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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Environmental Toxicity, Narrative Ecology, Perspectivism and a Sound Ecology: The 2018 AFS Conference


The annual conference of the American Folklore Society took place in Buffalo, New York last week. It is always good to connect and re-connect with folklorist friends and colleagues in person, especially now that I’ve fully retired and don’t see the students and my friends and colleagues at Brown on a daily basis anymore. Of course I connect via email, but the internet doesn’t provide anywhere near the same feeling of presence that in-person does. For folklorists this is felt especially strongly because one of the best definitions of folklore was Dan Ben-Amos’ in the 1970s as “artistic communication in small groups” that were present face-to-face. Besides, presence by means of sound plays a very important role in my developing theory of a sound ecology. 

I went to a number of presentations, especially those where folklore is shading over now into the environmental humanities, and activists are increasingly concerned with ecojustice. I was present at the founding meeting of the folklore and science section, a group of folklorists interested in the interface between the two areas. And I presented on a panel called “Sensate Worlds,” in which four of us in turn summarized our research in areas related to folklore and sense perception. 

Several panels were devoted to folklore, oral history and environmental toxicity. They took up the question I addressed in my Yoder Lecture last year; namely, how can folklorists, whose skills in interpreting life stories of so-called ordinary citizens have been well developed, contribute to society’s recognition and amelioration of the environmental damage that unfairly targets rural areas and disadvantaged populations? The flood waters from Hurricane Florence only weeks ago released many tons of toxic metals, including mercury, in the coal mining waste into the Cape Fear River. It’s been an open secret that the mining corporations that blast off the tops of mountains and the electric utilities that burn coal store this waste in vulnerable sites. The Obama Administration strengthened regulations of coal waste storage, but under the current Administration the EPA has relaxed these (and other) regulations, and the resulting harm was far worse than it otherwise might have been. One panelist addressed the environmental and human health impacts of fracking in eastern Ohio, through interviews with farmers whose land and water was poisoned. Stories like this have been in the news, but folklorist activists have long-term listening and policy-influencing skills in the public arena that journalists who report on fracking and other environmental impacts do not. It’s heartening to see folklorists move back, after decades of work inside academia adding to the storehouse of knowledge, and decades of work in the public sector celebrating the diversity of community folk arts, into the activism that characterized folklore in the US during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This activism fell victim to the mobilization for World War II and the fear of Nazism and Communism after the War, accompanied by a nativist turn, the HUAC hearings, and a retreat among folklorists to the safety of the ivory tower. Today’s nativism, however, is resulting in the feeling that this is not normal, and among folklorists as others who celebrate cultural diversity, it is a time to resist. 

The “Sensate Worlds” panel brought me together with Danille Patterson (who organized it as part of her folklore and science initiative), Mary Hufford, and John McDowell. All of us had participated in the groundbreaking folklore and environmental humanities panels that ran throughout an entire day at the meetings two years ago; and John was one of the organizers of the DERT (Diverse Environmental Research Team) group of folklorists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists and ecomusicologists who got together in the spring of 2016 (I could not attend on account of knee surgery) and who will be bringing out a book edited by John and the other founders sometime next year, we hope. Mary has been pursuing several research projects simultaneously; she presented here on her “narrative ecology” project, linking it with the senses, phenomenology, and Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh of sensibility” theory. Like me, Mary is especially interested in the natural environment; and for more than 25 years she has been studying the ways people tell stores about environmental history and change as it impacts various named places, particularly in Appalachian West Virginia, with a time depth going back to pre-European contact. John’s presentation was both an acknowledgment and critique of de Castro’s perspectivism, a theory of New World native Americans’ ideas about the relations of humans with plants and animals that is far more sophisticated than anthropological theories of animism. As we increasingly recognize that we are in a post-human era, with a relation to the environment that can no longer be exploitative, indigenous perspectivism offers a possible pathway to a new and healthier relationship to nature. Is the Western world ready to learn from our Native brothers and sisters at last? Danille spoke about how the use of the senses (especially smell, and of course taste) was an integral part of cooking as revealed by cookbooks prior to the scientific revolution wtih recipes ushered in by Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School, where precise measurements and ingredients and directions largely supplanted the uses of the senses along with less precise indications of the amount of ingredients along with more general directions. This scientific revolution in cooking occurred in the late 1800s, and I believe it ushered in a trend that peaked in the mid-20th century with its gleamingly modern, clean kitchens and grade-school classes in home economics. My own presentation represented a small portion of my sound ecology project and asked whether a phenomenological approach to animal sound communication would yield information and insights. I described recent research in the field of ecological psychology, specifically the so-called phenomenological proposal theorizing direct social perception and direct perception empathy, and in the area of mirror neurons that, combined with a phenomenology of umwelt and affordances offered a way of thinking about the expressive culture of nonhuman animals in their own terms.

In one way or another, all four of us were working at the interfaces of folklore and science. It might not seem as if John’s work with perspectivism did so, but consider that indigenous ecological knowledge does what Western science does in offering an explanation of nature and a means of prediction and, to some extent, control. The inaugural meeting of the folklore and science section revealed quite a variety of interests, matching the four of ours and extending them in various directions. It will be exciting to see how this develops. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t close by mentioning a supper and reunion that I had with some of the graduates of Brown’s doctoral program in ethnomusicology: Cliff Murphy, now head of the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts; Bradley Hanson, now the Tennessee state folklorist; and Maureen Loughran, deputy director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, in Manhattan, New York. We spoke about old times at Brown, and about new concerns. Each of them has their PhD in ethnomusicology and each is working in the field of public folklore, where ethnomusicologists have contributed mightily since, well, the 1970s as far as I know. It was in 1976 when I had been teaching ethnomusicology for only two years (and folklore for five) that I worked as a public folklorist for the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, in Washington, DC, in its bicentennial gala year when the Festival ran all summer long, with seven different performance stages and seven more interpretive stages showcasing and celebrating the expressive cultural diversity of the traditional folk arts in the United States along with their counterparts in other nations.  
Big Joe Williams and friend at 1976 Smithsonian FAF.
Photograph by Jeff Todd Titon
So, for example, there were music performances and crafts demonstrations from the Franco-American and Cajun communities side by side with the same from Quebec and from France. The synergy was something to behold. I couldn’t have had a finer introduction to the joys and problems of public folklore. In the next two decades I served as a consultant and panelist and site visitor for the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts, and when I began directing the PhD program in ethnomusicology at Brown, I could not—and didn’t want to—avoid introducing students to public folklore as well as to applied ethnomusicology along with their education in the more standard academic subjects of fieldwork, ethnography and musical analysis. It’s gratifying to know that some of our graduates—these three are by no means all—have found satisfying careers as ethnomusicologists working in the field of public folklore, while others have found more traditional careers as college and university professors.