Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices

Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices

by Roger D. Abrahams

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A folklorist and ethnographer who has written about the Southern Appalachians, African American communities in the United States, and the West Indies, Roger D. Abrahams goes up against the triviality barrier. Here he takes on the systematics of his own culture. He traces forms of mundane experience and the substrate of mutual understandings carried around as part of our own cultural longings and belongings.

Everyday Life explores the entire range of social gatherings, from chance encounters and casual conversations to well-rehearsed performances in theaters and stadiums. Abrahams ties the everyday to those more intense experiences of playful celebration and serious power displays and shows how these seemingly disparate entities are cut from the same cloth of human communication.

Abrahams explores the core components of everyday-ness, including aspects of sociability and goodwill, from jokes and stories to elaborate networks of organization, both formal and informal, in the workplace. He analyzes how the past enters our present through common experiences and attitudes, through our shared practices and their underlying values.

Everyday Life begins with the vernacular terms for "old talk" and offers an overview of the range of practices thought of as customary or traditional. Chapters are concerned directly with the terms for intense experiences, mostly forms of play and celebration but extending to riots and other forms of social and political resistance. Finally Abrahams addresses key terms that have recently come front and center in sociological discussions of culture in a global perspective, such as identity, ethnicity, creolization, and diaspora, thus taking on academic jargon words as they are introduced into vernacular discussions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812200997
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date: 06/07/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 577 KB

About the Author

Roger D. Abrahams is Hum Rosen Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author and editor of many books, including After Africa (with John Szwed), African Folktales: Traditional Stories of the Black World, African-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World, and Man-of-Words in the West Indies.

Read an Excerpt


A poetics of everyday life? Perhaps I mean a poeticizing of everyday practices, looking at vernacular culture as animated by our making and doing things with style. Our lives are replete with artifacts growing from our propensity to form groups through the creation of ways of speaking which give form to shared concerns and ideals. As Kenneth Burke has it, "There are no forms of art which are not forms of experience outside of art" (Burke 1931). But how do we sense, in common, when art is present, and use this state of being as a way of understanding our own cultural practices? The line between those practices which ask simply for our conscious attention and those which call for aesthetic or, at least, stylistic judgment can easily be confounded.

Richard Rorty describes this attempt to find whatever poetics there are in the vernacular and gives voice to its implicit assumptions.

A poeticized culture would be one which would not insist that we find the real wall behind the painted one, the real touchstones of truth as opposed to touchstones which are merely cultural artifacts. It would be a culture which, precisely by appreciating that all touchstones are artifacts, would take as its goal the creation of ever more various and multicolored artifacts. (Rorty 1989: 53-54)
We look for meanings, not behind our vernacular artifacts and interactions, but in them.

Edward Sapir, a poet as well as pioneer linguist, asserted that language itself constituted "the most significant and colossal work that the human spirit has evolved—nothing short of a finished form of expression for all communicable experience." Extolling its capacity to constantly reshape itself, he continues: "Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations" (Sapir 1921: 220). Yet, as any writer will attest, language yields up its artful power only grudgingly. For there are other selves with whom we hold constant conversations, selves who speak in tongues not entirely under anyone's personal control except the phantoms of these "unconscious generations." Studying other cultures from the perspective of our Western, Anglophonic tongue, we seek to familiarize ourselves with their keywords for life and art. Our own vernacular speech will bear up under such scrutiny as well.

This address to vernacular culture may appear as an abomination to those not enamored of "the near, the low, the common," as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in "The American Scholar": "the meal in the firkin, the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body." Emerson, like many speakers in the early American republic, saw New World vigor in the juxtaposition of the highest and the most common registers of the vernacular. The poetics of the vernacular begins with the ability of speakers to command the widest variety of ways of speaking, soaring high and digging deep with an understanding of the dynamic contrasts this code-switching animates. If freedom lies in the ability to make choices, dealing with vernacular life allows the whole ideal to be expressed within a single sentence, or represented in a representative object.

Keeping Company

This book considers the ways in which ordinary Americans keep company with one another, in casual and serious talk, at play, and in performance and celebration. It explores the entire range of social gatherings, from chance encounters and casual conversations to the heavily rehearsed shows found at theaters and stadiums, or in the more open venues of parades and festivals. It focuses not just on the ways we pull off our interactions, stylized or otherwise, but also on the vernacular terms we have developed in common to discuss and judge performances.

