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Musical Chairs

October 16, 2010

This morning I attended a panel at the annual American Folklore Society conference about commercialization and re-contextualization of texts/artifacts.  One of the presentations was looking at the history of recording sessions in the US South, the most notable of which were the Bristol Sessions.   The presenter mentioned two different individuals who had transitioned from the furniture industry to the music industry, which struck me as an odd transition.  At the end of the presentation, I asked about the connection between furniture retail and the record industry.  The presenter explained that because the record players used in the 1920s were so large, they were sold as furniture, making a transition into the recording industry a fairly natural/common practice for furniture salesmen.  I feel the need to point out that I was apparently the only person in the room who did not know this already.  And I hope, dear readers, that you are, like me, newly enlightened with this information.

At any rate, I am intrigued by the idea of music as furniture in our lives.  When I look at the ways that my friends, my family, and myself use music, I see a multitude of similarities to home furnishings.  We use music for comfort and relaxation; we decorate with music; we use music as a way to tell other people about ourselves and our lives.  Music, like furniture, is defined as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ not by concrete forms of evaluation, but by the ethereal intersection of form and function–and even then, that evaluation is always subjective.

I think the popular genres of music throughout history can also be linked to popular furniture styles.  For example, the bean bag chair shared its 1970s popularity with Aerosmith, Deep Purple, and Jimi Hendrix; just listening to Hendrix conjures up images of smoking a joint and sinking into a formless polyester blob.  It’s equally unsurprising that people were sitting in chairs like this:

while Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner were at their respective peaks.

I am left wondering how my generation will leave its mark on the furniture world, based on our popular genres of music.  I’ve tried to come up with some examples.

Death metal:

Lady Gaga-esque pop music:

Techno/house music:

Hip Hop:

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Autism and Ableism

May 19, 2010

After a long week and busy weekend, I sat down last night to watch a movie and refuel my batteries.  I’d added a bunch of documentaries to my Netflix Instant queue, and I chose the first one I came to: Born Rich, which depicted the lives of several heirs and heiresses to enormous fortunes.  I made it through the first five minutes before deciding I needed to watch something better for the soul.  This turned out to be a very good decision.

I chose the next film I flipped to; The Horse Boy, directed by Michael O. Scott and produced by Rupert Isaacson.

The film documents Rupert’s family’s journey on horseback through Mongolia.  The purpose of the journey was to take Rupert’s son, Rowan, who was five year old at the time, to be treated by shamans for his autism.  Rowan had been suffering from extended tantrums, was emotionally isolated from his peers and family, and was resistant to toilet training, despite the best efforts of his parents and of medical professionals.

As Rowan got older and Western medicine continued to yield few results, Rowan’s parents noticed that he seemed to have a strong connection with animals, particularly the neighbor’s horse, Betsy.  The state of relaxation Rowan experienced with Betsy, and Rupert’s previous experiences with traditional healing in Africa led him to begin researching ways of combining horses with traditional healing for his son.  A few months later, the family of three was on a plane to Mongolia.

The Horse Boy is beautifully crafted as a documentary.  It’s honest, hopeful, and inquisitive.  But more importantly, I fell in love with the Isaacson family.  Rupert articulated ideas about autism that have been amorphously bouncing around in my mind for a while.

Why does autism have to mean the shutting down of everything?  Why couldn’t it be a gateway into adventure?  Maybe even a gateway into healing?

It’s the same argument I associate with anti-ableism in general.  People with autism don’t have anything ‘wrong’ with them.  That is, it’s not a problem to have autism.  It becomes a problem when individuals or situations require that an autistic person thinks like a neurotypical person. And without autism, global culture would be hurting for a number of creative innovations; my favorites include Pokemon, and some of the most spectacular pyrotechnics performances by the band Kiss.

Rupert is very careful to distinguish between ‘curing’ his son, and ‘healing’ him.  While Rowan’s autism is the cause of his tantrums and emotional isolation, it has also granted him his ability to connect with animals and accelerated learning in certain areas.  At one point, Rupert points out that he is a better father because of Rowan’s autism.  Rupert’s goal in taking Rowan to Mongolia was to ease the aspects of his autism that prevent him from communicating and connecting with people, not to ‘cure’ his autism.

With autism rates on the rise, I hope that the questions Rupert raises in The Horse Boy are met with honest answers, and that Rowan’s unique and triumphant story reaches those in need of hope.

“Let’s spin it”

April 8, 2010

Bess Lomax Hawes and Bob Eberlein’s 1968 documentary film Pizza Pizza Daddy-O is one of many early folklore films that has captivated me from the time I first saw it.  Only 18 minutes long, it depicts a group of African-American girls, aged roughly 7 to 10 years old, playing clapping and rhyming games on a playground.  Thanks to the good people at Folkstreams, it’s available streaming in its entirety here.

