Tangherlini in the News

I think I should start a list of the places where Tim Tangherlini’s work on legends and conspiracy theories has been featured and/or he has been interviewed. It’s impressive and delightful to see good work getting such a wide reception. The latest, of which I am aware, is in The Guardian: “Why people believe Covid conspiracy theories: could folklore hold the answer?” (Warning: the version of the article I am seeing is almost unreadable in Safari thanks to some weird pop-up pull quotes that someone at The Guardian thought would be cool.)

Clowns in the Woods

The following links were collected by students in the American folklore course to continue our discussion about the dangers that lurk in the dark:

From JB:

From SM:

From HW:

Storyworlds in the Classroom

I may very well be a relic, or at least a square peg in an increasingly rounded hole. What do age and shape have to do with anything? Let me first tell you a story…

This past Wednesday, in the course on American folklore I am teaching this semester, we were discussing the way that contemporary legends manage to bridge the gap between what is narrated and the moment of narration so effectively. That is, we can imagine two individuals in conversation, A and B, who having proceeded through some sequence of genres — for example, the exchange of pleasantries followed by a few bits of news, then an anecdote or two, perhaps a joke or a bit of gossip, until one of them, let’s say A, suddenly, says, “Hey, that reminds me, did you hear that….” What follows is a legend. Perhaps it is, as we were discussing on Wednesday, a version of “the boyfriend’s death” or perhaps it is a more current-event-focused legend focused on some food contamination or something of that nature. No matter.

Narrated versus Narration

Narrated versus Narration

A tells B the story using a sequence of words, the narration, that conjures up a narrated world. What is narrated, whether it ever actually happened or not, is a representation of reality, not reality itself. Even if A has just come from running into an old friend at a coffee shop, B has no access to the event except through its representation. How the gap between what happened, or is said to have happened, is crossed from the saying of what happened is what is at stake here.

In the case of many contemporary legends, we can see the bridging/crossing taking place across multiple dimensions: first, legends of this nature tend to draw people into closer proximity, creating a kind of intimacy of narration that is different from other narratives. Let’s call that pragmatic intimacy or pragmatic bridging. Second, it is quite common that the events narrated are said to have happened either to someone the narrator knows, or to someone known by a mutual friend, *or*, as is the case with other legend genres, the events narrated are said to have happened nearby or just recently. In this semantic bridging, or intimacy, any of a number of permutations are possible: close by relationship, close by location, close by time.

The combined effect of pragmatic and semantic bridging is, of course, the erasure of the gap between the real world, the world in which the story is told, and the tale, or the world told or narrated. Such moments occur regularly in oral discourse, which is an amazing thing when you think about it, and their frequent occurrence plays some role, I believe, in the grip that legends can have on us: we are so used to the invocation of storyworlds as reality in everyday speech that we hardly notice a different kind of shift.

It was this careful distinction between reality and the representation of reality that momentarily confused my students. No one said anything, but every teacher or public speaker reading this knows the slight change in facial expressions that cue you to stop for a moment, to digress from the topic at hand into something that needs fleshing out.

And so I found myself given a mini-lecture on the nature of realism, how standards for realistic representation change over time, such that when we look at old movies, read older novels, or even watch television programming from two generations ago, we wonder how the consumers of those fictions could have ever found them believable. To us, they look at least dated if not downright “hokey.” Silly people of a previous time. What fools they were! Why would you think that a static camera with constant medium shots was at all realistic? Then again, I wonder what folks from previous eras would make of the constant motion of today’s cameras.

I’m happy to say that the mini-lecture on realism got them thinking, and allowed us to have the fuller conversation about legends that I wanted us to have. But, in looking back on the moment, I realized that that teachable moment was, to some degree, a function of the size of the class. English 432: American folklore is, by my university’s standards, under-enrolled with 12 or so students in it. (I had to make an argument to the administration that it would be really wrong for one of the two folklorists in the department not to be teaching a folklore course.) But with that many students, not only do I feel comfortable leaving aside the day’s agenda, I am driven to do so by looking at their faces. And with that number of students, I have already gotten to know their faces. With double that number, the course’s preferred enrollment, I know students less well. I read them less well. I teach them less well. (I can still teach them: it just won’t be as well fitted.)

I got tremendous kudos for the way I teach freshman honors English, but it was a class that I had to leave behind because our department head at the time, like our current dean, preferred quantity to quality.

And that is what makes me a relic. I am sorry for my students, who while they attend a regional public university, still hope for a quality education. I want them to know that many of their faculty still hope to give them such an education. But, increasingly, the odds are, ironically, stacked.

Why Count Words?