Central to this understanding is the presumption of goodwill that we make about how others will treat us. We presume that our gregariousness reveals a useful excess of feeling and that having a good talk is a palliative for any misunderstandings that arise. We have learned from experience that this friendliness is not necessarily shared; unfounded assumptions about our cultural commonalities can lead to social and political complications, especially in times of declared animosity. But the social compact is constituted by our talking with one another. With strangers and acquaintances alike, we act on the useful fiction that "talking it out" will lead to mutual understanding and the possibility of shared enjoyment. So this book explores not just our comfortable interactions with family and friends and the assumptions that underlie intimate acquaintance but also our naïveté and the high premium we pay for presuming the palliative powers of having a good talk, even an argument we can then talk through.

Although friendly conversation seems natural, it is, in fact, deeply cultural, providing a moral center for everyday communication. Certain terms of judgment underlie our discussions of the everyday. The appropriateness of what we say and do is often debated; an action may be judged playful by some and offensive by others. How studied should one be, and how do we judge going through the formalities? The degree of self-conscious agreement that we feel impelled to uphold is itself revealing of the tensions that swarm beneath the surface of our interactions. Equally important for the purposes of this book, conversation conducted under the sign of friendliness provides a baseline against which other ways of speaking may be judged. Consider the implications of the ubiquitous idea that when people sit down and talk together, our common human concerns can be relied upon to encourage agreement. Even if disagreement enters this terrain, it can fuel the sense of achievement when, at last, consensus is reached.

This analysis of expressive interaction starts with the commonsense view that we are our own best interpreters and addresses the entire range of communicative acts through the terms we use to describe them ourselves. The rich resources of our everyday vernacular speech enable us to use words and gestures from the past as models for social interaction in the present. As a folklorist, I have catalogued the conversational repertoire we have inherited from our elders and forebears that we presume ties us together morally and serves to repair relationships. In the simple forms of vernacular expression, the proverbs we invoke and the jokes we tell, we see the elementary tactics of using the past to resolve problems in the present. These memorable, fixed phrases come to mind habitually, but they are far from simple when we attend to how they are deployed in daily interaction.

To the extent that we repeat one another's lines and go on to tell our life stories when encouraged by others, we purvey such fictions as our interpretation of what "really" happened at some point of passage in our lives. As we attempt to craft and recraft our identities, the stories we tell on ourselves stake out our place whenever we choose to be sociable. To call this "self-fashioning" sounds a bit theatrical, but having so many choices and making them for ourselves calls for a good deal of anxious self-examination. Ironically, in engaging in the presentation of self, we make our choices more self-consciously. We transform our experiences into retellable and interpretable tales and turn our interactions with others into performances. Reducing the flow of life to story and performance carries a myriad of discontents. We attain a generic sense of order and common understanding, but we amplify the subjunctive while subduing the declarative side of life. We become conscious of how crafted our lives have become, and objectifying ourselves makes our lives seem awfully predicable. Freeze-framing social interaction helps us to interpret its possible meanings, but we lose the freedom and unselfconsciousness of the spontaneous play we enjoyed when we were children. Here the machinery of nostalgia kicks in.

In searching for ourselves amid the shifting scenes of daily life, and especially as we seek to alleviate the anxiety and depression that arise from facing personal losses or foreclosed possibilities, the everyday becomes a constant search for what goes by the term identity. How can one achieve identity in a world that promises an infinity of choices and then takes them away? In the worse case, we alienate ourselves from our own lives. So we live for those moments in which we lose ourselves, giving over to the flow of the occasion and experiencing the delights of letting go. We seek to merge our all-too-limited selves with some larger group of celebrants and to escape the constraints of our daily existence by plunging into in the seemingly unbounded possibilities offered by theater, rituals, and festivals.

I am continually amazed by the creativity and diversity of people's disposition to play, sing, and dance to one another as they introduce festivity into their lives. Such celebrations are not as separate from the social relations of common life as they may seem, despite their being set off in special times and places. Rituals and festivals constitute and renew social groups. Power is asserted, parodied, overturned, and ritually reconfirmed through such customary practices. In the past, social relations were enacted, even embodied in rough and popular or royal and spectacular enactments: parades and processions, court proceedings, mock hangings, and ritualized shamings. The depth of historical memory conveyed in such high-energy performances as Carnival and Mardi Gras enters into the present as different cultural groups assert and renegotiate their places on a transnational stage.

The seasonal celebrations once observed by custom have now become spectacular programmed events. Communal rituals that historically were embedded in common work and that satirized, subverted, and reinscribed social relations have become large-scale, more tightly scheduled and framed, even commodified events. The pleasures of good work have been ceded to good times, the focused intensity of play and the periodic high times of festive occasions. In the more public forms of communal celebration, the threat that those on the bottom of the social hierarchy or on the margins of the dominant culture might overturn or invade and transform the prevailing order has been deliberately contained. And yet, as close examination of patterns of global circulation reveals, the possibility of transformation is constantly renewed. Situating performances within unstable relations of power yields new insights into contemporary circumstances. As previous national boundaries are eroded, we have become ever more concerned with the flow of power that accompanies "development" and more aware of the moral and political questions arising from the uneven and unstable distribution of agency and responsibility.

