Western Folklore

Vol. 80 No. 3/4 – Summer/Fall, 2021

Special Issue on Mind, Cognition, and Structures


Mind, Cognition, and Structures: An Editorial Introduction

Anthony Bak Buccitelli

This special issue of Western Folklore grew out of the panel “Theorizing Nature, Theorizing Mind,” which took place at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Folklore Society in Baltimore, MD, and at which I was an audience member. Although the panelists’ papers were addressing different concerns, sometimes with divergent methods, theories, or approaches, there was a certain set of overlaps or family resemblances that united their work. In particular, the panelists seemed all to be talking, in their own ways, about how folklorists might approach questions around mind or cognition, structures or categories, and generalizability or law-making.

Approaches to the study of the mind and structure in folklore in recent years are, no doubt, most closely associated with the structuralist and Freudian psychoanalytic methods adapted and tirelessly advocated for in the works of Alan Dundes (1934-2005), which cast a long shadow in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century folklore studies. Moreover, as Simon Bronner has observed, Dundes’s conception of “the scientific study of folklore” was built on the notion of folklore as a progressive discipline that generates “explanations” in response to “hypotheses and speculations” (Bronner 2006:401). Thus, in many ways, the works presented at the 2019 AFS meeting were addressing dimensions of the study of folklore that had previously been united in explanatory conceptions of the discipline, such as the one championed by Dundes.

Yet Dundes’s approach, influential and important as it may have been, has long been a point of contention. Elliott Oring (1998) and more recently Charles Briggs (2015), for example, have criticized Dundes for maintaining too narrow a focus on the works of Freud, to the detriment of other streams of psychoanalysis, including those developed by Alfred Alder (1870-1937), Melanie Klein (1882-1960), Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), and Jean Laplanche (1924-2012). Briggs, for example, calls for folklorists to “lay a different foundation for psychoanalytic folkloristics,” one that better accommodates folkloristic concern for “poetics and performance” (Briggs 2015:247).

Simon Bronner has defended Dundes against charges of extreme Freudian orthodoxy by noting that Dundes “distinctively adapted, and revised, selective aspects of Freudian theory” to better fit the cultural insights and concerns of folklorists (Bronner 2007:xi; see also Bronner “(Re)Cognition,” this issue). Bronner further defends Dundes against charges of ignoring works by other psychoanalysts by noting Dundes’s frequent citations of works by Ernest Jones (1879-1958) and Otto Rank (1884-1939), Sandor Ferenczi (1873-1933), and Karen Horney (1885-1952) (Bronner 2007:x-xi). Even so, Bronner argues in his essay “The (Re)Cognition of Folklore: A History and Philosophy,” in this issue, that Dundes’s “methodology did not extend significantly beyond the application of Freud to folkloristics” (Bronner “(Re)Cognition,” this issue), though he has also observed that Dundes took great care to modify and elaborate on Freudian thinking to situate “symbolic interpretations within cultural contexts rather than [to] presume universal bases of thought” (Bronner 2020:xii). Instead, taking a different tack than Briggs, Bronner argues that more focused attention on a wider array of ways that folklorists have treated questions of mind and cognition over the history of the discipline will yield a richer entry point into these issues than just a reconfiguration of the basis for psychoanalysis in folklore. Thus, following Jay Mechling’s call for attention to folklorists’s unstated “theory of mind” (Mechling 2006:443), in this historiographic survey, Bronner attempts to uncover the various ways that folklorists (and not just those with explicitly psychological or psychoanalytical bents) have thought about the relationship between mind, cognition, and folklore in their works since the early days of the discipline, as well as to explain the same gap between performance-centered methods and psychologically centered methods noted by Briggs.

Moreover, as both Bronner’s survey and Mechling’s own contribution to this issue, “Folklore and Transmarginal Consciousness,” observe, psychoanalytic approaches, Freudian or otherwise, represent only one set of perspectives on the study of the mind in relation to folklore. At different times, folklorists have drawn from or argued for behaviorism (see Burns 1977:123-124; Jones 1982), cognitive psychology (see, for example, Bartlett 1932; Rubin 1995), neuroscience (see, for example, Tangherlini 2008), developmental psychology (see, for example, Sutton-Smith 1979), symbolic interactionism (see, for example, Sandstrom, Fine, and Martin 2003), and phenomenological psychology (see, for example, Young 2000, 2002), among other perspectives. Drawing from a line of pragmatist psychological inquiry extending from William James (1842-1910), to John Dewey (1859-1952), to George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), and then to works of folklorists such as Gary Alan Fine and Roger Abrahams (1933-2017), Mechling’s essay attempts to forward the pragmatist goal “to put individual experience at the center of the inquiry into the meanings of vernacular practices” by focusing on the special kinds of psychological experiences that James deemed “transmarginal consciousness” (Mechling, this issue). Mechling shows that these special psychological states are often connected to traditional practices and argues that they “teach the brain how to recognize patterns and are the engine of human creativity” (Mechling, this issue).

