• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Literally, it’s the act of returning someone or something to its “fatherland” (patria). Wikipedia defines repatriation as “the process of returning a person back to one’s place of origin or citizenship,” but extends the idea to cultural artifacts as well. For example, the entry cites the much-debated removal of the Elgin Marbles from the ancient Acropolis in Athens to the British Museum in London, where they have resided for more than two centuries. Perhaps the most frequent current application of the concept involves the movement addressed by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 1990 federal law that governs the return of human remains and cultural objects from museums and other institutions to their tribes of origin.

Whatever the application, there is often a sharp division of opinion on the merits of repatriation. From the perspective of those in the patria, something has been wrongly removed from its natural context and frame of reference. From the point of view of the removing agency, that something is now the property of another institution, where, it is frequently claimed, it can be better appreciated by more people through expert management of the resource. Two very different views of a troublesome matter.

Lurking not so subtly below the surface of this standoff is the vexed problem of ownership. At one level, it’s simply a question of who owns the resource. At a deeper level, it’s a question of whether it actually can be owned and, if so, whether and how that ownership can be established, transferred, or restored.

Elgin OTs

Imagine an oral tradition that exists in and supports the community that practices it, in some important fashion, for generations. It might be a tale of origins, or an ethnobotanical remedy, or a genealogy; you make the selection. Whatever your choice, this OT will dependably demonstrate a number of characteristic features. It will involve many scores of individuals, here and now as well as over different times and places, who draw their group identity in part from its ongoing cultural function. Some are performers and some are audience members, but all are embedded in its society-sustaining matrix. In Pathways Project terms, this oral tradition prospers in the virtual arena of the oAgora, where performers and audience members alike go to navigate shared networks, to transact the continuing business of cultural communication.

Now imagine a well-meaning and well-trained ethnography team who learn about the existence and function of this oral tradition and seek to understand how it works. They enter the oAgora – let’s say with audio or video apparatus – with the express purpose of recording the event as part of their research. In fact, let’s assume they make multiple recordings of performances within this OT, carefully and accurately transferring each one to a digital archive. Of course, they also collect contextual data about the event and all of its participants, ranging from surveys of performance parameters (time of year or day, weather, physical location, etc.) to observations of and interviews with all contributing individuals, performers and audience members alike.

So what do they do then, once their fieldwork is over? Almost always, the very next step is to export the event (or static reflections of it) from its home marketplace to the marketplace where they ply their trade – from the oAgora to the tAgora. In practical terms, that means to write an article or book, to create an edition, to post the “best” audio or video text(s). The event-become-thing is imported into the world of textuality, where it effectively becomes an owned commodity (despite its origins as a shared experience).

Not unlike Lord Elgin, then, these well-meaning investigators have automatically assumed that what they collected “belongs” in the museum-like institution of textuality. There it can be displayed on the curators’ terms and according to their wisdom (always tacitly considered superior to any local and original embedding). They’ve enshrined a living tradition – or, more accurately, the once-living remains of a living tradition – in the Museum of Verbal Art. The territorial imperative of the tAgora has claimed another victim.

The oAgora of origin

Oral traditions arise in and are sustained by the oAgora. In this marketplace performers surf through webs of potentials and audiences navigate along with them. Both parties to the transaction are conversant with the networked possibilities that lie before them and fluent in the specialized, idiomatic language that serves as the agora-appropriate lingua franca. OTs are fundamentally systems rather than things, processes rather than products.

This is the general situation for all types of oral tradition, regardless of mode of composition, performance, and reception – with reasonable adjustments for the natural diversity of OTs from genre to genre and culture to culture, of course. The oAgora is their first and foundational allegiance, the marketplace in which they define themselves.

Consider how various types of OTs relate to the oAgora:

1. The simplest case is Oral performance, where performer and audience co-navigate in real time without texts playing any role at all.
2. Voiced texts function in much the same way, since regardless of their written composition they live only to be performed. In other words, they too can function and be understood only within their home territory of the oAgora.
3. Voices from the past, textualized refugees from oAgoras that no longer exist, were nonetheless formulated via navigation of the OT network. For that reason they can’t be fully appreciated without at least partial awareness of its option-driven possibilities.
4. Even Written oral traditions, penned by individuals specifically for silent readers of books and never performed, derive not from a textual but an OT environment. Their solitary readers interpret them most faithfully when they understand them as products generated from the navigational process.

With forced translation into the tAgora, everything changes. Morphing ceases, co-creation ceases, and OTs become something else. Some may claim that this capture and mandatory emigration constitute a positive development, that the traditions in question can now be redistributed to a new audience, all for the greater good. But this is an empty defense: if we put aside self-serving doublespeak, it will become apparent that textualists are distributing fixed artifacts rather than living, multimedia OTs.

There’s an uncomfortable and sobering truth here, namely that oral traditions imported into the foreignness of the tAgora and thereby stripped of their natural identity and context are destined to remain distorted images of themselves. They can never “measure up” to verbal art that is indigenous to the textual marketplace, simply because they are created, transmitted, and received according to a different set of rules. They are from somewhere else. Under such conditions they will always remain poorly understood, and usually mis-understood, outsiders in a foreign marketplace.

Repatriation: an ethical solution

Native American peoples have successfully and rightfully argued for the return of their ancestors’ remains to their community of origin. In that same spirit we should do all we can to return oral traditions to their community of origin, to their patria, to the oAgora. We should focus on repatriating verbal art that has been forcibly removed from the marketplace in which it arose and flourished, and in which this media-technology does essential cultural work. It’s our duty as people who care about the remarkable diversity of human communication, as aspiring, responsible citizens of multiple agoras.

