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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series
AN ACQUISITIONS & PRESENTATION PROJECT

August 10, 2011 Event Flyer

Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet

Presented by Russell Frank

2011 Botkin Lecture Flyer for Rusell Frank


After the September 11 attacks I received e-mailed warnings to stay away from shopping malls on Halloween, not to open blue envelopes from the Klingerman Foundation, obscene design suggestions for a new World Trade Center, and a series of depictions of fiendish punishments for Osama bin Laden.

Many recipients would dismiss this material as mindless or tasteless nonsense created and disseminated by people with too much time on their hands. But folklorists assume that when people invent, transmit and retransmit some form of cultural expression, that item must have something to tell us about the culture that gave rise to it.

I have coined the term "newslore" to refer to contemporary folklore inspired by the news. In the fifteen or so years since this material began pouring into my e-mail inbox and accumulating on the many websites devoted to humor, computer jockeys have skewered politicians, celebrities (and our fascination with them), and business tycoons, while expressing their dismay at official bungling in the face of war, natural disaster, and economic collapse.

Newslore takes multiple forms: jokes; urban legends; digitally altered photographs; mock news stories, press releases, and interoffice memoranda; and parodies of songs, advertisements, movies, and TV shows. What much of this material has in common is its subversiveness. It violates the rules of deference and discretion when it comes to authority figures, bodily functions, and social conflict in ways that may appear anarchic, even nihilistic, but that are, at bottom, quite moralistic; its target is hypocrisy. Its mood is grimly amused exasperation with false piety, with speaking respectfully of those who deserve no respect, and with euphemism.

With the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approaching, I would like to offer one example from among the many items of newslore I received in the fall of 2001. It is a photograph of a man posing on the observation deck of the World Trade Center, apparently oblivious to the fact that a plane is heading his way. The camera was supposedly found in the rubble of the Twin Towers.

Astute observers quickly compiled evidence that the image was a fake: It was the wrong kind of airplane coming from the wrong direction at a time when the observation deck on the World Trade Center wasn't even open. And then, of course, there was the question of how the camera survived the collapse of the buildings.

Did that cause "Tourist Guy," as he came to be called, to disappear from view? Hardly. The hoax gave way to parodies of the hoax. We see the same guy on the same observation platform. Only now, a subway car is coming at him. Or a hot-air balloon. Or the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from the film Ghostbusters. Then, instead of the disaster coming to him, Tourist Guy goes to the disaster: the crash of the Concorde in 2000, the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas in 1963, the crash of the Graf zeppelin in 1937, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the Lincoln box in Ford's Theatre in 1865.

The news media devoted an enormous amount of attention to the seeming arbitrariness of fate. There were countless tales of people who were supposed to be on one of the four planes or at the World Trade Center, but were delayed or had to change their plans. The dominant attitude was awe in the face of so many reminders of the slender thread on which our lives hang.

Tourist Guy took a darker view. Sudden death makes a mockery of our plans. It is the ultimate cruel joke. Where the news media dwelled on the solemnity of it all, the newslore focused on the absurdity. Tourist Guy was the quintessence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In his ignorance of what is about to befall him, he represents all of us on the morning of September 11.

The news stories about the real victims of that terrible day struggle to particularize them, to assert the meaningfulness of all their lives. Victims became heroes. Death became sacrifice. The newslore counters the pious approach with an anonymous fictitious victim that allows for the expression of the subversive, unspeakable view. These deaths were senseless, absurd. We’re here one minute, gone the next. What’s heroic about it? We're tourist guys on planet Earth. As is often the case, the folkloric response may have been more honest.

The original Tourist Guy image was plausible, at least at first glance, more urban legend than joke. Once the picture had been debunked, however, the sense of victimization gave way to relief: Tourist Guy, like the rest of us, had survived. The endless permutations that followed, coinciding with the reduced sense of imminent threat as the days and weeks after September 11 passed without follow-up attacks, seemed to place that ghastly day in historical context: As horrific as it was, we had come through other horrific events. We would come through this one as well. The jokes do more than express anxiety; they grapple with it.

Russell Frank
Pennsylvania State University

AFC logo The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.

 

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