I’ve been thinking a lot about speaking lately. This is because I’ve been doing far less of it than usual; my Vietnamese is pitiful, and many of the people I interact with on a daily basis speak little to no English. It’s an odd feeling; I have this whole (crazy, nerdy, whatever) self that I am completely unable to communicate to the world. Same goes for those trying to speak with me, I guess, except their problem has less to do with “the world” and more with “that gal.”

So I’m a mute in my own life. This makes me think about fairy tales! And cultural crticism! Surprise! Joseph Jacobs – collector of English Stories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries – is my target today. Like many fairy tale collectors, Jacobs saw himself as preserving a vanishing tradition. England, he warned, was losing its folk culture due to industrialization. Also, and way more importantly, they were being shown up in the Folklore arena by the Germans and the French. SO not okay, people. But! In his otherwise rather pedestrian Preface, Jacobs says something really interesting:

Who says that English folk have no fairy tales of their own? […] The only reason, I imagine, why such tales have not hitherto been brought to light, is the lamentable gap between the governing and recording classes and the dumb working classes of this country–dumb to others but eloquent among themselves. It would be no unpatriotic task to help to bridge over this gulf, by giving a common fund of nursery literature to all classes of the English people, and, in any case, it can do no harm to add to the innocent gaiety of the nation.

Dumb to others but eloquent amongst themselves. When you first read it, it’s pretty easy to dismiss the comment as dated and classist. And in a way it is. Though Jacobs isn’t using dumb to mean “stupid;” Laura Gibbs of the University of Oklahoma believes that Jacobs’ comment refers to a lack of literacy in the non-governing classes. And this might be the case. But I think that there’s something more in Jacobs’ comment, soemthing more telling, even if there’s also a hefty dose of elitism mixed in.

Joseph Jacobs

I'm a bald elitist with a large moustache, but I still may have a point.

Thing is: the idea that the underclasses – for lack of a better word until later – can’t communicate themselves may have a grain of truth in it. But it’s not because of a lack of intelligence. It’s because of the nature of communication itself. See, not long ago a gal by the name of Gyatri Spivak wrote an essay called “Can the Subaltern Speak?” By “subaltern,” she means literally a person who is in a subordinate position. Not the masters. This notion is tricky. Who is subaltern? An oppressed group? Not necessarily. Let’s take women for example (because I am one). Women are not the masters of this universe, though it pains me to say it. Yet that does not mean that all women are subaltern. Individuals can choose to align themselves with the ruling institutions, they can be cut off from female identity, or – worst – they can go to college, take classes in cultural theory, and then go about writing things – like essays and blog posts and essays disguised as blog posts – claiming to represent subaltern women. And this is dangerous, because they are not, in fact, the Metatron of the subaltern. They aren’t being, showing, or representing the subaltern; rather, they are filtering subaltern experience, making it their own and not representing that experience but rather re-presenting it, if that makes sense. The subaltern, says Spivak, is necessarily heterogeneous; it isn’t composed of “the workers” or “the poor” or “the minorities.” A member of any one of these groups may be subaltern, but then again, the circumstances that they are in, and their relationship to the power-structures of those circumstances, changes their status.

So when asking “can the subaltern speak,” it’s good to keep in mind how complex the idea of the “subaltern” is. But the word “speak” is also important here. And I don’t mean my issues with speaking in Việt Nam, which in no way classify me as subaltern. What I’m talking about isn’t just everyday communication – we all do that – but communication of the self. Can the subaltern speak, communicate their situation, represent themselves outside themselves? Or are they doomed, as Jacobs implies, to be eloquent only amongst themselves, unable to have their unadulterated experiences shown out in the world without the risk of appropriation?

People who write histories write the histories that they want to write, and they erase subaltern experience in the process. People who collect folk tales also erase subaltern experiences, even when they think – like Jacobs did – that they are preserving that experience and showing it to the world.

Take the Brothers Grimm for example. They did not go galavanting about the countryside, walking up to peasants and collecting oral folktales. Actually they got most of their tales from middle-class women in Kassel. The German scholar Heinz Rolleke has devoted his entire life to showing how the Grimms’ fairy tales evolved. Far from being the pure outpouring of German folk spirit, most of the tales are bourgeois in origin. Moreover, the Grimms changed the tales *significantly* before publishing them. There’s a lot of debate going on about the changes they made; many tales were made tamer, less sexual, such as “The Frog Prince.” Some, however, were actually radicalized, like “The Robber Bridegroom.” Whatever the case, the stories which many believe to be representations of under-represented, illiterate German peasants are actually the product of some bourgeois women and two literary geniuses.

The Brothers Grimm "collecting" a tale from Dorothea Viehmann

This Is Not An Image of the Subaltern Speaking. It's also, by the way, no how the Brothers collected their stories.

