• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

What do ideologies do?

Ideologies pre-empt considered judgments. They short-circuit critical thinking by automatically defaulting to familiar, comfortable, pre-designated positions.

Political ideologies provide perhaps the most familiar example in our everyday world. Instead of confronting social realities as the complex, many-sided phenomena they actually are, we often settle for honoring our subscription to this or that ideology. In the process we terminate open-minded consideration before it begins. We cast ourselves as Democrats, Republicans, progressives, or independents, and sign ourselves up as members of an ideologically based – and therefore dependably like-minded – group of adherents. In many cases, membership in such a group excuses us from grappling with the ins and outs, pluses and minuses, of alternative political positions. Instead, we let the ideological credo of the group do the work by overriding and dismissing natural complexity.

 

How do ideologies function?

Ideologies operate under the radar, invisibly for the most part. We usually don’t notice when they blind us to otherwise challenging realities, when they reduce or even define them out of existence. Nor do we recognize how they funnel inherently contradictory phenomena toward a single, uncluttered (and carefully constructed) “truth.”

If we’re willing to embrace a given political ideology, for example, we may not be aware that our tidily monolithic view of the world doesn’t take fair and equitable account of various segments of our society. We may not appreciate the full impact of a proposed regulation on small business entities, or of a copyright convention on file-sharing or artists’ rights. Because ideologies do their work in the background – as unexamined templates for interpretation – we usually don’t notice or credit their pre-emptive power. That’s part of the game, of course. Once subscribed to an ideology, we seldom unsubscribe; there’s just no real incentive to trash our trusty frame of reference and start all over again.

 

The power of textual ideology

Not all ideologies are political, of course. For example, how often do we stop to contemplate just what we’re doing when we scan the lines and turn the pages of a book? Instead, we conventionally skip the preliminaries and get down to reading – all without giving much if any thought to precisely what we’re doing. And for general, everyday purposes this is how it has to be; that’s the default procedure, after all. Only because we subscribe to the ideology of the text, only because we have agreed to put aside extraneous concerns and adhere to the implied rules, can we use this tAgora instrument fluently and economically.

In other words, reading habits trump comparative analysis of media. It’s precisely because we don’t pause over how texts work, what they do, and most importantly what they define out of existence that we’re able to use them so well. Like any medium, the book and page require that we categorically ignore other realities in favor of the reality they construct and represent.

 

Just what is a text, anyway?

One response to this demanding question is to investigate the history of the word. The Middle English texte enters our language from Old French texte, which in turn derives from Latin textus (fabric, structure). Since textus amounts to the past participle of the verb texere (to weave), a text is etymologically “something that has been woven.” The larger family tree also includes a cousin in ancient Greek (technê, craftsmanship), with a common Indo-European grandparent *tekth, a root likewise meaning “weave, build, join.”

This root sense of something woven bears certain implications, among them the obvious connotation of a text as a finite thing. It’s not in-process, emergent, or under construction; it’s the tangible product of craftsmanship. In this respect such a product preserves and supports the twin illusions of object and stasis, two tAgora principles that help to prop up the ideology of the text. The act of constructing such a thing – even the default cultural conviction that such an idea-container could be constructed—“speaks volumes” about our pre-emptive and unexamined commitment to the book and page.

Weaving and unweaving

Contrast a famous weaving project featured in Homer’s Odyssey: the celebrated burial shroud for Odysseus’ father Laertes. It was, we recall, Odysseus’ wife Penelope who used this never-ending process to hold her suitors at bay. For twenty years she wove by day and then unwove by night, cleverly delaying completion of the task she cited as a necessarily preliminary to making any commitment to a new husband. Penelope’s project was in effect designed not to reach completion but to remain under construction indefinitely.

Unlike Penelope’s shroud-text, the texts we make and exchange can’t be so easily unmade; once woven, they can’t readily be unwoven. By their very nature our tAgora tools tend to persist in their unique, objective identity, impervious to revision until another edition or printing is undertaken. The whole point of creating a text – of weaving that finished product – is to eliminate the possibility of change, to foreclose on process, to prevent further adjustments, and in short to secure our ideas, arts, and knowledge in a finished tapestry resistant to unweaving. Such is the nature of our brick-and-mortar text, and such is its ideologically supported identity.

