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Posts from the ‘Theory’ Category

Value, Ownership, and Cultural Goods: Regina F. Bendix to Deliver 2016 Richard M. Dorson Memorial Lecture

This is the season’s big lecture. With many heritage studies projects underway, it is a perfect time to welcome Regina back to Bloomington. Here are the details:

2016 Richard M. Dorson Memorial Folklore Lecture
Join us for the 6th Annual Richard M. Dorson Memorial Folklore Lecture.

“Value, Ownership, and Cultural Goods”

Regina F. Bendix, University of Gottingen, Germany

Monday, March 21, 2016
6:00-8:00 pm
800 N Indiana Ave

A reception will follow the lecture.


Since the mid-1990s, scholarship on heritage has blossomed – some might say boomed – and brought forth a plethora of new journals and studies in many languages, not least due to the vigorous work and impact of UNESCO’s heritage programs. UNESCO’s work on behalf of “cultural goods” reaches back roughly sixty years and has yielded many policy suggestions, conventions and programs. UNESCO’s activities in turn mobilized other international agencies concerned less with safeguarding valuables and more with ownership and group rights. They point toward ways in which different groups of actors harness the notions of tradition, folklore, culture or heritage to improve their lot on this earth. In their efforts, such groups are likely assisted more by experts in international law and economics than by students of culture.

For scholars in folklore and related fields, at least two tasks present themselves. One entails a continuation of a by now “traditional” task: understanding how excerpts from cultural scholarship, in their transfer and implementation in the public sphere transform, the practices, people and places we tend to study. A second task builds on this first one: we need to find avenues to communicate better with disciplines and practitioners engaged in establishing the legal norms and the economic projections concerning the fate of culture turned resource.

On the Study of Shreds and Patches

Yesterday my work with the William C. Sturtevant collection focused on the material culture side of his efforts to document the history, practice, and significance of the unique Florida Seminole art form known as “patchwork.” Basically, I organized and quickly looked at a couple of hundred patchwork samples such as those arrayed in the image presented here.

I have done little work yet with documents, but a large folder of notes associated with Dr. Sturtevant’s patchwork studies were handy and I took a quick peak. There is a lot there. I hold off on talking about that and describe a single note that is very relevant to this website.

For its early years, this website was just associated with my name. A while back though, it started to seem clear (to me, at least) that it needed a more blog-like name. The name the I chose was Shreds and Patches. I should have explained the source of this name at the time, but didn’t. It was a soft re-launch, I guess. Anyway, the first thing that my eye fell on when peaking into Dr. Sturtevant’s patchwork notes folder was a single slip of paper that explains the source of my name.

It is a medium sized slip of paper in his own hand and it is a quotation–the very quotation from which the title of this blog comes. The source is a famous, oft debated passage from the conclusion of a book by Robert Lowie. I have not gone back to the source to check Sturtevant’s note, but here it is as he has it.

“Nor are the facts of culture history without bearing on the judgement of our own future. To that planless hodgepodge, that thing of shreds and patches called civilization, its historian can no longer yield superstitious reverence. He will realize better than others the obstacles to infusing design into the amorphous product; but in thought at least he will not grovel before it in fatalistic acquiescence but dream of a rational scheme to supplant the chaotic jumble.”–p 441 (concluding paragraph of Lowie’s Primitive Society (1947, N.Y., Liveright; 1st ed. 1920; on pp ix-x of the new preface to the ’47 ed, RHL [Lowie] complains that this famous passage has been misinterpreted)

Lowie was one of Bill Sturtevant’s undergraduate teachers at Berkeley. I can talk some other time about the significance and history of this passage from Lowie. Here it is interesting to think what it is doing in Bill’s patchwork notes. Two possibilities have occurred to me.

If he meant it to be there, it was clever because it suggested that he was going to draw upon anthropology’s most famous theoretical discussion of “patches” in his empirical project on patches (of the Seminole sort). Alternatively, and amusingly, it could have been filed in this place by someone else because a quick scan of the text could suggest that because it is about patches it needed to go with the patchwork notes. I’ll get to the bottom of it someday, perhaps. In any case, it provides the answer to the question of why I named the blog as I did. (Lowie was not the original source of the phrase Shreds and Patches, just the one who gave it anthropological resonance in theorizing the nature of culture and so-called “civilization.”

Note.  The patchwork samples shown above are not yet numbered, but they are part of the William C. Sturtevant Collection at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Fall Conference #4: The Legacy of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Work

Soon after returning from the AFS meeting, I was fortunate to be a participant in an conference at IU organized by Joëlle Bahloul and Raymond J. DeMallie. The symposium was called After 100: The Legacy of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Work in 21st Century Arts and Humanities and it brought a large and diverse group of scholars to our campus to talk about the ramifications of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ scholarship. I enjoyed meeting some colleagues for the first time and reconnecting with some others. I also enjoyed returning to interests that I have had throughout the career. I appreciated being included and having the chance to host one of the panels. My thanks go to the organizers and all of the participants.

From Reciprocity and Hierarchy (1944)

I spent Friday and Saturday discussing the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss at a fine conference organized by Raymond DeMallie and Joëlle Bahloul. This brought me back to an essay that I have long valued. Here is a taste.

A perhaps one-sided analysis of the dual organization has too often put the emphasis on the principle of reciprocity as its main cause and result. It is well to remember that the moiety system can express, not only mechanisms of reciprocity but also relations of subordination. But, even in these relations of subordination, the principle of reciprocity is at work; for the subordination itself is reciprocal: the priority which is gained by one moiety on one level is lost to the opposite moiety on the other. Political primacy has to be paid at the price of a subordinate place in the system of generations.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1944) “Reciprocity and Hierarchy”


Or perhaps blink.

