Lectures at the Folklore Fellows’ Summer School 1997,
Lammi Research Station, University of Helsinki, Finland, July 15-29, 1997

In the opening lecture “Worlds Flowing into Each Other: Locality, Globalization and Problems of Comparison”, Professor Anna-Leena Siikala (Helsinki University) analyzed the discussion on modernity and globalization issues. How are tradition and traditional society understood? Is it possible to discern such basic cultural phases as premodern, modern, postmodern and post-traditional? What are the political dimensions in discussing the invention or revival of traditional society? The cultural meanings and mental structures that shape the authority and authenticity of different usages of traditions involve many aspects that cannot be explained merely as inventions of tradition or as imagined communities.

One important concept is ethnomimesis – the imitation of former culture, the creation of new combinations from existing elements, the use of a sort of “bricolage” technique. In discussing globalization, Siikala stated that the concepts of “global” and “local” are not opposites, but are rather formed in a process of mutual interaction. The question of how globalization influences local traditions may be inverted to produce the question of how locality influences the globalizing world. Research and research problems concerning the relationships between local and global deal with processes that cross-cut time frames and spatial zones. We are also dealing with processes in which marginality occupies a vital role, for example in creating new ethnicities, regions, and communities. This may be witnessed in Oceania, where local traditions are revitalized for use by cultural policy-makers, in processes transcending geographical borders and boundaries between traditional societies.

Oral traditions and problems of identity

Every collection and publication based on folklore involves various processes and strategies of ideologization. Such processes can be seen as the results of tensions between cultural meanings and social contexts – tensions between popular, literary and officially propagated tendencies. In his paper entitled “Humorous Narrative Between Political Criticism and Ideological Exploitation”, Professor Ulrich Marzolph (Göttingen, Germany) examined the ideological exploitation of the best-known hero of humorous narratives in the Muslim Near East, Nasreddin Hoca. Professor Marzolph’s basic question was: what happens to folklore when it is submitted to the tensions between the opposing forces of practice and criticism? The narratives about Nasreddin have been used in a “sanitized” form, as for example in Turkey, in order to define ethnic and national consciousness, and consequently they have undergone a process of filtering, cleansed of undesirable elements in order that it may represent the national character.

In his second lecture, “Identification Offers in Transnational Narrative”, Professor Marzolph had chosen four narratives from different genres in order to elucidate a set of opportunities which transnational narrative offers identification processes. There exist both specific, local narratives having a special meaning for the identity of a particular group, as well as national epics. By contrast, transnational narratives have considerable adaptability to different local circumstances. As an example, the romantic epic Hamza-Name has revealed a unique ability “to grow, to ramify, and to travel”, and Marzolph calls Hamza-Name an exemplary model of transnational narrative in the Islamic world. The popularity of the epic lies in the core values of the Islamic religion more than in any regional, ethnic or individual identification.

Professor emer. Lauri Honko (Turku University) presented a functional, representation-oriented conceptualization of epics in the lecture entitled “Epics and the Representations of Identity”. The traditional epics are tales of identity having a key importance for the self-definition of a cultural community. Honko explains: “Epics are great narratives about exemplars, originally performed by specialized singers as superstories which excel in length, power of expression and significance of content over other narratives and function as a source of identity representations in the traditional community or group receiving the epic.” Professor Honko also focused on the tension between global genres and their local forms. The majority of the genre terms used by folklorists are devised by researchers and are ideal-type concepts aimed at universal use – even a definition created solely on the basis of Homeric epics might become “another Eurocentric attempt toward globality”, – as Honko puts it. Any global definitions of epic should thus be checked against traditions outside Europe. Oral epics are, furthermore, often multigeneric, integrating a variety of genres into the dominant one. There are abundant examples of epic traditions in which diverse genres play an important role.

According to Professor John Miles Foley (University of Columbia, Missouri), no single theory concerning oral tradition has exclusive rights, since they are heuristic tools, with limitations and life-cycles. Professor Foley himself presented a composite theory for understanding oral poetry. His two lectures were entitled: “Reading Between the Signs: Tradition and Performance in Folklore”, and “Epics Heard and Epics Read”. As building blocks of his model, Foley has used contributions from Oral-Formulaic Theory (also called the Parry-Lord Theory), Ethnopoetics, and Performance Theory. The main three components of the composite theory are as follows: 1. Register, a marked variety of language, serving a particular social function, 2. Performance arena, in which the epic singer and the audience meet (not only a physical place, but also a frame that keys performance), and 3. Communicative economy, which refers to the result of using the assigned register within the “arena”. The theory of Immanent Art (as it is called by Foley) presents an interpretative model, a novel synthesis in the study of oral tradition.

