Recently, as I’ve begun to build my project and begin the first explorations of constructing the corpus of textual evidence through which I will examine national identity in Norway, I’ve been vexed with an epistemological challenge of using such evidence in my corpus that includes examples of literature, folklore, folk songs, and the like. Can such evidence provide solid, justified examples of meaning and knowledge based in truth, or is it a medium through which discourses of opinion provide problematic challenges in discerning fact from fiction? Well, thankfully, I’ve explored this issue before, and with recent input from the American Anthropological Association conference I attended this past November, I have found many ways in which cultural heritage research, and anthropological research in general, has made great use of the wealth of material that literature provides as evidence for such topics such as expressions of national identity.
In fact, I have found several justifications for the use of literature as evidence in examining knowledge constructions such as national identity. In her book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (1997), Avery Gordon examines fiction as a medium through which memories are accessible through a guise expounded by rhetoric and unrestrained by politics. Fiction, or in the case of Gordon’s research, historical fiction or literature, is a way to “open the door to understanding haunting” (Gordon 1997:27), or in other words, allow those memories of long-gone events, people and memories to resurface. Literature can also be a medium through which those pieces of history meant to be avoided or forgotten find their voice, and is a medium through which “the remembered and the forgotten” that can be explored for reasons such as exclusion and erasure (Gordon 1997:26).
But why is literature specifically a medium in which I will gather the evidence for my project? Why examine the Norwegian national literature for examples of national identity pertaining to tangible and intangible heritage? Why not, as I have written before in a term paper for one of my courses, examine history for these forgotten pieces and reintroduce them into the national narrative through factual evidence, rather than fantastical story? Well, to be fair, I do plan to consider other textual sources for national identity expression, such as government policies and museum exhibitions, as long as they are digitally accessible. In fact, my goal is to include as many examples of Norwegian national writing and literature as possible. But why is literature, in its forms of the novel, poetry, short stories, etc., going to be a prominent piece in this corpus? First, Norwegian national literature in and of itself, I argue, is very much synonymous with Norwegian national identity itself. It is the medium through which responses and assertions to political, linguistic, and cultural events and challenges were made. Literature finds it place amongst these other mediums of textual expression because, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot said in his book Silencing the Past, “we cannot exclude in advance any of the actors who participate in the production of history or any of the sites where that production may occur” (Trouillot 1995: 25). This includes literature, in its forms of narratives and folk songs and fiction and folklore. The narratives told by the national literature provide just as much insight into the national identity as any other monument, document, or archaeological find.
So as I continue to construct the corpus through which I’ll examine Norwegian national identity, I am left with one last thought that I gleaned from a very insightful talk on the role of literature, narrative, and fiction in anthropological work at the AAA conference this past November. As I’ve explored before, cultural traditions and ideologies that are sometimes absent or forgotten in scholarship or the historical can find expression and preservation in narrative. Narratives, in their many forms, can mirror reality, and the types of knowledge, meaning-making, and tradition that endure are within narratives that connect to readers on an open level, and become part of their identity (Narayan 1999).
Gordon, Avery F. 1997 Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Narayan, Kirin. 1999 Ethnography and Fiction: Where Is the Border? Anthropology and Humanism 24(2): 134-147.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995 Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.