A disembodied (presumably Euro-American) voice gives a brief introduction, but overall, very little contextual information is offered.  The voice returns periodically to make the kind of statements that make modern ethnographers cringe, but for the most part, the film consists solely of the girls demonstrating the games.  All “text” and no “context” makes it a difficult film to analyze, since we don’t hear what the games mean from the girls themselves.  Not only does that approach reek of salvage folklore, it reinforces an oppressive system in which Euro-Americans determine the meaning of cultural practices that do not belong to them.  Even worse, without the filmmaker’s presence in the film, their positionality can only be inferred, obscuring the lines of authority.

So, like most (all?) ethnographies, it’s problematic.  But I find it somewhat hypnotic as well.  In an infinite universe, I like to imagine myself doing a follow-up film in which I manage to find these women, and they actually want to talk to me, and I find out what the games meant to them and what the documentary experience with Hawes was like.  There is one scene in particular that I’ve watched over and over again, wishing for a time machine to appear so I can go back in time and see it in real life.  Around 10 minutes, 50 seconds, the film cuts to a close-up on a girl leading a call-and-answer chant.  According to the film guide, the girl leading the chant had approached Hawes and asked to lead the next game (the only girl to do so).  Hawes had agreed, but when the girls begin the game, it becomes clear that the leader is “doing it wrong”.  One girl is particularly outspoken about the leader’s mistake, but another girl steps in and silences her.  The leader begins again, saying the chant the same way she did the first time.  This time, another girl (wearing a sweater) quietly says “that’s wrong”.  The rest of the group immediately turns on her and when the leader begins to cry, the girl in the sweater is shoved a number of times.  The film guide explains that girl the in the sweater was new to the school, and had apparently not caught on to “the tacit signals by which the players decided to support their leader even though she was wrong”.  It’s a pretty simple explanation for what appears to be a pretty complex interaction, and I’ve always wanted to know more.

Despite the narrator’s suggestion that these games were limited to African-American communities, they’re remarkably similar to the games I played with my friends in elementary school.  I presented a lecture on Pizza Pizza earlier this year, and almost all of the 130 students were familiar with this kind of play.  While the formations and rhythms were similar, I was particularly struck by how similar the content is.  Both the songs I sang and the songs in Pizza Pizza discuss the raw intimate details of life: sex, illness, birth, death, relationships, identity.  I think the structure of the games made it a safe environment in which to talk about things that we weren’t really ready to talk about yet.  The “Miss Susie” song, which is peppered with half-said curse words and innuendo, is a great example.   A quick Google search confirms that even some of the specific songs from the time of Pizza Pizza are remembered:

I’m taking a Video Fieldwork course this term, and the final project is to create a ten minute film.  I’ve been revisiting Pizza Pizza in preparation, and I think the main lesson I’ve come away with is that asking about what we should be asking about is more important than any of our own ideas.  To me, Pizza Pizza Daddy-O is a reminder of how much it is possible to learn from seemingly casual encounters, and of how easy it is to miss the most important information in the midst of collecting.

Going Global

April 5, 2010

As we all know, that dreaded blight, ‘civilization’, is rapidly reaching all the corners of the Earth.  Projects like Summit on the Summit demonstrate the new meaning of being “in touch”.  Social networking websites keep us in contact with co-workers and preschool best friends alike.  Computers allow us to categorize, filter, and wildly expand our social circles, so that we don’t have to remember all those birthdays on our own, or make multiple phone calls when a Tweet or status post will suffice.  This also means that we’re eliminating social boundaries.  We share personal information that would otherwise be limited to our close friends and family with acquaintances, coworkers, and friends of friends online.

Expanding social interaction has some promising aspects.  Technically, we’re all communicating more, and with more diverse groups of people.  Because the internet is, by nature, multi-vocal, the ease of access to information online encourages cultural understanding (at least in those cultures where internet access in the first place is viable).   Wikileaks and anonymous are just two examples of what can be accomplished when internet users work together.

But are we ready to take on the responsibility of globalization?  According to the writers over at Cracked.com, our brains might not even be capable of it.  It’s called the Monkeysphere, and it’s based on a study conducted by the University of Liverpool about the social structures of primates.  In summary,

The Monkeysphere is the group of people who each of us, using our monkeyish brains, are able to conceptualize as people. If the monkey scientists are monkey right, it’s physically impossible for this to be a number much larger than 150.  Most of us do not have room in our Monkeysphere for our friendly neighborhood sanitation worker. So, we don’t think of him as a person. We think of him as The Thing That Makes The Trash Go Away.”