The Poetics and Politics of Common Culture

This approach to traditional forms of expressive culture begins with rhetorical analysis of the smallest, most gnomic of folklore forms. Drawing on Kenneth Burke's ideas and the literary techniques of text analysis, this project pursues folklore texts across contexts and parses the ways in which they are constructed, either through borrowing from past usage or by adhering to the pattern of expectations defined by a genre. These simple forms (einfache formen) are organized according to their constituent elements and the situations in which they are employed.

Folklore materials are treated here not only in terms of their traditional origin and dissemination but with special address to their everyday usage in living contexts. Once the body of traditional expression is organized in such a way that the relationships among the simple forms can be sketched in, the ambiguity and intensity of play and other framed enactments invite attention. The simple forms employed in conversation pale in contrast to deeply focused games and the extended festival activities through which community is put into practice. So this study moves from more private interactions to ever more public modes of display and interrogates shared understandings of communal festivities. Situational and frame analysis are employed to account for this wider range of traditional presentations and representations.

Rendering folklore in written texts renders it stable enough for formal analysis, but takes away the sense of enthusiasm and enjoyment, even ecstasy observed in play and performance. Structuralist and sociolinguistic approaches to interpretation encompass other dimensions of these events as they unfold. Structuralism asks us to understand the meanings attributed to a performance from the perspective of the performers themselves, and ethnomethodological approaches enable us to bring observation closer to experience. In order to discover the terms by which both performers and audiences understand, explain, and evaluate what is taking place, this work scrutinizes our vernacular expressive system, treating common terms for play and celebration as worthy of exploration.

Viewing this project in relation to the development of the field clarifies not only the approach to folklore demonstrated here but also the contributions that folklore makes to the broader study of expressive culture. Ironically, just when text-oriented folkloristics began to lose its vigor, symbolic anthropology began applying the text as a metaphoric explanation for cultural enactments. Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, Erving Goffman, and many others began taking literary text production very seriously, often using such New Critical terms as metaphor, ambiguity, and authorial to define their own projects (Geertz 1983: 4-9). Then all of the ethnographic disciplines entered into the postmodern project of examining the cultural filters provided us by texts and situational analyses of "Others." We were reminded of the unintended political uses to which our labors had been put and the ways in which official intervention and financing might have affected our perspectives. In the discipline of folklore, this self-examination emerged from the pressures placed by contemporary social and intellectual changes on the very idea of culture, community, and indigenous creativity implicit—and, sometimes, explicit—in the invention of "the folk" and the projection of the exotic "Other."

This self-consciousness, too, can productively be scrutinized if it is first anchored in our vernacular practices. Distinctions between real and fake, authentic and invented, natural and artificial abound in contemporary American culture, as in the discipline of folklore. These false dichotomies reveal that, despite what we experience as the fragmentation of our world, we continue to search for the sense of wholeness and connection that is inherent in any coherent worldview. The struggle to discover the real, the authentic, and the natural is often confused with the idea of folklore itself. Indeed, it has a long history in the discipline of folklore, as in other fields of the humanities and interpretive social sciences (Ben-Amos and Goldstein 1975; Ben-Amos 1984; Bendix 1997; Stewart 1991).

The folk was an invention by negation, in contrast to society dominated by the modern—that is, made up of urban, bourgeois, and bureaucratic state-builders. The folk, under these conditions, was imagined as living in the condition of whole-being which had vanished from the center but was still to be found at the peripheries of the nation-state, people who carry on the old ways and resist the incursions of metropolitan authorities. Conceived as social, cultural, and technological isolates, they were reassuring in the seemingly organic quality of their communities. The folk not only served as a convenient fiction by which hegemony over certain territories might be claimed but also offered a refuge for discontented urbanites. Cultural rebels seeking to escape the city and its contaminations counted their neighbors as the folk. Since these people were commonly unlettered, they were regarded as a living repository of the oral resources of the entire people before the advent of print and other technological devices mediating communication. This imagined way of life did not have to be observed up close; rather, it served as a resource that urban prominenti might draw on to recharge their depleted cultural energies. In such a realm, the real and the authentic were maintained as a measure of both progress and decadence.

Folklorists became the translators and gatekeepers between worlds. Folklorists assumed that folk communities, if they could be found, would reveal earlier forms of expressive interaction, performance, and celebration of life-passage in their customs. The backwardness and poverty of those living in these enclaves were regarded as evidence of their integrity. The lack of city-bred contaminations was an important feature of this imagined community, for isolation had insulated the folk from modernity. Even if the lore was affected by oral transmission from the putative past, even if it produced variant versions of songs and stories, the oldest and most authentic forms could be reconstructed by using the techniques of comparative analysis previously developed for analyzing classic texts and holy writ.