Nationalism and globalization

Idealistic initiatives inspired an interest in folklore and thus generated wide-scale activity in the collecting of folklore materials in late 18th and 19th century Europe, in many cases for the purpose of making a case for the status of a nation-state in spe. Professor Diarmuid O’Giolláin offered an illustrative overview of theories on nationalism and the use of folklore in the nation-building process. The titles of his lectures were: “Folklore, Nation Building and the Creation of Collective Identities” and “Locating ‘the People’: Folklore and Popular Culture in the Late 20th Century”. The discipline of folklore arose in the period of emerging nationalism from an essentially modern perspective. Thus towards the end of the 19th century, national awakening, social mobility, the use of folklore – and as a consequence, education in the mother tongue – were in fact the road leading to modernity for many emerging nations.

It is true that in many cases, nation-states are comprised of more or less heterogeneous cultural, economic, linguistic, ethnic, and religious elements. Furthermore, it is necessary to keep in mind that nationalistic movements were (and are) developed and manifested in many different ways. O’Giolláin used the distinction made by Peter Alter between three kinds of nationalism: risorgimento nationalism (an example is the 19th century Italian movements), reform nationalism (examples given were Japan, Turkey, and also Egypt, Iran and China during the first half of this century) and integral nationalism (the known examples being fascist Italy and national-socialist Germany). The use of folklore in these processes has assumed distinct phenotypes at different times and in diverse types of communities and states around the world. O’Giolláin cited Garcia Canclini: “Folk or traditional cultural facts are today the multidetermined products of actors that are popular and hegemonic, peasant and urban, local, national, and transnational.”

The presentation given by acting Associate Professor Pertti J. Anttonen (Helsinki University) was well-suited to the general theme of the Summer School: “Folklore Theory in the Globalizing World”. “What is globalization?” was the first question of his paper. The terms “internationalization” and “universalization” often stand as synonyms for globalization: “internationalization” refers here to political relations between nations in multicultural processes, and “universalizing process” denotes expansion and global diffusion. Anttonen also discussed Ulf Hannerz’ scenario of the global homogenization of culture. Whatever scenario or term we use, globalization may be treated as a new period in modernity, as a “new trend” after postmodernism.

In discussing the problems of tradition and modernity, globalization as cultural dialectics and complexity, and the influence of globalization for the study of folklore, Anttonen treated several theories and concepts by, to name just a few, Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck, and Arjun Appadurai. Is tradition a dead body, or part of the modern? Perhaps we could say (modifying and somewhat correcting what Giddens has written about post-traditionality) that the conscious use of tradition in cultural life begins when modernity begins. The concept of deterritorialization means (as Appadurai understands the term): less locally specific territories, mass-migration, as well as the influence of high technology, computer networks bringing a new interconnectedness, a new kind of reflexivity. This may result in new dialectics between local and global processes. Anttonen concluded his lecture with a question: should we consider seriously the possibility that there really has been a transition in modern society from an unreflexive “traditional order” to “a reflexive modernity” with “reflexive traditionalization”?

Stigmatized and local Finnishness

The Ingrian Finns have for several centuries inhabited an area along the southern and eastern shores of the Gulf of Finland near St. Petersburg. Approximately 63,000 Ingrian Finns were evacuated to Finland in 1943-1944 , and after the war approximately 55,000 of them had to return to Soviet Union. Hunger, experiences in the prison camps, being scattered throughout Russia in an alien environment, and the long return to their home villages are the main themes of the life histories and oral autobiographies of the Ingrian Finns. Only some part of the Ingrians were able to return, and even then hardly ever to their original homes. Associate Professor Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhøj (Turku University) analyzed some of these life-histories in her paper “Life as Narrative. Ingrian Finns Tell About Their Vicissitudes”. These narratives are tales of suffering and survival, but they also tell of the importance of crucial symbols of identity: own language, religion, and the desire to return to one’s own village. Kaivola-Bregenhøj stresses the importance of one’s collective memory: “At the centre of the life story is not the individual, but a whole group of people. The ‘we’-narration speaks of a strong group identity – – ”

In this connection I should like to cite Walter Ong: “Everybody is saying everything to everyone through the mouth of the poet or the narrative performer.”

