Tom Mould on his book, Overthrowing the Queen: Telling Stories of Welfare in America.

Interview by Fionnán Mac Gabhann

Fionnán Mac Gabhann: Overthrowing the Queen represents one of several objectives devised as part of a collaborative project you initiated for the purpose of addressing stereotypes and perceptions of public assistance in the United States. Could you describe the origins of this project and the collaborative efforts that lead to this book’s publication?

Tom Mould: As you know, the book is an attempt to look at all the different stories that are told about public assistance and people who receive public assistance. And so it includes the spurious legends about welfare queens but also spends equal time, if not more, on stories told by aid recipients. I do come at this topic as a folklorist, which means I pay attention to genre, narrative, performance, and context. But I’m also drawing links to a lot of other disciplines like psychology and sociology, anthropology, political science, communication, and so on. This is a question that spans more than one discipline, so I really felt that it required an interdisciplinary approach, and collaboration. There was no way this project was going to work if I wasn’t collaborating with people who spend their lives, day in and day out, working as aid providers or struggling to make ends meet as aid recipients. And then, of course, I collaborated with people who are telling these stories, doing the kind of good, strong ethnographic field work that folklorists and anthropologists are known for.

So I’ll give you the origin story. It was 2011, and I’m at a dinner party, a big organizational kind of thing with hundreds of people in attendance from across the spectrum in terms of class, race, position, and so on. I found myself talking with a woman—a fairly wealthy local community member—about the Affordable Care Act, which was being discussed and debated in the public domain at this time. The conversation was a little heated. We didn’t agree on almost anything in terms of the merit of the Affordable Care Act. I was more in favour of it, the person I was talking to was quite against it. Finally, we found one point of agreement which was that we both agreed that using the emergency room as your primary care provider was terrible for financial-economic reasons, for health reasons, for the pressure it places on institutions such as hospitals, and so on. So we could all agree on that. And I thought, “Great, I’m going to leave while we finally have something we can agree on.” And she said, “but,” and I’m thinking, “Oh no.” She continued, “You’ll never convince me that those people aren’t just going to take advantage of the system anyway.” I sceptically responded, “What people?” She proceeded to tell a story positioned in ways that I’ve heard this story told since I was a kid. The story was the classic welfare queen legend of the woman in the grocery store. And this woman told the story as something that she had seen herself and been present for in the not too distant past. She said, “I was in the grocery store the other day; I was checking out; there was a woman in front of me. She had nice clothes, jewellery, nice hair, and she had all of this food, steaks, and so on. She was buying dog food, and the woman behind the register said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, you can’t buy dog food with food stamps.” And she said, “Well, this is ridiculous.” And she kept pushing it and finally she said, “Fine,” and she marched back to the meat counter, grabbed a couple of steaks, brought them back and said, “All right, I’ll just feed my dog the steaks instead.” The narrator in this case did not say that the woman at the grocery store climbed into a Cadillac but that would be a common conclusion to the story.

I’ve heard this story so many times, but I thought it had risen to prominence during the Reagan presidency and declined in Reagan’s aftermath. I thought these stories were waning. They aren’t, they weren’t, and this project makes it quite clear that these stories are very much still being shared among friends, family, co-workers, colleagues, and so on.

So I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t get this story out of my head, I couldn’t believe it was still being told; and I was looking for a new project. I’m always interested in narrative. I had come off of a couple of other projects that were very focused on sacred narrative, but I’m also interested in how narrative is used in political spheres.

Long story short, I went and followed up with some colleagues on the Board of the Women’s Resource Center and folks I knew in the Department of Social Services. We convened a group of about nine of us who were working both in government and non-profit organizations, and said, “Hey, I heard this story. I want to do more about it. What do you think?” And people responded with, “Oh my gosh, we hear that story every time we present publicly.” So we sat around and for the next couple of months, threw out ideas for what we might do, what specific problems we wanted to address, how I could be helpful—because I’m not an economist, I’m not a policymaker, I’m a folklorist. So how can I bring my skill set to the table? After about a year of conversations and collaboration we had 10 goals or outcomes that we wanted to reach, we had an advisory board and group of people, and we had students who were signed up for a class to do some of this work.

