• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

When we want to decrease or eliminate uncertainty or subjectivity, we often narrow our focus to “the facts.” Instead of filtered reality, so goes the ideology, these irreducible verities offer us the unfiltered version—the real story, what actually transpired as opposed to an interpretation. By removing human agency and the fallibility and inaccuracy that are its inescapable trademarks, we gain access to a universal, free-standing level of truth. That’s what happens when we concentrate on just the facts. Or is it?

Facts are made, not born

Consider for a moment the etymology of “fact,” which derives from the Latin verb facere, “to make, do, or perform.” Our English word descends from the neuter past participle of that verb—factum, a thing which is made. Facts, in other words, are not at all pre-existent truths, but truths that are made, constructed, done, performed. At bottom, these treasured bytes of freestanding truth are much more contingent than contemporary usage allows us to recognize. All appearances to the contrary, facts are fundamentally provisional.

Q: So just what are facts, then, if they’re not archetypal principles waiting to be unearthed? A: They’re constructed reality, pre-interpreted thought. Q: And who does the constructing and interpreting? A: We do—as participant-observers who perceive, express, codify, and then re-perceive in a never-ending and interactive cycle. Our verities are as true as we can make them, no more and no less, but they are subject to revision from the very moment they’re made.

Facts in the tAgora

Facts are, of course, the everyday currency of idea-exchange in the marketplace we call the tAgora. Working within the twin illusions of object and stasis, we trade facts, bartering with one another and with the culture at large, seeking to acquire items to fill up our warehouse of cultural literacy (the customary and idiomatic deflection from cultural fluency to cultural literacy is naturally no accident). The premise of isolatable, concretizable, and therefore tangibly exchangeable ideas makes the tAgora run.

But let’s re-examine the textual reflex that shortcircuits our more considered view of facts. Stripping away the ideological assumptions that mask the root sense of the word, let’s ask whether facts can exist beyond the tAgora. If we step outside the prelapsarian illusion of complete textual objectivity, can the concept survive the translation?

Well, it depends on how much you’re willing to buy into the fiction of fact. Strictly speaking, since all facts are constructed, the tAgora concept of immutable, non-contingent truth is nothing more than a convenient falsification from the start. Only because we co-dependently agree to the lie that certain perspectives are impervious to context can we even posit the kind of fact on which the tAgora depends for its continuing function.

If, on the other hand, we are willing to face the contingent, provisional nature of facts—no matter what they purport to explain or characterize, then we’ll see that the oAgora and eAgora are actually far better equipped to support and understand them.

Facts in the oAgora

A more-than-leading question

Only too often we’re confronted with a question so skewed that it condemns OT technology to a lesser, inferior ranking on the totem-pole of comparative media. The query usually goes something like this: “What facts can we trust OT to provide us with, and what aspects of OT should we disregard, in our search for ‘what really happened’”? Sometimes the question comes from historians trying to use Homer’s epics or the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf or contemporary folk drama to write their histories. Sometimes it comes from journalists, who are responsible for fact-checking, a meta-concept that heaps irony upon irony. You can come up with many more examples, I’m sure.

But whatever the source, the core implication is clear: OT isn’t as dependable as a document. It’s the text that delivers facts, and our task in dealing with the less accurate, less dependable medium is essentially to weed out the inaccuracies, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Of course, there’s a trap-door lurking here: the unexamined assumptions embedded in the question, which automatically foreclose on discussion before it can start. By attempting to answer the question as posed (“What can we salvage from OT technology?”), we’re already subscribing to a hierarchy of media. We’re already placing the ideological program of the tAgora at the top and making it the sole standard by which other media-technologies are measured. In a sense, we’re confronted with the media-specific equivalent of “Are you still cheating on your wife?” That’s a tough spot to begin a fair-minded conversation.

OT as a contingent medium

OT provides a perspective; more accurately, it provides multiple perspectives for the media-users it serves. And, crucially, the users themselves are necessarily involved in formulating those perspectives. They’re the ones who navigate the network of pathways, who surf their way through a web of linked possibilities.

Consider the situation. There can’t be any pretense of objectivity if the performance-event takes its character in part from the patterned and flexible language of OT, in part from the performer’s mood, in part from the immediate surroundings, in part from the make-up and dynamic participation of the audience, and so forth. There can be and often is competition among performers, each one claiming implicitly or explicitly to be the best. But none of them can claim the final word, just as no performance is the final or optimal version. Utter finality in OT —as in IT (Internet Technology)—yields nothing but silence and the death of communication.

The most essential truth is that OT functions not in spite of but rather through the agency of its contingent, provisional nature. It adapts in rule-governed ways to the moment in which it finds itself, and therein lies its strength and power.

Two examples

Our fieldwork team observed this kind of power-via-morphing in Serbian bajanje, or magic spells, orally performed by female conjurers for the treatment of their village clientele. No one form of the charm would cure every disease; no single performance would suit every patient; no practitioner would voice precisely the same sequence of words or syllables every time she performed. The “fact” of the medicinal matter proved contingent, adaptable, subjective—and, most crucially, constructed. Multiformity made the magic work.

Or consider the composition of medieval literature, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a work created in writing but with deep and nourishing roots in the oAgora. Chaucer and his contemporaries drew on various kinds of storytelling conventions to portray their characters, events, and situations. During the Middle Ages these conventions were collected in rhetorical handbooks, which in turn served as recipe-books for creating literature. The Wife of Bath’s gapped teeth and red stockings, for example, were telltale signs of a lascivious nature—not invented merely for her memorable character but rather applied to signal her sexual nature by much broader and more pervasive convention.

Of course, there is nothing inherent in dental features or hosiery that would unfailingly identify the Wife—or anyone else—as lascivious. The traditional meaning that accompanies these unsuspecting physical details is linked arbitrarily on the basis of usage, not on the basis of tAgora-type fact. To put it in the terms we’ve been thinking with, gapped teeth and red stockings are constructed signs. And Chaucer was hardly alone. Many medieval authors deployed such constructed facts to spin their stories fluently and idiomatically. Once again, the medium works precisely because these “facts” apply across multiple instances. They provide authors with a contingent language that comes alive in the oAgora experience of storytelling.

Facts in the eAgora

So how about facts on the web? We might be tempted to cite such bedrock items as dates, statistics, and static pages, and conclude that facts (as imagined in the tAgora) can and do exist in a virtual environment. But a moment’s reflection will reveal that even these supposedly immutable objects were mapped, calculated, and built by someone according to an arbitrary convention. In short, they too were constructed.

And then there’s the network of potentials itself, each node linked in multiple ways to other nodes. Very little if any tAgora-type fact can be found in that powerfully morphing, interactive medium at any level. Indeed, the Internet’s function actively depends on the absence of fact as ideologically construed.

And we can take things a step further. The very notion of absence already misrepresents the situation, using a tAgora distinction to mischaracterize the eAgora. It’s not absence or omission, but rather presence, plenitude, and contingency that enable the surfer to co-create experience(s). Every individual surfer constructs a personal “factual” universe, a self-made cosmos, by navigating pathways and co-configuring reality.

Until ideas collapse into things, until virtual diminishes into brick-and-mortar, until textuality stops the heartbeat of OT and IT, reality remains in play.