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).

1 comment:

Erica said...

Throughout most of this article, it was hard for me to find an appropriate place for the word. It was not until he admitted this:

It's a provocation for me to be using the word 'plagiarism' the way I do," Lethem says, "and you could argue that I'm damaging its usual, more precise function." Employing it was "a way to get attention."

...that I realized why. I agree that he treads on dangerous ground by employing the word in this manner.

On the other hand, while he presents some interesting examples of his "shared cultural creativity," he could have done so much more to advance the idea...or rather, a folklorist could have. And without the use of a word that is entirely misleading.

It does not seem, though, that he would care enough to go to the trouble to study such phenomenon. His argument is about the artistic convenience of not trying to reinvent the narrative wheel every time he sits down to write.

I think it is admirable for an artist to be so creative, but also would wonder if he would be thorough enough if he were to approach the subject from a folkloristics perspective. If he's only interested in what he likes to borrow, then probably not.

It would be nice to see an article in response, however, that more thoroughly illuminated what he stumbled onto.