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Indian Folklife (a newsletter of India's National Folklore Support Centre) 2, 2 (Oct.-Dec. 2002): 13-4. 

"Thoughts about the New Delhi Symposium, Folklore, the Public Sphere, and Civil Society"

Eric Miller is a doctoral candidate in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, USA).  He was interviewed by Shankar Natarajan following the Symposium.

Shankar Natarajan:  What were some of your general impressions regarding the Symposium?

Eric Miller:  I had a wonderful time!  I was very grateful to the National Folklore Support Centre, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and the Ford Foundation for making the event possible, and especially to M.D. Muthukumaraswamy for inviting me to attend and to present a paper.

Shankar Natarajan:  The Symposium brought together scholars of many disciplines.  How did you feel about this?

Eric Miller:  The Symposium provided an excellent opportunity for the Folklore Studies scholars present to display the Folklore Studies approach, or approaches.  The other people present had a chance to see folklorists in action.  You know, in the USA at least, folklorists have in recent years spent a lot of time defining the field.  A time-honoured definition is that folklore is traditional expressive practices of oral-centric people in the countryside.  In recent years, new definitions have been added, including Dan Ben-Amos’ suggestion that folklore is “artistic communication in small groups,” and Alan Dundes suggestion that whenever any two or more people have anything in common, they develop folklore around that common experience.

Traditionally, Folklore Studies has concentrated on the study of verbal arts –- especially various types of storytelling (also known as, oral narrative).  However, to do a through study of a particular genre of verbal art, it is not enough to learn the conventions of that genre –- one must also be familiar with the language in general, and with how it is used in everyday life.  Only then can one understand how the language is being used in the course of a special occasion.  Also, in many genres of verbal art the performers alternate between a wide variety of styles of speaking, chanting, and singing, including forms of speech and dialogue that sound very much like everyday talk.  For these reasons, it seems to me that the folklore scholar of verbal arts must also be a socio-linguist.  In addition, the performer is using his/her body, so the folklore scholar must also study socio-kinetics; and, if music is involved, the folklore scholar must also be an ethnomusicologist.  So, as you can see, Folklore Studies is inherently an interdisciplinary subject.

Folklore Studies has had a subtle but very important impact on the Humanities in general in the last 40 years.  Folklore Studies has tended to draw attention to the everyday experience of the so-called common person, and to vernacular ways of doing, making, and expressing things.  As a result, the taking of oral histories is now a widely held practice in disciplines such as History and Sociology, for example.  An approach of Folklore Studies is to visit with people and to really see, on a very practical level, how they do things, and to discuss these practices with the people who do them.  I believe this approach can be useful to researchers in all of the Humanities disciplines, and I hope that some of the non-Folklore Studies scholars who attended the Symposium also came away with this feeling.

Shankar Natarajan:  What did you think of the way the Symposium introduced the public sphere concept to Folklore Studies?

Eric Miller:  I thought it was absolutely brilliant!  Habermas’ original conception of the public sphere was largely based on his perception of activities in London and Paris in the 1700s and 1800s.  Those activities involved the writing and reading of newspapers and journals, and the public discussion of such writings, especially in coffeehouses.  In Habermas’ ideal public sphere, communication is independent of the status or cultural background of the speaker, and all discussion should be purely rational and logical, with a minimum of references to personal experience or feelings.  Tradition, community, self-interest, and aesthetic expression should be left out of the proceedings as much as possible.  The discussion of the common good, and of matters of public concern, should occur in a cool, disinterested manner.

Well, the above is not necessarily the communication style of many people.  Does this mean that those people should be excluded from the public sphere?  There may be different types of logic; there certainly are many types of common sense.  And who is to decide what is a matter of public concern?  Actually, in 1992 Habermas himself admitted that his stipulations had been unfairly exclusionary, and that communication styles other than the one he described are also worthy of public spheres.  So, one question we grappled with at the Symposium was:  How do people around India converse in various public spheres through their folkloric performances?  How are social, political, civic, environmental, and other issues raised and discussed in the course of these events?  It is a very interesting subject, and we only began to scratch the surface. 

With this Symposium, I believe M.D. Muthukumaraswamy has made an historic contribution to Folklore Studies.  For a long time, we had the text centred approach to folklore, in which the text (usually a written transcription, translation, and/or summary of spoken words) was the focus of study.  Then, approximately 40 years ago, a group of USA folklorists –- including my professors at the University of Pennsylvania, Roger Abrahams and Dan Ben-Amos -– began to introduce the performance centred approach to folklore, which focused on all of the social and aesthetic things that happen as a text is being presented.  And now we have the public sphere centred approach to folklore, which continues the work of the first two approaches, and adds the issue of how the performances and performers interact with the larger societies around them, including with people beyond the performers’ social groups.

Shankar Natarajan:  Could you give a brief summary of your symposium paper, “Folklore, the Public Sphere, and Interactive Telecommunication in Rural India”?

Eric Miller:  My present research centres on the use of verbal play in the child’s language acquisition process.  I am helping to develop play-based methods of teaching second languages, to adults as well as to children.  I am also interested in the use of audio- and videoconferencing (via the Internet and other systems) for the teaching and practising of languages and verbal arts, and also for civic discussion.  For what it is worth, it should be noted that Habermas has stated that the public sphere is not a physical place, but is rather a linguistically-structured environment -– so cyberspace communication, whether spoken or written, certainly qualifies as possibly occurring in public spheres. 

In any case, my paper concerned some of the things that may happen when language and verbal arts are performed, taught, and practised via videoconferencing.  I also considered the general sociological impact of the deployment of Internet facilities in rural areas.  For one thing, rural accees to the Internet is providing new opportunities for those people who are learning how to make use of the technology.  My personal belief is that technology should not be forced on people, and neither should it be denied.  Its presence (or non-presence) and uses should be decided by each individual and each community.

Amongst Folklore Studies scholars there has in the past been a general reaction against mass media, that is, against one-way media such as print, radio, television, and film.  These scholars have for the most part seen these media as enemies of folklore.  It remains to be seen if members of folk communities can make use of interactive telecommunication to develop their traditional artforms.  Certainly, they tend to use whatever technologies they have access to in their own traditional styles.