File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 8

Date: Sat, 10 May 2008 09:29:52 +0100
From: "Humanist Discussion Group \(by way of Willard McCarty              <>\)" <willard-AT-LISTS.VILLAGE.VIRGINIA.EDU>
Subject: 22.008 the fragility of boundaries
To: <humanist-AT-Princeton.EDU>

                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 8.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to:

         Date: Sat, 10 May 2008 08:54:07 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <>
         Subject: the fragility of boundaries

Somewhere Clifford Geertz observed that confrontation with
anthropological data has the disturbing tendency to unseat absolutes,
to relativize. So also, it seems, the study of folklore. In the case
of anthropology as Geertz saw it, the confrontation with things
outside our ken leads to radical questioning of whatever reality we
have inherited and taken to be cosmological. In the case of folklore
one source is the familiar anxiety over disciplinary boundaries: how
can one say what folklore is if saying what it is not proves
impossible? Another is the historical set of contingencies
responsible for the existence of the discipline. Thus Bruce Jackson,
in his Presidential Address to the American Folklore Society in
October 1984, "Things that from a long way off look like flies", begins:

 >FOLKLORE STUDIES, like any other kind of studies, don't just happen.
 >Fields of scholarship occur because specific technological and
 >economic and institutional resources are available and because
 >specific individuals utilize those resources in specific ways.
 >Whatever measure of intellectual or academic freedom we enjoy takes
 >place in a grid defined by pre-existent theoretical and social
 >models which we accept or with which we must contend, with machines
 >that help us deal in specific ways with the implications of those
 >models, and with rewards available to those of us who use both
 >models and machines in ways that seem valuable to the payers of
 >salaries and the givers of grants. (Journal of American Folklore,
 >98.388, 1985, p. 131)

Jackson looks enviously over his shaky disciplinary fence at the
folks in literary studies, who to him seem far more secure -- "the
objects of literary study are uniformly and equally available; we can
all buy a copy or travel to the library holding a copy of whatever it
is we wish to read", he declares, whereas folklore only exists to
those present, when it happens out somewhere "in the field". And out
there, he notes, the sense of having to make choices and construct
boundaries so as to be able to know what to collect can be overwhelming.

 >Once out of the field, we can see and hear only selected artifacts.
 >The observer forever defines and limits the text to which the rest
 >of us shall have access, and our access to the basic materials of
 >our discipline, therefore, is always secondary. Whenever our work
 >involves primary material reported to us by others, we are not
 >studying folklore so much as we are studying scholarly reports of
 >folklore.... We often pretend that our systems of classification are
 >derived from the raw facts of our research, and that our theoretical
 >models are in turn derived from our analysis of the systems. In
 >fact, the process works quite the other way around: we have our
 >models, and from them we derive our systems of classification. That
 >is why the systems of classification always make such perfect sense.
 >And it is why the facts we find fit our systems of classification so
 >well: the system tells us what bits of the world are facts and what
 >bits are inconsequential fluff or clutter. The difference between
 >meaningful and meaningless in any analytical context has to do only
 >with whether and how something fits the analytical structure-with
 >whether or not the analytical structure has a way to use the
 >information. (pp. 132f)

This sort of talk I'd suppose anathema to our knowledge engineers or
ontologists, especially because Jackson is talking not about high
culture, which derives its dizzying height from the brilliancies of
the creative imagination and consequent demands on sophisticated
interpretative abilities, but about the everyday, about what plain
folk do, out there in the field (which, as Jackson illustrates,
includes a polite dinner party). The manipulatory abilities of our
digital tools, too little exploited by those intent on building
monuments of scholarship, are of course just the thing to translate
anxious fragility of categories into amazing agility for categorizing
and re-categorizing raw material. That much is plain. But what about
the equally plain fact of the (truly) exponentially increasing volume
of data? The problem, it seems to me, is not the hermeneutic
nightmare of arbitrary, unjustifiable choice but the ease with which
evidence for just about anything may be found. As Northrop Frye used
to say, given enough data any statement can be connected with any
other statement. Now we actually have the data, at the push of that
lovely button.

Comments? (In any case, I do recommend you read Jackson's address,
which is to be found in JSTOR, blessed be its name.)


Bruce Jackson American Journal of Folklore 98-388 (1095):

Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Et sic in infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26). 


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