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  • Critical Historiography of the Present:A Response to "Looking Back, Moving Forward" by Peggy Bulger
  • Jessica M. Payne, independent consultant and Adjunct Assistant Professor of anthropology (bio)

In her presidential plenary address for the 2002 American Folklore Society (AFS) meeting, "Looking Back, Moving Forward: The Development of Folklore as a Public Profession," Peggy Bulger told a set of cautionary tales about key developmental moments in public folklore to frame recommendations for proactive steps that folklorists could take to propel their work and their discipline forward (Bulger 2003). As she describes it, debates surrounding the establishment of the American Folklife Preservation Act (AFPA) and the American Folklife Center's (AFC) initial forays into the Tenn-Tom project illustrate that folklorists have been their own worst enemies in countering one another's goals and initiatives in highly public settings. Drawing strategic lessons from these events in our disciplinary history, Bulger advocates that folklorists exert greater effort to find common ground with one another so as to promote the efficacies of folklore scholarship from positions of unity rather than discord. Recounting her ventures into the offices of Senator Robert Byrd, she extends this strategic call. Whether we as folklorists are aware of it at the time, our work has a political currency that we might as well use in the interests of promoting our institutional and professional viability. For Bulger, this point takes on even greater importance today as the stakes around the value of traditional knowledge, expression, and material culture become increasingly charged in local, national, and international arenas. Folklorists, she urges, have a great deal to offer on these stages, but to be effective they will have to work together, set up strategic partnerships with new institutional and disciplinary partners, and find ways to define and promote themselves in terms that are directly relevant to the formulation of current public and cultural policy.

In considering the implications of Bulger's talk, these core messages stand out, but it is the historical tales she cites that ultimately arrest my attention. Bulger frames her [End Page 337] stories and their key characters in ways that construct particular visions of our field in the past and, more important, in the present, and it is here that I will focus my response. I want to suggest that the dominant take on these stories, as reflected in Bulger's comments, might be reframed in light of the current evolution of the field. In employing a critical historiography of the present, my aim is to ensure that we look to our past in ways that are directly relevant to what is happening with us now. This argument in turn has implications for where we look to determine how best to "move forward," and it is from this selective angle that I want to engage the rich and varied content of Bulger's presentation. My hope is to stimulate further discussion about the historiography of our field, the current relations between academic and applied folklore, and the ongoing challenge to take risks in the interest of supporting our community-based partners and research subjects.

Disciplinary Transformations and the Reinterpretation of Our Founder's Legacies

Bulger's story about the AFPA hinges on the figure of Richard Dorson, whose opposition to applied folklore is well known even to those, like me, from a later generation who never encountered him personally. Bulger's emphasis on his dissension against a gaining tide in the field is exemplary of a recurring inclination to maintain his mythical stature by constituting the field through his negative example. What do we accomplish by defining our work in the present in relation to this disciplinary founder who we posit as our antihero?1

More than anything else, our discussions of Dorson's role in the development of the field reinforce lines of division between academic and applied folklore that we would do well to revisit critically today.2 It is clear, as Bulger demonstrates, that those lines existed in one form in the early 1970s and that they held fast in 1987, when Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett delivered the "Mistaken Dichotomies" paper (in which she also focuses on Dorson's damaging influence) that Bulger cites. Indeed, I...


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