Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices

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9780812238419: Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices
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A folklorist and ethnographer who has written about the Southern Appalachians, African American communities in the United States, and the West Indies, Roger D. Abrahams goes up against the triviality barrier. Here he takes on the systematics of his own culture. He traces forms of mundane experience and the substrate of mutual understandings carried around as part of our own cultural longings and belongings.

Everyday Life explores the entire range of social gatherings, from chance encounters and casual conversations to well-rehearsed performances in theaters and stadiums. Abrahams ties the everyday to those more intense experiences of playful celebration and serious power displays and shows how these seemingly disparate entities are cut from the same cloth of human communication.

Abrahams explores the core components of everyday-ness, including aspects of sociability and goodwill, from jokes and stories to elaborate networks of organization, both formal and informal, in the workplace. He analyzes how the past enters our present through common experiences and attitudes, through our shared practices and their underlying values.

Everyday Life begins with the vernacular terms for "old talk" and offers an overview of the range of practices thought of as customary or traditional. Chapters are concerned directly with the terms for intense experiences, mostly forms of play and celebration but extending to riots and other forms of social and political resistance. Finally Abrahams addresses key terms that have recently come front and center in sociological discussions of culture in a global perspective, such as identity, ethnicity, creolization, and diaspora, thus taking on academic jargon words as they are introduced into vernacular discussions.

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About the Author:

Roger D. Abrahams is Hum Rosen Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author and editor of many books, including After Africa (with John Szwed), African Folktales: Traditional Stories of the Black World, African-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World, and Man-of-Words in the West Indies.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

A poetics of everyday life? Perhaps I mean a poeticizing of everyday practices, looking at vernacular culture as animated by our making and doing things with style. Our lives are replete with artifacts growing from our propensity to form groups through the creation of ways of speaking which give form to shared concerns and ideals. As Kenneth Burke has it, "There are no forms of art which are not forms of experience outside of art" (Burke 1931). But how do we sense, in common, when art is present, and use this state of being as a way of understanding our own cultural practices? The line between those practices which ask simply for our conscious attention and those which call for aesthetic or, at least, stylistic judgment can easily be confounded.

Richard Rorty describes this attempt to find whatever poetics there are in the vernacular and gives voice to its implicit assumptions.

A poeticized culture would be one which would not insist that we find the real wall behind the painted one, the real touchstones of truth as opposed to touchstones which are merely cultural artifacts. It would be a culture which, precisely by appreciating that all touchstones are artifacts, would take as its goal the creation of ever more various and multicolored artifacts. (Rorty 1989: 53-54)
We look for meanings, not behind our vernacular artifacts and interactions, but in them.

Edward Sapir, a poet as well as pioneer linguist, asserted that language itself constituted "the most significant and colossal work that the human spirit has evolved—nothing short of a finished form of expression for all communicable experience." Extolling its capacity to constantly reshape itself, he continues: "Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations" (Sapir 1921: 220). Yet, as any writer will attest, language yields up its artful power only grudgingly. For there are other selves with whom we hold constant conversations, selves who speak in tongues not entirely under anyone's personal control except the phantoms of these "unconscious generations." Studying other cultures from the perspective of our Western, Anglophonic tongue, we seek to familiarize ourselves with their keywords for life and art. Our own vernacular speech will bear up under such scrutiny as well.

This address to vernacular culture may appear as an abomination to those not enamored of "the near, the low, the common," as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in "The American Scholar": "the meal in the firkin, the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body." Emerson, like many speakers in the early American republic, saw New World vigor in the juxtaposition of the highest and the most common registers of the vernacular. The poetics of the vernacular begins with the ability of speakers to command the widest variety of ways of speaking, soaring high and digging deep with an understanding of the dynamic contrasts this code-switching animates. If freedom lies in the ability to make choices, dealing with vernacular life allows the whole ideal to be expressed within a single sentence, or represented in a representative object.

Keeping Company

This book considers the ways in which ordinary Americans keep company with one another, in casual and serious talk, at play, and in performance and celebration. It explores the entire range of social gatherings, from chance encounters and casual conversations to the heavily rehearsed shows found at theaters and stadiums, or in the more open venues of parades and festivals. It focuses not just on the ways we pull off our interactions, stylized or otherwise, but also on the vernacular terms we have developed in common to discuss and judge performances.

Central to this understanding is the presumption of goodwill that we make about how others will treat us. We presume that our gregariousness reveals a useful excess of feeling and that having a good talk is a palliative for any misunderstandings that arise. We have learned from experience that this friendliness is not necessarily shared; unfounded assumptions about our cultural commonalities can lead to social and political complications, especially in times of declared animosity. But the social compact is constituted by our talking with one another. With strangers and acquaintances alike, we act on the useful fiction that "talking it out" will lead to mutual understanding and the possibility of shared enjoyment. So this book explores not just our comfortable interactions with family and friends and the assumptions that underlie intimate acquaintance but also our naïveté and the high premium we pay for presuming the palliative powers of having a good talk, even an argument we can then talk through.

