Folklore, Narrative, and Vulnerability

For this meeting of the Modern Language Society, the American Folklore Society, as an allied organization, would like both to return to a traditional format for us at MLA, a kind of keynote session, but to re-imagine it within the newer formats. That is, we have asked Amy Shuman, a senior colleague with considerable experience and expertise in the understanding of narrative as both a form of text as well as a form of communication to address current issues in narrative studies from a folkloristic perspective. Our goal is to use her half-hour presentation as a starting point for a rich discussion, to be facilitated by John Laudun, for audience members. And so this session is neither one of formal presentations nor a workshop, but something in between where we hope to give audience members a substantive briefing from which we can launch a spirited conversation. Many members of MLA will also be familiar with Shuman’s work as a faculty member in this summer’s Project Narrative, being hosted at OSU, and about which she will also be able to report at the annual meeting in Chicago. This session is conceived as part of a broader dialogue on folklore’s contribution to narrative studies, and is thus twinned with the other session being put forward by AFS for this year’s meeting. We hope to maintain this theme for several years going forward, and thus our desire to use two sessions at the beginning of such an initiative to anchor our efforts for the years to come.

For folklorists, the study of narrative often begins with the question of what circulates (and what does not), in what conditions, by whom, to whom, and in what contexts. In the most familiar terms, folklorists have been concerned with narrative transmission within the larger framework of studying the transmission of traditions. However, placed in the framework of questions about collective memory (and the fact of conflicting accounts, lack of consensus, and failed memories), folkloristic approaches to narrative transmission confront issues of dialogic, contested, untellable narrations. And in this realm, folkloristic approaches are particularly relevant for a study of narrative and vulnerability.

In “Folklore, Narrative, and Vulnerability,” Amy Shuman argues that folklore sits at the intersection of several approaches to the study of narrative. That is, she observes, narrative research has several genealogies, trajectories, and/or significant reference points. For folklorists, Vladimir Propp, Roman Jakobson, and the many others who built on their work provide the foundations of formalist approaches, and these approaches intersect with some, but not all, of the formalist approaches used by literary narrative scholars. William Labov’s work similarly, provides a formal, structural approach to narrative scholarship developed by folklorists, anthropologists, and sociolinguists. Within folklore scholarship itself, attention to genre, context, and performance has provided an approach to narrative focused on interaction.

Shuman notes these trajectories not as a matter of history but instead to situate the folkloristic approach. Scholars from different disciplinary perspectives demonstrate surprisingly little awareness of the different approaches (with some exceptions, of course), and one purpose of this paper is to demonstrate productive intersections. To understand how narrative works and how people use narrative to negotiate meanings in their lives, she focuses on three levels of analysis. First, Shuman looks at the norms and conventions for telling narratives. How does a speaker claim the floor for an extended turn at talk? Who tells stories to whom about what? Second, she looks at narrative as one genre of communication within the repertoire of community resources for transmitting knowledge, ideas, interpretations, values, and perspectives. Third, she explores the idea of dominant narratives and counter-narratives in the shared cultural memory of a community.

Several scholars have addressed questions of narrative transmission, that is, how narratives are learned and passed on, and how narrative is a form of remembering. In addition to considering the interactive approach to narrative (Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps), Shuman reviews theories of narrative and memory, especially as relevant to collective community history including Alessandro Portelli’s research on post-World War II memories and studies of Appalachian communities, Kai Erikson’s studies of collective memory and trauma following a natural disaster that wiped out a community, and Pierre Nora’s discussions of memory and narrative.

The term “collective community memories” can be misleading as the narratives almost always contain conflicting accounts rather than consensus. Building on M.M. Bakhtin’s work, Shuman discusses the role of authoritative discourse and “dialogic narration” that takes into account the persistent and pervasive disputes involved in conflicting narrative. She considers Faye Ginsburg’s research on how communities negotiate conflicting narratives about highly contested political issues such as abortion as well as Edward Bruner and Phyllis Gorfain’s discussions of sustained tensions among narrative versions of an ancient historical event. Turning to Michael Jackson’s work on narrative, intersubjectivity, and the dialectic of the particular and the universal, Shuman returns to the question of how folkloristic understandings of narrative intersect with literary and sociolinguistic research but also, through the emphasis on performance and interaction, also turn to questions of the circulation and transmission of knowledge and values.

Because her research focuses on several dimensions of vulnerability, Shuman first considers the vulnerability of interaction in questions of who tells what to whom in narratives about everyday life. Second, she considers institutional contexts in which these questions have profound consequences; in particular, for the past ten years, Carol Bohmer and Shuman have been working with people applying for political asylum to help them to refashion their personal stories of trauma and escape into the stories that will be recognizable to the immigration officials who assess asylum applications. Third, she is interested in the problem of particular dominant narratives, specifically what are called “overcoming narratives” about people with disabilities and how these narratives are contested.

In other work, Shuman has suggested that narrative offers the false promise of making meaning out of chaos but that this promise, however false, remains compelling. A central goal of narrative scholarship is to address these limits, which can also be understood in terms of narrative and vulnerability.

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