Tradition through Modernity: Postmodernism and the Nation-State in Folklore Scholarship.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Thompson, Tok
Pub Date: 01/01/2006
Publication: Name: Cultural Analysis Publisher: Cultural Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Cultural Analysis ISSN: 1537-7873
Issue: Date: Annual, 2006 Source Volume: 5
Topic: NamedWork: Tradition Through Modernity: Postmodernism and the Nation-State in Folklore Scholarship (Book)
Persons: Reviewee: Anttonen, Pertti J.
Accession Number: 171539690
Full Text: Tradition through Modernity: Postmodernism and the Nation-State in Folklore Scholarship. By Pertti J. Anttonen. Studia Fennica Folkloristica, 15. (Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2005. Pp. 215, preface, introduction, notes, bibliography, index.)

When I was a graduate student in the late Alan Dundes' folklore seminar, he had each one of us select a theoretical topic, get the reading list from him, and then make a presentation for the class. Although I didn't select postmodernism, I was disappointed with the materials available at that time. Later, when I began to write my dissertation research proposal, I included a section on folklore and postmodernism relying in good part on the works of Pertti J. Anttonen. I had acquired my many-xeroxed copy of his research, which had been published in Nordic Frontiers: Recent Issues in Modern Traditional Culture in Nordic Countries (Edited by Pertti J. Anttonen and Reimund Kvideland. NIF Publications 27, 17-33. Turku: Nordic Institute of Folklore, 1993) and passed along for a few years from colleague to colleague before finally landing on my desk. The next year, I noticed a frantic looking graduate student. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that she was to present on postmodernism in the seminar, and Dundes had given her a reference to the article I had used. Unfortunately, it didn't exist on campus, giving rise to her acutely-felt predicament. Future students were destined to follow in her path.

Happily, this unfortunate situation should now be largely rectified with the publication of this important new book by Pertti Anttonen. Not only will this ease the frantic, late-night library searches of graduate students, but it will also bring many scholars to the theoretical scholarship that Anttonen has forcefully tracked and pioneered, by bringing many of his works--both published and unpublished--together in this slim but dense volume.

His focus is on tradition, post/modernity, and the nation-state. "My starting point is that the concept of tradition is inseparable from the idea and experience of modernity ...", and that "... since the concepts of tradition and modern are fundamentally modern, what they aim to and are able to describe, report, and denote is epistemologically modern" (12). Tradition in his view is a creation of modernity, giving the self-imagined nation a claim to the state status. This view turns on its head the more usual outlook in which tradition and modernity are opposed, and also entwines both concepts in a postmodern framework and within the political context of the modern nation-state.

One might easily see how modernity views and promotes tradition, but Anttonen goes further, saying instead that tradition does not exist, at least for his purposes, outside of modernity. While Anttonen does state at one point that "This does not mean that the phenomena regarded as folklore do not ontologically exist" (57), he nonetheless talks not about their ontology but only their discursive elements, leaving the curious impression that traditions do not exist outside of modernity's gaze. Of course, this is a hallmark of a deconstructionist, postmodernist approach. Can we talk about reality, or can we only talk about talking about it? Is there a reality outside of jargon, outside of viewpoints? Common sense would tend to say yes, but postmodernist outlooks like this tend to say no, or at least de-emphasize this aspect until it effectively disappears from the argument. This is a work which talks about talking about things.

But for a folklorist, talking about things can easily be seen as a thing in itself, and here Anttonen lays bare a master narrative of how states (especially in Europe, and especially Finland) came to think of themselves as epic-sharing kinfolk. In this Anttonen excels, recounting the involvement of modernity and tradition (including language) in the rise of the new political configurations. The book speaks with great authority on the development of folklore theory from its inception, but with a focus on the changes wrought in the 1960s and on through the 1980s and '90s, providing an incisive and useful overview of many of the core concepts and writings around which the field of folklore currently revolves.