In a real sense this is nothing short of an ethical act – a restoration that rights a wrong and redresses an imbalance caused by the ruthless imposition of textual ideology. I say “ruthless” because our natural proclivity in studying communication is to convert whatever it is we’re analyzing to tAgora code. We attempt to understand phenomena, and that includes oPhenomena, by “embooking” them. Because this proclivity is unexamined and reflexive, we may consider it innocent and not intentionally distorting. After all, it flies below the radar, beneath our conscious awareness; maybe we’re not to blame, maybe it’s just “our way.” But the reflexive nature of this act only makes it more dangerous and harder to combat. To get beyond unexamined assumptions, and to defeat agoraphobia and give modes of communication and cultures a chance to be understood on their own terms, is an ethical act.

Initiatives for repatriation

How do we repatriate oral traditions? In general terms, and proceeding by the various types of OTs as referenced above and described in more detail here, we can pursue the following initiatives:

1. Recognize Oral Performances as the events they are, with oral composition and performance partnered with aural reception. Do everything possible to understand and portray them as products of a navigational process, and be attentive to their cultural context and multimedia nature.

2. Recognize Voiced texts as the events they are, with written composition intended solely for oral performance and aural reception. As with the first category, these oral traditions deserve attention to navigational process, cultural context, and multimedia nature.

3. Recognize Voices from the past as the event-records they are, with their background in oral composition and performance and aural reception. Take navigational process, cultural context, and multimedia nature into serious account, to the extent that such oAgora features can be recovered (keeping in mind that a partial victory is always preferable to a simple surrender to the textual model).

4. Recognize Written oral traditions as the oPhenomena they are. Despite their written composition, lack of performance, and silent reception by individuals, these works emerge from navigable webs of potentials and specific cultural contexts.

Ethical responsibilities

Repatriation can and should go forward on two fronts, a double initiative that reflects the fundamental homology of OT and IT (Internet Technology) that lies at the root of the Pathways Project.

Back to the oAgora

Whatever the type of oral tradition, we understand it best when we grasp its nature as networked, multiform, variable within limits, event-centered, and contingent. From Oral Performances to Written oral traditions, every product – in whatever form it reaches us – is the product of a larger process, and we need to know as much as possible about that process. No self-respecting linguist would try to study a single sentence in isolation from its language; just so, we need to learn about the networked and multiform background of whatever OT work we’re examining. Each work is contingent, inviting co-creation by its audience (whether a group of live listeners online with OT or a single reader offline). And each instance – even if it is now the sole surviving instance – is an event in the “tradition history” we aim to imaginatively reconstruct.

To do justice to an oral tradition is to grasp how inherently untextual it is: how it resists textual ideology, the illusions of object and stasis, the production of freestanding entities, the authoritative item. But, agoraphobia and culture shock notwithstanding, we need to make the effort to escape our default assumptions about verbal art. We need to open our minds to the dynamic actually operative in the oAgora.

Back to the future

As the Pathways Project homology demonstrates, the new tools of the eAgora offer us an unprecedented opportunity to do just that. Instead of reducing a performance – or even a written oral tradition – to the distortion of a conventional text, we can take advantage of the networking strategies of web-thinking to mirror or emulate the networked dynamics of the oAgora. It is the goal of the Pathways Project not only to study but also to represent OT in terms of IT.

One step toward using the homology to better understand OT has been the development of eCompanions. First conceived as a facility to accompany the book How to Read an Oral Poem, this same kind of electronic digest of audio, video, and photographs was then made available to authors publishing articles in the journal Oral Tradition. In both cases it became possible to supplement textual accounts and descriptions with multimedia examples, to lift the OT under discussion off the page and portray it as a living, multidimensional presence. Bringing the journal online made both text and multimedia immediately available to anyone in the world with a browser and an Internet connection, eliminating the tAgora problems associated with cost and distribution.

A second step has consisted of resynchronizing the event, of putting the book-segregated aspects of an OT work back together into a facsimile whole. Instead of separating the transcription, translation, glossary, commentary, and so forth, an eEdition places all of them on the same electronic page, playing the audio of the performance concurrently, and allowing the user access to a much richer and more complete experience than texts alone can provide.

Thus far one eEdition, which presents a South Slavic oral epic performed by Halil Bajgorić, has been formulated and is, like the journal Oral Tradition, available open-access and free of charge. More eEditions are in progress, which will collectively lead to a living inventory of Bajgorić’s performances and eventually of four or five epic singers from his region in Bosnia. Today it is possible to “read” one of his performances in far more depth and with much greater understanding than ever before; in the future it will be possible to “read” across his oral epic tradition.

For the categories other than Oral performance, versions of the same tools can help. Plainly enough, eCompanions can provide all sorts of information and experiences beyond the reach of the conventional textual page, for any of these varieties of OT. And the eEdition concept could be applied to serial performances of slam poetry (Voiced texts); to interrelations among the ancient Greek poems of Homer, Hesiod, and the composers of the Homeric Hymns (Voices from the past); and to the published, oral-derived works that were “sung on the page” by border-crossing figures such as Bishop Njegoš (Written oral traditions).

It is admittedly difficult to return oral traditions to the oAgora. Even the best intentions can fall victim to agoraphobia and culture shock, and there are practical problems associated with the inability of the textual medium to convey core features of OT. A great deal of misunderstanding has arisen from just this technological shortcoming.

But there is another way – back to the future. Repatriation of oral traditions can be accomplished – to a significant degree – by “returning” these oAgora citizens to the networked, contingent marketplace of the eAgora. In doing so, we leverage the OT-IT homology to help us understand what texts can never show us: how oral traditions work, how they mean, and how we can best grasp this oldest and most fundamental of humankind’s technologies of communication.