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Everyday Life

Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices

Roger D. Abrahams
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Everyday Life
    Book Description:

    A folklorist and ethnographer who has written about the Southern Appalachians, African American communities in the United States, and the West Indies, Roger D. Abrahams goes up against the triviality barrier. Here he takes on the systematics of his own culture. He traces forms of mundane experience and the substrate of mutual understandings carried around as part of our own cultural longings and belongings. Everyday Life explores the entire range of social gatherings, from chance encounters and casual conversations to well-rehearsed performances in theaters and stadiums. Abrahams ties the everyday to those more intense experiences of playful celebration and serious power displays and shows how these seemingly disparate entities are cut from the same cloth of human communication. Abrahams explores the core components of everyday-ness, including aspects of sociability and goodwill, from jokes and stories to elaborate networks of organization, both formal and informal, in the workplace. He analyzes how the past enters our present through common experiences and attitudes, through our shared practices and their underlying values. Everyday Life begins with the vernacular terms for "old talk" and offers an overview of the range of practices thought of as customary or traditional. Chapters are concerned directly with the terms for intense experiences, mostly forms of play and celebration but extending to riots and other forms of social and political resistance. Finally Abrahams addresses key terms that have recently come front and center in sociological discussions of culture in a global perspective, such as identity, ethnicity, creolization, and diaspora, thus taking on academic jargon words as they are introduced into vernacular discussions.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0099-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    A poetics of everyday life? Perhaps I mean a poeticizing of everyday practices, looking at vernacular culture as animated by our making and doing things with style. Our lives are replete with artifacts growing from our propensity to form groups through the creation of ways of speaking which give form to shared concerns and ideals. As Kenneth Burke has it, “There are no forms of art which are not forms of experience outside of art” (Burke 1931). But how do we sense, in common, when art is present, and use this state of being as a way of understanding our...


    • Chapter 1 Figures of Speech
      (pp. 21-38)

      Between habit and custom lies the domain of vernacular nuggets of wisdom: proverbs, sayings, aphorisms, maxims, adages, old saws, all figures of speech that seem to thrive in thin air. Often unvoiced because they are so obviously clichéd, nevertheless they live on as guides to what should be done under certain conditions of social stress. These gnomic phrases, usually attributed to someone else’s abiding wisdom, can productively be contrasted with other forms of “old talk” and archaic codes. All these floating bits of traditional currency still circulate in the vernacular, often in an anachronistic register of language. Most of them...

    • Chapter 2 Forms in Opposition
      (pp. 39-51)

      The shorter forms of traditional expression—not only proverbs and jokes, but also boasts and taunts, blessings and curses—were slow to attract folklorists’ attention. These materials are easy to collect, even among so-called nontraditional groups; an abundance of texts has been compiled and catalogued (Jolles 1929). But their brevity and simplicity made these sayings seem less interesting than the longer and more complex forms. Their genres remained undefined in either formal or functional terms. We knew little about how, by whom, and why even the two most widely observed short forms, proverbs and superstitions, are used in everyday interactions....

    • Chapter 3 Genres
      (pp. 52-69)

      The eminent literary critic Northrop Frye provides a comfortable defnition of genre, employing it in pursuing a generic criticism: “The purpose of criticism by genres is not so much to classify as to clarify . . . traditions and affinities, thereby bringing out a large number of literary relationships that would not be noticed as long as there were no context established for them.” Frye points to the operational basis of this critical approach when he notes that “generic criticism . . . is rhetorical, in the sense that the genre is determined by the conditions established between the poet...

    • Chapter 4 Stories
      (pp. 70-80)

      A good part of our conversational life is given over to telling stories. Much of the vigor we find in the vernacular occurs because the words are animated by the process of the story emerging in everyday encounters (see Goffman 1963; Labov and Waletsky 1967; Ochs and Capps 1996). When we happen onto a scene, we often ask, “What’s the story?” But only once in a while does the encounter make a good story—at least, good enough to retell. Even then, we are greeting with skepticism: “This had better be a good one for me to waste my time...


    • Chapter 5 Just Talking/Taking License
      (pp. 83-95)

      Most of the simple forms of folklore are imagined as performed in the comfort of home. But folklorists did not have to test such suppositions. This fireside comfort is idealized and granted authority within the vernacular because it carries the message of truths tested by time. Moreover, these tales, proverbs, riddles, or curses were slippery enough to deal with as they are discovered in different languages. When it could be presumed that these traditions were as das volk dichte, totally at home in a place and language that could be used as the basis of nation formation, then studying lore...

