• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

For most of us who spend substantial time in the tAgora, authorship is an unambiguous term and idea. Hardly a mystery in common usage, “to author” means to create and thus to own a work-become-item. So deeply woven into text-making is this idea of sole, exclusive agency and ownership that we have trouble even imagining a text without an author. Look no further than our transparent attribution of uncertain creations to that prolific author “Anonymous,” a practice that says much more about our desperate need to force a work into the default marketplace of the tAgora than about the luckless, apparently orphaned work itself. (I do not speak here of the Internet-specific meme Anonymous), though it presents interesting comparisons.)

The unexamined tScenario

Here’s what you do without thinking about it. You compose a text, whether a memo, a novel, a policy brief, or whatever, and identify it as your product by adding your name. And why not? It’s an item you and no one else created; thus it belongs to you and to no one else.

There are of course small variations on this simplex model that effectively prove the rule. Scientific reports authored by your team of researchers might seem an exception, but here again the product is made and owned in real time by you and your colleagues, by a coherent team that serves as corporate author (not seldom with precise explanations of who contributed what to the document). The process of publishing your text may also enlist the help of non-authors: assistants who put an administrator’s text into proper, distributable format; reviewers of manuscripts who offer their expertise and suggestions; or copyeditors, designers, and other editorial personnel who ready your novel manuscript for the bookstore; or an evaluation team who reviews your policy statement and makes politically savvy suggestions (which you may accept or ignore).

But in all cases there is no doubt about the central authorship of the text: the document is attributable to one or a coherent team of composers, and its fundamental content is the finished product of those minds and no others. Authored texts resist change. In other words, they resist re-authoring. It’s nothing less than their communicative job.

The ideology behind (single) authorship

In order to ballast these premises with a few examples, let’s take a quick peek inside one wing of the Museum of Verbal Art.

European literature from the ancient world onward has always assumed individual authorship. We celebrate the achievements of Homer, Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare, happy to be able to affix their names to great works like The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, and Hamlet. But there’s more to this unexamined assumption than first meets the eye.

The ideological pressure to identify verbal art as necessarily a tAgora phenomenon is extremely strong, so strong that we’ve regularly created pseudo-authors where no believable evidence for them exists. Thus the exalted place of Homer at the fountainhead of Western literature—even though Homer seems to be an anthropomorphic legend, a mythic figure who never existed (at least in the form we’ve imagined him). Thus the outsized prominence of the shadowy figures of poets Caedmon and Cynewulf in discussions of the earliest English poetry. Never mind that Caedmon the cowherd-poet is also almost certainly legendary, or that the only evidence for Cynewulf is a group of poorly matched signatures in runic letters. As tAgora citizens we feel compelled to appoint individual authors for all verbal art, no matter what its origins.

Authorship outside the tAgora

The eAgora

Not so in the marketplace we’ve called the eAgora, where distributed authorship is the empowering rule. Speaking of increasingly non-singular creations engendered by computer networks, Christiane Heibach has described the current trajectory in terms of “the author function, which … due to networked environments will change from the original creator to the co-creative collective.” We expect this kind of cooperative, ongoing, emergent product as characteristic of the electronic marketplace, especially in the continuous evolution of facilities such as always-updatable databases, wikis, websites, and open-source software. Such activities prosper by evolving, by resisting fixation and singularity, by fostering a reality that remains in play. They simply can’t live and develop in any other way.

The oAgora

Likewise, the oAgora, which at its root supports variation over time via different performers and performances. In this marketplace the concept of “the original” is meaningless and single authors are a dead end. Like language itself (as distinct from texts, which are scripts for language), no one person is ever wholly responsible for the invention or maintenance of oral traditions. Consider any of the world’s oral epic traditions, such as the Gesar stories from multiple ethnic groups in central and eastern Asia; or the wealth of Son-Jara and Mwindo sagas from western Africa; or the well-collected South Slavic and Albanian heroic tales. All of these traditional networks were surfed by hundreds if not thousands of “authors” over centuries, and remained pliable, rule-governed, and open to ever-changing variation within limits. In other words, Heibach’s closing emphasis is as applicable to the oAgora as to the eAgora toward which she directs the following judgment: “We indeed face a revolution: not the disappearance of the author, but the metamorphosis of its notion from the individual originator to the distributed collective author as a result of social dynamics.”

Pathways support distributed authorship

The Pathways Projects aims to show that OT and IT are both by their very nature collective, shared enterprises, and that their collectivity and sharing extend over both space and time, involving contributions from many different individuals and their interactive audiences from many different times and places. Pathway-driven creation and re-creation represent community activities, the joint work of many hands. Distributed authorship cannot be forced into the tAgora without denaturing its core expressive dynamics, without making it into something it isn’t and can’t be. Even a video of a single oral performance is only a text that preserves an experience by converting something living to a fossil—by removing its ability to morph, severing its connectedness to its tradition, and thereby conferring a false sense of singularity and singular authorship.

If we succeed in becoming citizens of multiple agoras, we will quickly recognize that the oAgora and eAgora depend crucially on distributed authorship, and that the tAgora depends on the twin illusions of object and stasis as epitomized in the ideology of singular authorship.