Two things that happened to me the same day have got me thinking about progress and authenticity again.
The first was that I went to a great seminar, where one of my colleagues from the IHR, Courtney Campbell (http://www.history.ac.uk/about/courtney-campbell and find her on Twitter: @CJCampbell123) was talking about the ideas of modernizing the nation and nostalgia and regional identities in the Brazilian Northeast, which are at the heart of the book she is writing. This is really exciting cultural history, where she looks at events and phenomena as diverse as beauty contests, World Cup football matches, a film Orson Welles never finished, and Carnival organisations where young men dressed up as women who had had relationships with U.S. troops during the Second World War.
One thing I was especially interested in about what Courtney was saying has to do with the paradoxes of regionalism and nationalism. Courtney was making a good case for the uneasy coexistence even within the same individuals and groups of two apparently contradictory beliefs:
- that the region of the northeast was a disgrace to the nation, a region that desperately needed progress and modernization
- yet also that the region was the site of authentic Brazilian culture
I asked Courtney about the back history of this paradox, since it is one that she rightly points out is common to regionalist and nationalist thinking across the globe. I wanted to know which comes first historically, the desire for progress, or the nostalgia for a purer past. Courtney argued that modernization, or progress, or whatever you want to call it, had to come first. Regret comes after.
Later that evening I was talking to Kate Bennett, who has very recently published a new edition of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, a seventeenth-century antiquarian text composed of short biographical pieces (see: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199689538.do). I don’t know a huge deal about Aubrey, but his name does come up quite often among folklorists, since his Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme is often considered one of the earliest precursors to the folklore movement of the nineteenth century.
The name is striking: remains.
Like other antiquarians in the British Isles such as Thomas Percy and James Macpherson, Aubrey’s very title suggested ruin, decay, and obliteration. Percy’s ballads were ‘reliques’ and Macpherson’s poems ‘fragments’.
I would suggest the regret that Aubrey, Percy, and Macpherson express could be called premature in two different ways.
First, they were writing before the social changes historians lump together as ‘modernization’ had really begun. The destruction of authentic, oral cultures they more or less explicitly evoked was not caused by railways, newspapers, and the army, as historians of the nineteenth century have argued, nor the radio and television, as a range of concerned writers claimed in the twentieth. Their nostalgia surely predated the supposed destruction of oral culture in any case. (This destruction is an idea of which I should be clear I am very suspicious in general).
Second, just as the social and technological changes that should supposedly cause this loss had not yet appeared, so too the very discourse of modernity was not born until the nineteenth century.
As Lynn Hunt has recently pointed out, the word was not used in English until the mid-eighteenth century and in French until the start of the nineteenth (see http://books.openedition.org/ceup/820?lang=en). Perhaps these early antiquarians were part of the new interests in the ‘modern’ in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which Hunt goes on to discuss. But whatever the case, is it not significant that these writers were at least contemporary with (in the case of Percy and Ossian) and even predated (in the case of Aubrey) the rise of a view of history as progress?
Many of the French folklorists I have worked on are seen as reactionaries, in a literal sense. We assume the regionalists and the champions of authentic folk cultures were reacting to social change and to discourses of progress. But it seems increasingly likely to me that their regrets predated the rupture upon which they were supposedly founded.