Fionnán Mac Gabhann: In the book you describe your struggle with the question of how to write about stories of public assistance in the United States without reinforcing the very stereotypes that have caused so much damage and which you are attempting to undermine. One solution you offer is to take a performance-centered approach to analysis of stories of public assistance. How did this study benefit from folkloristic and linguistic anthropological insights on performance?

Tom Mould: Firstly, I’ll say that folklorists in general, because we pay attention to genre and process, are particularly well positioned to consider rhetorical strategies. I don’t want to critique the whole field of anthropology, but I think that sometimes the discipline has spent less time thinking about epistemology and the construction of knowledge, focusing more so on what it is rather than how it is produced. Of course, this situation has changed over time. But I think that folklorists do a really good job of thinking about how knowledge is produced, and that’s what a performance-centered approach does. It asks: who’s in the room, what are their rhetorical goals, what are their histories, what do the participants bring to the table? And with this kind of information we can understand why a particular story is being told and how we should be understanding it. A performer-centered approach also encourages us go beyond the immediate situational context, to work even further back, and to look at how a person is positioned, whether in terms of a particular role—a recipient or provider of public assistance for instance— or in terms of their own personal biographies and lived experience. Both of these moves help to bring context to the table so that we can unpack these kinds of stories.

As you know, one of the incredibly grim things that I discovered early in my fieldwork was that aid recipients replicated welfare queen legends very frequently. In fact almost every aid recipient had at least one kind of a welfare queen legend that they told. Rhetorically this makes all the sense in the world when you consider the larger social context. Aid recipients are aware that if they don’t acknowledge the welfare queen narrative and disassociate themselves from it they won’t be taken seriously because their interlocutors are already bringing that prejudicial narrative to the table.

And I’ll just add, finally, that a performance-centred approach encourages us to pay more attention to the audience and how people are responding to stories. For example, there was a wonderful moment captured by one of the students I worked with, Jessica Elizondo, who spoke with a group of conservative, white, upper middle class, older businessmen over coffee. These men were very bold in their views and stories, but you could see them sussing each other out in terms of what their positions were on welfare. Once agreement started getting shaped and formed more and more stereotypical stories were shared with that comfort that was being built. This kind of context is crucial for understanding why even self-professed liberals will sometimes share these welfare queen stories.

Fionnán Mac Gabhann: One of your major contributions to narrative scholarship in this book is your proposed reorientation of approaches to the study of legend. As you illustrate, most previous definitions of legend foreground the negotiation of truth as the essential characteristic of the genre. Contrastingly, you argue that legend is distinguished by the doubt it engenders and you advocate for a “doubt-centred approach” to the study of legend. Why have you adopted this approach, and what do you suggest are the benefits of such a reorientation?

Tom Mould: When I started this project I did an exhaustive literature review of legend and ended up with something like 84 different definitions that scholars have articulated over the years. So we haven’t settled the debate, and that’s okay. I mean, we all need an operational definition to move forward with, otherwise we’re sort of crippled intellectually. But that work really helped me realize that what makes a legend distinctive is not effort to convince someone of their truth but rather people’s expression of doubt.

I need to be really clear here because I’ve published some articles on this subject before this book came out and it’s really easy for folks to misinterpret what I’m arguing. Many people have said, “I can’t believe you are suggesting that we should be doubting all the people we talk to,” and I said, “No, no, no, the doubt is not our own.” The goal with a doubt-centered approach to legend is to look to see where audiences and participants are doubting, not to bring our own doubt to the table—my gosh, I can’t think of anything worse, and yet we do it all the time. I mean, when you actually think about what folklorists study as legend, it’s things we doubt, it’s things we think aren’t true. So, actually, maybe paradoxically, ironically, a doubt-centered approach actually helps us get away from that bias. And so, if somebody is making an argument for something that’s true and nobody doubts it, then it is just news or then it is just fact. We don’t call that legend, it’s not part of the legend process of debate, discussion, and belief. But the minute somebody starts to doubt it, then it becomes legend.

I’ll give you an example. When various folks on the right were claiming that Barack Obama couldn’t be President because he wasn’t a US citizen you had the birther movement—people who question the validity of Obama’s birth certificate—claiming that the story that Obama was born in Hawaii was a story to be doubted. The story that he is secretly a Muslim born in Kenya was the story to be believed, from this group’s perspective. So for them, the first was legend, the second fact. Then you had others—the mainstream media and investigative journalists, for example—for whom the reverse was true, where the story of not being a citizen or a Christian was the legend. So paying attention to where people are doubting is a crucial move here.