 

Or, rather, what are texts?

It’s well to remember, though, that the common noun “text” has both singular and plural forms. We can speak logically (if somewhat abstractly) of a singular, overarching umbrella concept—“text” as a general category, but reality presents us with more than one type of weaving. An analogy to the natural world may help explain both sides of the phenomenon – both its diversity and its unity.

Genus and species

We start with the observation that the genus we call text comes in various types or species. For Pathways Project purposes, we will distinguish three species: tablets and manuscripts, printed pages, and static eFiles (each with multiple variants).

By tablets and manuscripts I mean to indicate handwritten texts (as reflected in the etymology from manus and scriptus), whether on stone, clay, wax, papyrus, vellum (sheepskin), birchbark, notebook paper, or some other inscribable surface. The critical defining feature of manuscripts is that they are inscribed, sign by sign and in unique copies, by the direct agency of one or more human beings. Printed pages are of course the legacy of Gutenberg and now of computer-driven typesetting machines, and can be mass-produced in exact replicas without direct and continuous human agency. Static eFiles live exclusively as binary code that translates to pixels on a screen, but their “text-ness” lies in their nature as fixed entities, as finished products posted to the web as free-standing artifacts. As such, they should be clearly distinguished from websites and other electronic entities that allow or even require ongoing interaction by users.

As a consequence of the history of technology, these three species show marked disparities in physical composition and usability. In the ancient and medieval periods manuscripts were produced only by great and sustained labor, and even then these fragile records were produced one at a time, stored in a single location, made accessible to few (a considerably smaller fraction of the already small fraction of society who could read), and were ever subject to loss or damage. In other words, they were hard to produce, hard to use, and hard to keep safe. Printed pages could be much more easily and precisely duplicated – “backed up,” in a sense – because every copy (of hundreds or thousands) was precisely the same. What the printing press and related inventions accomplished was essentially to pluralize documents, to make it possible for widely separated readers to learn from what was for the first time precisely the same resource. With the advent of the Internet, such documents could be keyed in or scanned and then posted electronically as static eFiles for the benefit of a dramatically broader community, thus further distributing the readership and further democratizing knowledge, art, and ideas.

But as different as these three species are, they also constitute a single genus. Each of the three is an object (no matter what its particular physical make-up or dimensions), each is therefore tangible (unlike the experience of navigating through a virtual, interactive network), and each aspires to serve its users as a fixed, change-resistant medium.

 

The work = the text & The text = the work

What’s more, the conviction that texts are objective, tangible, and static lies at the very foundation of our tAgora ideology. Over centuries we’ve committed ourselves to certain articles of faith, and we’ve made a tacit agreement to never look back (though the eWorld is currently starting to undermine our blind and long-unexamined faith in brick-and-mortar reality).

tReligion

Here’s how tReligion goes. If we believe that texts actually contain the works inscribed in them, and if we further believe that these textual containers are monument-like edifices that keep their contents inviolate for as long as the medium survives, then the works have effectively become texts. Ideologically speaking, we’ve convinced ourselves that the texts we hold in our hands or scroll through on a screen actually are the works. There’s no distance between encoding medium and encoded message. Knowledge, art, and ideas have been successfully mapped and stored.

Homer’s performance-texts

Manuscripts provide myriad instances of how a work becomes embodied in a text. Consider the case of Homer’s Iliad, circulating in OT well before the eighth century BCE, committed to papyrus in the seventh or sixth century BCE, fractionally sampled and re-mapped by other writing projects in the centuries that followed (as papyrus scraps testify), and “deposited” in the Alexandrian Library in no fewer than 131 copies1. But scholars often submerge an embarrassing fact: namely, that the first whole Iliad that survives to our time appeared in a Venetian library manuscript dated as late as the tenth century CE, roughly two millennia after its suggested “launch.”

In the meantime, we frankly don’t know and can’t discover just how a long succession of editors cooperated to produce that tenth-century text. What earlier scraps of the poem we have – some in agreement and some in conflict with that first whole text – cover most of the preceding millennium, but there’s no way to assemble the ancient shards into a single restored artifact. Primarily, of course, because the oAgora Iliad never was a single artifact to begin with; and that’s to say nothing of the two missing millennia of tAgora history. Distributed authorship followed by distributed editorship. All in all, quite a messy text-story.

