Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The commonwealth of culture

    “The commonwealth of culture” was the title of the Fellows forum that I put together for the annual conference of the American Folklore Society, which took place in Providence in October, 2012. By  cultural commonwealth I refer to expressive culture as commons, as a shared resource—that kind of wealth, not material wealth. On that forum, as well as in my keynote at the cultural sustainability conference in Vermont last August, I spoke about expressive culture—that is, folklore—within the contemporary commons discourse, particularly the digital commons, copyright, and cultural rights.[1] Commons is a familiar topic for readers of this blog, but it is not familiar, yet, to folklorists even though they are now so occupied with cultural sustainability that they made it the official theme of their 2012 annual conference. The abstract I wrote for the forum on the commonwealth of culture read in part:
    “Although today we associate commonwealth with a political entity such as a state or nation, the original meaning was public welfare or general good. It has something in common with res communes, which in Roman law referred to those things which then could not be “captured” or owned, such as the oceans or air mantle. But in modern nations commonwealth has moved closer to res publicae, the Roman law term for a state-regulated public domain, such as fisheries and air travel flyways. Commonwealth is therefore allied with the notion of a cultural commons, the domain of ideas and performance which folklorists like to think of as a group’s expressive culture. Much in the air today are arguments over enclosures such as copyright that limit the free flow of ideas in the digital, cultural, and/or creative commons. Folklorists, who have a long history of considering culture as a common group possession, have a great deal to contribute to this discussion. Commons thinking is one means of theorizing folklore and cultural sustainability, and so each of the participants in this forum will address those issues briefly and in turn before we invite general discussion from the audience.”
    Altogether six folklorists, all Fellows of the American Folklore Society, spoke on the forum: Mary Hufford, Burt Feintuch, Dorothy Noyes, Nick Spitzer, Lee Haring, and myself. I won’t rehearse their presentations here, or my own. But I would like to expand a little on the idea of folklore, expressive culture, intangible cultural heritage—the competing synonyms today for that part of culture which folklorists claim to know something about—both in the context of the above abstract, and also in the context of what I said in my keynote at the Vermont conference on cultural sustainability.
    Folklorists, I told the group in Vermont, have had a longstanding concern with expressive culture as commons. The idea that folklore is a common resource goes back to very early conceptions of folklore as the expression of a group, not an individual. The author of a folksong, folktale, proverb was thought to be anonymous. The originator of folkways used in making barns, farm implements, crafts and decorative objects was unknown. Of course, someone must once have originated it, but over time the folklore was modified and improved as it passed from one person to the next and down through the generations until it became accepted as a common resource, “traditional” and rightfully shared.
    What folklorists can contribute to the discussion of a cultural commons, then, is based in part on this longstanding concern, where the advantages for a community of shared resources are plain: acceptance by, and accessibility to, anyone and everyone. Aesthetic satisfaction through community validation is yet another advantage. In my presentation for the AFS conference, I emphasized the legal aspects of cultural commonwealth, suggesting that the history of folklore studies lends weight to the argument that no one must “own” culture if we are going to be good stewards of it. Ironically, folklorists are very much involved today in international efforts (e.g., those by WIPO) to propertize culture in order to protect it. (See my blog entry on WIPO.) But thinking of culture as intellectual property, and thinking of groups as possessing cultural rights in this property, while it may seem attractive in the short run, is a losing strategy in the long term, for by putting a price on expressive culture it degrades and transforms it into commodity, thereby furthering the mistaken project of economic rationality.
    In my keynote at the Vermont conference I took the same position, exemplifying it through sound and “orality,” another longstanding concern of folklore studies. My plea that we manage the soundscape as an acoustic commons for all creatures derives in part from this concern with oral communication. But in folklore studies, orality has always been constructed in opposition to literacy, with the result that this distinction has shifted attention away from something I think is more fundamental, and that is how orality (or sound) is experienced as a medium in itself, directly through vibration linking one being to another. This model of sound communication, I argued in that keynote, as well as in the keynote talk I gave in May to the Association of Brazilian Ethnomusicologists, is a cornerstone in the construction of an environmental rationality that stands in opposition to neoliberalism.[2]
    I felt a proprietary interest at the AFS conference in their theme, for to my knowledge I was the first to apply the sustainability concept to folklore, delivering a paper on that topic with special reference to music cultures, at their 2006 conference, then organizing a panel on that subject there for the 2007 annual conference. The idea gained traction, and late in 2008 I received an invitation from Rory Turner to take part in a conference of folklorists and other culture workers at Goucher College, chiefly to advise him and other faculty and administrators about starting an MA program in cultural sustainability, something that they had begun work on earlier that year. In 2009 Goucher did establish the first degree program in that subject, with Turner as founder. Since 2010, when Goucher’s first class enrolled, their MA program has taken the lead in folklore’s commitment to cultural sustainability. Turner has worked effectively to promote the concept. As a result of all these efforts and the discipline’s receptivity to sustainability, its enshrinement as the theme of the 2012 AFS conference may be the first indication that cultural sustainability has become the new paradigm for public folklore.
    Cultural sustainability has come so far, so fast because public folklorists think it an improvement over the previous paradigm, cultural conservation, which ruled from the 1980s until now. Of course, sustainability and conservation have much in common, but they also are significantly different both in concept and history. I've been writing about those similarities and differences in an essay on music, sustainability, and resilience for the forthcoming Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, co-edited with Slovenian ethnomusicologist Svanibor Pettan, for Oxford University Press. This volume, with more than 20 contributors, has been inching along for the past five years and probably will not be published until 2015 at the earliest. I wouldn't be surprised if the idea of folklore as an expressive cultural commons also gained traction within the academic side of folklore studies.[3] As the anonymous proverb-turned-cliché puts it, time will tell.

[1] My keynote talk for the Vermont conference on cultural sustainability in August, 2012 may be downloaded as an mp3 file at

[2] My keynote talk for ABET in May, 2012 on "The Nature of Ecomusicology" was published in their journal, Music E Cultura, and may be downloaded at

[3] Anthony McCann's pioneering work in commons and enclosure has important implications for folklorists. See 

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