Now, while this is an idea that may be somewhat unpleasant in daily practice, it’s long been accepted online.  When we interact with somebody in a virtual environment, we can pretend they are not a real person.  Nobody has embraced this concept more than the 4channers, as exemplified by Rules of the Internet #20 (Nothing is to be taken seriously), and #30 (There are no girls on the internet).  How are we to balance the massive social structures the web encourages us to build with our own tendency to objectify people we aren’t close to?

I think humans are more than capable of learning to treat strangers as individuals, even in a time when the definition of “stranger” is changing.  Most of our legal system supports this goal precisely.  But where our Monkeyspheres leave off, stereotypes pick up.  And we base our stereotypes on our beliefs, despite the fact that the people being stereotyped may or may not hold those same beliefs.  But without stereotypes, how do we make judgments about what is good or bad?  Without judgment, why do we need belief?  We are simply not capable of personally knowing every individual on the planet, despite living in a socio-political environment which requires some form of acknowledgment of billions more individuals than we are capable of.

I’m not sure if e-networking is going to be part of the problem or part of the solution.  Either way, it seems like a good idea to push the limits of our Monkeyspheres, online and in our daily lives.  Nice to meet you, individual reader, I’m The Thing That Makes Posts Appear On Folkloregonian.

The Wild West

April 1, 2010

Setting up this blog has been a huge learning experience for me.  The amount of tools and features that are available are hard to wrap my mind around, and I can’t believe how far blogging has come since my first Livejournal account eight years ago.  At school, web tools and electronic submissions are becoming more and more common.  A class I was in last term had two guest lecturers speak from another state via Skype.  Programs like Diigo and Evernote are being promoted and encouraged in the academic environment. It’s a different world than when I was a Freshman.

Instead of largely ignoring web technologies and cultures, the academic community (and the world at large) is taking on the task of organizing the internet.

Websites like KnowYourMeme.com are even closing in on the underground of the internet, making subcultural capital easily accessible.  Other websites like EncyclopediaDramatica and 4chan (google at your own risk) are being targeted by large corporations and federal governments for questionable content.  Users are demanding citations, references, and sources.  As Fark.com user “PrinceofFark” put it, “The Wild West days of the internet are coming to an end”.

Post-colonialism is a myth.  We are storming into the internet, pen and paper drawn, and imposing digital barbed wire.  Sure, we can only gain from programming that allows us easier access to information, just like the pioneers could only gain from slaughtering and relocating Native Americans, or early anthropologists could only gain from imposing themselves on foreign cultures. This is the devolution of folklore.  Of course I think the spread of child pornography, human trafficking, and extremely graphic imagery should be stopped, but it seems like the focus has been in all the wrong places.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, on the other hand, is only one of many organizations actively working to preserve net neutrality and inform internet users.  Despite a number of lawsuits, “anonymous” have become the unofficial vigilantes of the e-frontier, actively working against anybody who expresses an earnest opinion (as long as they give a good reaction).  So maybe there’s hope after all.  One thing is clear to me.  When we are overly eager to categorize new frontiers, we lose our ability to see the thing itself.

In the Beginning

April 1, 2010

Today I am precisely half-way through with the first week of my third term of graduate school, which isn’t much of a marker numerically, so more importantly, it is the day I started my academic blog!  I was an avid LiveJournal user in high school, and I’ve kept up with some LJ communities as a lurker.  While LJ is good fun, I was intrigued by the idea of an academic blog, and WordPress seemed to be the place for it.

I thought I would begin with some background.  I earned my bachelor’s in English at the University of Oregon, with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies.  I took an Intro to Folklore course as an undergraduate and fell in love.  I spent my last year as an undergrad finishing up my minor and earning a Folklore certificate.  While my undergrad work is a little embarrassing to read now, I gained a lot of experience researching and discussing folklore, and some limited experience with fieldwork.  The topic I researched most extensively was MTV’s Jackass as Bakhtinian carnival, although I also wrote research papers about the LJ community Brutal_Honesty, lolcats as memorials on Fark.com, mockery and consumption in zombie narratives, and vernacular religious belief in The Simpsons.

I’m also taking courses in Arts and Administration, and continuing with Gender Studies in addition to Folklore.  Arts and Admin has been a whole new world for me, and I’m just now feeling less intimidated.  I’ve learned a great deal about grant writing so far, and it’s opened up a lot of career possibilities I hadn’t previously considered.  I’m hoping to use this webspace as a way to organize my goals and ideas, and maybe even network a little.

So, hello.