Early History

In the first unit of this course, we will examine the emergence of two ideas that are still very powerful in our time: the Enlightenment’s privileging of rationality and the counter-Enlightenment’s attempt to recover humanity through nationalism. Both were an attempt to reveal, and/or encourage, common cultural underpinnings to states ruled separately.

These two logics, rationalism and nationalism, so govern our thinking that we cannot, at times, comprehend the complexities of history — i.e., that history itself is a cynical arrangement of dynasties perfecting the technologies of domination that reached its nadir in the brutality of the colonial era, an era in which we still abide.

What we will be tracking is a slow shift in focus:

From the origins of ideas and forms; Through the development and spread of ideas and forms, at first in cultural evolution and later in history; To the uses of these ideas and forms. Throughout this history, we will retain texts as our primary object for understanding human nature. The questions we need to remind ourselves to ask are:

What is history’s relationship to our object of study throughout these transformations? What new questions have arisen? What do texts do? Why texts? It’s important to remember that these changes within the narrow domain of how we imagine human discursive productivity are really part of a larger collection of histories, some intellectual and some political. Nineteenth century interest in folklore was, to some degree, spurred by concerns over (1) industrialization and the social changes being wrought by it and (2) the political and cultural domination of one nation by another: of Germany by France; Ireland by Britain; Finland by Russia. One German intellectual in particular, J.G. Herder, urged German poets and composers to turn to the traditions of the peasants, whose traditional tales and songs preserved the authentic national spirit, identity, values of the German people. These were, Herder argued, the proper basis, the raw materials, for elite literature and music.

The Brothers Grimm were among those whom Herder inspired. But the Grimms were not interested in the tellers, or the role tale-telling played among the peasants who perpetuated the tradition. They looked upon the tales they collected as declined myth, and were interested only in the texts and what they thought it told them about earlier, purer, forms of German culture. Others began collecting folklore in other countries for similar reasons. In this vein, William Thoms coined the term “folk-lore” in 1846. Thoms interest was “popular antiquities”” but he preferred a “good Anglo-Saxon word”” for it. Like the Grimms, Thoms regarded folklore as a survival from an earlier time, a vestige of an earlier stage of development in human society and culture, with no function or relevance today, and no contemporary meaning.

The Grimms, and most of those they inspired, virtually ignored the actual “life” of the lore. Fieldwork standards at that time were very loose — merely collecting, not ethnography; there was no idea of adhering to the spoken language of tale-tellers, of valuing the stories as actually told, of trying to observe actual storytelling events. Rather, the standard practice was to rewrite texts — to “improve” them for a literate readership.