• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Pathways permeate and define the oAgora. They constitute its expressive universe, providing rich opportunities to create individual performances within a rule-governed environment. But they can’t guarantee success, or even intelligibility, any more than a knowledge of French guarantees unerringly fluent conversation in a Parisian café. OT, like language in general, sponsors surfing along multiply linked pathways, and such surfing can sometimes go astray.

After all, OT performance is a process that necessarily involves not only a flexible, idiomatic system of expression but also one or more individuals who actually do the oAgora work. To put it proverbially, “without a tradition there is no language; without a speaker there is only silence.” Systematic, pathway-driven morphing is a powerful vehicle, but vehicles can’t function without operators. Practically speaking, to do business in the oAgora is to accept the real possibility of occasional off-course navigation in order to preserve the possibility of living, interactive, creative performance. Networks aren’t texts because networks aren’t predetermined. Linked potentials support miming, not mapping.

Mujo Kukuruzović in the oAgora

A pair of linked performances by the South Slavic oral epic singer, or guslar, Mujo Kukuruzović offers a case in point. First, a short sketch of the background.

During their 1933-35 fieldwork in the Former Yugoslavia, Milman Parry and Albert Lord often elicited multiple versions of a given song-performance through their interpreter and colleague, Nikola Vujnović. Their goal was to study the variability inherent in this oral tradition—from one instance to another, from one singer to another, and from one region to another. The Parry Collection of Oral Literature, the archive where these song-performances are now housed, thus presents a unique opportunity to learn how guslari surf the pathways of their tradition, how they fluently convert the potential of a shared network to the reality of parallel but non-identical instances. As we shall see in the case below, multiple performances also illustrate how rule-governed flexibility can lead to outright misnavigation.

A discrepancy discovered

Kukuruzović twice performed the same epic tale, The Captivity of Alagić Alija, once on February 22, 1935 and again on June 10, 1935. Let’s call them versions A and B, respectively. In both of these performances the singer arrived at a particular juncture in the narrative and veered off-course. On both occasions he sent his hero off to seek the wrong foe in the wrong locale: specifically, to meet with General Pero in Kara Bogdan instead of Paun harambasha in Jezero.

But it’s exactly this pathway-detour that shows us how he surfs. Notice how Kukuruzović reacts, differently each time. In version B he immediately corrects his error by adding a revised itinerary, while in version A no such revision takes place and he continues all the way through to the end of his performance—via the wrong track. The singer admitted as much during his post-performance interview with Vujnović:

NV: When we wrote down this song [version A], you told me that when Alija killed his wife, he went off seeking some ban and general [Pero].
MK: Uh-huh.
NV: And that they attacked the Lika.
MK: Uh-huh.
NV: But this morning [version B] you sang that he killed his wife and then met some harambasha.
MK: That’s right—Paun harambasha….
NV: There’s a difference here, Mujo, I’d say, and I’d say it’s an important difference.
MK: Then it’s possible that I skipped over.
NV: What’s that?
MK: It’s possible that I skipped over.
NV: I’d say, by God, that it’s some sort of important difference.
MK: Yes, it’s possible; I began to set [version B] straight immediately, so it’s possible.
NV: Then which is the true story? Tell me.
MK: I consider [version B] the true one.
NV: The one this morning?
MK: The one this morning, because, you know, I’ve heard it done that way more times.

The bottom line in this scenario? Version B gets corrected when the singer clicks on the correct link, chooses the right oPathway, and sends Alagić Alija where he’s supposed to go—to Paun harambasha in Jezero. Meanwhile, Version A stands as an uncorrected error of some 1603 lines (of 2152 total lines in that performance!), as Kukuruzović fails to redirect his hero from General Pero in Kara Bogdan. We can’t help but agree with the interviewer Vujnović: that’s a major mis-step.

A number of questions must then arise. How could the singer go so wrong for so long? What could possibly prompt such a basic error and, once it was committed, why did Kukuruzović make a mid-course adjustment to correct his mistake in one version but not in the other? From a tAgora perspective, this series of events looks like sloppy composition, the kind of oAgora activity so roundly condemned in the tAgora marketplace (under the doctrine of agoraphobia). Certainly this isn’t the sort of artistic malfeasance we expect in a responsible, articulate poet! Why doesn’t the performer have better control of his performance?