Proceeding along similar lines, Bronner’s second essay, “‘I Hope You’re Well’: Magical Thinking in Digital Correspondence,” takes up the question of the “mindfulness” of repeated action, in this case the recent surge in the repetition of phrases such as “I hope you’re well” or “wishing you well” in online correspondence. He argues that uses of these phrases are not mindless actions or mere formalities, but rather represent cognitive responses to particular circumstances of human experience. Drawing on both practice theory and the structural concept of Einfache Formen, Bronner argues that wishing and hoping are primary forms of human expression, which in turn reflect underlying “magical thinking.” Yet, rather than construe this magical thinking as arising from ignorance, Bronner argues that it “can be viewed ethnographically and objectively as a form of rhetoric, designed to arouse sentiments or create a social bond rather than make true claims about actual human experience” (Bronner “I hope you’re well,” this issue).

In her contribution to this issue, Anna Konstantinova addresses a similar idea through a detailed study of a single proverbial phrase that has also flourished in recent online discourse: “Build bridges, not walls.” Konstantinova argues that proverbs “name important bits of experience succinctly and function as readymade tools in many communicative situations.” Therefore, they “satisfy the cognitive need to verbally structure the world and facilitate its interpretation” (Konstantinova, this issue). To accomplish her analysis, Konstantinova first works to develop “linguistic, cognitive, and discursive profiles” of the proverb: to “[i]dentify linguistic and cognitive prerequisites for its recent discursive currency,”, “[d]escribe the discursive diversity of the contexts it has appeared in,” and “[d]well on the formal aspect of the proverb’s discursive use.” Examining both its deployment in conventional proverbial forms and in a wide variety of retooled visual and/or parodic uses, Konstantinova makes the case that, while this proverb originated in much different circumstances in the middle part of the twentieth century, its current flourishing “is rooted in an underlying, universally understandable cognitive ideal supported by the current sociopolitical environment, which has made it a serviceable linguistic unit and accounts for its spread as a rational instrument of orientation in the sociopolitical landscape” (Konstantinova, this issue; see also Konstantinova 2019, 2020).

Proceeding with a similar concern for the linguistic and cognitive organization of discourse in and around vernacular expression, John Laudun takes up the task, in his essay “Narrative as a Mode of Vernacular/Folk Discourse,” to “develop a classificatory scheme, a typology, that gives folklorists more precise ways to describe the discourse we encounter across a broad range of activities and events” (Laudun, this issue). Laudun begins from the observation that many entextualized segments of discourse that achieve a position in the repertoires of individual narrators do not in fact meet the classic structural definition of narrative. Following the work of linguist Carlota Smith (1934-2007), he argues that, rather than seeking a remedy in “matching local designations of “story” with our analytical use of “narrative,” folklorists might usefully explore the wide variety of structural configurations in which “ideas, worlds, actions, actors, events, and states of affairs” are manifested in human discourse (Laudun, this issue). He observes that Smith’s typology of discourse modes as narrative, descriptive, argumentative, reportative, and informative could serve as a basis for developing a more fine-grained typology of vernacular discourse. By developing such a refined typology, folklorists could better acknowledge the ways in which entextualized discourse presented as “narrative” either stands in for or is intertwined with conventional narrative mode of speech; they could also come to better understand how speakers use certain discursive modes or shifts between modes to frame their talk in ways that are crucial to their cognitive and cultural apprehension.

In this brief introduction, I hope I have begun to sketch out some of the lines of intellectual continuity that run between the works included in this issue. Let me add one more line that I was struck by in preparing this essay: Western Folklore. As a careful reader may have already noted, the pages of Western Folklore for at least the past forty years have been a significant venue for the exploration of questions of mind and structure in folklore. I am very pleased that we are able to build on that long legacy with a special issue that will hopefully draw together and reinvigorate some of these crucial lines of thought.

Works Cited

Bartlett, Frederic C. 1932. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge University Press.

Briggs, Charles L. 2015. “Rethinking Psychoanalysis, Poetics, and Performance.” Western Folklore 74 (3/4):245–74.

Bronner, Simon J. 2006. “Folk Logic: Interpretation and Explanation in Folkloristics.” Western Folklore 65 (4):401–33.

. 2007. Preface and Acknowledgements. In The Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes, edited by Simon J. Bronner, vii-xv. Logan: Utah State University Press.

