• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Books map our thinking, oral tradition and the Internet mime our thinking.

The page explicitly charts our journey from start to finish, OT and IT (Internet Technology) offer us networked pathways to navigate as we choose. The one technology does its job by prescribing space and sequence, the other two by suspending space and sequence.

The upside of the tAgora

There are, of course, enormous advantages to the written and print medium, advantages that have fostered the evolution of cultures in unprecedented ways since the relatively recent invention of writing. Letters and other script-bytes seem to forestall change and engender permanence. They fix thought before it escapes, or so we presume, capturing inherently evanescent ideas and making them consumable asynchronously, on our own schedule and on our own terms.

Page-making thus becomes a great deal more than a strategy for manufacturing handy, reusable documents. In a general sense, it creates and supports a pervasive (if unexamined) doctrine of knowledge-sharing: the ideology of the text. To abuse Descartes, citizens of the tAgora effectively operate on the assumption that ”J’écris et je lis, donc je suis” – “I write and I read, therefore I am.” Collectively as well as individually, we inscribe ourselves into the world. What’s more, we do so precisely, immutably, and, according to the wisdom of the illusion-sustaining folktale, without discernible slippage.

Some submerged issues

But just behind the curtain of this all-powerful ideology lie some real-life complications that don’t get much play. The most fundamental is the curious article of faith that “the work”—whether an OT performance, a novel, a play, or any other communication—can ever be wholly “contained” in a textual artifact. Like many tacit beliefs that prosper by going unquestioned, the work = text presumption lies deep in the media-consciousness of the tAgora. Never mind that contemporary critical theory has put the lie to the myth of the monolithic, immutable text. For the mundane tasks of our daily lives as well as for all but specialist interpretations of verbal art, we depend upon construing the text as the Holy Grail of permanent, holistic, and once-and-for-all representation.

Alas, that credo—an article of unquestioned belief among the faithful—amounts to a convenient falsehood.

Think about our unexamined assumptions for a moment. If the culturally sanctioned equation of work = text were “literally” true, as opposed to faith-based, there’d be no need for other texts—such as introductions, notes, bibliographies, historical accounts, or anything else—to help us read. Each work would be freestanding, complete in itself; it would make holistic sense all on its own. Of course, despite the claims of the now-old New Criticism, texts often don’t (or don’t often) make sense exclusively on their own, so the containment hypothesis runs aground even at that most basic level. To take the next step, if you insist that one certain edition, “complete” with all of the attached reading aids, amounts to the one true embodiment of the work, then an embarrassing question must arise. Why would there ever be any need for a new edition? If the job is done, then it’s done. Now and forever, once and for all.

Clearly, without even venturing into the knotty issue of textualizing oral performance, which raises other issues and calls for other solutions (such as eEditions), we can plainly see that works of verbal art can’t be exhaustively and finally contained in texts. Proteus can’t be so easily captured. The tAgora belief-system is flawed at its core.

The library card catalogue

In this sense even our treasured library card catalogue, no matter how exhaustive or well-indexed, amounts to an enormously successful lie. We conveniently pretend that we can objectify ideas, now and forever, by constructing artifacts; we gather the artifacts together (brick-and-mortar-wise or virtually); and we tabulate them according to imposed, pretended universals. The card catalogue thus becomes a second-order triumph of spatialization and sequence. We arrange the first-order objects on shelves (or on a server), number them according to an indexical system, load the numbers into drawers of cards or an electronic matrix, and—presto—we’ve parsed the universal storehouse of knowledge. Large edifices (again, either brick-and-mortar or virtual) full of epitomized objects, each of them securely in its proper place and electronically discoverable by the seeker after truth. Once more, the ideology of the text reigns supreme, as we indulge and participate in the fantasy that book and page can contain and preserve the human repertoire of ideas.

Maps versus journeys

But a map, no matter how carefully configured and produced, is only a map. It isn’t itself the journey; it merely enables the journey. And texts are no more ideas than writing systems are languages.

Practitioners of oral traditions – performers and audiences alike – don’t map. Indeed, they can’t. For them the history, tale, or social information exists “out there,” well beyond the present performance and its recording, larger and richer than any of its instances (which serve as links to that inexpressible whole but do not themselves “contain” it). For them it can’t be contained; it can only be linked to, and even then performers and their audiences will always be surfing a network of pathways. That’s the texture of communication and exchange in the oAgora.

Today the African griot recites his people’s mythic history at one place for one audience and at a particular length; tomorrow any or all of these parameters will vary, and his performance will vary along with them. On Thursday a Serbian bajalica uses her verbal magic to cure skin disease in a patient from one family or village; on Saturday she treats a different patient with a different ailment and adjusts her procedure accordingly. Both performers proceed by surfing their traditions.

In practice, oral traditions live and prosper not by fossilizing and becoming static but by morphing, by varying within a set of oAgora rules that governs performers and audiences alike while it supports their fluency. Within OTs, cultural knowledge can never be reduced to a singular objective form without denaturing it, without converting an ongoing process into a dead-end product, without reducing a living species into a handsome but lifeless exhibit in the Museum of Verbal Art. Cultural knowledge, art, and ideas aren’t maps; they’re journeys.

Mapping a miming medium amounts to an exercise in taxidermy. IT offers OT an apotheosis, a second life.