• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

It’s a basic marketplace premise that the oAgora lacks true authors, depending instead on various forms and kinds of distributed authorship. As the Pathways Project illustrates, oral tradition and Internet technology present their users with networks to navigate rather than texts to trek through, and that makes all the difference. If there are no texts – no fixed things to own – then there can be no sole, exclusive authorship of the kind prescribed by textual ideology.

Navigators of OT and IT (Internet Technology) webs practice sharing rather than ownership, realizing their projects within a shared code that, subject to applicable cultural and interpersonal rules, remains in the public domain. For that reason we speak of virtual, emergent, option-driven experiences in the oAgora and eAgora, as opposed to the tAgora practice of exchanging brick-and-mortar items. For that reason we describe oral performers and their audiences as online with OT.

Let’s see how this phenomenon of “no true oAuthors” plays out in each of the different types of oral tradition, each of the species within the OT genus.

Oral Performance

When composition and performance are oral and reception is aural, the communication is self-evidently taking place in the oAgora. Performers are drawing on a system rather than creating a thing, and every exploration of their shared network produces a rule-governed variation. Individual performances amount to negotiations of a communal intranet, with no single instance ever gaining absolute ascendancy within the oAgora. Authorship of stories or myths or charms, for example, inheres in the community, defined not only as the present group in a single geographical location but also as their forebears and descendants in all involved places.

Two members of this species underline the inherent pluralism of oral performance. In the case of Serbian charms, which are transmitted from grandmother to granddaughter and then carried by new brides from their natal homes to their husbands’ villages, the network is complex and far-reaching. In any given locale, conjurers who specialize in diverse healing remedies – who know how to navigate diverse particular intranets – will be tailoring their remedies to individual cases, surfing through networks of potentials along with other practitioners among whom authorship is distributed.

Likewise with the oral epic singers or guslari from the Former Yugoslavia, whose shared intranet is much more uniform than charm-practitioners because they learn from family members and neighbors and, as males, do not customarily move about from one family and place to another. For them as well, each performance is a journey through a shared web, in this case the web of epic tradition, a journey that will never follow precisely the same itinerary twice. Moreover, unless an outsider intervenes to translate between marketplaces (to engineer a transcription and publication), no performance can ever become a fixed, ownable, epitomized object. And even if outside interference does at some point produce such an artifact, as happened with the epics ascribed to the legend we call Homer, its roots are sunk deep in a long and transpersonal process that never supported single authorship. Much lies behind the façade of the surviving texts.

Voiced Texts

Members of this species within the OT genus start their life-cycle as texts, created within the tAgora by individuals. But they’re destined solely for performance, rather than for print publication, and therein lies the difference. In effect, their interactive, oral identity undoes their textuality, moving them from fixity and thingness into plasticity and experience. The dynamic is familiar enough: once the work ceases to be a textual artifact, it lives only in sequel performances and is free to morph in accordance with the rules of the OT performance arena. Sites will vary, as will audiences, contexts, and so forth – with the result that any sense of artifact-making fades into the immediate, virtual experience of what’s happening right now. Without a fixed script always and everywhere defining their existence (and signaling their objectivity and stasis), voiced texts relinquish conventional tAgora authorship.

The increasingly popular and widespread activity of slam poetry illustrates this text-to-performance trajectory of voiced texts. The initial step is customarily for individuals to compose their own poems in textual format, much as any modern poet might do. But then the texts are discarded and the poems are committed to memory, so that over many performances they morph in accordance with a host of variables. Since slam poets do not seek tAgora publication of their poetry (or even if they do it is a separate activity that doesn’t figure into the ongoing chain of navigations), their poems live only in the sequel, ever-disparate interactions with audiences – who in effect share authorship with them. We will search in vain for the classical brand of authored, textualized works in this ever-evolving scenario.

