In the Balance

 

Henry Glassie once observed that there were two great traditions of scholarship in folklore studies, one oriented toward data and the other toward theory. In the one oriented toward data, the analyst pieces together what theory she needs in order to explain the data at hand. Done well, such studies, Glassie noted, often offered data in excess of theoretical explanation, leaving the door open to future analyses by other analysts with different theories. In the tradition of scholarship oriented toward theory, the analyst begins with a theoretical construct and seeks out data to affirm it, revise it, refuse it.

Neither tradition is better than the other, and, in all honesty these aren’t separate traditions as two poles within the domain of folklore studies, though this axis of attention surely exists in other domains as well. At least in the American tradition(s), there are “no ideas but in things.” On the whole, we tend to look somewhat askance at what we term “ungrounded” theoretical work, which we too often dismiss as “philosophizing.” (Philosophy has, of course, its own sets of objects, often the process of thinking itself, but done poorly it does open itself up to having no objects at all.)

Strangely enough, we are more likely to accept work that is at the other end of the axis: folklore studies has a long history of valuing the collection of objects of various kinds. The rationale for such valuation is often twofold: one is the notion of salvage that lies at heart of folklore studies — that the preservation of material that would otherwise be lost to history is an important act, and valuable contribution, in and of itself; the other is that such data is fertile ground for the theoretical development and model-building that will surely follow. Both facets are in fact included in the Journal of American Folklore’s charter published in the very first issue: “it is obviously more important to gather materials which may form the basis of later study than to pursue comparison with insufficient materials; especially as the collection must be accomplished at once, if at all, while the comparison may safely be postponed” (7).

Most work in folklore studies occupies the space between these two poles, with the responsibility falling upon the analyst to decide what matters more to her: the particularity of the data or the universality of the theory. Henry Glassie described himself as an analyst more interested in the former, and it is not uncommon to see folklorists, and other analysts, in fact deriving their theories from the data itself: it is simply a further abstraction from the patterns usually embedded in the data itself. How portable the derived theory is is up to readers to determine, but it is quite common for an idea first articulated in one study to get taken up in another study, and then, through the slow accumulation of citations to develop into its own theoretical nexus.

In fact, quite a few of the bodies of work that we consider to be theoretical in nature really arose because their authors felt that the data before them was either not adequately explained or not addressed at all by the theories available to them. (This might be what the beginning of a paradigm shift looks like in the humanities: a lack of explanation or a lack of coverage. Imagine, for example, being a literary critic in the 1970s interested in Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères and having only New Criticism available to you think about/through the novel. As a mechanic friend of mine might say: you don’t have the tools for the job. In some cases, some analysts simply wait for the tools to be developed, but other analysts decide to start building things for themselves. Sometimes they continue on their own, and sometimes they are joined by others.

Or sometimes they are part of a collection of like-minded analysts who find that what they are interested in isn’t even conceivable in the current theory (or theories). This is what happened with Richard Bauman, who found himself slowly assembling the pieces of a interpretive and ideational framework that became known as “performance theory” in folklore studies, but it wasn’t long, thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of folklore studies, before it slipped its reigns and became part of conversations in disciplines focused on more traditional kinds of performances, like theater studies, or in more formal kinds of performances, like communication studies. In his observation about the two traditions, Glassie observed that Bauman was an example of someone who enjoyed collecting data but largely saw it as a way to develop, extend, or refine the theory which was his central concern in much of what he did.

And so now you find yourself as apprentice authors in a field like folklore studies, seeking to find a place to start, and more established scholars like your faculty keep giving you what seems like evasive answers which too often seem like elaborate, and occasionally articulate, versions of “it depends.”

Because it does.

It depends on what your own interest and investments are, but you also need to recognize that the axis of attention does demand that any analysis possesses both data and some theoretical orientation. Time is short in a semester, that’s a given, but the press of time sometimes results in people engaging in needless wheel-spinning because they do not have the traction that results from having a clear sense of what their data is or what their theory might be.

You can, however, use this axis of attention as a way to gauge the nature of your project, and perhaps what it requires. If you have only one or two examples of a given phenomena, and that is all you are likely to have, that means your work needs to have a very developed theoretical framework that makes those one or two data points compelling examples of some larger phenomenon. If you have twenty or thirty examples, then it is likely you will require less theoretical orientation and will spend more time in your analysis, compiling and collating materials into interesting categories and trends. (This is still small data by data science measures but fairly large data by humanities standards.)

This also means knowing your own strengths, orientations, investments, interests, and (imagined and/or hoped for) intellectual trajectory — hile we sometimes imagine it as not like those other things, the academy is a kind of marketplace of ideas and approaches, and the work you publish will mark as you as a particular kind of scholar. This is dynamic, of course, and there are plenty of scholars who have changed their research agenda, for a variety of reasons, and enjoyed a switch from one orientation to another. (And I’ve seen it go both ways, so it’s not always towards abstraction.)