The singer explains himself

But consider the situation from the point of view of the guslar himself, as expressed in the following exchange, another part of the conversation between him and his interviewer Vujnović. In order to understand Kukuruzović’s explanation, it’s necessary to know a couple of things in advance. First, they are referring to two epic tales: The Captivity of Alagić Alija, the story we’ve been considering here so far, and a second very similar story, The Captivity of Ograšćić Alija. Second, these two tales are in many respects mirror-images of one another, from start to finish. That is, the names, places, and specific actions are different, but the generic narrative pattern underlying them—the story-backbone, so to speak—is one and the same.

In brief, both tales feature a long-imprisoned Turkish hero who survives an Odyssey-like captivity and returns home only to find that his wife has been unfaithful, the very antithesis of Odysseus’ wife Penelope. He takes his revenge by killing her and then treasonously riding off to join the Christian enemy, although he eventually comes to his senses, rediscovers his original loyalties, and participates in a Turkish rescue mission. Up to the point at which the hero departs for enemy territory, the two stories are virtually identical; at that juncture Alagić Alija heads for Jezero and Paun harambasha, while Ograšćić Alija seeks General Pero in Kara Bogdan (the proper destination for each hero in the given story).

With these generic correspondences in mind, listen to Kukuruzović’s own commentary on his performances, a kind of oAgora “lit-crit” that responds to Vujnović’s tAgora-type prompting:

NV: Do you sing other songs, for example, with the same kind of variation as this song? The question really comes to this—do you know these other songs better, or do you know them only as well as this one?
MK: Well, brother, whatever songs I learned from singers, those I know, do you understand? But the songs about Ograšćić Alija and Alagić Alija are enough alike, one to the next, that the verses carry over.
NV: Yes, yes.
MK: So it was in this way that I skipped over, so to speak, and leaned in another direction. And then I saw that I was mistaken, but I didn’t stop to tell you.

Let’s examine what the singer is trying to explain. If we translate his description of “skipping over” into tAgora terms, we can see that Kukuruzović’s “error” is an unforgivable breach of performance only within a textual frame of reference. Within the oAgora, choosing the wrong route is simply the price one occasionally pays for using systematic patterning, for surfing through potentials instead of staying committed to a one-way street. By sending Alagić Alija to the place where Ograšćić Alija is supposed to go, the performer has simply headed down a parallel pathway.

In effect, Kukuruzović was operating online within his OT. It’s as if he visited an incorrect subsection of the Returning Hero website, and clicked on the nearby and similar URL “www.returninghero.org/ograšćićalija” instead of “www.returninghero.org/alagićalija.” In version B he adjusted by reclicking on the correct URL; in version A he followed the alternate and parallel but wrong pathway all the way through.

The built-in cost of oAgora business

On another occasion Kukuruzović might never have veered off; he might well have sent Alagić Alija to the “right” instead of the “wrong” place from the beginning. No adjustment for misnavigation would have been necessary because the guslar would have clicked correctly, choosing the more appropriate of two parallel routes. Of course, there are always myriad additional decisions to make along the way: how elaborately to describe the hero’s disguise and testing procedures, for example, or how graphically to portray his wife’s infidelity. These are smaller, less consequential choices, where outright mis-navigation doesn’t really come into play. But they’re options nonetheless, at every point and every level.

Like Pathways Project surfers, performers can “read” their oral traditions as they wish, navigating their networks within the limits that define those networks. Is it possible to go astray, to make a choice one might regret? Certainly. And is it possible to click on the “back” button to return and modify an itinerary? Yes, although we can also follow the new and uncustomary pathway without returning to the fork in the road. We can initiate a new performance. “Errors” can effectively—and in both OT and IT (Internet Technology)—produce untried, unexplored linkmaps.

In any case, what these two real-life instances of performances by Kukuruzović reveal is the crucial importance of pathways as the fundamental cognitive basis of OT. Pathways provide the opportunity for fluent, artistic performance, but they cannot guarantee unqualified success. Precisely because they present the performer with built-in options, guiding the process at the same time that they leave plenty of room for individual contributions and situation-specific details, they will occasionally license what the tAgora will label “flawed” products. They will occasionally license misnavigation.

That’s the cost of doing business in the oAgora.