- Creating from the Margins:Precarity and the Study of Folklore
Consider a scene well known to contemporary folklorists, taken from Dorothy Noyes's chapter "Group" in Burt Feintuch's Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture. The scene centers on a pole at the heart of an Italian American street festival in Philadelphia. At the top, a Southeast Asian man triumphantly clutches a leg of prosciutto, the prize for having climbed the pole; at the bottom stands a cluster of Italian American teenagers who have been working for hours to try to achieve what the Southeast Asian man achieved in just a few minutes. The teenagers are angry; they hurl insults up at the Southeast Asian man, and then they hurl shoes and begin to shake the pole. It is a perfect illustration of a precarious moment: one man clings, exposed, to the top of a thirty-foot-tall slippery pole, alone in a community not his own, on the receiving end of escalating aggression. He is vulnerable, he knows it, and so he takes his prize, climbs down, and leaves. The Italian American teens are angry: "He's got his own festival to win at," they say (Noyes 2003, 9).
These teens are unapologetic in their act of racist violence. "Chinese! I hate Chinese!" one of them says, illustrating how, as Noyes asserts, white people cannot tell Asians apart (2003, 9–10). Of the two major ethnic groups represented in the encounter, one is newer to the area, more foreign, and perceived as invasive. Despite this, Noyes provides further context that suggests the boys' behavior is influenced by the desire to mitigate a different kind of precarity than the one experienced by the man at the top of the pole. She notes that there was, at the time, more economic competition than interdependence between the Italian American neighborhood and [End Page 1] the adjacent Vietnamese American one, where the visiting man had likely come from. Noyes points out that "Ethnic and racial prejudice diminishes with frequency of interaction and—crucially—with common economic interests. … The Vietnamese … shop in their own stores and compete [with Italian businesses]" (2003, 9). This, Noyes argues, likely contributes to one Italian American boy's assertion that the Southeast Asian man "came out of nowhere" to win the contest: he seemed, to that boy, to have taken something from a working-class community to which he had not contributed. Noyes explains that festival politics in Philadelphia "territorialize, essentialize, and compartmentalize ethnicity" (2003, 10). In policing the participants of the game, the boys were also protecting the boundaries of their community in the hope that it would in turn provide affective networks of social support that could protect them from real or imagined social, political, or economic vulnerabilities. The Southeast Asian man symbolized, to them, an outside threat, and the community closed ranks to ward off that threat.
The protection that community boundaries provide seems even more fleeting in the present. The dynamics of a global pandemic raging uncontrolled in many parts of the globe and ongoing mass protests for racial justice and against police brutality in the US and other countries set this issue's focus on precarity into special relief. Uneven public health responses to COVID-19 and reactionary regime-supported violence against the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and efforts to dismantle white supremacy emphasize the degree to which precarity—wrought both by disease and racial injustices—disparately affects already marginalized communities. Still, pandemic-induced economic vulnerability—when set against ever-present economic vulnerabilities in the Global South—and pandemic-required social distancing—when considered alongside the fact that capital-owners have always lived separated from those upon whose labor they depend—suggest both that neoliberalism has established new forms of precarity and that precarity is a general condition always experienced differentially. Anthropologist Clara Han captures this duality: "On the one hand, precarity is tightly bound to transformations of labor and the welfare state under conditions of globalization. On the other hand, precarity, and its companion, precariousness, is understood as a common ontological condition of exposure and interdependency that seems to be independent...