Notes from the Homeland: Day 1

While we may never know when COVID–19 first appeared, we can definitely date the moment here in the homeland when people realized that maybe they should take it seriously. It was the day the state closed K–12 schools for the month. It was also the day that the local university decided to cancel classes for two days and then re-open as an online-only institution. That was the day the toilet paper really began to fly (off the shelves).

It was a day like any other day for me. I drove the girl to way-too-early–in-the-morning track practice, came home, had a cup of coffee, prepared for class, and went to campus. In class, we discussed our contingency plan, and even managed to squeeze in a bit of discussion about the assigned reading.

As class ended, one of my students who is an RA (a residential assistant in a university dorm) announced that he had just gotten word that the university was in fact going online. Okay, we decided, good thing we had a plan. Everyone filed out. I went upstairs and attended a webinar on alternative ways to approach grading papers. It was just me, a grad student, and the faculty member who organized it, and we had to huddle around a laptop — because the room’s equipment was, of course, not working — but we enjoyed ourselves and the physical intimacy made it feel less like a webinar and more like a conversation.

Afterwards I headed home, where I heard that the governor had announced that the state was closing all public schools until the middle of next month. Oh, I thought. Now things are going to get goofy.

I decided that the best thing I could do was grab our standing household grocery list, add a few items for a long-ish weekend, and head to the closest grocery store and get a shop in before all the parents picking up kids from school, and knowing they wouldn’t be going back for a month, decided they needed to stock up for the apocalypse.

Too late.

When I walked into the store, I didn’t really worry that the cart I grabbed was the last one: this particular store isn’t necessarily the most organized, and they are often running low on carts. And it wasn’t that crowded as I worked my way through the produce. But by the time I cleared through the meat section and was heading to the back corner of the story to pick up milk and eggs, it became clear something was weird: there was a line of carts.

As I crossed the middle aisle that runs the length of the store, I saw that the line of carts ran from the back to the front. As I continued on my way to the back corner of the store, I was following the line of carts. As I turned the corner to go forward again to the bread aisle, I was following the line of carts. The line of carts was wrapping itself around the store.

And the line wasn’t moving, only growing longer.

I looked at the handful of items in my cart, and I turned to the store employee who had his phone out to photograph the line. I apologized as I told him that I was abandoning my cart.

“No problem,” he said. “I’ll push it back into the cold walk-in.”

“Thank you.”

“You know we open at five in the morning?”

“I’ll see you then.”

And I left and came home and stayed home until the sun went down.

The Neuro-Science of Narrative

Silbert, LJ, CJ Honey, E Simony, D Poeppel, and U Hasson. 2014. Coupled neural systems underlie the production and comprehension of naturalistic narrative speech. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111 (43): E4687-96. PDF.

Zacks, Jeffrey M., Nicole Speer, Khena Swallow, and Corey Maley. 2010. The Brain’s Cutting-Room Floor: Segmentation of Narrative Cinema. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 4: 168. PDF.

Markdown to PDF in 1 Line

With the rise of markdown as the default formatting for so many note-taking apps, and really good apps like Bear, Ulysses, and Notion, working within a markdown-only setup has never been easier. For the most part, I use those apps like inboxes, moving anything that needs keeping or gets larger than a single page into my folder system, which has served me well for, well, decades, now. Once there, I now use Typora for writing — for a long time it was FoldingText, but Typora has finally surpassed it in terms of ease of use and functionality. (I still keep FoldingPaper around, because.) For coding, I use Atom, which handles interacting with GitHub readily, which is where most of those projects live.

The remaining gap in functionality has been going from markdown to the printed page. MD to HTML and then into Word or Pages is okay, but I would prefer to stay in markdown up until the final moment of output, and now it looks like there is a simple path: pandoc + wkhtmltopdf:

pandoc --pdf-engine=wkhtmltopdf -o filename.pdf -c some.css filename.md

Make sure your version of Pandoc is up-to-date. I had an older version which did not take kindly to the --pdf-engine option, but once I updated, everything “just worked.” (FTR, I use MacPorts, which made installing, and upgrading, pandoc as well as installing wkhtmltopdf super easy. I then made sure wkhtmltopdf was in my PATH.)

Borges on Psychological Realism

In a wonderfully concise passage in his 1940 preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, Jorge Luis Borge — taking issue with Ortega y Gasset’s elevation of “psychological” fiction over the “fantastic” — offers a devastating critique of the pretensions of a great deal of modern “psychological realism”:

The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example, or commit murder as an act of benevolence. Lovers may separate forever as a consequence of their love. And one man can inform on another out of fervor or humility. In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. But the psychological novel would also be a “realistic” novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for its uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of realism.

