At the top of p. 99, as on almost every other page in my dissertation, I come upon the word “authentic.” The dissertation is about a movement to “return to authentic folklore” in contemporary Slovakia. It’s about what such a “return” might mean, but also what it doesn’t mean.
“So it’s about nationalism, right?” I’m typically asked when I begin to describe my work. Well, sure it is, what isn’t? But it’s not simply about nationalism.
This movement isn’t especially interested in returning to the most authentically Slovak kinds of folklore. Its partisans are relatively unenthusiastic about the shepherd’s flute or the fujara, which are often considered most purely Slovak of musical instruments. They are much more moved by the danceable rhythms of Romani string bands. They aren’t so interested in unearthing an authentic Slovak identity that can be politically mobilized; they’re more interested in experiencing a lost popular entity that mobilizes them onto the dance floor. This is an entity that they identify with wistfully, but never completely, because they believe that it is irrevocably tied to a past that can never be fully revived.
The authentic folk that they invoke is apolitical. Which of course means that it is just as much mixed up in politics as everything else. It is mixed up in a political world that, in the neoliberal and “post-communist” age has closed off large areas of social life, including folklore, from political efficacy.
Which brings me to the second noteworthy point about this page. It is the only page in my dissertation where there appears the name of the neo-fascist politician Marian Kotleba. I observed, here, that folklore enthusiasts in Slovakia were not talking about nationalism and fascism—or about internationalism and anti-fascism. But I reflected, then, that when politics are unuttered and undefined, they remain wide open to those who are willing to break back into the political sphere and speak. And will anyone be prepared to speak against them when they come?
It was five years ago when I saw and thought this in the field. Looking back, that appears as another age. This March, Kotleba’s party gained fourteen seats in the Slovak parliament. Folklore, banished from respectable politics, is re-politicized as an instrument of hate—against the same Romani minority that has been central to the life of Slovak folklore.
This story calls for a coda.
Joseph Grim Feinberg. 2014. “Where There Are No Spectators: Loving Authentic Folklore in Post-Folkloric Slovakia.” Ph.d. diss., University of Chicago.
Joseph Grim Feinberg is a research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences, in Prague. His research addresses the aesthetics of authenticity, the politics of performance, and the relationship between populism, nationalism, and internationalism in East-Central Europe. His book The Paradox of Authenticity: Folklore Performance in Post-Communist Slovakia was published in 2018 by the University of Wisconsin Press. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.