore as a discipline. As I look back at my days of searching college catalogs I think I might have come to folklore studies sooner if I had seen folklore classes offered in more of the other departments at universities. Why didn’t I see more folklore classes as part of the medical curriculum, the political science curriculum, the mathematics or engineering curriculums, etc.? As I think back to my days of reading on my own I think I might have come to folklore studies sooner if more of the books I was reading had been reviewed by or introduced by folklorists. Finally, I think the times just needed to change, and they have changed.

The website Deb mentioned here is representative of the many ways an interest in “folkore” is showing up in the working world today. Today we know that the job is a means for making a living but it’s more than that too. Experience shows that what makes life at work interesting are the stories that are told about everything from the first interview to the kid’s graduation from college. In the days of the industrial revolution when one strong arm seemed as good as another, employees might have been content to make a living at work and a life at home, and employers might have been content to offer nothing more than a living wage. Maybe in more recent times the arm and heart had become so estranged that a way of making a living was rarely also, (even anywhere else – like at home), turning out to be a way of making a life. It looks to me as though the contributors to the Mac webpage, like the authors of those books I mentioned, have found their way through their academic departments or business environments, to the heart of something that makes a living into a life, and that’s the story I’m exploring in my paper.

I’m sorry I’ve gone on so long here. I just get carried away when it comes to responding to questions like this.

Kristina said...

I think we probably all encounter the public's perception of folklore from time to time. Think of all those times when people ask you what it is you do. Just last night I was explaining my thesis to someone and they asked the question, "Well what does that have to do with folklore?" I explained about personal narrative, etc and she actually seemed to catch on pretty quickly. Most of the time people are less ready to accept folklore as something connected with the modern world--it should be something historic and quaint.

My mother (who I love dearly) is finally starting to understand that folklore is still something very much alive, but is still a bit confused. A few weeks ago we saw an advertisement for a news segment on binge drinking on campuses and she asked me if that was a real problem. When I told her I didn't know she quickly said, "That might be a folklore!" Sigh. Back to the explanation that folklore does not mean "not true."

But the Mac site actually is really interesting, and gives me a bit of hope.