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Lecture explores oral culture in digital age

| Sunday, January 26, 2014

William Butler Yeats and Federico García Lorca may have been writing 100 years ago, but English PhD candidate John Dillon suggests their works from near the turn of the 20th century reflect a moment of change similar to today’s cultural upheaval.
Dillon, the Notebaert Graduate Presidential Fellow in the Department of English, delivered a lecture Friday titled “From Oral Culture to Open Access: Yeats, Lorca and the Digital Turn.” He argued that the current digital or information revolution mirrors the Industrial Revolution that catalyzed European Modernism at the turn of the 20th century, and that by examining the work of writers like Yeats and Lorca today’s readers can better understand the current cultural climate.
Explaining the fascination the writers had for the folklore of their respective Irish and Spanish cultures, Dillon said both were immersed in folk culture and for them, the artistic event of a folk tale was far more remarkable than written word.
“If folklore, as Yeats and Lorca would insist, is not what is kept in the archive but in the heart, then one should reconsider their engagement with folklore based on how they encountered it rather than what they collected,” he said.
Dillon said Lorca especially was “highly suspicious of the written word” and had a deep commitment to creating a “living art” as “alive and pulsing as a frog.”
Because of Lorca’s upbringing in southern Spain, Dillon said the poet was immersed in the rural, folkloric culture throughout his early life.
“For Lorca, any sort of cosmopolitanism is completely a second language,” he said. “Growing up in Fuente Vaqueros, a folk way of life would have been as natural as the ground beneath his feet.”
Lorca’s early works, notably “Poema del cante jondo” and “Romancero gitano” reflect this deep-rooted identification with Spanish folklore, Dillon said. Similarly, Yeats’ understanding of the organic nature of art allowed him to think of literature as an activity or a game being played, he said. Because of this, Yeats created a “potent” and “ephemeral” art.
“This is a living art; it’s stitched into life,” Dillon said. “This is perhaps the critical characteristic of the art … in this way, the awareness that what one is doing is art flickers in and out, which makes it spontaneous, organic and undefinable.”
The intersection of folk culture and European Modernism in Yeats’ and Lorca’s writing is important because it affects the way today’s scholars view literature, he said.
“If the aesthetic catalyst at the beginning of the 20th century was the Industrial Revolution, then the digital or information revolution bookends this century,” Dillon said. “We can hold up the former as a foothold for perspective to see the latter.
“It seems to me that with the digital turn … we are moving towards a form of art which is quite like the type of living art I have been describing. It’s strange; we are moving forward in time but we’re aesthetically regressing.”
Dillon said the digital revolution creates a type of “gold rush,” where people anxiously attempt to preserve and archive today’s culture.
“We have to digitize everything. Everything must be in an archive,” he said. “We are the contemporary folklorists… [and] this rush of anxiety parallels the development of new tools for recording and preservation.
“More can be recorded, so more must be recorded. We also see an obsession with metadata, taxonomy and classification.”
In the midst of a moment of cultural change, Dillon said both writers and readers must resist the marketability of art and remember that content is not created for the market.

About Ann Marie Jakubowski

Senior News Writer, formerly Editor-in-Chief. English and Spanish double major, minor in journalism, ethics and democracy. Grand Rapids, Mich., native. Notre Dame Class of 2015.

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