Wednesday, 16 February 2011

A Green Man

I've only just got round to picking up a copy of Jacqueline Simpson's recent book on the folklore of pub names (1). It is the kind of well-researched delight we have come to expect from her, and I'm enjoying it very much.
I'm also extremely chuffed to find myself mentioned in the acknowledgements there. When she was researching the changing iconography of Green Men in pub signs, Jacqueline had asked around for any images people might have. She was thus able to describe a number of signs, including 'The Green Man on the corner of Plashet Grove and Katherine Road (London E6) [that] shows a "wild man" figure carrying a tankard and standing next to a barrel' (p. 121).
Here's the photo on which she based that description. I'd taken it in part because the pub was closing down, and I felt there should be some record of the motif in use there before evidence of it disappeared. The building was subsequently demolished, and a block of flats is nearing completion on the site.
There had been quite a lot of local interest in the pub because it was one of the older buildings in the area. (Although it wasn't a great pub by the time I knew it). I'm pleased that such interest can also be used to inform other research.
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1: Jacqueline Simpson, Green Men and White Swans: The Folklore of British Pub Names (London: Random House, 2010).

Thursday, 10 February 2011

A meme streak

Last night's Newsnight saw Paul Mason appealing to the notion of 'memes' for the circulation of radical ideas. (He'd already floated the idea on his BBC blog). I hadn't intended to get into the question of meme-theory here yet. It's quite a broad field, as I've found in my doctoral research.
I've not been convinced by memes thus far. To a great extent they seem like a judgemental short cut advanced by disapproving scientists to account for religion without viewing it in any broader social context. To quote an abstract by Susan Blackmore, 'Not only does the God meme satisfy minds that were not evolved to accurately assess the origins of the universe or the likelihood of life after death, but wraps itself up in religious memeplexes that use threats and promises to ensure their own propagation'.
There are a number of problems with this. For one, it doesn't really account for contrary theories held by minds presumably at exactly the same evolutionary disadvantage. As some critics have noted, there does not seem to be a tendency for bad memes to be countered by good ones. In the work of Richard Dawkins, for example, there is a tendency for bad memes to be countered by rational criticism, which doesn't seem to have memetic status. (1) Indeed, some scientists have pointed to this problem more generally. Lewis Wolpert has written 'Just what a meme is, and how it is distinguishable from beliefs, I find difficult. Is the word "bird" a meme, and is the second law of thermodynamics also one?' (2)
This tendency of memetics reveals a lack of familiarity with the study of traditional narrative and its transmission. Schrempp has pointed out that folklorists have long dealt with the transmission of traditional narrative elements - 'less ideologically and more scientifically', he notes archly - in trait and motif studies. (3)
A related problem, with more serious implications, is the implication that these motifs are themselves responsible for their own transmission. (This is clearer in Blackmore's writings than in Dawkins's). Folklorists' examination of motifs and types does not proceed from the assumption that the stories are transmitting themselves. What sounds like the ultimate in materialism from the memeticists is a way of removing human agency from cultural artefacts. It gives the idea supremacy in its philosophical framework. If you tell a myth, or believe in a god, this is evidence of your human failings in the face of quasi-genetic elements, rather than any cultural expression.
Distasteful though I may find it intellectually, however, the 'meme' has acquired a certain folk life as a way of representing transmitted ideas. You do find it in popular discussion, and in that respect it must be taken seriously. It exists as a popular and vague definition. (I don't like the popular use of 'folklore' to mean something false, but I recognise it exists, and has to be factored into any appraisal of emic analysis).
What's interesting about Mason's appeal to memes is that you see that process at work. Although he pays lip service to the notion of self-replication, in practice he actually abandons much of the contentious baggage because he sees it in terms of agent-driven communication: 'ideas arise, are very quickly "market tested" and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory ... seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes'.
I still find it a vague and unhelpful concept, in origin profoundly ignorant of any study of traditional communication, but there does seem to be some attempt to use memes now to express something closer to the items that people transmit between themselves. There seems to be some attempt to restore human matter to the transmission of non-material artefacts between people. To restore the folk to the folklore, maybe?
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1: Gregory Schrempp, 'Taking the Dawkins Challenge, or, The Dark Side of the Meme', Journal of Folklore Research, 46.1 (2009), 91-100.
2: Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 30.
3: Schrempp, 'Dawkins', 98.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The legal historian of cannibalism at sea

I'm sorry to hear that the legal historian AW Brian Simpson has died. There's plenty of detail in Christopher McCrudden's obituary in The Guardian.
Simpson's probably best known to folklorists (and most general readers) for Cannibalism and the Common Law, his classic account of the Mignonette tragedy and its ensuing legal case. (This established the precedent in English law that you could not kill someone to eat them, even in the most extreme of circumstances). I've written on the case here before.
It's an excellent book, rich with ballad and customary evidence, and it's invaluable for anyone trying to understand the clash between folk culture and the law. I used it extensively when I was working on Thackeray's poem about cannibalism at sea 'Little Billee' for an article in the Folk Music Journal, 9.5 (2010).
I don't know whether Brian Simpson ever saw this article, but he was certainly uppermost in my mind when I came to illustrate it. He had quoted a broadside ballad about the Mignonette, 'Fearful Sufferings at Sea: Lad Killed and Eaten', but wrote that he had never seen a copy of the ballad. It was serendipity that, while looking for ballad illustrations in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, I came across that very ballad in Ralph Vaughan Williams' own collection. It now adorns the cover of that issue of the journal. Its inclusion was always intended as, and remains, a small tribute to Brian Simpson's sterling work.