I explore these moral dilemmas and political quandaries by scrutinizing the keywords introduced into the vernacular that sidestepped the insular implications of folk, traditional community, indigenous peoples, and other terms which described bounded communities as if they were not subject to the globalization of expressive exchange. As cultural activities previously confined to ethnic groups are increasingly performed in public for audiences of outsiders, the meanings of identity become subject to intergroup negotiation. Craft products circulate as commodities in cosmopolitan marketplaces, consumed in ways that not only alienate them from the circumstances of their production but also transform the conditions of expressive labor. Terms such as hybrid and creole, which gave a name to the transformation of cultural forms that occur as people encounter one another in borderlands and develop new styles of speech and performance under the destabilizing conditions of cultural contact, are now extended from people on the move to the transmutations that attend transnational communication. In the process, these terms for diaspora get shorn of their memories of trauma and longings for redemption. Despite all these terminological corrections, nostalgia remains implicit in our own frames of reference and affects how we describe other peoples' ways.

The poetics and politics of folklore's analytic practices have undergone profound alterations of perspective: text-centered approaches broadened into performance-oriented ones; and then all were subjected to the deconstructive postmodern stance of the late twentieth century, which involved an ironic return to some of the textual assumptions of mid-century. For folklorists, the dawning recognition of the limitations of studying expressive culture as if it existed apart from social, economic, and political contexts illuminated the compromises made by those involved in developing public presentations of traditional performers. The reflexive moment in ethnography made us conscious of our cooptation by the very systems of power we thought that we were reacting against. We turned to the history of our own disciplines to understand the ways in which the academic study of culture emerged within the newly global mercantile, colonial, and industrial worlds. The bicentennial celebration in 1976 with a summer-long festival of American Folklife at the Smithsonian Institution in the nation's capital and the centenary celebration of the American Folklore Society in 1987-1988 dramatized the importance of historicizing our disciplinary practices. This self-consciousness informed our discussion of the morality of how we collected folklore and presented the results of our fieldwork. It seemed more important than ever to involve the tradition-bearers we had encountered in the field in the publication of their cultural treasures.

The trajectory of this book traces the development of the field and reflects critically upon our habitual assumptions. But what is true of folklore and ethnography is equally, albeit differently, true of our common culture. Since we embody our deepest values in those terms and proclivities which usually remain below the level of conscious examination and verbal expression, reflecting upon our assumptions and examining our ways of recognizing others as we go about our ordinary lives and pursue extraordinary experiences are integral to this project. Elucidating the poetics and politics of everyday life is a challenging yet common human endeavor. The entire range of expressive culture, from simple conversations through games and theater to festivals and rituals, represents the most profound human cultural accomplishments. Homo Sapiens meets Homo Ludens, the playful among us, and Homo Narrans, the natural storyteller.

From a Rhetoric of Simple Forms to Enactments of Community

This book is organized in four parts. The first, "The Many Forms of Goodwill," focuses on the forms of social practice most susceptible to being textualized and studied in terms of their constituent elements. As these simple forms enter into conversation, they rest on and reinforce the goodwill principle fundamental to everyday interaction in informal settings. The second part, "Goodwill Tested," turns to occasions when more scripted performances arise in the midst of playful engagements and celebratory acts. In these more complex interpersonal communicative forms, rules link multiple players with spectators and expectations are shared by performers and audiences. Here agonistic motives are expressed and contained by the aesthetic ordering of games and performances. The last two parts examine how vernacular ideas of order animate the more innovative uses to which traditional practices are put. Part three, "Social Imaginaries," explores the places in which groups and their representatives interact across boundaries of cultural difference and the rules that develop in such borderlands. It proceeds by mapping the ways in which we imagine ourselves and others and the zones in which intergroup conflict is both enacted and contained, revealing not only the dynamics of cross-cultural interaction but also the trajectory of social and cultural change. "Terms for Finding Ourselves," the fourth and final part, scrutinizes the vocabulary and syntax of the keywords through which we attempt to understand the new cultural formations that are emerging amid processes of globalization. The perspective taken here is more self-critical than celebratory. In hijacking terms from past understandings of group identity and cultural change, popular culture and its postmodern analysts have tended to strip these terms of their historical resonances and flatten out our awareness of inequalities of power and memories of displacement, suffering, and loss.