Although friendly conversation seems natural, it is, in fact, deeply cultural, providing a moral center for everyday communication. Certain terms of judgment underlie our discussions of the everyday. The appropriateness of what we say and do is often debated; an action may be judged playful by some and offensive by others. How studied should one be, and how do we judge going through the formalities? The degree of self-conscious agreement that we feel impelled to uphold is itself revealing of the tensions that swarm beneath the surface of our interactions. Equally important for the purposes of this book, conversation conducted under the sign of friendliness provides a baseline against which other ways of speaking may be judged. Consider the implications of the ubiquitous idea that when people sit down and talk together, our common human concerns can be relied upon to encourage agreement. Even if disagreement enters this terrain, it can fuel the sense of achievement when, at last, consensus is reached.

This analysis of expressive interaction starts with the commonsense view that we are our own best interpreters and addresses the entire range of communicative acts through the terms we use to describe them ourselves. The rich resources of our everyday vernacular speech enable us to use words and gestures from the past as models for social interaction in the present. As a folklorist, I have catalogued the conversational repertoire we have inherited from our elders and forebears that we presume ties us together morally and serves to repair relationships. In the simple forms of vernacular expression, the proverbs we invoke and the jokes we tell, we see the elementary tactics of using the past to resolve problems in the present. These memorable, fixed phrases come to mind habitually, but they are far from simple when we attend to how they are deployed in daily interaction.

To the extent that we repeat one another's lines and go on to tell our life stories when encouraged by others, we purvey such fictions as our interpretation of what "really" happened at some point of passage in our lives. As we attempt to craft and recraft our identities, the stories we tell on ourselves stake out our place whenever we choose to be sociable. To call this "self-fashioning" sounds a bit theatrical, but having so many choices and making them for ourselves calls for a good deal of anxious self-examination. Ironically, in engaging in the presentation of self, we make our choices more self-consciously. We transform our experiences into retellable and interpretable tales and turn our interactions with others into performances. Reducing the flow of life to story and performance carries a myriad of discontents. We attain a generic sense of order and common understanding, but we amplify the subjunctive while subduing the declarative side of life. We become conscious of how crafted our lives have become, and objectifying ourselves makes our lives seem awfully predicable. Freeze-framing social interaction helps us to interpret its possible meanings, but we lose the freedom and unselfconsciousness of the spontaneous play we enjoyed when we were children. Here the machinery of nostalgia kicks in.

In searching for ourselves amid the shifting scenes of daily life, and especially as we seek to alleviate the anxiety and depression that arise from facing personal losses or foreclosed possibilities, the everyday becomes a constant search for what goes by the term identity. How can one achieve identity in a world that promises an infinity of choices and then takes them away? In the worse case, we alienate ourselves from our own lives. So we live for those moments in which we lose ourselves, giving over to the flow of the occasion and experiencing the delights of letting go. We seek to merge our all-too-limited selves with some larger group of celebrants and to escape the constraints of our daily existence by plunging into in the seemingly unbounded possibilities offered by theater, rituals, and festivals.

I am continually amazed by the creativity and diversity of people's disposition to play, sing, and dance to one another as they introduce festivity into their lives. Such celebrations are not as separate from the social relations of common life as they may seem, despite their being set off in special times and places. Rituals and festivals constitute and renew social groups. Power is asserted, parodied, overturned, and ritually reconfirmed through such customary practices. In the past, social relations were enacted, even embodied in rough and popular or royal and spectacular enactments: parades and processions, court proceedings, mock hangings, and ritualized shamings. The depth of historical memory conveyed in such high-energy performances as Carnival and Mardi Gras enters into the present as different cultural groups assert and renegotiate their places on a transnational stage.

The seasonal celebrations once observed by custom have now become spectacular programmed events. Communal rituals that historically were embedded in common work and that satirized, subverted, and reinscribed social relations have become large-scale, more tightly scheduled and framed, even commodified events. The pleasures of good work have been ceded to good times, the focused intensity of play and the periodic high times of festive occasions. In the more public forms of communal celebration, the threat that those on the bottom of the social hierarchy or on the margins of the dominant culture might overturn or invade and transform the prevailing order has been deliberately contained. And yet, as close examination of patterns of global circulation reveals, the possibility of transformation is constantly renewed. Situating performances within unstable relations of power yields new insights into contemporary circumstances. As previous national boundaries are eroded, we have become ever more concerned with the flow of power that accompanies "development" and more aware of the moral and political questions arising from the uneven and unstable distribution of agency and responsibility.

