• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

If oral traditions and the Internet are more process than product, more open pathway than closed canon, and if they fail the Alexandrian Library tests of object and stasis, then just how do “users” navigate their Protean webs? To put it another way, how does navigation (as opposed to textual reference) really work? If we don’t ever really isolate a product that we can submit to analysis by itself, then how do we understand the process?

In confronting this challenge, we arrive at a major reason why OT is fundamentally incompatible with the concept of canon. Recall, to begin, that any instance or performance of OT is necessarily fragmentary in itself but complete via built-in reference. What makes the performance whole is the web of the immanent, unspoken tradition, the proverbial context of the speech-act. Just like language itself, only more so, OT depends on referral outside of the immediate time and place to a rule-governed system of expression that dwarfs any and all instances. Thus the key to serving as a suitable audience for oral tradition and oral-connected texts, to completing the communicative circuit, is to understand the idiomatic meanings that are active in oAgora transactions. We simply need to be fluent in the right register, the right variety of language.

Electronic “call numbers”

Consider the structure and function of electronic “call numbers” in the virtual library of the Internet. Anyone familiar with browsing this collection will remember proceeding from one address to another, employing a string of characters beginning with “http://...” to open up the next pathway on an itinerary that is always emergent and evolving. Each address, though nominal in itself, must of course be reproduced precisely to open up its treasure-chest of possibilities; any miniscule deviation, even a single incorrect character or extra space, will amount to static on the channel. While we may well locate some interesting and useful books simply by meandering through nearby ranges and stacks in a brick-and-mortar library, on the Internet an approximate site-name will prove meaningless to the system as a whole and cause the desired connection to fail. It won’t fail because the “http://...” phrase itself has anything literal to do with what one actually finds at the site, since it neither designates a book (as non-electronic call numbers do) nor demarcates a discipline, topic, or area (as physical spaces within the brick-and-mortar libraries do). It will fail because the surfer has selected an unidiomatic eWord.

Indexing IT (Internet Technology) via URLs

The Internet address serves a purpose no conventional call number can match: it names the site – not descriptively, but indexically – by recourse to a highly specialized, systematic brand of language. To inexpert or neophyte surfers such an address will often have little or no heuristic value until they learn the subtleties of the how the code is put together, but that doesn’t matter. Clicking on the link activates the idiomatic value of the URL, bringing up the intended site and presenting another set of pathways from which to choose. Just as no one worries much about mammals overhead when observing that “it’s raining cats and dogs,” so the major (usually exclusive) concern of Internet users is that idiomatic links do their proper job. Their role is simply to work, to make the connection.

Indexing OT

The Grimm Brothers

Addresses in oral tradition work analogously, at least as much by indexing as by describing. A “book” off the shelf of childhood experience, the Grimm Brothers’ much-told tales, for example, can furnish a simple illustration. Many of these stories, which we customarily hear long before we read them, open with the magical phrase “Once upon a time” – a narrative switch or pathway that kindles the imagination and points toward the arena for the storytelling event that is about to occur. Were we to begin performances to our children with a rough but non-idiomatic equivalent, “Long ago it happened that,” the switch wouldn’t work. Why not? Clearly, we would have satisfied the tAgora criteria that sustained the Alexandrian Library and its progeny institutions through all of these centuries by creating a literal equivalent, a new scroll that derives its authority from an intertextual relationship to an item already enshrined in the collection. But there’s a difference. Within the special code of storytelling, “Long ago it happened that” has little or no meaning. It’s not that the substitute phrase is inadequate or flawed as a thing in itself; it just doesn’t lead anywhere. It’s a scroll, not a speech-act. And it's certainly no pathway.

Homer’s oAgora

Consider some analogs from the ancient Greek oAgora, namely a few of the URLs that the performer and audience know how to click on in the Iliad and Odyssey. Throughout these oral-connected poems Homer commonly resorts to familiar combinations of nouns and epithets – “swift-footed Achilles,” “goddess grey-eyed Athena,” “earthshaker Poseidon,” and so many more. We all recognize these recurrent formulaic phrases. But he deploys them not because he lacks imagination or is shackled by the demands of his inherited poetic language, but because these phrases represent uniquely idiomatic pathways to the characters they name. By dialing up the equivalent of “http://Achilles,” Homer, along with his audience, opens the site for this “best of heroes,” bringing into play not just Achilles’ fleetness but his entire mythic history – his semi-divinity, his friendship with Patroklos, his testy relationship with Agamemnon, his only too vulnerable heel, and so forth. That’s why the great man can be called “swift-footed” even as he sits sulking in his tent, having angrily withdrawn from battle. That’s also why he can be addressed in this way no fewer than 30 times in the Iliad without fear of redundancy.

After all, it’s a matter of recurring rather than repeating, of clicking on a link that works. If a pathway represents a prescribed or even unique method for reaching a particular node in the traditional network of ancient Greek epic, then how can it ever prove redundant? Cliché is the handmaiden of object, stasis, and canon, not of emergent performance and interactive tradition. Cliché lives in the tAgora, not in the oAgora.

For an audience with full command of the special code in which the Iliad and Odyssey are composed, the function of these noun-epithet formulas resembles that of “bookmarks” in Internet browsers. Saving the addresses of previously visited sites usefully foreshortens subsequent trips, which don’t really “repeat” other trips as much as recur separately, each on its own terms. And this is equally true whether the path in question leads to a virtual archive on the Internet or to a character in the story-archive of Greek myth. Clicking on “swift-footed Achilles,” or for that matter on “Little Red Ridinghood,” makes the designated figures come alive in a non-textual, non-canonical way, with great expressive economy. They are, in their fashion, ruthlessly and dependably accurate. As always with OT (and IT) addresses, what counts is not the literal surface but the idiomatic depths.

A modern analogue

Contemporary, observable OTs are no different on this score, depending less on the address per se than on what an address necessarily implies. At times the literal meaning of the sign marking the pathway may even seem to contradict its idiomatic meaning, as in the case of a relatively common and otherwise homely phrase from South Slavic oral epic, niz Markovac kleti. With any serviceable dictionary in hand, we can quickly discover what this phrase would signify if it turned up during a conversation on a street in Belgrade, or in a modern Croatian novel – namely, “down by damned Markovac.” A direction and location are indicated, and the toponym Markovac, a small town in the Vojvodina area of Serbia, is described very negatively as kleti, “accursed” or “damned.”

Imagine our surprise, then, when we learn that the designation Markovac refers to the sacred birthplace of Prince Marko, a major hero in South Slavic song. What’s more, the very singers who celebrate this widely revered hero are also aware of the apparent insult to his place of origin. I say “apparent” because within the special code of South Slavic oral epic there’s nothing at all pejorative implied by niz Markovac kleti. From the perspective of the oral epic tradition, which as we have seen resembles a network of nodes much more than a shelvable text, “down by damned Markovac” not only lacks negative associations but is brimful of positive implications attributable to its idiomatic function.

If we understand “down by damned Markovac” as belonging to the oWords category, then kleti (“damned”) is merely a syllable. And syllables don’t bear meaning, anymore than fragmentary URLs get their job done. As one singer put it when queried about this disquieting discrepancy between literal and idiomatic meanings, “Pa mora da se rekne”—“You have to say it that way.” In Internet language, he was advising that you get there by clicking on http://niz Markovac kleti.