This book scrutinizes the lenses through which we perceive and interpret—or, to put it in the terms used here, we name and frame—communicative practices in commonplace culture. If we become attuned to listening to ourselves, acknowledging that we presume to be operating within a system of manners, good and bad, we discover a rich vocabulary of talk about talk, performance, play, and celebration. These rules of thumb operate not just on the formal level but through developing a shared set of expectations with others in our expressive community. Being good company means that each of us knows how to act and to react in particular social situations. Most of the time we know, in common, what it takes to get by in conversation. Sometimes these mutual understandings remain tacit and unregistered, because to examine them explicitly reveals too much raw wool in the knit of our cultural bedcover. It seems useful, nonetheless, to spell out these commonplaces in order to reveal whatever system exists among and between them.

This study not only draws on shared experiences but addresses folk explanations of how customary behavior is learned, prepared for, and entered into fully. The group is most itself at such times, when individuals in the collectivity reach back and draw on previous experiences to animate the present. Past experiences of being a part of a community of understandings have taught us the healing powers of talking with each other, laughing and crying, eating and drinking together. Such moments are not rare; they are possible any day, every day, and serve as the common currency of collective experience.

The analytical approach suggested here requires us to develop habits of listening closely to one another and put whatever insights we gain to work for the common good. I do not argue that this system is the way the world is structured, but that this is the way we like to talk about events, eventualities, and experiences. I turn the ethnographer's view back on ourselves, constructing what Clifford Geertz called a "thick description." Within our vernacular set of names and practices, we can draw on our experience of social interactions and performances, using the terms of the everyday to describe what's right and what's not about any interaction. Our own expressive cultural practices are worthy of as much analysis as any other community of performers. These vernacular terms and habits have persisted because they have become second nature, and perhaps even (by some convenient fiction) remind us of our better nature. We can trust our internal voices, which sustain the social contracts through which we meet and interact.

If anything like community still exists beyond a reflexive nostalgia, it emerges through the agreement to celebrate itself in ceremony or festival. Meeting and moving together, a group articulates its sense of community by sharing an intense physical and emotional moment that generates feelings of togetherness. Social cohesion is inspired not only by joining up or joining in, but by recognizing our double selves: the sense that we can be deeply involved in a conversation or a performance and still make some judgment regarding what is taking place. As people stand together at a little distance to examine social conflicts, social bonds are strengthened. By this move we hope to put Marx's alienation or Durkheim's anomie out of our imaginings, along with any other term for that blend of boredom and anxiety which impinges on our lives.

Part one begins with what might well be called a rhetoric of simple forms, an analytical approach to folklore that draws deeply on the work of Kenneth Burke. It takes up those forms of expression that have an aura of age, the words or gestures that we regard as as old as the hills, the answers to the rhetorical question, "You know what they say?" When someone asks, "What is folklore?" I reply: "All those things they say, they sang, they played." Like grandma's recipes and nostrums, they have always been in the family. The categories folklorists use to organize this mass of material move from the smallest forms, such as proverbs and riddles, to the longer, but still single-voiced forms, such as songs and tales. I analyze these commonplace forms of folklore alongside other expressive forms not so commonly parsed: slanging matches, taunts and teases, prayers and curses, all fixed-phrase forms that demand attention in an expressive exchange. In this lifeworld, imitation is one way of announcing and demonstrating membership in a familiar performance community.

These chapters offer a plain vanilla poetics of folkish forms, vernacular keywords and phrases of conversation, argument, deep discussion, and just schmoozing. Not only are we are talkers, but we even like to talk about the way we talk—to each other, to strangers, and to combatants across the fine line of defense. Now, with so many mediated messages launched into public space, we might expect that people would become more flexible in the amount of time and energy given over to monitoring talk, or that our vigilance in testing one another's veracity would have diminished. Far from it. It is so easy to find information about one another through web searches and so convenient to keep up the flow of messages through portable electronic devices that we are in the midst of a wholesale reevaluation of such basic matters as family and friendship. But these practical techniques of recording, archiving, and analyzing everyday behavior seldom inform theoretical discussions of mediated communications, especially popular culture. The duality inherent in this approach often leads to an unfortunate opposition between tradition and authenticity on the one hand and improvisation and individual creativity on the other. Here I demonstrate the flexible and varied uses of customary forms in lived situations and interactions.

Between these small banalities and the more elevated forms of celebration lie a number of other common activities that appear tried and true and remain available in our cultural reservoirs. In our rush for the new and different, they float in the eddies, backwaters, and quiet pools, waiting for those moments when invention fails us. Even if we do not voice them, they spring to mind as ways in which our ancestors handled the ordinary trials and tribulations of daily life. The formation of group identities and the reinforcement of group boundaries are among the most salient social processes that take place in this domain.