And doubt is not just the other side of truth. One of the things I found in this work was that people would often accept as true, let’s say, that an event had happened at a particular point in time but they doubted the degree to which these kinds of instances were common or generalizable. If you took a truth-centered approach to the same exact stories you wouldn’t necessarily recognize that people were actively trying to convince you the story was generalizable. The same goes for an interpretation. Many people think “Oh, the story speaks for itself.” Well, a lot of our research shows that it doesn’t. There is great open-endedness to narrative; stories require interpretation.

The doubt-centered approach I took highlighted a whole series of rhetorical strategies that would not have been identified with other varieties of analysis focused on how people are establishing credibility. So, that’s part of the argument. There are other benefits to a doubt-centered approach, however. One of the biggest ones being that it is emic; it encourages us to consider how people within the community are interpreting the narrative. It also brings more focus on audience interpretation and audience reception, which I think folklorist have not done as great of a job at as we could, in terms of analysis.

Fionnán Mac Gabhann: You published three monographs prior to Overthrowing the Queen, all of which revolve around oral narrative: Choctaw Prophecy: A Legacy for the Future (2003), Choctaw Tales (2004), and Still, the Small Voice: Revelation, Personal Narrative, and the Mormon Folk Tradition (2011). How does Overthrowing the Queen compare and contrast with these previous works?

Tom Mould: With Choctaw Tales I was following very much in traditional folklore footsteps by setting out to record the local traditions and stories. This was a book that community members wanted. In fact they sort of said, “You can write your Choctaw prophecy book but you have got to give us Choctaw Tales.” Part of the reason why they wanted Choctaw Tales was that they are still incredibly stigmatized and discriminated against in their home state of Mississippi. People still don’t understand who they are, what their traditions are, what their stories are, the depth, and richness, and beauty of their culture. So this is kind of a classic Boasian moment: go in, identify that, write about it, and let the work speak for itself. I think that was an implicit move behind both Choctaw Tales and Choctaw Prophecy.

When I first started working with Latter-day Saints people kept saying, “Are you coming to expose us? Are you coming to pile on?” When the book was published people were pleasantly surprised. Having a non-member write emically was ground-breaking for so many of them because they were not used to that. That wasn’t an explicit mission of mine, but in all of my work I certainly aim to present an honest, accurate, fair, and also empathetic view. If we really take cultural relativism at its face value then there is something to value here and the question becomes, what is it?

To get to your question. I had been focused on sacred narratives. I had been focused on stories that were grounded within a particular community and which bound folks together. I can’t say that welfare legends bind people together, certainly not the non-recipients. Even among aid recipients, there’s some recognition of shared plight in this narrative tradition, but it’s not the kind of community building or cohesive kind of tradition that folklorists often study.

So when I came to the welfare project I was interested in exploring more explicitly the possibility of putting my social conscience into my work. Every folklorist is going to be different and no folklorist should be obligated to do anything of this sort. But I felt compelled to do this, especially after studying the narrative traditions of a church whose leaders took political stances against things like same-sex marriage that ran counter to my own views. So when the story of “the welfare queen” was told to me at this dinner party, it landed in my lap at a time when I was thinking, as a folklorist, what if I brought my study of narrative and applied it to what I was doing in my off time, in terms of social justice and in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion work? Could that be a happy marriage? I would argue that it has been, and I also appreciate that there are going to be folklorists who don’t see it fitting within the parameters that they’ve often operated under. I just think it’s a missed opportunity if we don’t explore this also. I think our tent is big enough for both.


Mould, Tom. 2018. “A Doubt-Centred Approach to Contemporary Legend and Fake News.” Journal of American Folklore 131(522): 413-420.

Charles Briggs on his book, Unlearning

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: This book is a generous and intricate homage to your mentors and those who have laid down the intellectual infrastructure that you have inherited and transformed through your prodigious talent in bringing together multiple dialogues across academic and non-academic perspectives. It is also a genre of book that is not so common – a collection of previously published essays interwoven into a new intervention. I am curious about the process: how do you choose what to include, how did you decide the order and what about the texts had to change?

Charles L. Briggs: You are too kind! To do justice to your question, I need to compose, with apologies to Derrida, an origin story for the book, in three parts, that tries to capture the reflections that engendered Unlearning.