The subaltern doesn’t speak to us from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Do subalterns speak elsewhere?

A while back, I wrote a post about ca dao, vietnamese folk poems. The collector and translator of these poems, John Balaban, collected them by wandering around Việt Nam with a tape recorder, asking farmers, workers, anyone he met to sing him their favorite songs. Surely the subaltern spoke there! I mean, Balaban didn’t change the poems, right? He just collected them, wrote them down, translated and published them. Problem solved, right?

Not necessarily. First of all, consider the circumstances under which the poems were recited. Were they sung in their natural, normal setting, among members of a village without outsiders? No. Does this fact effect the poems? Yes; the choice of subject matter, of which poems to sing, was almost definitely swayed by the fact that the singer was performing for *Balaban;* we’re talking about an American collecting folk poems during the Việt Nam war. And it’s true; a lot of the ca dao in his volume have to do with the nation, with war, loss, etc. On top of this, you have to add in the fact that Balaban did not publish all the poems he collected. Many readers also come to the poems through translation, which also effectively robs the poets of their voices (though this is not Balaban’s fault).

It’s also a good idea to think about to whom the subaltern is trying to speak. Who are the receivers? Can they even receive the experience/knowledge that the subaltern is trying to communicate? I’m going to quote Spivak (at my peril; she can be obscure)

When we come to the concomitant question of the consciousness of the subaltern, the notion of what the work cannot say becomes important. In the semioses of the social text, elaborations of insurgency stand in the place of ‘the utterance.’ The sender – ‘the peasant’ – is marked only as a pointer to an irretrievable consciousness. As for the receiver, we must ask who is ‘the real receiver’ of an ‘insurgency?’ The historian, transforming ‘insurgency’ into ‘text for knowledge,’ is only one ‘receiver’ of any collectively intended social act.
– Spivak, p. 82.

OK, so that’s brilliant, but also opaque. Let’s say I’m a peasant and you’re an ethnographer out to collect folktales. Good for you! You come up to me and ask me to tell you a tale. Being a rather nice person with an excellent voice and a great repertoire of tales, I’m happy to oblige. You collect it and go on your merry way.

But what happens to the story?

An Ethnographer's Tape Recorder

Caution: Potential Weapon of Mass Destruction

Maybe you publish it. People read it and are educated. Good job! But your readers didn’t actually experience a folktale. What they experienced was a “text for knowledge.” A “folktale” is something quite different. It is told among people for whom it has great meaning, tying back to their way of life. It is more than itself, it’s its context: told to (or sometimes by) a group of people in the fabric of daily life. You tell a tale about harvests in the fall, a tale about sexual desire when infidelity blows through town, tell tales as a way of experiencing life more fully, adding meaning, community, experience, etc. The folktale is inseparable from its context. Someone who records it and sells it in a book, like Jacobs did, may “preserve” it and ensure that others read it, but what he’s written down is a piece of knowledge, albeit a beautiful one. He’s lost all the experience that makes a folktale what it is.

When I read a folk or fairy tale, I try to remember that I’m always reading a translation. Even if the fairy tale was originally told by English-speaking peoples. It’s a little clinical, actually, even if the tale itself is beautiful. When I’m critiquing a fairy tale, I try to remember where I’m speaking from. Writing about the practice of widows’ self-immolation on the funeral pyres of their husbands, Spavik says:

Obviously I am not advocating the killing of widows. […] [But] in the case of widow self-immolation, ritual is not being redefined as superstition but as crime. The gravity of satiwas that it was ideologically cathected as ‘reward,’ just as the gravity of imperialism was that it was ideologically cathected as ‘social mission.’
– Spivak, 97.

The religious authority telling women to self-immolate claims to represent the wishes of the woman: she wants to die and receive her reward for doing so. The white men “saving” these women from this “barbarism” are doing so because they are such benevolent, humanitarian people. The women’s voices are nowhere. And if you go to the source to try to figure out what these women think – and you should – how do you know that the answer you get is a true representation of what the woman wants, rather than a response which is merely *supposed* to be given to you, the researcher?

Dialing down the stakes by a *lot,* this is useful when thinking about folk tales. Who is presenting them to me? What did they change and why? The Brothers Grimm screwed around with gender roles in their fairy tale collection, and you’d better believe that they did it with an agenda. Then again, even if I were a German peasant woman, listening to these tales (here unchanged or “pure”) tales and retelling them to my children, am I actually speaking in my own voice? That is, am I just re-presenting a story, or does the story actually represent me?

These are the thorny questions. I don’t have answers to them, but they do a lot to make me aware of what it is I study and why I study it. A folktale tells a story beyond itself, even if some involved in that story are silent.