[New, Open Access] Culture Archives and the State: Between Nationalism, Socialism, and the Global Market

From a CFS News Release:

The Center for Folklore Studies at the Ohio State University is delighted to announce the online publication of

Culture Archives and the State: Between Nationalism, Socialism, and the Global Market

Proceedings of an international conference held May 3-5, 2007, at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, The Ohio State University, Columbus. Ohio.

Columbus: The OSU Knowledge Bank, 2010.

The papers address the political uses of ethnographic archives from the late nineteenth century to the present. Archives keep tabs on populations, define and discipline national identities, shape and censor public memories, but also shelter discredited alternative accounts for future recovery. Today their contents and uses are tensely negotiated between states, scholars, and citizens as folklore archives become key resources for the reconstruction of lifeworlds in transition.

Case studies and reports come from China, India (Bengal), Afghanistan, Spain, Finland, Estonia, Romania, Croatia, the US, and the German-speaking lands.

In a keynote address, Regina Bendix provides a general account of “property and propriety” in archival practice.

Noyes on the Oversimplications of Cultural Property and Heritage Policy

An important working paper by my friend Dorry Noyes presenting alternatives to the conceptual oversimplifications common in cultural property and cultural heritage policy has just been circulated by the Interdisciplinary Research Group on Cultural Property at the University of Göttingen. Help make the argument even stronger with your comments and feedback here:

Lots to think with and work on.

Dr. Arle Lommel

Congratulations to Arle Lommel on the successful defense today of his Ph.D. dissertation in folklore. His dissertation is titled Semiotic Organology: A Peircean Examination of the Bagpipe and Hurdy-Gurdy in Hungary. His innovative project unfolds at the intersections of Hungarian ethnography and general ethnomusicology, organology, folklore studies (especially of “folk revivals”), material culture studies, and semiotic theory. It was a pleasure to be member of Arle’s dissertation committee.

Claude Lévi-Strauss as Museum Ethnologist

Claude Lévi-Strauss’ work is important to me and to the fields in which I work–Native American studies, folklore studies, cultural anthropology, social theory, etc.  On the occasion of his passing, I won’t say much more than I have already said, that I found his work to be inspiring and directly useful to my own studies. The topic on which we corresponded once–dual organization among the native peoples of the Southeastern United States–provides a very easy to grasp example. As a museum person and the editor of a journal in the field of museum-based anthropology and folkloristics, I thought it would be worthwhile to make a case for Lévi-Strauss as a museum anthropologist.  Of course, this was hardly his core identity and it won’t be how he is remembered, but here are three pieces of evidence that I would recall.

As the NYT obit. reminds us, he spent two years as a curator at the Musée de l’Homme (1948-1949) and he was instrumental, near the end of his long life, in its transformation in the context of the birth of the Musée du quai Branly. His role as a collector of artifacts and in the painful birth of the MQB (and the death or transformation of the Musée de l’Homme) has been discussed a great deal in the recent literature on these topics.

His book The Way of the Masks (University of Washington Press, 1982) provided a clear and accessible account of how his approach to structural anthropology could be applied to the study of visual art and material culture, in this case the carved masks of the native Northwest Coast of North America.  The book is also the place where his love of Northwest Coast carving and for the “Boas halls” at the American Museum of Natural History is most evident. It is, in part, a declaration of allegiance to the Boasian tradition of Native American art history and museum anthropology.

Also of interest to museum folks, particularly to students of photography and visual anthropology, is the collection of his ethnographic photographs from Brazil:  Saudades do Brasil:  A Photographic Memoir (University of Washington Press, 1995).

This is all just food for thought among my material culture and museum studies colleagues. As an ending to this note, here is a passage from my colleague Henry Glassie’s review of Way of the Masks:

Folkloristic critics who think Levi-Strauss’s textual emphasis prevents contextual understanding do not understand the theory of context and have not read much structuralism. This new work proves that structuralism is a variety of contextual analysis in that it recognizes all objects to be incomplete in themselves and therefore of necessity bound for meaning to things they are not. When Levi-Strauss studies masks, he studies them in their connections to myth, ritual, spiritual orientation, social organization, economic transaction, ecological situation, and historical development. In addition, and crucially, he argues that just as myths provide contexts for each other, becoming locked in the head through a system of transformation, so too are masks contexts for each other. This awareness that contexts, the associations that  breathe meaning into facts, are located not in the sensate world but in the heads of creators who when making a mask know of other masks, in their culture and in other cultures-this awareness is essential to the historian who studies texts in the context of other texts, to the ethnologist who must study people from the literature about them or consign vast numbers of societies to oblivion, and to the ethnographer whose responsibility does not end at the observation of discrete, situated actions. [Glassie 1984:483]

References Cited

Glassie, Henry

1984  Review of: The Way of the Masks by Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Journal of American Folklore. 97(386): 482-484.

Update (11/4/2009)

See the links gathered at here.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009)

Although we never met, I was greatly impacted by the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. I am very saddened to learn of his passing, but I recall how happy I felt upon his reaching his 100th birthday last November. He was a giant.

Don’t Miss Kim Christen’s Account of Returning to Tennant Creek

Don’t miss Kim Christen’s account of returning to Tennant Creek. Its a beautiful account of an important moment. Find it on her website here.

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