“Why count words?” It was a simple question[^cf1]. The person asking the question did not ask it in an overly skeptical, or hostile, fashion. He was honestly taken aback by a series of numbers I had rattled off that corresponded to a collection of texts, of legends, that I had assembled as my first step in my exploration of computational approaches to narrative. The illustration in front of the room had been a bar chart of sixteen legend texts, each collected by an established folklorist (and so the original oral texts were, I felt, reliably represented). The longest text in the collection was a little over one thousand words (1025); the shortest, only 150.

A multiplier of seven is not an order of magnitude in difference, but it is still enough of a spread that it bears further investigation. Mount Everest is, for example, seven times taller than Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles. Climbing the former is considerably more prestigious than climbing the latter. The Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. is seven times greater than Brazil. The distance from New York to London is seven times greater than the distance from New York to Washington, D.C. The difference in the latter amounts to a change in continent and a trans-oceanic passage.

My initial answer to the question was simple: I counted words because I wanted to know if it is possible to create a story world using 150 words, and, if so, then I want to understand how that can happen. Given the size of a great number of literary forms, one thousand words is already amazingly concise, but 150 words? Each word must pack an incredible amount of power: something made even more amazing when one realizes that only half that number of words are unique in their usage in this little text. That is, one word alone, he, gets used twelve times. The next nine words that get used most often in this little legend are also fairly uninteresting: and, a, was, the, it, his, said, to, they. So a list of the text’s top ten words doesn’t reveal anything about the story itself, except that, perhaps, there is a singular figure, he, who is counterposed against a group of some kind, they. (It is only when we get to the next ten most often used words, all of which appear only two or three times in the text, that we beginning to get a sense of what the story might be about: man, dog, with, when, went, there, saw, off, horse, controller.)

How is this possible? How can such a small subset of words from an already small text make a story go? That is, I think, the real question. Counting words is but one step along the way, but an important one, and one that we, as folklorists, have failed to undertake. Think for a minute of all the texts that are indexed in the great collection projects of the twentieth century. Add to them all the texts we have collected under the auspices of the ethnography of speaking. It’s an impressive amount of work, and while we have made some synthetic gestures, we have, by and large, mostly focused on differences. All of those differences are, of course, quite compelling, but in focusing on differences, we have also missed an opportunity to make attempts at larger kinds of claims about human nature and culture.

The impulse to count words, for me, is but one step towards a larger understanding of how humans think their way through the world through things of their own making. In the case of texts, they quite literally string one word after another, usually within the flow of a larger program of discourse that itself may or may not be conducive to text-making. Despite all the complexities, people in a variety of speech act contexts somehow decide to initiate a text, place one word upon another in a sequence they both anticipate and, at the same time, manipulate, until they are satisfied, in some fashion, with the result and, like a discursive Atropos, end the life of the string.

Counting words, then, is but one step towards a larger understanding not only how many words, but which words, and in what order. Why these words and not others? And what are the relationship of these words used here to instantiate a story world, but of the actions within the story world to the human world within which they are embedded? In short, what can 150 words tell us about the relationship between words, ideas, and actions?

The great indices of the previous era of folklore scholarship took one step in this direction by attempting to map, mostly in bibliographic terms but indirectly in cartographic, the various texts that had been collected in the initial wave of the philological project. At the same time as Stith Thompson turned his great carousel to compile the Motif Index three-by-five card by three-by-five card, however, a few scholars and scientists were beginning to play with the idea of using computers, as slow and expensive as they were then, to compile statistics about texts[^cf2].

Statistics remains, for most humanists, either an enigma or an enemy. It represents, for many (and with good reason), a regime of mathematics, itself something of a mystery, which has been used too often to summarize a situation or a group of people when a more subtle form of analysis was needed. I will not, in this essay, defend its use in such contexts. Nor am I interested in defending, or capable of discussing, the larger statistical turn that so many forms of knowledge production have undertaken. I have only this, a reworking of a dite from my own childhood and perhaps yours too: just because others are doing it is not a reason for us to do it, too.

I understand very well the humanistic impulse to draw a line in the discursive stand and to cry out “the crunching of us into numbers ends here.” My suggestion here, at this metaphorical line lying before us, is that the crunching will go on and on, and it can do so either without us or with our efforts not only to humanize the crunching but also to stuff it so full of the human that it might very well turn into a new kind of science, a new kind of scholarship that will not only be interesting to others, but also to us as well.

