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CFP: Behind the Mask: Vernacular Culture in the Time of COVID

  • Start date: 2nd Aug 2020
  • End date: 1st Oct 2020
  • Department of Folklore & Ethnomusicology, Indiana University
  • Organiser: Ben Bridges

Behind the Mask: Vernacular Culture in the Time of COVID

Call for Papers: Abstract Proposals due October 1, 2020

Volume editors: Ben Bridges (Indiana University), Ross Brillhart (Indiana University), Diane E. Goldstein (Indiana University)

Submissions are invited for an edited volume exploring different aspects of the uses and abuses of the “vernacular” in the COVID-19 pandemic. We envision this volume primarily containing traditional scholarly chapters, but it is our intention to include a few smaller creative, journalistic, or reflective pieces that document this unusual moment in our history.

Arising originally out of a coronavirus interest group at Indiana University, this volume seeks to explore the ways in which folkloristics contributes to an examination of the vernacular during the current public health crisis. For the purposes of this volume, we define the vernacular as a broad category of local knowledge production and action that is reflective of a particular group or region and focused on community-based forms of expression. As Margaret Lantis notes, the vernacular is “culture as-it-is-lived appropriate to well-defined places and situations” (1960, 203). Based on Leonard Primiano and Henry Glassie, we could also define vernacular as the “personal, aesthetic, cultural, and social investment [of an individual]… as well as the way individuals privately and creatively adapt [culture] to their specific life needs” (Primiano 1995, 43). As such, we consider vernacular culture to be flexible, multi-media, multi-sourced, and global.

Vernacular culture may or may not run against the grain of prevailing discourses—incorporating concepts and ideological content derivative of hegemonic forms; borrowing, appropriating, or commodifying; and making its fullest sense out of the cultural context in which it arises. Despite its potential nod to dominant or external culture, it is its strong connection to the local that helps ground the vernacular within the experiential context that it occupies. Locked down in our homes and separated from the normal ebb and flow of life, COVID-19 highlights community and creativity, adaptation and flexibility, traditional knowledge, emergence, resistance, and dynamism. In its removal from assumed norms and dailiness, the pandemic provides a moment of insight into the nature of vernacular culture as it is used, abused, celebrated, critiqued, and discarded. It is this insight that our volume seeks to document, ranging from banana bread competitions and PPE making to the exacerbation of global anti-black racism and economic precarity.

Six potential themes will be explored:

1. The vernacular to the rescue: community creativity and coping with COVID-19. This theme is framed to investigate the ways in which individuals and communities have used the vernacular to deal with the public health crisis as some found themselves suddenly experiencing strains on budget and supply chains, sheltering-in-place with inadequate resources, or missing community connections. As is so often the case, vernacular culture found creative means of coping with the challenges presented to communities. Within this context we anticipate discussions of vernacular creativity, including such topics as vernacular construction of PPE and sanitizers, terrace singing, scavenger hunts and the creation of vernacular education opportunities of children, COVID cooking and sustainable living.

2. The failure of experts and the rise of vernacular expertise. This theme explores the places where governmental and organizational cultures were unwilling or unable to adequately address concerns of different groups. Our interest here is not only in the failure of experts within these contexts but also in the way vernacular culture expanded to fill the needs of communities. The editors foresee possible explorations of lay health methods and treatments, the creation of rumor and conspiracy theory to fill the information vacuum, and local responses to xenophobia and hate.

3. COVID vernaculars as markers of identity and politics. While the pandemic forces health protections that suggest conformity, vernacular culture itself responds by differentiating through symbolic and individualized expression allowing greater establishment of identity. Within the pandemic context, the creative use of masks, unmasked “Karens,” COVID architecture, social distancing, germ-families, and “bubble” selection become political, social, and symbolic markers that allow for variation within the restrictions of compliance.

4. Vernacular attempts to resolve incongruity. The rules that evolved in the face of the pandemic suggested numerous areas of incongruity. The term “social,” for example, would appear inconsistent with “social distancing.” Likewise, masks, which have traditionally been markers of chaos and crime (within the US context), are meant to acquire meanings of safety and trust. “Home” in stay-at-home orders typically suggest comfort and warmth, which is not necessarily the case for those who find themselves shut-in or shut out of desired contexts, such as individuals experiencing homelessness or people experiencing domestic abuse.

5. When vernaculars meet. The advent of COVID-19 brought to the fore social inequalities that highlighted interesting kinds of simultaneities. Understanding the dynamic of the pandemic requires exploring preexisting and emergent vernacular forms. Within this context, COVID-19 existed alongside Black Lives Matter and the development of autonomous areas. The pandemic did not happen in a vacuum, and as such, it dovetails with a variety of other social phenomena.

6. Abused and appropriated vernaculars. While folklorists tend to think of vernacular culture positively, it is also the case that the vernacular is frequently abused, appropriated, and commodified. Within the current political context, any discussion of the vernacular would be remiss if it did not recognize the governmental populist appropriation of lay concepts and rhetoric. Here the editors could imagine discussions of lay health concepts, the President’s suggestion of Lysol, bleach, and bringing UV light inside the body, the marketing of particular treatments and their commodification, and tongue-in-cheek suggestions of “bug parties” and other traditional forms of advancing recovery and immunity.

The editors invite proposals for chapters or individual pieces to be submitted to Behind the Mask: Vernacular Culture in the Time of COVID, care of Diane E. Goldstein, Indiana University, Classroom-Office Building, 800 E. 3th Street, Bloomington, IN, 47405 or via email to Ben Bridges at [email protected] The deadline for proposals will be October 1, 2020. Due to the timely nature of our topic, we would require finished accepted pieces by June 1, 2021.

Proposals should include:
 Author’s full name and contact information
 Proposed chapter title
 300-word abstract

Questions can be directed to Ben Bridges at [email protected]