But that messiness has not prevented modern editors from sifting through the rubble and establishing what they claim is a single authoritative text. And how do they do it? By applying editorial principles and selecting preferred readings they reduce an inventory of incongruous pieces to a hybrid artifact, a well-woven tapestry with no loose threads. Decidedly a compromise tailored to meet tAgora criteria.

The strength of the ideology behind this process cannot be overestimated. So pressing is our need for an object-text – fully as pressing as our modern cultural need for a singular author where none can exist – that we have been willing to indulge in radical reductionism, all in the name of text-making. And why? Because text-making amounts to cultural code for work-making.

Saul Bellow’s Herzog

To take a much more modern example, we can speak of Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog as the typed manuscript he submitted to the publisher, or the printed pages issued by that publisher, or a downloaded static file available online. Each of these texts exists in a different physical form, with different projected audiences, usefulness, access, and so forth. But those differences don’t go to the real heart of the matter: the fact that all three forms are negotiable currency in the tAgora. At bottom, the variant physical identities – bond paper, bound paperback, or paperless pixels – aren’t crucial. At bottom, the disparate audiences – Bellow’s editor, buyers of brick-and-mortar books, or the web community – aren’t crucial. What truly counts is that all three forms are “texts.” Fundamentally, even if in variant guises, Herzog the work is Herzog the text(s).

 

So what do texts actually do to OT?

How about prima facie OTs that we can experience as live events and in person? What does textualization do to them?

First, and this is an obvious but inherently difficult preliminary, we must be willing to think outside the tAgora box. We have to get some distance, to suspend our default procedure of freezing reality into a spatialized, page-bound representations and ask how that ideological short-circuit compromises our ability to understand OT. We have to credit the possibility – however unintuitive – that merely snatching a sequence of recognizable, dictionary-approved write-bytes severely distorts rather than fairly represents oral performance. Just as no drama worth the name can ever be fully realized within a silent, disembodied, un-enacted script, so no OT worth the species label can ever be captured alive in a text, no matter how deftly conceived and executed the textual container may be. Proteus just doesn’t submit that easily.

What gets lost

With this cautionary tale in mind, let’s start by enumerating some of what’s lost when an OT performance event is reduced to the cenotaph of a text. It’s a surprisingly lengthy and multidimensional catalogue.

We lose vocal features such as intonation, loudness and softness, and silence. We lose visual signals like gesture and facial expression, not to mention meanings attached to costume, setting, and props. We lose the musical and rhythmical dimensions of performance. Critically, we lose the background of variability, the network of potentials out of which any single performance emerges. Just as importantly, we lose the contribution of the audience, real or implied, and any interaction that influences how the performer proceeds. And, not by any means least, we lose the historical and cultural context, as well as the general idiomatic content of the performance (dimensions that are segregated to other parts of the ruthlessly linear book even in the best-case scenario).

That’s a lot to forgo in coming to terms with OT, a lot to eliminate in the name of textualization. If we’re willing to settle for that degree of compromise – and we’ve long ridden the bandwagon of the book with few if any complaints – then the ideology of the text must be very powerful indeed.

A few projects have begun to address these shortcomings and to provide electronic solutions to the flattening of experience mandated by texts. One of these is the eEdition of a South Slavic oral epic poem created by the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, which combines the sounds of the performance with two parallel texts (in the original language and in English translation), a glossary of traditional idiomatic meanings, and a commentary. All of these parts are reassembled into a single whole on the same interactive electronic page, thus resynchronizing the event and helping the reader/surfer toward a fuller experience of Halil Bajgorić’s 90-minute performance. Other eProjects with similar goals, such as the Homer edition being undertaken by the Center for Hellenic Studies, are also underway.