One of the central requirements of statistics is that you must convert information — perhaps a simply little story about a treasure buried somewhere, perhaps a few dozen of such stories, or perhaps several thousand — into data. But such a transformation amount simply to assigning values, most often numbers but they need not be, to the objects that are central to the problem. The analyst defines the problem, and the analyst assigns the values. Folklore studies has already done this in the form of tale type numbers, and motif numbers, and even when we describe the process of contextualization of a particular text.

So why count words? Well, clearly one reason to do so is simply to explore texts and textuality, to satisfy our curiosity about the fundamental dimensions of human expressivity: the number of words in a text, the word clusters (or collocations) that occur within a text as well as the words that always appear in conjunction with others in particular kinds of texts (co-occurrences). A second reason to proceed in this fashion is to make it possible to discover relationships between texts that we have not yet discovered by more traditional means of study. Discovery, indeed the notion of indexing itself, are the chief reason behind so much of the effort in natural language processing, as we will discuss in a moment. The final reason is that by seeing folklore texts in a new light and seeing relationships between texts that we have not gleaned before leads to new forms of knowledge, forms that need not displace but rather refine and extend current ways of knowing.

[^cf1]: The first public presentation of this research project was at the 2013 meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research. I would like to thank that group for their incredibly generosity and hospitality.

[^cf2]: The image of Stith Thompson sitting in a building dedicated to housing a carousel forty-feet in diameter is one that I owe entirely to Henry Glassie.

Morphological Mumbling

I decided to focus the paper I am giving at the International Society for the Study of Contemporary Legend a little less than two weeks from today on a group of twenty treasure legends collected in south Louisiana. The legends range in size from a little over one hundred words to a little over a thousand words in length. Of the twenty legends, fourteen focus on the experience of seeking treasure, four focus on how the treasure came to be located where it is, and two include both the seeking and the burying of treasure (one in that order and one in chronological order).

With that distinction aside, the texts are remarkably similar, and since the two kinds of stories above, the stories about seeking treasure and the origin stories, actually appear in two texts, I think it is best to think of the two kinds as really two components in a larger morphology of Louisiana treasure legends.

Since I am trying to develop a morphology, I decided to label tese two larger pieces of the narratives τ and α. Most readers will be familiar with α as the first letter of the Greek alphabet and also a common symbol for origins. A brief search of the interweb suggested that τ is sometimes used to designate experience, and that was good enough for me. All of this is work-in-progress and so I am open to any suggestions: I just needed some stable nomenclature that also didn’t get in my way as I worked on the legends. I originally used A and B, but the letters of the Latin alphabet are typically used for morphological functions … and at least one schema I worked with had capital letters (A and B), then numbers for variants, and then smaller letters for actions within each component. Too much.

For now, τ has the following *functions*, to use Propp’s term, in it:

A – goto location # woods, well, country
B – given interdiction # don’t talk
C – dig for treasure OR do an agricultural task
D – see spirit

As most folklorists, and other readers of Propp, will note, C should probably be split into two functions: one for digging for treasure and one for performing agricultural task. Often, doing the latter actually reveals the treasure — e.g., in the course of plowing, someone comes upon a treasure — but even then the treasure can be lost again, as it would be in those texts where people dig for treasure.

It’s how to represent this material that I find both fascinating and frustrating. I am on the third, or maybe fourth, complete revision of the table holding all this material and thus of the morphology itself. Every time I come across something new, it shifts columns in the table right or left, or sometimes moves a cell right that causes a cascade of failures that usually results in me seeing where a previous analysis had been in error or not complete.

Towards a Treasure Legend Corpus

Thanks to the organizers of this years meeting of the International Society for the Study of Contemporary Legend, which thankfully has the acronym ISCLR, I have a reason to explore text analysis on objects to which I am more accustomed. And so, for a moment, on the one hand, the work on the intellectual history of folklore studies using topic modeling and other forms of algorithmic / quantitative inquiry is paused. On the other, the necessary revising of the boat book manuscript is not yet cranked up, as it will be in two weeks, when the semester ends and my editor starts counting down the days to my self-imposed deadline of May 31. (Okay, Craig, that’s really going to be June 31, just so you know.)

This study of legendary is something of a bridge. It’s addressing a topic that I thought would be a part of the book, an examination of traditional folklore materials for an understanding of how people in south Louisiana understand the landscape, but using methods that I have learned since starting that project and that really point to the next chapter in my research and the next phase of my career, wherein I plan to focus on narrative studies, especially computational / quantitative / whatever forms of narrative studies. (And I’m especially thinking about looking into doing some work with science fiction, because it could be a lot of fun, and I think some of those authors would be more amenable to such things.)

