• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley


The Pathways Project is devoted to exploring the homology between oral tradition (OT) and Internet technology (IT). But let me be careful to stipulate a basic and very important disclaimer: “homology” does not mean “absolute equivalence.” On the web, and I would add on the web we call OT, it means “the quality of being similar or corresponding in position or value or structure or function.”

Nowhere in either the morphing book or the online wiki do I make the reductive claim that these two media-technologies are simply identical. Nowhere is it argued – nor should it be – that the oAgora and eAgora are “the same place.”

What the Project seeks to explain and represent is the striking reality that, despite the many obvious contrasts between OT and IT, the two media share a fundamental functionality: navigating through linked networks of potentials. They offer comparable vehicles or sets of strategies for the creation and transmission of knowledge, art, and ideas, strategies that are categorically different from those used in the tAgora. The oAgora and eAgora present similar – even cognate – opportunities for virtual surfing rather than for tAgota trekking.

In other words, the Pathways Project explores a comparison/contrast of remarkably similar but non-identical ways of construing and shaping reality. How do OT and IT affect and even determine the ways in which we communicate? How do the cognitive prostheses they provide differ from our trusty, ideologically ingrained medium of texts? In broadest perspective, then, the central thesis of the Project maintains that OT and IT are homologous in miming the way we think – notwithstanding the many obvious contrasts in design and usage between the oAgora and the eAgora.

The “fine print”

To make certain that the scale stays balanced and to avoid simplistic equation of technologies, here are a few ways in which the OT-IT homology resists reductionism and makes room for the innate complexity of media-worlds:

1. Texts can exist online. Static eFiles, which differ from the more usual tAgora fare only in that they are composed of pixels (rather than shredded trees) and available 24/7/365 to a much larger group of readers, are essentially texts. Once they begin to link outside themselves and offer user options beyond the one-way street of linear sequence, they start to fulfill the co-creative, participatory mandate of the eAgora.

2. OT can morph into texts and enter the tAgora. For most of its history and even today, the field of studies in oral tradition has, quite ironically, pointed toward the tAgora. Not only do we freeze living performances by writing down [some aspects of] them, but we also manufacture static, immutable audio- and video-texts. The truth is that while the kinetic dimensions of voice and visual action are a welcome restoration that helps to fill out the thin slice of reality portrayable via printed pages, audios and videos are likewise and inescapably frozen texts. They are cenotaphs of performance; they have no pathways in them. By consulting not one but many such fixations we can begin to glimpse a kinetic, emergent reality – much as flip books or films simulate motion through persistence of vision. But collating instances provides at best a facsimile, a creditable illusion, and not at all the real experience.

3. Communication can move into and out of multiple agoras. Music, for example American blues songs, can be learned and transmitted via person-to-person exchange (in the oAgora), but also through published sheet music (in the tAgora) and online resources sources such as YouTube. Avdo Medjedović, the most accomplished of the South Slavic epic singers recorded by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, acquired his most famous song, The Wedding of Smailagić Meho, by having a colleague read a printed text aloud – a text that was of course itself an earlier transferral from the oAgora to the tAgora. Evidence is mounting that scribes and poets can plug into OT language and expressive strategies even when composing pen in hand, or finger on keyboard. Sometimes it’s even possible to leapfrog the tAgora altogether, moving from voice to virtuality directly. If research over the past quarter-century has shown anything, it’s that the so-called Great Divide of orality versus literacy amounts to an illusion that has outlived its usefulness. As marketplaces brimming with all of the verbal complexity humans can muster, agoras are anything but one-dimensional.

4. Communication in the contemporary world requires multiple citizenship. Taking these realities into account, the best solution for the contemporary mix of communicative modes is to establish citizenship in all three agoras – a primary goal of the Pathways Project. As a first step we need to stop defaulting to textual ideology as our exclusive way of thinking about knowledge, art, and ideas. More positively, we need to start understanding how navigation works in the oAgora, how performers and audiences negotiate the pathways of an oral tradition that they share and participate in. In pursuing this kind of new awareness, we already have a powerful analogy ready at hand and in daily (if not hourly) use: namely, our navigation of the Internet as an interactive, rule-governed, ever-evolving experience. By getting inside of IT – by recognizing that everything it offers is necessarily contingent upon our and others’ activities and contributions – we can also begin to understand how OT works within all societies as a fundamental communications technology.

5. The conversation continues. As part of the presentation in both media, and in the spirit of the Pathways Project, I have included my reactions to the reports by the two anonymous reviewers commissioned by the University of Illinois Press in a node entitled Response.

Coda: Homology and diversity

Once again, then, homology describes a relationship of similarity, but not of identity. Any idea or concept worth entertaining must account for complexity, counter-examples, and general untidiness, and the OT-IT homology at the basis of the Pathways Project is no exception. As the Project seeks to illustrate in many different areas, OT and IT do their media-work not by adhering to verbatim singularity but by navigating pathways through networks of potentials. Variation within limits is the ultimate source of their strength and their staying power. Both of these verbal marketplaces thrive, in other words, by remaining forever “under construction.”

The oAgora and eAgora are hardly identical or superimposable, but they are importantly alike in fostering activities that – in their own particular, highly diverse ways – mime the way we think.