Voices from the Past

With ancient, medieval, or more recent texts that derive in indeterminate ways from oral tradition, the picture can be obscured by textual ideology. So desperate are we tAgora denizens for the benchmarks of individual authorship and fixed, epitomized works that we characteristically impose anachronistic models where they can’t possibly belong. The invention of the alphabet in Greece did not – could not – lead overnight to general literacy, with multiple exact copies in an easily consumable format, mass readership, and intertextual influence. Evidence from modern oral traditions shows that the “great individual epic poets” prove to be legendary figures rather than true-to-life modern authors, and that these legends function as anthropomorphic portrayals of the tradition at large. At the first level, then, the ancient Greek Homer, for example, is best taken as a code-name for the distributed authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey.

Or consider the recently discovered dynamic whereby scribes remake performances and texts as they practice their writerly craft, with their competence in the OT code supporting a kind of “resinging on the page.” In other words, once we query the unexamined conviction that pen-in-hand means verbatim, we find that matters aren’t quite so tAgora-like as we imagined. Even Nikola Vujnović, who was set the task of transcribing recordings of South Slavic oral epic collected by Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and himself, sometimes resorted to his own compositional abilities as a practicing guslar. That is, he occasionally let his own performative competence override the very performance he was listening to through headphones. And then there’s the inevitable distributed editorship—the editorial equivalent of distributed authorship—that lies behind the long and (literally) undocumented transmission of our oldest oral-derived texts. Taken together, all of these contributors make it only too apparent that single authorship is an inapplicable construct for Voices from the Past. No true oAuthors here, either.

Written Oral Traditions

At first sight this fourth OT category seems to break the genus-wide rule and sponsor conventional authorship in the tAgora sense. After all, it’s just one person who creates a fixed text intended for publication as an artifact, and that item is then processed silently by readers, one at a time. Neither the author nor anyone else ever performs it, and there’s no live audience to interact with the writer and participate in the shared experience. On the surface, works of this fourth species take the form of warehousable things and can therefore be owned, just as any book can be owned, and we anticipate no obvious pathways to navigate. Writer and readers seem to be operating in an exclusively textual marketplace.

But, as the proverb warns, there is more than meets the eye, as we can grasp by examining the case of Petar Petrović Njegoš, archbishop and prince of Montenegro in the early to mid-nineteenth century. An extremely learned man conversant with the major European languages and literatures, Njegoš nonetheless chose to create his own poetry by navigating the network he learned as a child growing up in the oAgora, a rural village named Njeguši. That is, although the tAgora oVehicles of Italian, German, and other literatures were available and familiar, he preferred the decasyllabic vehicle of heroic folk poetry for most of his verse, no matter how contemporary or philosophical the subject. In Pathways Project terms, he elected to engage the OT web even as he created single-authored poems to be published in fixed texts for silent reading by individuals. Behind his textual poems, in other words, lay a heritage of shared code and distributed authorship, which was now being put to a new purpose. Nobody sang it aloud, no audiences heard it performed, but Njegoš was working within an OT idiom. He was navigating networks, and we as latter-day readers will understand his poetry most faithfully by understanding its originative context.

Un-authorized communication

What’s true of the genus OT is true of its various species, and for that matter of the innumerable different populations that constitute each species. Oral tradition is nothing if not remarkably diverse. But what all of the examples above – and the scores more that have gone unmentioned – have in common is a set of fundamental oAgora characteristics. OTs are not things, they’re living networks. OTs can’t be owned, they have to be shared. OTs aren’t fossilized products, they’re fluid processes. And OTs can never become fully concrete because they never reach full, final textualization.

These characteristics are most obvious in the species we’ve called oral performance, where texts simply don’t enter the picture. Voiced texts may begin their life in the tAgora, but aspire exclusively to oAgora performance. Voices from the past survive to us as tablets, manuscripts, field notes, and other brick-and-mortar items, but they derive from long histories of web-surfing and often reveal their ability to keep on morphing even within a textual environment. Finally, notwithstanding their superficial singularity, written oral traditions are configured in oAgora source-code, and should be received within that systematic language and identity.

There just aren’t any true oAuthors anywhere to be found.