Agonistic disciplines and existential anxieties: a reflective response.

Author:Kuutma, Kristin

This volume gathers a set of articles that is at once heterogeneous and unified, even if those similarities do not cut across all four perspectives. Consequently, the emergent similarities speak volumes about the present state of the scholarly domain covered by folkloristics, ethnology, and anthropology. Due to my interdisciplinary background and position (professor of cultural research), I do not tote a single disciplinary allegiance, which may grant me some neutrality in the matters discussed here in Cultural Analysis.

This special issue celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of a scholarly organization: SIEF (Societe Internationale d'Ethnologie et de Folklore). Considering the time span, we observe a venerable age encompassing experience from two centuries, and numerically bridging two millennia. It is an age that, by human standards, typically connotes prominence, position, successors and legacy. Nevertheless, we are called upon now to think "outside the box," and to reflect upon the metaphor of "box" suggested by the anniversary symposium title. The phrase can refer to a certain dynamic (imagine a Jack-in-the-box!) or a forward look (exiting the confined space to enjoy a limitless cosmos), and either is indicative of how diversely contributing authors understand, or reflect upon, the notion of "box." What is the substance of a box? How does one appear to be boxed? What does such boxing mean? To what extent is this metaphor related to signification, or to location and positioning? What kind of experiential or existential reference does it entail? And what does it mean to be outside the box?

All in all, regardless of the celebratory occasion, these writings are draped in anxiety, which appears to be existential and representational. This tone does not reflect simply personal predicaments or misgivings, but testifies to a wider concern. Disquiet in regard to signification and concurrent representation has a historical aura and mark by itself that was expressed decades ago in the programmatic alert to "folklore's crisis" (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998), or the notoriously inspirational inquisition into "writing culture" (Clifford and Marcus 1986). The prevailing anguish emanates from the past and naming, from placing and positioning. Even if the anxiety is not new, an exploration into organizational or disciplinary history appears poignant, presenting a recurrent and ceaseless existential apprehension. An existential situation denotes a challenge that derives from the etymology of "existence": standing or being positioned out(side). It creates a vacuum in the meaning of being; it is a search for and interrogation of being, while previously established truths crumble. We find ourselves standing at a crossroad, beckoned to undertake a quest for a new meaning and a new truth ...

Ironically, Konrad Kostlin's piece addressing the practice of celebration is not too reassuring when registering irritation with the current culture of commemoration. The modernist memory boom testifies to an obsession with the past which simultaneously appears to be triggered by recognizable insecurity and anxiety towards continuity. A celebration of an anniversary is indicative of the modernist culture of remembrance, which thrives on, as well as generates, moments of meaning. Such celebratory meaning-making around the experience of temporality corresponds with the cult of heritage and imposes power: it claims diachronic dimension through experienced past, as well as synchronic extension by recognition and signification. Kostlin detects a particular void in the scholarly endeavor of European ethnology today: can we recognize the problems of the contemporary, or are we too engaged in reminiscing? The predicament that all these contributions fundamentally face is being caught in a relation to the past that is juxtaposed with a relation to the present.

An anniversary brackets through a process of naming in a powerful way: it refers to past experience, of a physical place habited and a mental space with which it is associated. Nevertheless, naming and status are instrumentally reciprocal. Just the other day, I came across a thought-provoking name-change: a regular cultural event in Estonia called folkloorifestival, which had been occurring for thirty years, has been newly dubbed parimuspidu, meaning "traditional fete." This change demonstrates a visible preference of a vernacular word in opposition to international loanwords. It appears symptomatic of claiming turf and expressing sensibilities that...

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