Book Review, Folklore 99:2, pp. 263-264
GERMAN VOLKSKUNDE: A Decade of Theoretical Confrontation, Debate and Reorientation (1967-1977) (Folklore Studies in Translation), edited and translated by JAMES R. DOW and HANNJOST LIXFELD. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, Indiana, 1986. 343 pp. $35.00 Cloth. 0-253-32577-3
This is a collection of essays in translation from the German which has steadily worked its way into my everyday vocabulary and understanding of Folk Studies. To one trained in the English perspective, with its grassroots and regerminating debate in the shadow of a once pre-eminent Folk Studies tradition (and with the recent and heavy influence from American approaches), this collection has come as a revelation.
The national-political potential which underlay nineteenth century Folklore, and still runs quietly within British Folklore, was the dominant face of German Volkskunde during the Nazi period: the politics of Race and Fatherland directed the development of German Folk Studies and as Volkskunde gave the Nazi ideology a social and scientific credibility. In consequence, immediately after the war, the departments and institutes of German Folk Studies were dissolved. Folk Studies were rebuilt, however, and there are now seventeen institutes of Volkskunde in West German universities, one in East Germany, and five in Switzerland and Austria combined. Four hundred students registered for folklore courses at Tubingen in the summer semester of 1981, two hundred and fifty in Freiburg. There are specialised courses in regional Volkskunde in all German universities.
Despite the example of the Nazi period, the traditional concepts of folklore remained entrenched throughout the post-war period, and during the reconstruction of German Folk Studies as an academic discipline. In the 1960's pressure from students, according to Dow and Lixfield and a concluding essay by Martin Scharfe, forced a virtual revolution in which Folklore was taken out of its nineteenth century mould and forced to become practical and to address problems in everyday living. In the process '...the long and violent criticism of the name Volkskunde, which could scarcely be refuted objectively, resulted in the search for a new name' (p. 271). The Ludwig-Uhland-Instituts of the University of Tubingen, one of the premier institutes of Folk Studies in West Germany, threw out the term altogether, preferring 'empirical cultural studies'. At the biennial meeting of the German Folklore Society in 1969, the movement became a demand that Folk Studies become an applied cultural science; there were disruptions of the meetings and the president of the Society resigned.
The search for a term to replace 'Folklore', however, 'has shown that intellectual conviction is not always strong enough to overcome powerful institutional positions in the universities. Today a number of different nomenclatures are in existence (amongst them 'Ethnographie'), but the central organisations in the Federal Republic still bear the name Volkskunde...' and the word is still being used for the sake of communication within the discipline. That is not just a matter of resignation or indolent laissez faire, 'it also rests on the pragmatic insight that the traditional concerns of academic Folklore should not be left to ideological groups such as the 'regional folklore associations' which are organisations of amateur enthusiasts (p. 271). There is a rich comparative field here for those of us working towards a new concept of Folk Studies in Britain.
The institutional and numerical strength of German Folk Studies helps to explain the vigour and depth of the nineteen articles that Dow and Lixfield have gathered together, and suggests too, how a debate which transformed German Folk Studies between ten and twenty years ago can be read today as a contemporary document in England. The case studies are vital and fresh, the theoretical discussions provocative and current, the entrenched prejudices, emotional storms, visions and counter-currents immediately familiar.
All nineteen essays, either directly or indirectly, contribute to what Scharfe, in the concluding essay, 'Toward a Cultural History,' written at the end of the 1967-1977 period, identifies as the main foci of the contention: 'The debate over the basic character of the discipline (What is folklore? Who benefits from it? What are its objects of study and its goals?); the debate over the name (Is the title Volkskunde still adequate?); and the debate over history (What role is and must there be for historical research?). Karl-Sigismund Kramer's' Toward an Understanding of the Tensions between Estate Lord and Estate Subjects: Attempt at an Interpretation of Documents of a Ring Ride at Schonweide on the 23rd of June 1811' is an exercise in the use of archival records as documents of life, to go beyond the official report of disturbances around a particular folk custom towards a reconstruction of the events, with the folk point of view taken into account. Martin Scharfe's 'Scholarship Visualized: On the Exhibitions at the Ludwig-Uhland-Institute' analyses the purpose of cultural science and the issues that are involved and ought to be confronted in mounting and presenting exhibitions for the general public; 'Young People Read "Landseer" Books: Indications of the Functions and the Effects of Reading Materials' by Klaus Geiger studies the readership and the impact of mass literature on its youth audience with the ultimate aim being to enable people to do something about the culture that is lived, to become more autonomous in terms of it. Other essays are more specifically directed to the problem of Folk Studies - Hermann Bausinger's 'A Critique of Tradition' and 'Toward a Critique of Folklorism Criticism', for example; but all open up questions and provide material for a developing science of Folk Studies. A bibliography approaching thirteen hundred titles, mainly German, makes clear how deep the pot was from which the editors drew. The introductory essay is an important historical guide and indicator of the continuing strength of German Folk Studies.
Though one might feel regret that the communications bridge represented by this book has been built between German and American Folk Studies, and not between the Common Market partners, it is more than pleasing to have the German tradition available in English translation. Apart from envy, the overriding feeling is a desire for more.