The ways in which children and adolescents acquire performance competence in the process of growing up reveal a great deal about the shared understandings that underlie seemingly spontaneous play and group games. With children, as with outsiders who may not have internalized this set of practices, we extend the goodwill principle, assuming that they want to learn so they too can become good company. In a two-stage learning process, individuals learn how to become good listeners and observers and then attempt to produce appropriate actions. To put it in more formal terms, we judge each other in terms of both receptive and productive competences. If mistakes are made, we have ways within the vernacular system of calling attention to the gaffe and repairing any social disjunction, as we tell children how to avoid hurting others' feelings by breaking a rule in the conversational flow.

Players themselves will readily talk about the framing that goes on in play and games: how they get in and out of play, who plays well and who doesn't. The experiences that go into play—the release of energy, focus in common, a willingness to take chances or get dizzy or turn ourselves into someone else, to practice competitive moves and then employ them enthusiastically, to complicate the game in order to keep it interesting—could all be found in other high-intensity activities, such as ceremony, ritual, and theater.

The second part of this book addresses these multivocal traditions, from children's games and sports through public display events to communally organized celebrations. These traditional forms operate with special rules within the boundaries set by play and performance. Such ebullient modes of interaction are separated from the everyday precisely because of their abundance of focused energies. Participants move and feel together in a world itself in flux. Physical energies are released, and consumption in excess overwhelms the senses. Strangers jostle one another and operate by the norms of friendly talk, but here there is mutual wariness rather than a presumption of goodwill. Praise, scandal, invective, spielmaking—all overflow the bounds of ordinary life. Everything orderly is put to the test. In festivals, it seems, the boundary police have deserted their posts. When diverse groups meet in literal or metaphorical borderlands, cultural forms are on the move, exported and imported without customs duties, or even baggage inspection.

In many situations, the very extremity of these celebratory forms generates a powerful reaffirmation of a more inclusive community. Their metamorphic power cannot be entirely discounted. As we move from part two to parts three and four, we shift from interactions taking place within social groups to encounters between those who define themselves in terms of their differences. On this contested terrain, interaction is shaped less by shared understandings and more by competition and conflict. Cultural difference and social distance may be ritualized and conflict contained, but the expressive forms that emerge in these zones are qualitatively new, developing through a dynamic process of observation and exchange, imitation and parody, appropriation and theft. What was one people's vernacular becomes another's second language; new dialects, pidgins, and lingua franca are constructed amid these intense cross-cultural encounters. As groups negotiate such unstable territory, they also renegotiate the terms by which they define themselves and through which they interact with others. The very terms by which people understand their world are called into question, enriched, and transformed. So, too, exploring the expressive cultures that develop in these border zones requires us to interrogate the words we use to think with.

Keywords and Social Imaginaries

Like all the terms scrutinized in this book, the term vernacular itself bears examination. In recent ethnographic studies of expressive culture, vernacularity refers to the process by which the lowest and the highest memorable voicings and revoicings are drawn upon, residing just below the surface of consciousness, containing the most recent slang and the most ancient and archaic turns of phrase that draw attention to themselves (Kapchan 1996: 63-64). Used in this sense, vernacularity is capacious enough to encompass the traditional and the innovative, the highbrow and the popular, and to enable us to trace the movements between these registers that occur in various social interactions.

Yet vernacular carries its own problems into cultural discussions, for like vulgar, popular, and common, the word carries class connotations. It can describe the way the old folk talked before they learned better. Sometimes, as with Latin, Sanskrit, or Hebrew, a vernacular is elevated to the realm of official or holy writ, no longer used by the populace who had regarded it as a mother tongue. Whole strips of speech are learned verbatim by others who do not control the language but have high regard for its sacred power. Bits of the past are preserved by their sound and metric organization as much as for their meaning. Religious and secular leaders employ this language to establish gravity on the occasion of its use. To find holy words and transforming messages embodied in vulgar and archaic formulations should not surprise us. The high priests in a number of religions of the book maintain old talk for purposes of moral instruction and to pass on stories of the world as it was in the beginning. Ancient holy languages are maintained even in our contemporary secular vernacular, particularly in the form of stories and songs committed to memory. I have been especially interested in the free-floating vocabulary used to describe and judge the behavior of others, which reveals the half-buried understandings of our ancestors.

These studies in the poetics of vernacular speech encourage us to explore the system underlying the ways we converse. I focus, not on a narrative theory of beginnings, middles, and endings, but rather on the vocabulary that allows us to compare and contrast experiences and makes even disruptive happenings discussable. These terms suggest that there is a commonsense system operating beneath the surface of everyday conviviality, revealing our own rules of engagement and disengagement.