As the Introduction attests, I have been mesmerized since I was a kid with the poetics of language. As much in dialogue with Wittgenstein as Jakobson, I have always been enthralled with how a sentence, song, or conversation brings worlds into being and opens up new space for the imagination. Poetics led me into issues of health, how healers and their patients confront forces, from microbes to spiritual pathogens to racism, using sound, bodies, and instruments. I have also been concerned with materialities and the more-than-human, with plants, spirits, and environments. (I apologize for the weak Eurocentric terms in the preceding sentences.) In Unlearning, I tried to make a major intervention into work on poetics and performance, to which I contributed, often in collaboration with Dick Bauman, starting back in the 1980s. I got the impression that this literature had been largely assimilated into intellectual infrastructures in linguistic anthropology. I thus tried to breathe new life into it, pushing its assumptions and research questions by fostering dialogues with psychoanalysis, media studies, decolonial perspectives, and work in science studies and medical anthropology.

Second, I have long pursued a dual path: immersing myself in theory from anthropology, media studies, folkloristics, and other fields, but continually feeling uncomfortable with the limits each imposes on what counts as knowledge, who gets to produce it, and how it is made. This penchant flies in the face of advice I received starting in graduate school, that scholarly success involves finding a particular disciplinary trajectory and claiming ownership. A friend once remarked: “I’m like a crab in a seawall cave: you stick your finger in, and I will bite you.” Work in science studies suggests, however, that breakthroughs often come when researchers cross boundaries so that they can identify and challenge assumptions. Such insights are not achieved by pretending to fly over boundaries that separate disciplines or juxtaposing decontextualized concepts. Advances rather follow from engaging disciplinary trajectories deeply, learning their histories, and analyzing how they produce knowledge. A major goal in Unlearning is to disrupt disciplining practices by focusing on their bases in Whiteness and colonialism and creating experiments located along disciplinary borders. Crucially, I have become more mindful of the extent to which I draw on the insights of mentors who were not trained as academics, including woodcarvers, farmers, beekeepers, and women who perform laments over relatives’ bodies. This book reports my efforts to push back against tendencies to incarcerate such perspectives within scholarly genealogies and conversations, thereby curtailing creativity and expropriating their philosophical and theoretical insights as ethnographic particulars. Even decades later, I acknowledge that I am not fully capable of appreciating their intellectual challenges.

Finally, the book’s leitmotif—unlearning—sprang from questioning how academic hierarchies rely on implicit notions of scholarly learning curves, the gradual accumulation of knowledge. During the past ten years, my graduate seminars have rather become decolonial collaborations that seek to identify how White, elite, Euro-American men became arbiters of what counts as theory—thus defining what is deemed nonknowledge, ignorance, and irrationality. Through these discussions and collaborations emerging within and beyond the academy, many sited in Latin America, I found that my unlearning curve grew steeper all the time. Demands to challenge Whiteness and racism following the murder of George Floyd in May, 2020 have greatly increased the stakes here.

Unlearning is thus a set of reflections and experiments. It takes the undisciplining and unlearning process that I had previously explored in fragmented and often implicit ways and puts it right out there, front and center. It was also high time to thank my mentors adequately. This goal, however, nearly killed the project. I had used the themes of mentorship and unlearning to weave the chapters together, but I could not force myself to write the Introduction—for three years. I had unthinkingly slipped into a scholarly rut: Introductions revolve around academic genealogies, placing what are supposed to be new ideas into trajectories provided by other scholars. This fundamental contradiction—which would have undermined what the book was trying to accomplish—had prompted massive resistance. I thus suddenly decided to turn the Introduction into a memoir, recounting my experiences with mentors starting in my childhood. Writing the Introduction then became most enjoyable.

Ilana Gershon: In this book, you are hailing folklorists and revealing new scholarly paths they might take. But some of us are unratified listeners to this hailing. I am wondering what you might want linguistic anthropologists to overhear especially as you call forth folklorists’ nascent intellectual possibilities that you would like to see more vigorously nurtured?