The Poetics and Politics of Common Culture

This approach to traditional forms of expressive culture begins with rhetorical analysis of the smallest, most gnomic of folklore forms. Drawing on Kenneth Burke's ideas and the literary techniques of text analysis, this project pursues folklore texts across contexts and parses the ways in which they are constructed, either through borrowing from past usage or by adhering to the pattern of expectations defined by a genre. These simple forms (einfache formen) are organized according to their constituent elements and the situations in which they are employed.

Folklore materials are treated here not only in terms of their traditional origin and dissemination but with special address to their everyday usage in living contexts. Once the body of traditional expression is organized in such a way that the relationships among the simple forms can be sketched in, the ambiguity and intensity of play and other framed enactments invite attention. The simple forms employed in conversation pale in contrast to deeply focused games and the extended festival activities through which community is put into practice. So this study moves from more private interactions to ever more public modes of display and interrogates shared understandings of communal festivities. Situational and frame analysis are employed to account for this wider range of traditional presentations and representations.

Rendering folklore in written texts renders it stable enough for formal analysis, but takes away the sense of enthusiasm and enjoyment, even ecstasy observed in play and performance. Structuralist and sociolinguistic approaches to interpretation encompass other dimensions of these events as they unfold. Structuralism asks us to understand the meanings attributed to a performance from the perspective of the performers themselves, and ethnomethodological approaches enable us to bring observation closer to experience. In order to discover the terms by which both performers and audiences understand, explain, and evaluate what is taking place, this work scrutinizes our vernacular expressive system, treating common terms for play and celebration as worthy of exploration.

Viewing this project in relation to the development of the field clarifies not only the approach to folklore demonstrated here but also the contributions that folklore makes to the broader study of expressive culture. Ironically, just when text-oriented folkloristics began to lose its vigor, symbolic anthropology began applying the text as a metaphoric explanation for cultural enactments. Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, Erving Goffman, and many others began taking literary text production very seriously, often using such New Critical terms as metaphor, ambiguity, and authorial to define their own projects (Geertz 1983: 4-9). Then all of the ethnographic disciplines entered into the postmodern project of examining the cultural filters provided us by texts and situational analyses of "Others." We were reminded of the unintended political uses to which our labors had been put and the ways in which official intervention and financing might have affected our perspectives. In the discipline of folklore, this self-examination emerged from the pressures placed by contemporary social and intellectual changes on the very idea of culture, community, and indigenous creativity implicit—and, sometimes, explicit—in the invention of "the folk" and the projection of the exotic "Other."

This self-consciousness, too, can productively be scrutinized if it is first anchored in our vernacular practices. Distinctions between real and fake, authentic and invented, natural and artificial abound in contemporary American culture, as in the discipline of folklore. These false dichotomies reveal that, despite what we experience as the fragmentation of our world, we continue to search for the sense of wholeness and connection that is inherent in any coherent worldview. The struggle to discover the real, the authentic, and the natural is often confused with the idea of folklore itself. Indeed, it has a long history in the discipline of folklore, as in other fields of the humanities and interpretive social sciences (Ben-Amos and Goldstein 1975; Ben-Amos 1984; Bendix 1997; Stewart 1991).

The folk was an invention by negation,...

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Book Description University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2005. Hardback. Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. A folklorist and ethnographer who has written about the Southern Appalachians, African American communities in the United States, and the West Indies, Roger D. Abrahams goes up against the triviality barrier. Here he takes on the systematics of his own culture. He traces forms of mundane experience and the substrate of mutual understandings carried around as part of our own cultural longings and belongings. Everyday Life explores the entire range of social gatherings, from chance encounters and casual conversations to well-rehearsed performances in theaters and stadiums. Abrahams ties the everyday to those more intense experiences of playful celebration and serious power displays and shows how these seemingly disparate entities are cut from the same cloth of human communication. Abrahams explores the core components of everyday-ness, including aspects of sociability and goodwill, from jokes and stories to elaborate networks of organization, both formal and informal, in the workplace. He analyzes how the past enters our present through common experiences and attitudes, through our shared practices and their underlying values. Everyday Life begins with the vernacular terms for old talk and offers an overview of the range of practices thought of as customary or traditional. Chapters are concerned directly with the terms for intense experiences, mostly forms of play and celebration but extending to riots and other forms of social and political resistance. Finally Abrahams addresses key terms that have recently come front and center in sociological discussions of culture in a global perspective, such as identity, ethnicity, creolization, and diaspora, thus taking on academic jargon words as they are introduced into vernacular discussions. Seller Inventory # AAJ9780812238419

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