Professor Seppo Knuuttila (Joensuu University) had chosen a metaphoric title for his lecture: “Narrated Identity. Clues and Icebergs”. Knuuttila postulates that instead of being constantly concerned about what identity is and what the factors comprising it are, researchers should be interested in questions such as: How are expressions of identity localized in social and cultural interactions? What are the different dimensions and criteria for sameness and difference? How do individuals use the oral tradition as an argument for community identity and as types of speech creating identity? One answer is that locality appears to be constituted multi-dimensionally in various expressions and contexts, and different representations of local identity may be “correct”, although they are not similar in significance.

Is Finnishness a spoilt identity, and what can folklorists do if it is? – asked Associate Professor Satu Apo (Helsinki University) in her paper “Stigmatization of Finnishness – and How to Stop It”. Apo presented a long list of negative stereotypes (or stigmas) attached to the “typical” Finn: bad drinking habits, impoliteness, boorishness, seriousness, and she proposed that this stigmatization is associated with a problematic relationship to the agrarian background of the Finns. During the era of romantic nationalism the cultural elite reconstructed the nation’s history, verbal arts, and religion with the aid of folklore, but at the same time as they reached back to the glorious past, they overlooked the rural folk of their own period. The idealized members of the “folk” were “civilized” by associating them with European epithets of high culture: “Homer of the North”, “Finnish Mnemosyne”, or “Santa Maria Ingrica”. The efficiently executed process of modernization of Finland may also have led to the Finnish “low self-esteem”, since, as Apo stated, “The middle-class elite defined the focus of the transformation, the agrarian Finn, as the nearly total ‘Other’.”

Multicultural movements

According to Professor Torunn Selberg (Bergen University) the recently-emerged religions of the “New Age” form a multicultural religious market, consisting of a mixture of ideas collected from ancient and exotic traditions transplanted in new contexts. “New Age is neither a specific religion nor a distinct movement, but rather a loose designation of certain clusters of ideas, values, and activities, which appear across cultures”. There are many reasons for the emergence of these movements. In her paper “Ideas of the Past and the Construction of Tradition within New Religions”, Selberg saw links with consumerism and many other aspects of modern mentality, in the sense that tradition and modernity presuppose each other. The argument that “the unity and continuity of the world is lost” may, however, be interpreted as a typical postmodern impression, and the idea of the “New Age” global market as a sort of sacralized consumerism has very much to do with several other aspects of globalization, internationalization, or universalization, whichever term one prefers to use.

As Dr. Jawaharlal Handoo (Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore) stated in his paper “Mythic Paradigm and the Construction of Ideology”, it would not be easy to attempt to draw lines between the written and the oral traditions in India, since there exists a mutual interdependence between these traditions. There are also separate traditions in various strata of the society and also distinctive cultural heritages in different regions throughout the vast subcontinent. During the process by which the new nationalism emerged in India, ancient myths and epics were used in creating important cultural meanings, as truths of the past, suiting them to the new context. The great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were “paradigms” in reconstructing the cultural identity and the lost glorious past of the nation. The model of the Ramayana was preferred over the Mahabharata due to the fact that Rama, as a mythiical model of the just, pious and honest king was missing in Mahabharata. According to Handoo, Mahatma Gandhi and many others “followed in the footsteps of the mythic heroes, and mythic metaphor was an instrument of political and social ideology for redefining, in the modern social context, the role of a just king and his institutions”. Folk festivals such as Durga Puja and Holi are based on mythic metaphors, and they serve to symbolically reverse, albeit temporarily, the rigid barriers of social structure, kinship roles, and other hierarchies. These festivals are symbolic expressions of the social problems of Indian society, and this kind of expression “has provided the sanction of mythic past, mythic narrative, and mythic authenticity.”