The Gift of the Past

This Christmas my mother wanted to give my daughter a locket that had been her mother’s. A marvel of the jeweler’s craft, the locket offered a glimpse into another world: when opened, two leaves, in addition to the cover, pop out to allow four photos to be seen at once. Inside were the photos my grandmother had placed there of her husband and three children. It was easy to imagine the meaning such a magical mechanism made possible: she held her entire family in her hand, could take her world in at a glance.

Such mechanics are hardly called for in an era of smart phones with bigger screens and higher resolution and the ability to hold thousands of images than the four thumbnail-sized, grainy, black and white photos pressed so carefully into the locket, but my mother wanted my daughter to have something from her past. My daughter was struck by the artistry of the locket, but the four photos meant nothing to her. As she considered it, my daughter offered that she might wear it, but she would want to replace the photos.

My mother’s face first fell, and then the blood drained from it. After a pause, she continued as if my daughter had not responded, offering to build a shadow box for the locket, so it could be hung on the wall, since people these days didn’t wear things like lockets.

The conversation that followed proceeded awkwardly and not without hurt feelings on both sides, with my mother feeling like the past, her past, was being too quickly hurled into oblivion and my daughter feeling like she was not being allowed to live her life as she chose. My wife and I encouraged a change of conversation, but I had glimpsed in the exchange something with which I was already struggling.

For in another part of our house, there is a drawer in which I keep a handful of mementoes, a pocket watch that belonged to my grandfather and a pocket knife that belonged to my father. Both men are now gone. Having never enjoyed wearing a wrist watch, I used to keep my grandfather’s watch in my pocket, but it was replaced with a smartphone over a decade ago. I don’t see myself going back. And while I like my dad’s pocket knife, I had already in some way inherited from him the habit of keeping a knife handy by having a pocket knife of my own, and, to be honest, I like the greater number of features my Swiss Army knife possesses over my dad’s simple pocket knife.

So both the watch and the knife rest in a drawer, where, every so often I glimpse them, take them out, think about the men who once carried them, and then lay them to rest again. I may have once shown them to my daughter, but they are not a part of her world. While my father was a part of her world, my grandfather was not, having died almost a quarter of a century before she came into existence. And so these mementoes of mine are mine alone. If such objects like the watch and the knife have any meaning for her, it is in my attachment to them and her attachment to me. Otherwise, when I too am gone and she has to decide where things go, it is just as likely that the watch and the knife will be given or sold.

If anything remains, it will be the act of keeping a knife in a pocket, which brings me to an interesting intersection. I have two kinds of mementoes from my grandmothers. From my maternal grandmother, I have an Oster Kitchen Center, which I use regularly, and I also have her way of making spaghetti sauce, which I make every week for my daughter. From my paternal grandmother, I have an afghan, which doesn’t get much use, but I cook dishes I learned from her, like crawfish étouffée and gumbo. My daughter often requests these.

What I am left with in my thoughts is that the best things we leave behind are not tangible things like lockets, watches, and knives but intangible things like recipes and other such small actions, many of which don’t really strike us as an inheritance, or even heritage. I’m sure some will respond that it’s about making memories and not keeping memory objects, but I don’t know that I ever set out to make a memory with spaghetti sauce.

I guess what I want to say to my mother, and the many like her that fear we are leaving the past, their past, behind, is that you cannot determine the past for the future, only the future gets to choose that, so, if there is a lesson in this holiday moment about the gift of the past, it may very well be: you better be nice. Because if you aren’t, you may very well end up forgotten.

Medical Bay from the Future

A Medical Bay from the Future

I screenshotted this from a Youtube video preview. As a kid, I spent hours imagining myself in such worlds — I loved the drawings released for Star Wars and Star Trek.

MkDocs

I am working on a static site to house papers and other materials, and I am building it using MkDocs. The most useful page at the moment is the one on custom themes, which walks you through the various {{short codes}} that appear to be a part of the Jinja package — I am not entirely sure because I am still working my way through both sets of documentation. The Google Group — yes, those still exist — has been helpful.

For those interested, the site is johnlaudun.net. I may very well merge my teaching materials onto it at some point, or at least port the CSS over. (I don’t think my students necessarily need, or want, to see everything else about me.)

Sideways

This is one of those stories that parents will recognize and will re-confirm for adults smart enough not to become parents the wisdom of your choices. This is the story how your day can go sideways for, yes, the right reasons, but still sideways.

