Sunday, August 10, 2008

Notes on the Junction City Scandinavian Festival

I went to this today. It was.... interesting. You couldn't have pried my sociologist's hat off with a case of dynamite. What follows is a rather messy exposition of some of my thoughts that occurred during and after my visit. I have this feeling that based on past experience I'm not going to spend any time cleaning them up, so I'm just going to post them.

I definitely had some preconceptions/expectations going in: That it would be even whiter than the rest of Oregon (both culturally and demographically), that the people attending would be heavier than average (due to the likely food – lots of sweets, dairy and meat, with a distinct lack of fruit and vegetables), that there would be a lot of solid colors on clothing, and that the strength of the relationship between what would be on display and actual Scandinavian anything could range from decent to very, very weak., but was unlikely to be really strong.

Sadly, I feel like some of those preconceptions were not invalid. The exceptions: the crowd was no whiter than the rest of Oregon, nor more overweight (as far as I could tell on both counts). That said, I left with a lot of questions about the depth of the connection to Scandinavian culture (more on that later). The food also lacked vegetables or fruit, on the whole – the onions in the meat pies were about all I spotted. (By the way, the meat pie I had was really, really frackin' good. Then again, meat + gravy + pastry crust is hard to beat). Also, I suspect neither elephant ears nor bananas dipped in chocolate are Scandinavian in origin.... but they are fair food.

The whole preconception thing made me uncomfortable. Does holding either these preconceptions or preconceptions in general make me a bad person? Maybe..... what it does suggest is that I romanticize non-white culture, which is a very, very stupid and bad thing to do.

The other way to look at it as that the reason I was laughing on the inside for most of the afternoon (and I was) was that the culture on display was uncritically white, and for some reason, it came across as a parody to me. I just couldn't/can't believe people were genuinely (and not ironically) excited about it. That should tell you something about how I view mainstream culture in America, especially television.

An aside: Interestingly, this whole train of thought makes me think that Scandinavian culture is a component of whiteness. This is news, considering that “what does it mean to be white?” is often a question met with silence. Curious.

A second aside: I don't mean to imply that no one can be genuinely interested in the culture of ethnicities that have been assimilated into whiteness. Rather, it's the uncritical nature of the interest that gets me. After all, the older I get, the more interested I get in Irish culture – and I'm part Irish.

One question that was raised early on goes something like this: How do people continue to retain their connection to the culture of the place they came from? In this case, since the shift was, for the most part, hundreds of years ago, the question almost morphs into “in what ways, if any, does the presentation of Scandinavian culture change as the result of the time passed since one moves away from Scandinavia?”

Another question that came up: Given the history of Scandinavia as a whole, how was this particular vision of Scandinavia decided on? Certainly, my (limited) experience in Sweden looks nothing like what was at the Festival. This question I think I have something of an answer for: The culture that was celebrated was the culture present when immigrants moved to the US, more or less. Case in point: There is a Christian church service as part of the festival on Sunday morning. I saw nothing in the Festival that made any mention of the pre-Christian Scandinavia; it all seemed to be from, say, the 18th century. I would have been interested in any pre-Christian indigenous religions, for example... but, as noted, what was really on display was a particular time period/part of Scandinavian culture.

Some other things that came up:

What parts of Scandinavian culture are on display, and what are not? On display: Foods – mostly meat, dairy and dessert; art – mostly crafts, a few paintings; dance; etc. Missing: Why those things are the way they are, why they are important, what they were linked to: climate, geography, available resources, living in the rhythms of the land – and agriculture, always agriculture and the natural cycle of life in the specific region.

The Vikings – not many were on display, but how many of those wearing the horns (because very few went all-out; it was mostly the horns) think about the Vikings in terms of lives lost, people killed, etc? Not many, I suspect, as it's still perfectly acceptable in American culture to romanticize or otherwise value war, natch.

Dancing – I spent a lot of time thinking about this one, as the people I knew at the Festival were all into dance in one form or another. A friend and I talked about how regional differences in dances, individual (and clothes) were obscured by the labeling of dances by nation, for example. We talked about ways in which dances might spread. Also, I thought a lot about how to separate the fact that while the people participating in the various dances may have been having a lot of fun, and rightly so, those dances did not necessarily represent any meaningful connection to a specific culture. Of course, that notion was challenged by the obvious: How do I know that? I don't, not really, but it seems pretty straightforward when placed in the context of the Festival as a whole: Face it..... it was a celebration of surface culture. There was very little to indicate why the Scandinavian culture was the way it was, what conditions drove it, etc. (It's here that I start thinking about agriculture and climate again, as well as, for some reason, Samhain or Lammas.) Watching the dancing (and there was a lot of dancing), I was also confronted with an example of how traditions are passed on, and what traditions get passed on, etc.

Oh, and my favorite person at the festival? The hipster-ish guy with a horned Viking helmet. Somehow, it completed the outfit rather nicely. I think it was the combination of tiny, tiny hips and a helmet....

Strangest festival moment: When, as part of the evening pageantry, a group of performers danced around a witch who was tied to a stake... and on fire. I can't decide if I think that was insane and insulting, or just silly.

I want to conclude this by noting that even if I am coming across as caustic and highly critical (and I am), I still had a lot of fun. It was good to see people I know, the food was tasty, and it was definitely an interesting experience. I just couldn't take all the whiteness uncritically/seriously.


Lebanon Truth said...

Isn't it just an excuse to have a party and act silly?

Dennis said...

Why do we need an excuse?

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