I am, in particular, interested in legends about treasure, since they would seem to focus our attention on where a bounty might be collected from the landscape. I am drawn to these tales because in collecting a few narratives of my own, and then looking at published legends, I realized that a number of them located the treasure at the intersection of land and water, which seemed a really compelling point, given that I was (am) writing a book about boats that go on land and water, which is really about trying to understand how people think about the Louisiana landscape from a practical point of view.

Thanks to the generosity of Maida Owens, who copied to a thumb drive her collection of texts from the _Swapping Stories_ books, I had a nice collection of legends with which to begin. Ten texts, numbers 157 to 165, to be precise.

(Please note that I cannot, at any time, make these texts available. I was able to get this copy from Maida, with the generous permission of Craig Gill to make the transaction, with the proviso that I would not make the texts available — I can run any kind of analysis you might imagine on them and report those results, but not the texts themselves.)

I picked up four more legends from Barry Ancelet’s _Cajun and Creole Folktales_. And, following some suggestions based on what Ancelet chose to include in his work, I have about two or so tales (narratives) to contribute from my own work.

That makes 16 folkloric legends.

Where do those other texts come from? Well, it turns out that there is a fairly diverse community of treasure seekers and thus also an interesting collection of websites serving the treasure-hunting market. Most of the stories I have chosen to include were found in posts in treasure-hunting forums, like the ones hosted at [TreasureNet][]. A few of the stories were seemingly front page items from such sites. That is, these stories had more of the authorial framework of “I wrote this.” I would not have considered them at all, but so much of what appeared with a byline looked exactly like the kinds of things that were found in the forums: which themselves were, in most cases, coped from elsewhere. In a number of instances, as a matter of fact, the material in the forums appeared to be things transcribed out of old newspapers or locally-published books that were no longer otherwise accessible.

And so 16 of those texts.

Overall, the current collection stands at 32. Not a huge number, but it’s a start.

What am I going to do next? A couple of things.

On the computational side, I want to:

* run word frequency analysis on both the individual texts as well as comparatively across the two groups. (I want to call them something like “folklore” and “digital” but that’s a terrible distinction.)
* perhaps do some form of PCA, to see if I can’t find some clusters (I think this is too small a collection for topic modeling, but I might give it a try).
* use something like Wordij to compare word collocation across the whole collection as well between the two groups.

On the narratological side, I want to:

* break all the texts into component clauses to see if time and space are managed in a similar fashion and to compare the amount of description, narration, and exposition contained in each text and across the collection *and* the two groups.
* see if there is any kind of reliable morphology.

I’ve given myself until the end of the semester to do what work I can. Once the semester ends, the race is on to get the boat book wrapped up and off its publisher, the University Press of Mississippi.

[TreasureNet]: http://www.treasurenet.com

Occasionally, I feel like I write the right thing when corresponding with writers and filmmakers and journalists:

On 2012 Jan 24, at 1:29 PM, abc@def.xyz wrote:

> Dear Professor Laudun,

> My name is A. B. See, and I am a writer in New Orleans. I spoke to you briefly by telephone several weeks ago, in search of folklore related to the Mississippi River, and you were very helpful. Since then, I have been researching Mike Fink and Annie Christmas, and while there certainly are many iterations of the tall tales, I have not yet encountered any information that is considered factual. My understanding is that both people were real keel boat pilots, and if that is the case, I am wondering if you know of any sources where I might find information about their true lives.

> Many thanks,
> A. B.

Dear A. B.,

I don’t know anything about the individuals you name nor have I heard any of the local character anecdotes, as folklorists tend to call such things, associated with them. I once tried to track down a local character, a legendary character if you will, but in the end, it’s not unusual for you never to be able to tie any body of such stories to a particular historical individual. And the more time that passes the more uncertain it becomes. Oh, you can find people, or bits of writing in places like newspapers, who will swear up and down that all those stories are really about X person, but it’s rarely the case that folklore is born so clearly. It takes time, and time obscures a great deal in the process.

More importantly, the truth of such anecdotes, legends, or tales isn’t in any historical reference — this is what most people who focus on urban legends get wrong — because that isn’t where their truth value lies. Their truth value, their purpose or function, is in the present moment with the tellers and the community within which the tales circulate. Like any item of folklore, the stuff has to mean something to the people who use it. If it fails to do that in any capacity, then it drifts out of existence — perhaps enshrined in pages of a book — but no longer an active part of a living tradition. What draws people like me to the study of this stuff is the idea that things decades, or even centuries, old can still produce meaning for us. What’s inside that thing that gives it such staying power? And what does it say about the nature of the human imagination, of the mind itself, that some things can continue to mean, even long after any reference to them in the “real” world is long gone?