I stress friendly talk, successful performance, and celebration because I feel a need to retreat from the language of violence in which we seem submerged: the vocabulary of distrust, of paranoia, and of entitlement to victim status, which may be amplified by the echoes of violent conflicts elsewhere in our world. I have not withdrawn entirely from such subjects; the last four chapters of this book take up questions of ethnicity, cultural mixing, and diaspora. Rudeness and even more bellicose behaviors are certainly all around us, and they draw upon the same chartering power of the vernacular as the more pacific forms of talk featured here. No doubt, there is a system of manners that registers and even regulates war and genocide. Such subjects do not make their way into everyday talk except as they provide topics for lamentation, for negotiation across boundaries, and for ceremonies commemorating victimization.

Our access to our better nature is shared by everyone in hearing distance. Such sharing promises to lead to everyday words for experiences, ordinary and extraordinary, as they are employed in our conversations and our exegetical arguments. Acts and activities which have come to the surface of our talk suggest that we have a system. These are keywords, then, in our ongoing discussion of how to make common sense out of the flow of experience. I do not launch these arguments with the idea that, because we have generic terms for the experience of both art and life, we also have understandings in common with the others around us. In a liberal democracy, every moment is a test of our will to subjugate our individual vanities to make sure we're among friends. In the too-often contentious world, the composite of vernacular terms seems to make a bid for our moral attention.

This range of questions can be posed through Charles Taylor's formulation of the concept of social imaginaries. Taylor defines social imaginaries as "that largely unstructured and inarticulate understanding of our whole situation, within which particular features of our world show up for us in the sense they have." Social imaginaries encourage discussion of ways of speaking, acting, and making moral judgment through the terms by which we organize social existence in daily life—that is, how we "fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations . . . the social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy" (Taylor 2004: 23-24).

On the surface, the ways we discuss life and its meanings give an impression of optimism about the human condition. I continue to think that friendly discussion provides the basic model of how we feel other expressive interactions should be carried out. We are surprised and even embarrassed when we encounter less friendly and comfortable behavior, but even then we have finely honed techniques for repairing the breach and restoring the flow of goodwill. License for anyone present to speak characterizes most friendly encounters, but that license is not so easily garnered when the going gets intense and the work and play of the gods are liturgically invoked. This social compact often seems to be a gauge of civility. If I deal with mutual excitements, I do not allude to historical flashpoints, those tremors that provide historical anchor points for everyone. No earthquakes here, and no disasters, no events earthshaking enough to be registered on the Richter scale.

As the social compact is worked out and license is given to play a role in a scene or a position in a game, we enter into those zones of interaction which call for an understanding of what's going on and how things ought to go that is highly conventional and circumscribed. Roles, parts, assumed identities—all of these and more are involved as we pursue our everyday activities. All draw upon the principle of goodwill. Friendly discussions presume agreement, or at least the consensus that comfort is as important as passing on knowledge in such circumstances. We can presume we will be understood when an offer to talk accepted. How else could we understand each other's sentences, even to the point that we can anticipate what is going to be said? We can finish our relatives' and friends' sentences for them most of the time, although they may be unhappy if we do so out loud. Thus, a second codicil to the goodwill agreement: each person in a discussion has equal access to the floor, so to speak, and that once a sentence is begun listeners will allow it to be finished. Of course, the rules do permit interruptions, especially to express enthusiastic agreement or an agreement to disagree between friends. But equality and turn-taking are fundamental principles. Every player or performer has the same right to get up and make a fool of themselves, sometimes under cover of a drug- or alcohol-induced high or shared laughter. Commonsense rule: we will not take other people's words out of their mouths without some kind of permission, nor will we shout someone off stage or off the field until they have proven that they can't manage or won't conform to the rules of playing. These unwritten rules go unchallenged in most social circumstances, even when open opponents meet.

I look at the key terms of authoritative rhetoric—tradition, custom, even institution—as part of an effort to name forces that assist us in celebrating the project of self-possession, self-fashioning, self-expression, a project that sees all life as a constant achievement and all agreed-upon practices as techniques for simultaneously amplifying and questioning what it is we have agreed to in our own little groups. As William James put the matter:

Experience is a process that continually gives us new material to digest. We handle this intellectually by the mass of beliefs of which we find ourselves already possessed, assimilating, rejecting, or rearranging in different degrees. Some . . . are recent acquisitions of our own; but most of them are commonsense traditions of the race. (James 1970 [1903]: 61-62)
Thus experience and its associated vocabulary were, and continue to be, elevated to the realm of holy words. In this social dispensation, individuals may find redemption, or at least validation, in the world of the here and now, even if it is no longer attached to a divinely sanctioned plan.

Culture now achieves a new meaning, focusing on actual and repeated patterns in our daily interactions and practices. This agreement is reinforced by each act of sociability. When they are writ large in cultural displays and performances, such practices gain power through the coordination of the energies of the group involved in the celebration, which becomes, not just as assemblage of individuals, but a collectivity.

