The Mother of Invention: On the Social Economy of Folklore
Current intergovernmental initiatives to protect traditional culture rely on a problematic conception of community creation. In their praiseworthy concern to empower local actors, UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organization are unintentionally giving institutional form to the ideological distinction between tradition and modernity. In earlier work I have compared folk process to the distributed innovation of open-source software, showing that the social base of folklore can also be described in network terms. Traditional and emergent creativity are not different in kind, and the real historical exception – or fiction – is the modern individual creator consecrated in intellectual property law.
In my time in Göttingen I will try to redefine the possible distinctiveness of traditional creativity. The celebrated “flexible network” of contemporary technological innovation is historically specific. The forms we call folklore emerge from relatively inflexible networks shaped by economic scarcity, political constraint, and an abundance of time. They undergo characteristic transformations of form and meaning as they begin to circulate in liberal markets. My book in progress describes the career of folklore genres as their social base is transformed. It also examines how that transformation is thematized in folklore forms themselves. Folktales and festivals encapsulate social reflection on the challenges of constraint and scarcity as well as the newer risks inherent in choice and abundance. Much of the record of European folklore dates from the incorporation of the peasant class into the nation-state and the industrial economy. The accumulated social learning in that record is worth reconsidering now that the limits of freedom and abundance have become apparent.
During my stay I look forward to continuing my collaboration with the DFG Interdisciplinary Working Group on Cultural Property, whose students and faculty have richly stimulated my thinking.
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