Charles L. Briggs: I find this question fascinating because it imagines the book’s potential audiences and invites me to anticipate ways that linguistic anthropologists might engage it. Rather than projecting readers as divided into two disciplinary camps, I would like to highlight several periods in which sharing modes of investigation and analysis led to some of the most creative moments for people who self-identify as linguistic anthropologists or folklorists. Franz Boas told his students that documenting folkloric texts is a fundamental component of any serious ethnographic project. He edited the Journal of American Folklore (JAF) 1908-1924 and was President of the American Folklore Society (AFS) three times. Edward Sapir, who published extensive collections of texts and illuminated their poetics, was President of the American Anthropological Association and AFS. Boas student Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men developed a sophisticated framework for analyzing cultural poetics. Her experimental ethnographic style challenged readers to think in new and complex ways. Dell Hymes’ ethnography of speaking transformed work in anthropology, folkloristics, and linguistics; he served as President of the AAA, the AFS, and the Linguistic Society of America. In 1958, Américo Paredes, a major figure in the book, pushed cultural poetics beyond a nationalistic focus on shared culture to focus on race, difference, borders, and violence. His later work examined how insensitivity to genre, performance, and multilingualism prompted White anthropologists to scientize anti-Mexican stereotypes.  Richard Bauman galvanized scholarship in a range of disciplines with the notion of performance. During his editorship (1981-1985), JAF became one of the leading venues for publishing work in linguistic anthropology. In the 1990s, Dick and I tied to push the analytic limits of poetics and performance through notions of entextualization and de- and re-contextualization.

Unfortunately, such dialogues often fell victim to disciplining processes that harden into competing scholarly identities, thereby reproducing premises and imposing limits to theory-building and ethnographic research. Rather than trying to drag linguistic anthropologists into folkloristics, Unlearning seeks to reinvigorate these conversations in such a way as to challenge scholars—whatever disciplinary identity they claim—to venture across boundaries. It poses a particular challenge to linguistic anthropology. Even as a great deal of experimental writing has emerged in social/cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropologists generally seem a bit phobic about disrupting conventional styles of scholarly writing. In the Introduction, Dear Dr. Freud, and provocations scattered throughout the book, I challenge linguistic anthropologists to shake things up, textually. The point is less to claim the mantle of experimental writing than to circumvent intellectual roadblocks that sometimes become insoluble when thinking gets forced into conventional rhetorical boxes.

Ilana Gershon: And if I can indulge in an abrupt transition to the contemporary moment, how can a study of pandemics be enhanced by an attentiveness to the analytical insights of scholars of mediatization?

Charles L. Briggs: Studying pandemics: ouch! I ended up, by accident, in the middle of a cholera epidemic in a Venezuelan rainforest in 1992, in which hundreds died. I then stumbled, unsuspectingly, into an outbreak of bat-transmitted rabies in the same area that killed scores of children and young adults. In each case, linguistic and medical profiling were woven together in fatal ways, constraining efforts by dedicated clinicians and justifying, to use Arachu Castro’s and Merrill Singer’s phrase, unhealthy health policies. After collaborating with Venezuelan public health physician Clara Mantini-Briggs to help stop the dying and counter the devastating social, political, and psychological effects of these outbreaks, Clara and I conducted years of research seeking to figure out what had happened. Clinical interactions, health education, and media coverage played crucial roles in deepening the communicative and health inequities that multiplied deaths and obscured underlying causes. I am pleased to say that Stories in the Time of Cholera is now often used to teach medical students. The concept of “communicative justice in health” developed in Tell Me Why My Children Died: Rabies, Indigenous Knowledge, and Communicative Justice—grounded in linguistic anthropology analytics and ethnographic techniques—has helped push scholars and practitioners of medical anthropology, medicine, and public health to think more seriously and critically about what they often had dismissed as mere issues of language and communication.

