• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Both over its relatively brief history and at the present time, the tAgora has proven a complex arena for communicative exchange. To reflect that complexity, this node briefly examines five major species of text that have lived and thrived within its confines. They appear below under five headings: Symbols of/on clay, Greek letters on papyrus, Latin and runic letters on sheepskin, Typography on paper, and Static eFiles in pixels.

Symbols of/on clay

Within the tAgora we focus exclusively on what transpired from November 22nd onward in homo sapiens’ calendar year, the maximum time frame for textual concerns. Recently the much-debated connection between numeracy and the origins of literacy has grown considerably clearer, thanks in great measure to the groundbreaking work of Denise Schmandt-Besserat. In books such as Before Writing and How Writing Came About, she offers much more than a new view of ancient artifacts and their usability. She constructs a coherent explanation of how a simple counting mechanism evolved into an inscribed tablet surface, a surface that amounts to the precursor of papyrus, sheepskin, page, and LED screen, all of which are essentially later avatars of a radical ancient invention. Here’s one view of the story:

About 10,000 years ago, during the Neolithic period, small clay tokens of different geometrical shapes begin to turn up as a fledgling system for keeping track of quantities of grain, jars of oil, and other exchangeable, tangible goods. Evidence indicates a one-to-one correspondence between a token and what it stood for; three cones, for example, symbolized three small measures of grain, whereas five ovoids indicated five jars of oil. At first there were, in other words, no counters that symbolized abstract numbers as distinct from the actual things they represented.

The next step was to devise a method for storing and organizing ever-changing collections of tokens, and one popular solution proved to be the clay envelope or hollowed-out ball, into which the individual counters were inserted before closure. Of course, this otherwise effective strategy meant a lack of ready access to the contents, and to deal with that problem the makers of such containers began to mark the envelope’s exterior by pressing the differently shaped tokens into its soft surface before it was sealed and fire-hardened. The result was an external, easily available ledger of hidden contents that could be conveniently accessed at any time without destroying the enclosure.

Once this crucial step was taken, the enclosed tokens became functionally unnecessary to the communication. So, with the transition to a piece of solid clay and its inscribable surface, the tablet – or prehistoric desktop – was born. Later on yet, accountants began to use a pointed stylus to draw token-images on the surface, thus completing the trajectory from a currency of counters to tablet technology. It was from these hand-drawn shapes that ancient cuneiform writing was to emerge.

As long as ten millennia ago, in other words, a brand-new tAgora used the twin illusions of object and stasis to create textual precursors in the form of tokens. These counters, like the material goods they represented, were exchanged by their owners under applicable rules, and were valued for their tangible symbolism and resistance to change. And why not? Their authority was effectively unchallengeable within the rules of the game. Today you owned seven small measures of grain, and as long as you had seven cones in your pocket tomorrow your grain holdings remained secure. Gathering and ordering your tokens by entrusting them to a clay envelope further certified your ownership, especially when the envelope’s inventory was continuously available on the exterior. And when the bag stopped being an actual bag and modulated into a solid clay object, then the tablet took over as a ready-made cognitive prosthesis.

From the start, then, the tAgora sought to prevent morphing, to forestall variation within limits, and freeze systemic transmission. It set up a brick-and-mortar technology whose mission was (eventually) to eliminate all flux in the transmission of knowledge, art, and ideas by projecting various cultural realities – always fundamentally Protean – onto concrete tokens and inscribable tablet surfaces. This textual intervention seemed to dispel uncertainty, to secure otherwise slippery or entropic phenomena, to provide its adherents with a firm footing for negotiating the ever-shifting environments and realities they faced.

In order to accomplish these tasks, the textual marketplace mandated a major change in the way we conducted our verbal business: homo sapiens had to abandon the practice of surfing through networks of potentials in favor of committing to a pathway-less technology. And several other key features had to be implemented, among them fixity, ownership, resistance to morphing, and the free-standing status of the items exchanged. This wasn’t merely a slight adjustment, since embracing the new technology meant that reality emphatically could not remain in play. What morphed and was shared had to be reimagined as fixed and owned. In that respect the tAgora was from the start and still remains an arena utterly unlike the ever-emergent, navigable webs of the oAgora and eAgora.

Greek letters on papyrus

Greek letters didn’t begin life on papyrus. Invented sometime around the turn of the eighth century BCE and derived from Phoenician writing, the Greek alphabet first turns up on such diverse surfaces as clay shards, tombstones, and pottery, portraying everything from simple names to dedications to graffiti to (usually partial) lines of poetry.