As many of you know, the girl has been battling a badly torn ligament in her right ankle, as in almost completely torn back in May. She’s been in physical therapy since then, and she played in nationals in July, and, while she didn’t hurt the ankle any more, she did set her recovery back. A month later, school underway, she was back playing club soccer and we were at a tournament in Texas, when suddenly her hips felt like they just wouldn’t work and she was in a lot of pain. The tournament trainer gave her some relief, doing some pretzel things to her body, and told her both that this often happened with leg joint injuries: they travel up and down the body. Do your exercises, keep up your PT, and you’ll get better, because, he warned, this could just as easily move into your back.

Fast forward a week and the girl starts having serious back pain. Okay, we said, this was not unexpected. Rest and ibuprofen will see her through. By Wednesday, it was so bad that she said she couldn’t sit still in her classes and indeed when she came home, she couldn’t sit to do homework. Okay, okay … but, as you all know, back pain goes deep into your being and by evening’s end she was both in pain and in tears.

Thursday, yesterday, morning, I called her pediatrician, who is great and we had an afternoon appointment. I get the girl from school a bit early and we get to the doctor, who just saw her a few weeks ago for her annual, so she has a baseline in her memory. She checks Lily out, asks lots of good questions, gets a handful of reasonable answers from the teenager, and concludes that it’s 99% the case that it’s muscular and just an unfortunate convergence of physical and emotional stress from both the injury and school. But, she says, let’s make sure it’s not something skeletal, so let’s get you an X-ray and let’s get that today so we have something before the Labor Day weekend.

It’s 4 and we dash to the nearby Children’s Specialty Center. Nice registration people, but their system is incredibly slow. We’re checked in by 4:30, but … they are short staffed and they have to send us to the main hospital for the X-rays. Okay, we say, we’ll just drive it: you don’t have to have us ferried by security. Oh, thank you, they say.

So we make the short drive to the hospital across a series of hot parking lots, find a spot, and walk in. We head to the aquarium where we were told to go, and not ten seconds later a tall woman comes bustling in to escort us to X-ray. Oh, she says, we’re going to go to ER. ER? We ask. Yes, she says, their system is better and faster and we can get you on your way — because the girl’s brow is furrowed deeply worried about homework.

And she does. A half dozen images of my child’s spine, not covered by Blue Cross’s co-pay but part of my deductible — oh, thank you State of Louisiana for our great insurance options — later, and we are in the maelstrom of 5 o’clock traffic headed home.

We are home by 5 and the doctor calls to say the X-rays are clear and proceed with PT and the course of super naproxen and muscle relaxants she prescribed for the girl. Yung-Hsing braves traffic to go to the nearby CVS pharmacy, which is swamped, but everyone is in a reasonable mood — one person tried to start a singalong apparently but couldn’t remember any songs. The pharmacy tells Yung-Hsing they’ll text her when it’s ready because they are so far behind. So she leaves to return home.

We get some dinner and the girl starts trying to do homework, but she can’t think very clearly so Yung steps in to be a bit of an anchor for her. I hang out, but soon it’s after 8 and the pharmacy hasn’t texted and I decide just to go because, surely, after three hours they’ve had time to fill it.

I get to the CVS and they have filled the naproxen but not the muscle relaxant … because they don’t have it?

  • You don’t have it?
  • No, sir.
  • Why didn’t you call us to tell us?
  • Well, if you had left your number, we would have texted you.
  • My wife left you her number but you didn’t text her.
  • Oh.
  • Where else can I go?

At this point, the pharmacist says she’ll call a nearby CVS to see if they have it. They do. Oh, good, I say, let me have the prescription and I’ll head there. Oh, she says, I’ll enter it for you from here. Type type beep. Type type beep. Ten minutes go by of type type beep. It won’t go through. They keep telling me to go ahead and go, but I am not leaving without the prescription or the assurance that the transfer has gone through. (And why, oh why, CVS, can one pharmacist not simply tell another over the phone what’s needed?) You should just go. They close at 9.

It’s 8:40 according to my phone. I decide, against my own better judgement, to go. I get in the truck and head up Camellia to the CVS on the corner of Camellia and Johnston, and, for once, I speed up the boulevard. If a copy wants to clock me, he can follow me into the damn CVS parking lot. I am getting that muscle relaxant and my child is going to sleep.

I arrive at 8:50. I get to the pharmacy counter. They know why I’m there, but the order won’t show up in their damned computer system. I keep standing there. I keep thinking “Why can’t you call? Why can’t you call? What matters more: your system or the well-being of a child?” But I keep my mouth shut.

It’s 8:56, the pharmacy tech is clearly closing up chop, when something beeps. Here it is, announces the pharmacist. She quickly fills the prescription, the tech checks me out, and I bee line it out of the second CVS and third medical facility I have visited today.

And when I step into the muggy, evening heat of the parking lot, Yung-Hsing texts me that she got the text that the prescription is ready. Yes, really.

And that is what happened to four hours of my life yesterday.