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Oral Tradition 19.1 (2004) 108-150

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Creating a Seto Epic

Estonian Literary Museum,
University of Tartu

The creation of the Seto epic known as Peko, composed by the Seto singer Anne Vabarna in 1927 (Hagu and Suhonen 1995) represented a complicated collaborative interaction between folklorists documenting Seto tradition and a singer/poet constructing personal and communal identities. The resulting text emerged as a negotiation between invented symbolic representation and the establishment of a personal voice through a combination of creativity and traditional repertoire. In this study I explore the collaborative framework in which this text was produced, probing the circumstances and individual relations as well as representational agencies involved. The analysis applies an interdisciplinary anthropological and folkloristic approach, informed by hybridity and the blurring of disciplinary boundaries in historicizing inquiries into cultural documentation and textual practices.

Arguing that the epic under discussion has become an ambivalent symbolic text in cultural representation,1 my investigation into its historical establishment proceeds from the standpoint that it constitutes an ethnographic representation of Seto culture in traditional poetic form. Anthropological inquiry has recently addressed discursive aspects of cultural representation as textual practice, and by the Foucauldian deconstruction of "regimes of truth" has transformed the tradition-researcher into an object of analysis and evaluation as an author, an institutional being in a concrete historical context, while contesting the authority emergent in textual representation (see, e.g., Clifford and Marcus 1986, Clifford 1988a, Geertz 1988). In comparison to the revisionist historiography of anthropology, folklorists problematize their methodology less frequently, leaving the scholar in the field transparent and essentializing traditional collective heritage, reflected in individual repertoire at the expense of the performing or interacting subjectivities. Oral poetry, however, appears as a social phenomenon in performance or ethnopoetic studies and in epic scholarship; especially research concerning the Finnish epic Kalevala has included [End Page 108] explorations of ambivalent textual practices (e.g., DuBois 1995, 2000). The social role of epics finds marked investigation in identity discourse, as is illustrated in several contributions to Oral Tradition, particularly those by Lauri Harvilahti (1996) and Lauri Honko (1996). In his latest research into the creation and performance of oral epics, Lauri Honko (1998) united folkloristic, textual and anthropological studies, but in his focus on the "textualization" process the social framework and intercommunication between the singer and the ethnographer remained largely disregarded.

The current study aims at historicizing inquiries into cultural documentation and textual practices. My analysis is dynamically informed by Stephen Greenblatt's sensitivity to the "poetics of culture" (1995), observable in written documents (including poetic compositions) of the period and ascertainable in research aimed at cultural reconstruction, and by James Clifford's approach to "ethnographic authority" (1988b), which draws attention to the disempowering effect of anthropological representation. I thus propose a rereading of texts and documents to study cultural and social, aesthetic and political contingencies and constraints in the production of a cultural text, and its emergence as a representation. My perspective explores the emergent interaction of the documenting scribe or scholar, the narrator and the narrative presented in the text, and the text's larger social context. In studying textual representation, the departure point for analysis recognizes the issues of authenticity, traditionalization of personal repertoire, the orality/literacy interface in traditional cultural expression, and the transition of an oral repertoire into a text designed as a cultural representation. Particular discursive background in this context is provided by a historiography of folklore studies by Regina Bendix (1997), in which she argues for a reflexive study of the role and subjectivity of cultural scholars. The contested transparency of signs and interpretive procedures extends to antithetical agendas and subjectivities of folklorists and performers as they emerge in the practices of gender construction that are conceptualized from conflicting perspectives (cf. Kodish 1987, Mills 1993).

The current research explores the creation of Peko, first by observing the individuals instrumental in the emergence of the epic project, focusing on two outside folklorists, Armas Otto Väisänen of Finland and Paulopriit Voolaine of Estonia, and their interaction with the Seto folk singer and poet Anne Vabarna. The scholarly...