The problem facing the humanist is not so much replacing the gods but finding a language to replace the Word with new sacred words that will allow us to celebrate the survival of the human spirit. For many years, civilization, progress, and culture bore this burden, gracefully submitting themselves to elevation. Of these, only the last has retained its halo, through the efforts of those who recognize in this word's capacities the possibility of linking together the way the peoples live throughout the world.

Can any such "god term," to use Denis Donoghue's designation (Donoghue 1976: 23), remain holy in the relentlessly self-examining environment in which we live? Members of the academic clerisy continue to search through our everyday speech for these god terms, knowing that they are not going to come from on high. As first Matthew Arnold and later Lionel Trilling, Erving Goffman, Raymond Williams, and Victor Turner did, we try to recover new ones from the passing talk of the streets. We have seen such things happen often enough to have some confidence that it will happen again—and yet again.

Keywords, or root metaphors, must possess such integrity and value that they can be employed, defended in their use, and redeemed for the spirit that resides within them. If we have such a god term, it would be experience, a word I employ throughout this book. But let us keep in mind Donoghue's warning: "There is always a temptation to assume that because a god term is holy to its celebrant(s) it must be holy to everyone; a writer may make the mistake of thinking that he does not need to establish the sanctity of the word, that he has only to invoke it" (Donoghue 1976: 23). Many chapters in this book seek to discover where these god terms reside in the communicative lives of diverse groups in North America and the Caribbean. As I was searching for a common denominator for getting at the art of life, I found that, the more everyday the term, the better it suited my task. The vernacular seldom lets us down. It became something of a game for me to find the vernacular equivalents for terms of art newly minted from classical stem words, such as one finds among academic cultural theorists. Intertextuality, reflexivity, discursive and metadiscursive, ventriloquation, monologic, and dialogic have all been important in developing an understanding of the complexity of communication on the ground level. Yet each of them carried specially accrued technical meanings that made me feel that the very act of communicating ideas was betrayed.

Some of my disquiet with these terms emerges from the simple fact that I have been carrying on this conversation with ordinary people as well as academic colleagues over many years. But, more fundamentally, such matters of conceptualization and communication become increasingly problematic as cultural productions are performed in ever-enlarging public spaces. For the student of customary practices enacted by those claiming authenticity within particular locales, the problems of imitation and ownership of public properties are multiplied as audiences grow. Establishing rights not only to a certain composition but also to the reproduction of a style of acting, dressing, and talking raises doubts that threaten to subvert the entire enterprise. As cultural theorists sought to grasp the issues emerging in this domain, they tended to import terms from popularized social science, from above rather than below. Although these words no longer live within the realm of observational discovery, each of them—identity, ethnicity, creolization, and diaspora—confronts very real conditions which we are all facing. Each carries a complex set of meanings that allows for a high-level discussion to be held more productively among a community of scholars who use these terms as shorthand. But I found that, every time I tried to use this set of terms, I was limiting my potential audience. The ideas that I was discovering through close attention to the vernacular would, I came to feel, be better served by finding their vernacular equivalents. Ironically, in the last decade or two I see a dynamic at work in constructing public talk that goes against this bottom-up approach. Social scientists have had such a success, at least in the realm of popular reportage, that some terms developed as terms of art in one or another of these disciplines have been adopted by the vernacular, finding their way to god-term status that goes far beyond the academy. The last part of this book is devoted to a consideration of some of these keywords.

The ordering of styles used to range from high to low, with regard to the social status of the persons producing them and the places they inhabited. But the closer we came to the development of various vernacular forms, despite the seeming dominance of those exercising hegemonic control over the polity, the more cases we discovered in which the process was reversed. Just as I had first found that, in American youth culture, African American forms of expression provided the model for how young men should talk, so I discovered many other instances in which the language of the dominated superseded the official culture of the dominant group.

As our plural culture brings about negotiations among different speaking and performing communities, imitations and transgressions across the boundaries occur regularly. Even the most despised language finds its way into everyday talk: first it is used with quotation marks, and then, gathering power, it is used by journalists, comedians, and mimics of all kinds. Vernacular vigor can be located and more fully understood in the amazing variety of ways of speaking that are part of our past and continue to enrich today's talk. We hop around as we draw up new vernacular agendas and mix our messages on purpose, especially by accessing the vernacular forms of others with whom we come into significant contact. Artists and ethnographers continue to try to capture the letter and spirit of these new gestures of goodwill.

Table of Contents


1 Figures of Speech
2 Forms in Opposition
3 Genres
4 Stories

5 Just Talking/Taking License
6 Playing
7 Events/Experiences

8 Zones and Borders
9 Festive Gatherings
10 Facing Off at the Border

11 Ethnicities
12 Identities
13 Creolizations
14 Diasporas


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