Folklore theory and heritage politics

Professor Barbro Klein’s (SCASSS, Uppsala) presentations “Folklore and Ethnicity: Swedish Cases and Global Issues” and “Folklore, Migration, and Heritage Politics” were laden with important questions: What are cultural heritage, and heritage politics? What happens when people deterritorialized due to war and persecution attempt to reconstruct their heritage in a new environment? How do the second and third generations of immigrants select the elements which will constitute their important cultural heritage? There are a number of crucial aspects here. Cultural heritages are often symbolic remains of a past thus proclaimed by some collective as such. Cultural heritage is also something displayable, it has to be shown, made known, and people must want to save it, rescue it, or reclaim it for the future. One aspect of cultural heritage politics is, naturally, the educational one. The aspects of politics and power are always present in deciding what to take and what to leave: “The seemingly harmonious pluralism that folklorists have often presented to the world can hide oppression and racism.” There are, consequently, further questions: “Who decides what (foreign or native) traditions are good and exhibitable? How do we create heritage politics that are inclusive without hiding injustices, policies – – that are generous, but also capable of setting limits? Whose folklore are we protecting in what way from whom as well as for whom? Nation states? Indigenous groups? Unesco? The Disney Enterprises?” These are good questions, but at the moment, in the ebullience of multicultural processes, it is hard to find any explicit answers. However, as Professor Klein stressed, we as folklorists must keep posing them.

In her first presentation, “Localities and Gender Theories: Assessing the Present and Future of Folklore and Gender Theories in Different Local Cultural Contexts”, Professor Margaret Mills (University of Pennsylvania) offered a discussion of recent key works by feminist folklorists. The second paper was entitled “Recent Directions in Orality/Literacy Studies: Local Vernaculars, Ethnopoetics, and Ethnorhetorics in an International Perspective”. Professor Mills treated the model of the “great Divide” between orality and literacy (by Jack Goody, Walter Ong, and others). Referring to Ruth Finnegan and Brian Street, Mills stated that Ong’s concept of “pristine literacy”, as an opposite to “modern rationalism” or “literacy”, can be considered as an arbitrary ideological position, and even as a myth of modernism. The main challenge is, according to Mills, to find a way to compare the mutual relations of orality and literacy practices around the world, thus avoiding the danger of making overgeneralizations about habits of mind: “I think folklorists have a very central stake in the critique of the oral/literate dichotomy both for a fuller historical understanding of the long-standing, various interactions of local oral traditions with translocal documentary institutions, and also as we push forward our speculations about ‘folk-cultures’, about mechanisms of consensus building and community maintenance in the environment of global-to-local (and local-to-global) information flow and technological expansion.”


The use of local traditional cultures in the global arena (and vice-versa – the influences of globalization in local circumstances) is, quite naturally, a consequence of inevitable contemporary multicultural processes. Generally speaking, textualization or visualization of any content in any media is an interpretation, reconstruction (or recontextualization) of existing elements. The information is always focused, edited, commented, and exposed. As a result, the content of the cultural object or phenomenon is filtered through a complex set of strategies, including ideologization, conventionalization, insitutionalization, mythologization, and commercialization. These processes can be seen as a result of the tensions between cultural meanings and social contexts. There is nothing new or revolutionary in this statement, since cultural processes by their very nature always involve the adaptation of pre-existing elements to actual cultural (and political) circumstances.

Commercial institutions and transnational companies may focus on or expose particular folk cultures or specific elements of them in an unprecedented way. The present day transnational multicultural processes promoted by, for example, electronic high-tech media are problematic, since it is difficult to foresee the consequences of the new situation for local ethnocultural values and identities. During the colloquium “Ethnocultural Identity in Asia” I asked: “What is the role of these decontextualized and fragmentated cultural items in the world culture, or at the local level, e.g. in different parts of Asia?”

It would be naive to try to force traditional societies to preserve their cultural heritage in a “pure”, “original”, or “intact” form – the problems of authenticity, and particularily the question on what grounds an experience can be judged as authentic, is very hard to solve. It is evident, however, that the original meanings of cultural variation will be conventualized to a great extent, and the new wave of interest in ethnic cultures belongs – at least partly – to the domains of consumerism and tourism. But we should not close our ears to the refreshing echoes of spontaneous creation, artistic taste and skill.

Lauri Harvilahti
Secretary General,
Folklore Fellows’ Summer School 1997
(I would like to express my gratitude to Satu Lehtinen, M.A., and Airi Markkanen, M.A. for their help with the preparation of this report.)

(FFN 14, December 1997: 3-7)

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