Remarkably and atypically, a wine-jug known as the Dipylon oinochoe, dated within perhaps fifty years of the alphabet’s invention, includes an entire line (and a bit) of hexameter poetry – the OT vehicle for Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – along its shoulder. The fact that it is written from right to left is hardly unusual, since ancient Greek writing often proceeded boustrophedon, which means turning back and forth like an ox plowing a field. The “bottom line,” so to speak, is that early alphabetic writing lacked firm conventions or standards and was put to many different, often informal uses. Standardization was a long way off in the future.

We know from ancient testimony as well as modern research that Homer’s great epics – and apparently other epics as well – circulated orally for centuries before being written down. And even when performances were recorded, there was no opportunity for those early tAgora documents to have any direct effect on subsequent verbal transactions in the oAgora. Taking a snapshot of one possible navigation of the story-web neither called a halt to further navigations nor elevated any one performance above the generative network that produced it. And, once removed from that network, even the most treasured tangible artifact had no way to reconnect.

Practical aspects of technology matter. A papyrus roll of a single book of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey stretched to an unwieldy twenty feet or more, and very few people had the literacy skills necessary to work their way through this almost unusable item. There were by some accounts more than 100 versions of Homer at the great Alexandrian Library, and that’s only to be expected: fossilizing one performance on an inscribable surface could have no effect on the nature or proliferation of subsequent performances. Each performance was a single realization of web potential, a single surfing expedition – nothing more and nothing less. There was simply no way for one version to win out.

Pity the poor modern editor, then, who seeks to apply tried-and-true principles of editing to the multiple surviving textual records of Homer. Very inconveniently, the whole manuscripts do not agree line for line, nor with the fragments, and even more inconveniently it has proven impossible to solve such discrepancies by creating a genetic family tree or stemma of surviving witnesses. Why? Because those versions don’t constitute a conventional family. Unlike the situation with later authors and their works, we can’t uncover a genetically based chronology and pattern of influence that explains their variability.

And why not? Because imposing intertextuality—that is, the tAgora modus operandi of text-to-text influence—back onto ancient Greek oral-derived epic amounts to a futile and misleading gesture. It cannot bear fruit because the modern ideological assumptions of absolute fixity and item-to-item derivation are inapplicable. Which version offers the “best” reading of a particular line or group of lines? To which version do we ascribe the role of “epitome” or “foundation”? These are useless questions, anachronistic misinterpretations of a nascent tAgora, a pre-Gutenberg marketplace that was still millennia away from developing the publishing technology and mass readership we automatically and unthinkingly assume when we think about textual transmission.

So how should we handle the predictable, indeed inevitable variability among the surviving texts of Homer’s epics? Well, first we need to recognize that each extant product is the result of a much larger process. The Center for Hellenic Studies has evolved a method, entitled the Homer Multitext Project, that allows the user full access to the “documented” differences among the many surviving readings. What the CHS project recognizes is a very basic but usually overlooked reality: oral and oral-derived works of verbal art do not reside wholly in any tAgora document that reflects one version of them. Our modern equation of the work and the book simply doesn’t apply to most ancient and medieval works, which customarily exist in many forms and versions, not to mention the morphing they undergo even during scribal copying. Until the technology of the textual marketplace evolves to the point at which we can confidently speak of exact replicas of a single-authored creation intended for the individual reader, we can’t equate the work and the text.

Unlike post-Homeric works that don’t derive from oral tradition, the Iliad and Odyssey are tAgora reflections of oAgora processes. As Voices from the Past, they represent the only evidence we have left of an OT that died out so long ago. But, and here is the crucial point for us, we cannot read these artifacts merely as texts, merely as fixed, single-authored, non-morphing, freestanding items. To do so is to ignore their home agora, from which time and textual technology have inevitably isolated them.

Given their OT origins, and their identity as records of navigation through the ancient Greek oral epic tradition, our responsibility is to return these manuscript-prisoned poems to their oAgora context, at least as much as we can at this late point in time. And that means recognizing such trademark oAgora features as oWords, oPathways, and variation within limits—and the access to the traditional network of meaning that they idiomatically provide. In a sense, we must use textual evidence to reimagine the Homeric network that supported and made possible these navigational records. We must rescue them from the ideology of the tAgora and return them—again, as best we can—to the oAgora.

Latin and runic letters on sheepskin

According to the early eighth-century historian Bede, the Angles and Saxons arrived in what was eventually to be called England (Angla lond) in 449 CE. These Germanic peoples possessed no literacy skills, but they did bring with them a thriving oral tradition of poetry that served numerous social functions. Eventually that traditional ecology was to include forms as various as elegies, charms, maxims, battle poems, hagiographies (saints’ lives), Biblical paraphrases, and the epic Beowulf. As time went on, writing and reading entered the picture in ways we can’t now precisely recover, but the oral-derived poetry—best understood as Voices from the Past or as Written Oral Tradition—remained chiefly an oAgora phenomenon. OT became an important vehicle for the transmission of Christian ideas precisely because it engaged people in a generally available, well-known verbal marketplace using a generally available, well-known source code.