Then along came H1N1 (“swine flu”) in April 2009. Although the virus killed fewer people than most seasonal influenzas, it infected most people on the planet communicatively through a barrage of public health announcements and news coverage. Anthropologists analyzed H1N1 as a quintessential manifestation of the “emergency preparedness” regime that transforms health and medicine into questions of security. Although H1N1’s life as a mediated phenomenon loomed larger than its viral impact, anthropologists generally left this component out of their ethnography and analyses. In a book I co-authored with media scholar Daniel Hallin, Making Health Public, I explored how “the H1N1 pandemic” embodied communicability in complex ways. Public health officials suggested that viral circulation could only be contained if the scientific information they produced was intensively circulated and publics demonstrated their compliant reception through hand washing and other prevention measures. I was particularly interested in two effects of the massive disjunction between the two sides of H1N1 communicability. First, lay publics to this day deem the much greater prevalence of H1N1’s discursive over viral effects as evidence that journalists “hype” or “sensationalize” news of epidemic diseases. Secondly, journalists, health professionals, and laypersons alike reproduced an ideological separation between communication versus medicine. My ethnographic work suggested that U.S. journalists, health officials, clinicians, Homeland Security officials, and politicians had, through massively funded rehearsals, developed shared practices for creating discourse about biosecurity “events.” A chapter in Unlearning analyzes how these actors collaborated in constructing “the H1N1 pandemic” in just 24 hours, even before more than the scantiest scientific evidence was available. Drawing on science studies and European and Latin American media studies theory, Hallin and I analyzed this phenomenon as biomediatization. We used the concept to trace how pandemic and other discourse ideologically projects separate or even opposing media/communication and scientific/medical arenas, yet simultaneously entwines logics and practices of journalism, medicine, public health, and homeland security.

And here we are in the midst of “the big one,” the COVID-19 pandemic that seems to have brought germ thrillers to life and justified the securitization of public health. The pandemic’s mediatization would seem to be the communicable opposite of H1N1, in the sense that the circulation of media discourse and viruses have both been extraordinarily high. Would attentiveness to the mediatization of pandemics suggest, however, that a magical convergence of epidemiology and mediatization has been achieved? Seven months of intensive ethnographic work on the pandemic suggests that the situation is more complex and contradictory. Rather than playing his assigned role in the pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex, as did President Barak Obama in 2009, Donald Trump displaced the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the government’s communicable center. He rather held daily White House “Coronavirus Briefings” in which he not only sparred with top medical advisor Anthony Fauci but violated the CDC’s Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication rules one by one. Sites and processes of biomediatization multiplied and clashed as social media and conservative journalists circulated discursive forms that get stigmatized as “misinformation” and “conspiracy theories.” Moreover, patients—particularly those experiencing the “long COVID” symptoms that have proved difficult for physicians to interpret and treat—developed sites of collaborative knowledge production through social media.

I want to use Michael Silverstein’s analytics in addressing your question. The official pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex presupposes ideological models of medicine, communication, and media. In “normal” times, U.S. health communication pictures self-interested, agentive, rational individuals who consume health-related information and services. Pandemic discourse contrastively presupposes what Hallin and I called a “biomedical authority” model that constructs elite health professionals as knowledge producers and a linear, unidirectional process of converting it into “communication,” translating it into lay registers, and transmitting it to publics. However, the SARS-CoV-2 virus proved so challenging that claiming a monopoly on knowledge production and communication was near impossible: scientists and clinicians were forced to admit uncertainty and drastically revise prior conclusions, even as health officials frequently changed guidelines.   

Sustaining this ideological landscape was also complicated by a massive shift in the pragmatics of mediatization. In 2009, most U.S. residents drew primarily on television news and newspapers for H1N1 updates, arenas largely dominated by biomedical and public health professionals; only 17% said they mainly used the internet, where competing (“conspiracy theory”) explanations were more prevalent. For both H1N1 and COVID-19, health officials used “crisis and emergency risk communication” metapragmatics to channel public affects and convince laypersons that their survival depended on surrendering claims to be knowledge producers. In 2020, attempts to use a narrow, standardized metapragmatic register to shape the pragmatics of media landscapes that were being scrambled by political polarization and shifts in media technologies, practices, and economics were designed to fail. As we enter the pandemic’s third year, the official pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex seems to be losing its grip even on people who accepted masks and vaccines.

Given the early stage of my COVID-19 research, I cannot offer any fast and sweeping generalizations. I do hope, however, that the book’s perspectives on circulation, mediatization, coloniality, poetics and performance, and communicability might inspire readers to find new ways of documenting and analyzing the vast and complex issues of our day, given that their consequences will be felt for years to come. I also hope that my efforts to reshuffle the disciplinary deck will inspire readers to inhabit boundaries and forge new types of collaborations. Thank you, Ilana, for challenging me to rethink what I hoped to accomplish with Unlearning.

Joseph Grim Feinberg’s “Loving Authentic Folklore in Post-Folkloric Slovakia”

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