 

Getting beyond textual ideology

Getting out from under any ideology is inherently a demanding task. In this case the process has to start with recognizing that our core beliefs in stasis and objectivity are nothing more (and nothing less) than a convenient, serviceable illusion. In a sense, the tAgora fosters a kind of cultural co-dependence, an uncritical loyalty to what we’ve convinced ourselves that texts can do. Restoring an unbiased perspective is hard work because it means pushing against the momentum of habit-driven behavior – in this case of note-taking, list-making, report-writing, and all of those other text-enabled activities that fill up and define our daily lives. To exit the well-mapped and familiar world of the tAgora – or at least to recognize that the worlds of the oAgora and eAgora exist – is to undergo a kind of culture shock. And most people seek to avoid culture shock and agoraphobia whenever they can.

A case in point

If you’re reading “Getting beyond textual ideology” as printed pages in Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind, you’re well aware of the inherent constraints on text-processing. You know firsthand what it means to relinquish the chance to navigate a road-system and to plan your own itinerary in favor of obeying the traffic signs and proceeding down the one-way highway of the text (letter after letter, line after line, page after page, and always “just so”). The brick-and-mortar book is reassuringly and economically organized, to be sure, but that organization is purchased at a steep cost.

If you’re reading “Getting beyond textual ideology” as a pixel-realized design on your screen, there’s a radical difference in your experience. Oh, there’s an organized and sequential text for you to read, all right, but that’s hardly the end of the story. Now you have some choices to make, namely, about whether to keep following those letters and lines one after the next, or to exit by clicking on links that will take you elsewhere (but still within the universe of the Pathways Project). That “elsewhere” can be one of the three principal media environments (the oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora always available in the top menu-bar), another of the many nodes listed in the table of nodes (in the righthand menu-bar), one of the linkmaps (always available in the righthand menu-bar), or simply any branching link within any node. And of course you can always return to this very paragraph – or any other one, for that matter. Merely surfing through the Pathways Project, in other words, is a basic first step toward thinking outside that most restrictive box of all: the text.

 

Do’s and Don’ts

Somehow summaries and conclusions seem to go against the grain of the Pathways Project, which eschews linear sequence in favor of interconnected options. Instead, let me provide a few additional perspectives on the ideology of the text—none of them final or conclusive but all of them intended to be helpful. In eTerms, think of them as tags, as entry-points to fundamental concepts.

I’ve chosen to present these tags in the form of “do’s” and “don’ts,” that is, as simple advice-bytes on how to avoid the pitfalls of blind and exclusive adherence to our default tAgora technology. In that sense they amount to another set of proverbs that serve as easy pathways toward more complex ideas.

  • DO use each technology according to the rules of its home agora.

    For the oAgora and eAgora, this means navigating through pathways and co-creating a personalized, ongoing experience. For the tAgora this means spatializing and sequencing knowledge, art, and ideas in a fixed, linear format for consumption by text-readers. As a general principle, it means avoiding agoraphobia.

  • DO take into account the diversity of the genus “text.”

    For the purposes of the Pathways Project, we have identified three major species, all of them highly variable, within this genus: Tablets and manuscripts, Printed pages, and Static eFiles.

  • DON’T settle for brick-and-mortar when virtual is the name of the game.

    Neither OT nor IT (Internet Technology) can be captured in a text. Accept that undeniable reality, and create and use networks that foster morphing.

  • DON’T insist on a single technology if a media suite works better.

    In representing an oral performance, exclusive adherence to a textual transcription or audio or video or photographs or other single-channel versions of the event will inevitably fragment the end-user’s experience and make for a necessarily partial understanding. Employ multiple media as a coordinated suite of tools to more faithfully represent OT and to improve the user’s experience – by resynchronizing the event.

  • DON’T reduce the multiplex road-system of networked pathways to a one-way highway.

The oAgora and eAgora offer opportunities to explore and create. Defaulting ideologically to textual representation necessarily means relinquishing those opportunities.

  • DON’T collapse reality into an object.

Converting an ongoing experience into a thing may seem to confer objectivity and stasis (of course, it doesn’t), but the price is forbiddingly high: non-textualizable features of the experience are automatically eliminated before you get started. Call it an ideologically based handicap.

  • DON’T let ideology pre-empt understanding.

Think outside the tAgora. Consider the dynamics and native technology of the oAgora and eAgora. To abuse Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your [textual] philosophy” (Hamlet, Act I, scene 5).

1 See Foley 1990: 24.

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