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About the Book

Beyond the Book

346 pp., 6.125 x 9.25

ISBN  978-0-8078-4424-3
Published: November 1993


Folklife and the Representation of Culture

By Robert S. Cantwell

Wide-ranging and provocative, this book will fascinate all those intrigued by how we create and perpetuate our representations of folklife and culture. Ethnomimesis is Robert Cantwell's word for the process by which we take cultural influences, traditions, and practices to ourselves and then manifest them to others. Ethnomimesis is an element of ordinary social communication, but springing out of it, too, is that extraordinary summoning up that produces our literature, our art, and our music. In the broadest sense, ethnomimesis is the representation of culture. Using such diverse cultural artifacts as King Lear and an eighteenth-century English manor garden to deepen our understanding of ethnomimesis, Cantwell then explores at length the representation of culture in our national museum, the Smithsonian, focusing especially on the Festival of American Folklife. Like many other such exhibitions, the Festival enacts presentations of culture across the boundaries of rank and class, race and ethnicity, gender and the life cycle. Like the concept of 'folklife' itself, Cantwell argues, the Festival stands where ethnomimesis finds its creative source, at the cultural frontier between self and other. That boundary, and the energy that accumulates there, runs through the many, varied 'exhibits' of this book.

About the Author

Robert Cantwell is visiting associate professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound.


"Represents in many ways scholarship at its most imaginative and creative--and interpretative--and what books ought to be. . . . This is a book to dream with, and on, and should be read by all of us who are interested in culture, folklore, the Folk Festival--or the human community."
--Journal of Popular Culture

"A brilliant meditation on modernity and its discontents. . . . With intelligence and sympathy, Cantwell shows how in our society privilege comes at a high price."
--American Craft

"A work of keen intelligence. . . . I know of no other book that brings within a single compass such a broad range of problems regarding museums, folklife festivals, and the postmodern condition. Its almost hallucinatory quality pulls the reader into its mythologizing web and recasts . . . the everyday cultural encounters in which we engage."
--Richard Price, coauthor of Equatoria

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