Among the newer works mentioned is the somewhat related Locating Irish Folklore: Tradition, Modernity, Identity in which Diarmuid O Giollain traces the entwinings of tradition and nationalism in Ireland (Cork: Cork University Press, 2000). The two countries have their similarities in many ways, and both have produced some of the most important works on folkloristics. Nonetheless, whereas O Giollain states that "[t]he modern age is inherently destructive of traditions" (2000, 12), Anttonen replies that although often used as semantic opposites ("such as old and new, right and left, warm and cold, north and south, east and west, raw and cooked, etc." [37]), tradition and modernity "must not be seen as oppositional, since modernity contains traditionality" (37). In a similar vein, Anttonen asserts that the folkloristic gaze "does not only find historicity and collectivity in human communication and social life; it makes it folklore, that is, folklorizes it" (57).

In addition to the sweeping main thrust of the book (post/modernism, nationalism, and folklore) are also smaller forays bristling with possibilities into such areas as political identity, media, and globalization. These hold implications for all students of culture and politics.

The last 56 pages are dedicated to discussing the particular case of Finland. Often viewed as a good example of a "homogenous" nation-state, Anttonen shows how this homogeneity was constructed, and the effects on the ground in different parts of the region flowing from this conceptualization: how the Saami were excluded, the Karelians exalted, and the Swedes forgotten. Also interesting is the mixed reception that the scientific category of a Finno-Ugric language family has received, with some seeing links to a greater Finno-Ugric ethnic group, but with many people wary of establishing links to people in a territory belonging to the Soviet bloc. As throughout the rest of the book, Anttonen presents convincing, well thought-out logical arguments, with implications far beyond Finland's borders.

Given all that this volume has to offer, it is somewhat disappointing that the book is not a smoother read. Anttonen states in his introduction that "[d]espite the fact that most of the chapters are based on previously published articles, this book is not an anthology. The chapters are meant to form a monographic entity ..." While that may have been his intention, it does not read like a monographic entity--we are told numerous time the role that the Fennomans played in the development of state of Finland, for example. This sort of thing could have been rectified by a thorough, comprehensive editing. And while most of the book is international in scope, we suddenly on page 124 find ourselves talking about Finland exclusively, without much context or explanation. All in all, it reads about halfway between an anthology and a monograph, which is an uncomfortable mix.

Also, while Anttonen's mastery of English as a foreign language is complete, his sentence-building can at times be overly abstract and dense, producing such cumbersome humdingers as:

"So, when folklorists such as Glassie and Dorst in the late 1980s disassociated themselves from antimodernist postmodernism, they associated themselves with antimodernist modernism, which, paradoxically, is quite promodern in its antimodernism." (75)

While this can be frustrating even for the native English speaker, it can provide a serious obstacle for those with English as a foreign language.

Still, these quibbles are over presentation, not substance. During her presentation at the American Folklore Society conference in Atlanta in 2005, Outi Lehtipuro commented at one point that good books are those which provide a pleasurable reading experience and smooth read (in the sense of "curling up with a good book"), while great books are books which significantly advance our conceptual understanding. There are many good books that are not great, and there are some great books that are not good. For example, Levi-Strauss' Elementary Structures of Kinship is a turgid and interminable read, yet is undoubtedly a great book, shattering the previous notions of kinship as a strictly social arrangement based on descent, and giving rise to the understanding of the cultural aspects of kinship, including its links to myths, rituals, and gender. Likewise, Tradition through Modernity does not provide the smoothest read. It does not flow along a pleasant story, nor entice one with sugared prose. But, and I do not say this lightly, I do think it may be a great book, one which will become a hallmark of theoretical folkloristic research while also touching upon many other areas as well, perhaps most especially postmodernism itself.

For anyone wanting to improve their understanding of the relationship between post/modernity, nationalism, tradition, and folklore scholarship, this will be an authoritative text. It accomplishes this on the one hand by a thorough understanding and explication of post/ modern theoretical developments, and on the other by proposing exciting, if at times extreme, theoretical arguments and viewpoints. In this book the reader will find many quotable passages where the author condenses complex ideas into powerfully terse prose. I highly recommend this work to anyone with an interest in folklore theory.

Tok Thompson

University of Southern California, USA
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