Monday, October 31, 2011

The past as past... or present?

    Sustainability thinking is present and future minded. The "uses of the past" in the present and future are many. That is the nature of applied work. As readers of this blog know, I'm interested in acoustic ecology, and in the place of sound in the biocultural evolution of life on this planet. As a historian I'm interested in the past as past--what it was like, for example, to live in the sound environment of a medieval French peasant. But as an applied ethnomusicologist I'm curious about that sound environment not only because I'm interested in the acoustic experiences of a French peasant in the past but because I want to know how understanding that sound environment might help us develop policy regarding sound in the present and future. Although it's a pleasurable thought experiment to imagine myself inside the world of Martin Guerre, I wouldn't want to dwell there.
    And what if I found a stringed musical instrument buried in a medieval French peasant's grave? My first questions, of course, would be how was it made, how was it played, what did it sound like, and how was it used? I might take measurements and see if I could construct an instrument very like it. (I would want to preserve the original for study, in its original state.) In that regard I am interested in the past as past. But when I begin to conjure up the medieval French sound world I am always comparing it with present-day soundscapes, just as I do when I read and imagine Thoreau's soundscape descriptions of Walden or a mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts farm.
    I began thinking about this in response to a series of talks on vernacular architecture as history, at the American Folklore Society conference a couple of weeks ago. In particular, Jerry Pocius and Thomas Carter both lamented present-day folklorists' lack of interest in doing folklore and architectural history, period, let alone doing it the way they did (and still do): take meticulous and accurate measurements, imagine what it was like to use these objects and live in these spaces, and use oral history as a way to get at the past as past (not as it bears on the present). Pocius and Carter attributed the problem to what I've called "the ethnographic turn" to interpretation in folklore (it was the same in ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology), a turn that emphasized synchronic studies, ethnographic presents. After the ethnographic turn, the past was important chiefly insofar as it illuminated the present.
    I suppose most North American folklorists contemplating the history of folklore would say that this ethnographic turn rescued folklore and finally gave it a subject, expressive culture, that was not disappearing (or had vanished) with peasant ways of  life. Folklore's preoccupation with the past as past seemed a problem to many American folklorists beginning in the 1960s. The University of California, Berkeley folklorist Alan Dundes famously wrote about the "devolutionary premise" in folklore studies, that folklore had always existed more fully in the past, when it was integrated into daily life; today what we have are fragments and survivals. Folklore, in other words, was always in a state of decay, disintegration, and devolution. Folklore was a disappearing subject, constantly receding, needing to be collected up and archived before it vanished entirely. The eminent folklorist Albert Lord, my friend and colleague from Harvard when I taught folklore at Tufts, represented this view well. On first learning that I studied folklore in the United States, he wondered aloud and only half-jokingly whether, without peasantry, there could be any folklore in the United States at all. What he meant was that it had degenerated; as an example he mentioned that the guslars (epic singers) that had been recorded in Chicago were incompetent in comparison to those he and his teacher Milman Parry had found in Yugoslavia forty years earlier.

    In the United States, our generation's answer to this devolutionary problem was to emphasize ethnography rather than history, to redefine folklore as expressive (aesthetic) culture, and to make new theoretical models from process and performance more than from genre and text. Yet for some folklorists this ethnographic turn made texts all the more important. It did for me; my fieldwork documentation in the 1970s and succeeding decades was even more meticulous than it had been, as I was interested in grounding theory in actual texts. Thinking of a text as any object of interpretation meant that one had, after all, to have an object before it could be interpreted; and it would be good to know that object as much and as carefully as one could. Hence the fieldwork; hence the measurements that had to come before the interpretation. 
    And now here were friends and colleagues of my own generation lamenting this ethnographic turn, wanting today's folklorists to understand history once more. As they indicted ethnography and fieldwork, I was puzzled. I'd always attributed the ethnographic turn to my generation's personal response to doing fieldwork, as we turned away from collecting and survey work and towards long-lasting relationships with the people whose expressive culture we were learning about, and whom we were learning from. I thought about Henry Glassie, sitting there in the audience, whose meticulous work on folk housing in Virginia had served as a model for Tom Carter, Jerry Pocius and many others. Glassie's Virginia work was not without theory, either; structuralist analysis, based on the binary oppositions that worked so well for Levi-Strauss, revealed the meanings of these vernacular structures. And yet, after completing this work, Glassie moved to rural Ireland and although he still made his meticulous measurements and wonderful drawings of buildings and other artifacts, the book he wrote based on his stay, Passing the Time in Ballymenone, drew most of its considerable power from the way he represented people, his new friends, telling stories of local history and making history meaningful in the present--and future.