    • Chapter 6 Playing
      (pp. 96-110)

      Any discussion of play should begin by confronting the dilemma that Brian Sutton-Smith presents in The Ambiguity of Play. After spending his professional life studying the experience of playing, he (like everyone else writing on the subject) had presumed that he knows what play is, but now admits that no one has defined it successfully, and the subject is all the more interesting because of play’s ambiguities (Sutton-Smith 1998). There seems to be general agreement only that we understand play in contrast to other states of experience. Play activities ask us to leave the “real” world behind and help construct...

    • Chapter 7 Events/Experiences
      (pp. 111-126)

      The word experience has such flexibility that it serves us well in tying together the ordinary and the extraordinary; so much of life is already enshrined in its circle of meaning as it is used in the vernacular. Experiences happen to individuals and are therefore sometimes regarded as idiosyncratic, but these very same occurrences might, under other circumstances, be usefully regarded as typical. The philosopher Charles Morris argues in such a direction by distinguishing between “private experiences” and “common experiences” (Morris 1970: 115).

      All of us have a double consciousness and a sometimes self-contradictory value system about the meaning of...


    • Chapter 8 Zones and Borders
      (pp. 129-148)

      The tacit understandings that undergird privacy, friendship, and community rest not only on a substrate of commonplace expressions and experiences but also on an in-common typology of settings more complex than the simple contrast between private and public. The physical environment in which experiences-in-common occur provides a set of places in which certain ranges of behavior and scenes are expected by all who enter there. Following the contemporary social philosopher Charles Taylor, I call those marked spaces a set of social imaginaries: “A social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of...

    • Chapter 9 Festive Gatherings
      (pp. 149-161)

      No form of traditional display activity owes more to an expansion of the goodwill principle than festive gatherings. Egalitarian principles and practices flow through parades and picnics, open houses and seasonal celebrations. The same festive devices of organization and display are available for ceremonies of dissent, especially political or social resistance, or simply to challenge all rules and regulations. Ceremonial elevation and elaboration confirm everyday status distinctions, but when a wink is given by the whole group, the very same practices can be used to make fun of any distinction. Liberation is just as exciting as patriotic celebration, although they...

    • Chapter 10 Facing Off at the Border
      (pp. 162-174)

      To live fully, freely, and happily in our consumer culture, we must come to grips with the contradictory forces of fear and fascination as they are evoked by venturing out of the house. Once we are in public, we put up our guard—“for good reason,” say the cautious among us, who stand ready to believe all the horror stories we hear. Leaving home, even briefly, elicits a scintilla of panic. In its most extreme form, fear becomes agoraphobia. Impelled by our desire for difference, the widest variety of things for sale, or the thrill of the experience itself, we...


    • Chapter 11 Ethnicities
      (pp. 177-197)

      The term ethnicity was added to the social science vocabulary as such terms as national traits and character, as well as the racial categories, lost their explanatory vigor and political usefulness. It was proposed during the 1950s by voices representing the party of toleration and assimilation when the specter of genocide hovered over all discussions of stereotyping. As late as 1963, when Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote their in fluential book, Beyond the Melting Pot, ethnicity as a term for historical and social difference still marked a trouble spot for those seeking to put the forces of inequity...

    • Chapter 12 Identities
      (pp. 198-216)

      The term identity has become the encompassing term for cultural, social, and spiritual wholeness. It also emerges in ethnonational turf battles premised on the historical significance of territorial integrity. Such fictions invite questions, but not so much about their truth value as of their usefulness. Identity draws on a conception of individual and social life that has infused modern life in the West, especially in the United States. I have attempted to employ the term in my writings on African American culture, but have come away dissatisfied because identity gravitates away from the concrete ways in which self-identification works and...

    • Chapter 13 Creolizations
      (pp. 217-237)

      So long as cultures were regarded as being linguistically, geographically, and institutionally distinct from others, neither the movement of peoples nor the way in which they expressed themselves was problematic. This presumption was called into question by the recognition that historically great many peoples were uprooted and entered into relations of some sort with indigenous peoples wherever they moved. If the natives had not been annihilated, the two groups developed an exchange relationship. For students of culture, the situation was complicated by the ongoing interaction between two groups, especially because exchange almost always involves a transfer of cultural practices as...

    • Chapter 14 Diasporas
      (pp. 238-260)

      Diaspora, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is defined generally, as the condition of being dispersed among an alien people, and particularly, as the scattering of the Jews among the Gentiles since the eighth and sixth centuries B.C.E. Diaspora, according to contemporary culture, is defined metaphorically as all of life outside the walls of your own home. Diaspora created a new religion of a demolished temple, a disintegrated past. If Talmudists are to be believed, the temple will remain in ruins till kingdom come. Judaism became the religion of permanent waiting, of marking time and whiling away the years in...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-274)
  9. Index
    (pp. 275-280)
  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 281-286)