Reports from the XIIth Congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research, Göttingen 1998

The organisers of the Göttingen congress reckoned that of the six themes chosen (everyday, future, gender, media, mentality, transcultural), “Narrating the Future” would be the focal one. But they were wrong: of the 200 or so papers presented in all, more than 80 had been submitted for the “Folk Narrative Research and Mentality” section. This does not, however, mean that the congress will go down in history as something of a breakthrough for folkloristic mentality research. We participants presumably thought that if our own papers did not fit naturally under any other, relatively clearly-defined heading, then they could undoubtedly be placed under the mentality umbrella. Previous congresses had witnessed a similar phenomenon with headings such as “worldview” and “identity”. And speaking of identity, it was noticeable that identity as a concept received surprisingly little attention at Göttingen, given that various interpretations of it are particularly topical subjects for debate among culture researchers in the social sciences at the moment.

Ulrich Marzolph and Ingrid Tomkowiak, both members of the Congress Organising Committee, must have been hard put to arrange the papers submitted for the mentality section into thematic groups and to spread them over the thirty panel sessions. Word has it that they first divided the papers into those addressing mentality as a concept or presenting research perspectives, and those mainly describing materials. In addition to this they had tried to place in dialogical proximity papers with geographical (national, local), temporal (epochal, periodic, synchronic) or thematic (character, sacred, belief and miracle, silence) points in common. Since the participants were, within the relatively well-devised timetables, further able to choose interesting combinations of papers in different rooms, the ground was (at least relatively) well prepared for the further development of folkloristic mentality research.

There seemed to be some degree of unspoken consensus that narratives and narration are focal channels and modes for expressing the cognitive, emotional and conative dimensions of popular ways of thinking. Not a single paper concentrated on outlining the theoretical or methodological problems of contemporary mentality research. By contrast, the history of mentality cropped up again and again, and this was also used in an attempt to define the conceptual field of mentality. The accounts of the traditions peculiar to different eras, regions and nations were thus placed in a dialogical relationship with the traditional approaches to the description of mentality. The most interesting paper from the methodological point of view was, I recall, the plenary paper by Klaus Roth entitled “Crossing Boundaries: The Translations and Cultural Adaptation of Folk Narratives”. In it Roth made a versatile analysis of the translation, comparison and comprehensibility of different cultural spheres and levels; for an investigation to be fruitful, there must be interaction between the various fields of knowledge. Recent mentality research has in the same way been addressing not only ontological questions but also the mutual and relative processing of the various concept components. Although the longue durée of mentalities is regarded as one of their main criteria, the mutual, shifting relationships between the various dimensions are from the interpretative point of view at least as informative as similarity and permanence. Particularly interesting in this respect were the papers by our Estonian, Slovakian, Hungarian and other colleagues debating the multiple levels at which social and cultural change takes place.

The school of mentality history of French influence has customarily been described as representing three-generation projects: the cultural-historical stage from the 1920s to the 1940s, the demographic-geographical stage (the Braudel era) from the 1940s onwards, and the transition to the anthropological stage in the 1970s. Era, region and locality were likewise focal variants in the Göttingen papers on mentality; the material slant was manifest possibly somewhat surprisingly as numerous references to AT numbers and as operative genre references. In a way Linda Dégh’s call for scholars to get “back to basics” was answered there and then, though there was some interesting debate in the halls and the corridors about what the “basics” actually mean in speaking of folkloristics.

The concept of mentality embraces not only time, place and identities, but also interpretations of modalities. The relationships between the necessary and the possible, doing and being, narrating and the narrated are thus enhanced. It is precisely these relations which elicited the most interesting individual papers in the mentality section, and at their best they admirably complemented one another (as in the case of the mentality panel no. 24: Bagheri, Mehri: “Communicational Narratives in the Persian National Epic”; Handoo, Jawaharlal: “Mythic Metaphor: Argument and Ideology”; Siikala, Anna-Leena: “Mythic Tradition and the Study of Mentality”). Articulation as a concept and practice linking together different forms of mentality would this time possibly have resulted in somewhat disjointed discussion of the use of mentalities, meaning and reference (Sinn und Bedeutung), even though they, too, are in a way modalities.

For as long as mentality continues to hold a substantial appeal for folklorists, it would be challenging to develop its theoretical (identity, modality) and methodological (articulation) dimensions. Many historians have little by little abandoned mentality research due, among other things, to the difficulty of understanding and the random nature of oral materials: microhistory is more exact. Hence the field has for some time now been empty and deserted. We might assume that since Göttingen a shift has begun to the fourth, folkloristic stage of mentality research. Let us hope that the process will continue, and that the topic will be discussed with better focus and more constructively in both Nairobi and Melbourne.

Seppo Knuuttila
University of Joensuu, Finland

(FFN 16, October 1998: 10-11)

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This