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"Droodle Me This ... ": Pictorial Declarations and the American Dream Maria Teresa Agozzino

Renowned and revered folklorist Alan Dundes advocates the study of worldview, which he defines as "the way a people perceives the world and its place in it" ("Pecking Chickens" 83). As uncensored empirical data, folklore provides a depth and range of oral, customary, and material texts that are embedded with the complexities of views of the world. Recognizing that worldview "permeates all aspects of a given culture" and that "the pattern of the whole is to be found even in that whole's smallest part," Dundes suggests it would be more manageable methodologically to examine microcosms and in turn correlate them with their "isomorphically parallel" macrocosms.

Droodles, non-oral drawn riddles, present unusual points of view (Brunvand, Study 125-26). Known also as visual riddles (Abrahams and Dundes) and visual descriptive riddles (Roemer, "Riddles" 629), though seemingly trivial and fleeting forms, traditional droodles are typically loaded with familiar stereotypes and contemporary concerns. Cultural norms and values, as well as social and political tensions, are encased in entertaining and challenging pictoric forms; a few unsophisticated pen strokes can trigger an intertextual catalog of signifiers.

In this paper, I shall discuss the functions of folklore in contemporary American culture and demonstrate how an examination of one minor folklore genre can enlighten our perception of the American dream. [1] I shall limit my focus to viewing texts in a generalized American context, glossing over local, regional, and demographic issues; neither shall I account for the roles of individuals, performance, reception, rites of passage, and style. My data is drawn from the University of California, Berkeley Folklore Archive; the collections housed in Kroeber Hall are the depository of more than forty years worth of student collecting. In line with Dundes' constant call, not only for identification, but more critically, for interpretation, the Berkeley collection encapsulates his insistence on adhering to accurate data collecting methodology, which includes thorough details of text, texture, and context (Agozzino, "Celebrating" 136). [2]

Folklore in American Studies

Folklorists contend that you cannot begin to understand a culture without considering all the levels of culture; all the cultural outpourings and products. American Studies has typically focused on history, high and popular literature, and popular culture, and Folkloristics has often found itself relegated to the ranks of fallacy and obsolescence.

A dynamic and multiform phenomenon, folklore persists to compensate for a lack, as a socially-sanctioned release of tension, to uphold cultural norms and to maintain conformity to accepted patterns of behavior, and to validate beliefs and justify the rituals and institutions to those who perform them (Bascom). Thus, folklore is loaded with social, cultural, economic, and political content and commentary. William Bascom explains the inherent paradox, "While [folklore] plays a vital role in transmitting and maintaining the institutions of a culture and in forcing the individual to conform to them, at the same time it provides socially approved outlets for the repressions which these same institutions impose upon him [or her]" (298). Folklore, therefore, reflects the very real but unsavory realities of culture such as sexism and racism, framed against a backdrop of societal expectations and human conditions. In this manner, contemporary texts emerge and adapt in response to contemporary concerns: consider the American contemporary legend cycles of the World of AIDS, Kentucky Fried Rat, and razor blades in trick-o-treat apples that make conscious an uncon- scious fear of the possible consequences of interaction with strangers in an increasingly globalized American society. As the vehicle for communication of a group's collective identity and of its cultural symbols (Dundes, "Defining" 8), folklore provides an invaluable culturally relative data base; an essential complement to all cultural studies. Furthermore, "no genre of folklore is so trivial or so insignificant that it cannot provide important data for the study of worldview" (Dundes, "Pecking Chickens" 83). Adopting Dundes' hypothesis, I shall delve into the domain of droodles.

Scope and Skill

The term "droodle" was reportedly coined by Roger Price, who popularized the activity of riddle doodling in the United States in the 1950's (Kaivola-Bregenhøj 62; Archimedes' Laboratory). Inspired by traditional forms, Price formularized and published found texts along with his own non-traditional designs (Russell 206) of "geometrical abstraction" (Price, Classici) in a series of colorful books with catchy titles, such as The Rich Sardine, and Oodles of Droodles. [3] Price subsequently energized international droodle diffusion, and it is these multitudinous variations circulating anonymously that interest folklorists. To date, though droodles appear on several websites and are regularly distinguished in descriptive works such as Jan H. Brunvand's American Folklore: An Encyclopediaand The Study Of American Folklore, dedicated droodle scholarship has been relatively sparse: monographs include Ed Cray's, "Non-Oral Riddles," Brunvand's, "More Non-Oral Riddles," Simon J. Bronner's, "Pictorial Jokes: A Traditional Combination of Verbal and Graphic Processes," Michael J. Preston's, "The English Literal Rebus and the Graphic Riddle Tradition," and Danielle Roemer's "In the Eye of the Beholder: A Semiotic Analysis of the Visual Descriptive Riddle." Noteworthy also is Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhøj's treatment in Riddles: Perspectives on the Use, Function and Change in a Folklore Genre.

A 1678 Italian text provides a terminus ante quem and verifies that droodles have been around for at least three hundred years (Brunvand, Study 126). A relative of the immense and international genre of riddles, [4] droodles are traditional non-oral visual riddles that seek to challenge, amuse, impress, outwit, dupe, shock, or simply pass the time. [5] As visual expressions, droodles differ from verbal riddles in transmission and reception, privileging sight over speech and hearing. The performative context requires the use of a writing instrument (pencil, crayon, chalk) and a writing surface (paper, napkin, black board, bathroom wall), which centralizes the physicality of the droodling performance.

Like riddles, droodles assume the participation of at least two people: the questioner and the responder. Whether spoken or intimated, the questioner will present a swiftly-crafted minimalistic and unembellished sketch and pose the initiating question, "Have you seen this one?" (Kaivola-Bregenhøj 62), "What is it?" (Roemer, "Beholder" 174), "What's this?" or "Guess what this is?" (Katz 6). The coded visual representation will not make sense without its caption, and the responder is obliged to solve, guess, or give up.

Figure 1: "A Giraffe Passing a Window" or "A Bear Climbing a Tree."

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Maria Teresa Agozzino has a Ph.D. in Folklore and Celtic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she served as Head Reader for Alan Dundes from 1999-2004 and as Head Archivist from 2000 to 2004. She has taught folklore and American Studies courses at UC Berkeley and California State University, East Bay. Her publications include "Welsh Calennig and Greek Kalanda: Begging in the New Year," Cosmo: The Journal for the Traditional Cosmology Society 19 (2005): 21-45, "Ysbryd y Werin: An Overview of Celtic Folklore Scholarship," The Folklore Historian 22 (2005): 13-33, and "First Come, First Served: Investigating Sir John Rhys' 'Essential Connexion' between Celtic New Year Customs." Studi Celtici: An International Journal of History, Linguistics, and Cultural Anthropology 2 (2003). This paper evolved from a guest lecture presented to an introductory American Studies course at UC Berkeley in fall 2005. She is much obliged to Christine Palmer for the opportunity.

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