. 2020. Preface to the Paperback Edition. In The Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes, edited by Simon J. Bronner, vii-xvii. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Burns, Thomas A. 1977. “Folkloristics: A Conception of Theory.” Western Folklore 36 (2):109–34.

Jones, Michael Owen. 1982. “Another America: Toward a Behavioral History Based on Folkloristics.” Western Folklore 41 (1):43–51.

Konstantinova, Anna. 2019. “Time’s Up:” When Enough is Enough: the Proverbial Voice of Social Change. Proverbium 36:121-134.

. 2020. “Love Trumps Hate”: Proverbial and Idiomatic Leitmotifs of the Anti-Trump Social Media Discourse. Proverbium 37:143-172.

Mechling, Jay. 2006. “Solo Folklore.” Western Folklore 65 (4):435–53.

Oring, Elliott. 1998. Review of Review of From Game to War and Other Psychoanalytic Essays on Folklore, by Alan Dundes. Western Folklore 57 (1):63–64.

Rubin, David C. 1995. Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Sandstrom, Kent L., Gary Alan Fine, and Daniel D. Martin. 2003. Symbols, Selves, and Social Reality: A Symbolic Interactionist Approach to Social Psychology and Sociology. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury Publishing Company.

Sutton-Smith, Brian, ed. 1979. Play and Learning. New York: Gardner Press.

Tangherlini, Timothy R. 2008. “‘Where Was I?’: Personal Experience Narrative, Crystallization and Some Thoughts on Tradition Memory.” Cultural Analysis 7:41-76. www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~culturalanalysis/volume7/vol7_article2.html

Young, Katharine. 2000. “Gestures and the Phenomenology of Emotion in Narrative.” Semiotica 131 (1–2):79–112.

. 2002. “The Memory of the Flesh: The Family Body in Somatic Psychology.” Body & Society 8 (3):25–47.


The (Re)Cognition of Folklore: A History and Philosophy

Simon J. Bronner

ABSTRACT: The concept of cognition arose with the beginnings of European folklore scholarship. Debate concerned whether the creation of folklore in modern life is an embodied cultural response or an intentional mindful action. The folkloristic move away from cognition can be attributed to a philosophical empiricism in which only knowledge of externalized evidence gained through observation and collection is valid. The essay surveys alternative folkloristic philosophies and approaches oriented toward cognition. KEYWORDS: cognition, psychology, historiography, theory, philosophy

Folklore and Transmarginal Consciousness

Jay Mechling

ABSTRACT: Scientific psychology continues to chart the characteristics of altered states of consciousness, what William James called transmarginal consciousness, a world of exceptional mental states beyond the margin of our awake, everyday, taken-for-granted reality. People often use traditional practices of play and ritual to induce transmarginal states of consciousness. Neuroscience and evolutionary psychology suggest some important functions of temporary passages from the ordinary to the exceptional states, including triggering creativity. KEYWORDS: hallucinations, mysticism, trance, consciousness, play, ritual

“I Hope You’re Well”: Magical Thinking in Digital Correspondence

Simon J. Bronner

ABSTRACT: The ubiquitous practice of opening emails with “I hope you’re well” has sparked public debate on whether it is mindless or folkloric, i.e., mindful and purposeful. This essay addresses the issue by analyzing the cognition behind this and related expressions. Drawing on the concept of Einfache Formen and practice theory, the essay hypothesizes that the verbal enactment of hoping and wishing is psychologically significant in its framing of magical thinking at the core of folklore. KEYWORDS: cognition, psychology, magic, practice theory, digital culture, habit, Einfache Formen

“Build Bridges, Not Walls”: The Text and its Contexts

Anna Konstantinova

ABSTRACT: This paper discusses linguistic, cognitive, and discursive profiles of the popular dictum “Build bridges, not walls.” The compactness and vivid imagery of the proverb reflect a powerful cognitive ideal that is supported by the current US sociopolitical environment. These elements account for its widespread success as a rational instrument of orientation in the sociopolitical landscape. KEYWORDS: modern proverb, anti-Trump discourse, sociopolitical activism, proverb creation, cognitive ideal

Narrative as a Mode of Vernacular/Folk Discourse

John Laudun

ABSTRACT: This essay takes a granular approach to vernacular discourse that attempts to parse conventional folk narrative texts into passages that it ascribes as descriptive, narrative, reportative, informative, or argumentative. The goal of such classification at the microtext level is not only to describe folk narratives with greater accuracy but also to explore what parts of vernacular discourse previously less attended might warrant attention by folklorists. KEYWORDS: verbal arts, narrative, discourse, genre, genre analysis