Anglo-Saxon oral-derived poetry survives to our time chiefly in four major manuscripts dated to the last third of the tenth century CE. The contents of these unique collections are diverse, especially the so-called Exeter Book, which houses forms as heterogeneous as charms, riddles, elegies, and religious lyrics. As digests of oral-derived poetry, they reflect the distributed authorship and distributed editorship still characteristic of oAgora-rooted communication even after commission to writing. In other words, they were composed by surfing through the oPathways of Anglo-Saxon oral tradition. The very diversity of forms we encounter in Old English poetry, and their origin in the dedicated code of the oAgora, makes a telling argument for the strength, breadth of application, and persistence of the technology of navigating through networks.

As was the case with the incipient tAgora in ancient Greece, these manuscripts, precious as they are for us, had nothing like a modern textual function. The insular minuscule writing system employed by early medieval English scribes resulted from Irish missionaries’ attempts to press Latin letters into service as a vehicle for recording the Germanic language of Old English. For sounds that did not occur in Latin, such as “th,” they borrowed letters from Runic alphabet, or futharc. Rhythmic oral poetry, composed and performed in quanta of lines and half-lines, was transferred to a run-on, non-lineated prose format, with little or nothing of modern punctuation and capitalization. And since literacy was rare and restricted largely to the monasteries for many years, these four manuscripts (and the poems scattered through other minor manuscripts) never had a chance to participate in the kind of mass readership community to which twenty-first century text-users are accustomed.

What survives to us amounts to fixed tAgora records of once-flexible, emergent oAgora itineraries, an after-the-fact account of journeys through the web of Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition. Some of these journeys were undoubtedly taken pen in hand, by poets “singing on the page,” much as Elias Lönnrot, Bishop Njegoš, and other text-bound performers of Written Oral Traditions. Some may be descendants of transcribed oral performances, and therefore Voices from the Past, and still others re-creations of what scribes heard or perhaps even read. Since we know that orality and literacy can co-exist not only within the same culture or community but also within the very same individual, many combinations of OT and TT are possible. (In this connection we shouldn’t forget about recent discoveries that scribes and transcribers used oAgora code to recompose even as they wrote.)

But the manuscripts that preserve these poetic itineraries, and which descend to us as the only evidence of the OT network that produced them, present themselves solely as texts. What’s more, in all but a few cases the available witnesses are unique rather than multiple, with only a single version of most poems extant. Where there are multiple manuscript copies, as is the case with Caedmon’s Hymn, it quickly becomes apparent that not only is the poem composed in oWords, with oPathways, but it actually continued to morph even as scribes went about copying and recopying “it” in texts. More broadly, different poems, unrelated by subject or genre, share oWords and attached pathways. Something seems amiss here.

So let’s try a more applicable frame of reference. Let’s think about the much larger and more generative process that yielded these singular-seeming products, a process now ironically masked by its surviving tAgora products. Conventional wisdom about texts—which holds that the work of verbal art is contained and fixed in the tangible object—cannot explain the real-world phenomena of OT-based or web-based co-creation. It can’t predict that variation within limits, the telltale trace of oAgora commerce, can continue even when, as with Lönnrot and his Kalevala, the performance is happening in a text. But Old English poems—and so many other Voices from the Past and Written Oral Traditions—put the lie to the always unrealistic and now thoroughly disproved binary of OT-versus-text. The truth is that under certain conditions oPathways can and do supersede our usual assumptions about textual encoding. Performances, even records of performances, aren’t entirely explained by their textual format.

Like the Homeric epics, Anglo-Saxon poems satisfy these conditions: oAgora species that today survive only as tAgora artifacts. To understand these displaced species, we must interpret them as reflections or traces of living processes rather than as fixed, singly authored, non-morphing, freestanding items. Strange as it may seem, and counter to the textual ideology that remains our automatic and unwitting reflex, we must make room in the OT performance arena for composition and reception in letters.

Typography on paper

With the two last types of tAgora activity, Typography on paper and Static eFiles in pixels, we arrive in far more familiar territory. In the twenty-first century these are our twin default settings for communication: fixed items configured as physical or virtual pages. For these reasons our treatment of these two varieties of marketplace exchange will be much briefer than our considerations of the first three types. Just one cautionary note: let’s remember that defaults are inherently the most difficult settings to notice and evaluate, since by definition they lie below the threshold of our awareness. Communication “presents itself” in these two familiar vehicles, and we don’t usually think twice about the implications built into the vehicles. It’s well to remember that all five TT word-markets have their advantages and disadvantages, that none of them is as static or objective as textual ideology insists, and that each of them deserves our conscious attention. Even within the textual marketplace itself let’s proceed in the spirit of citizenship in multiple agoras.

The history of printing is a complex and many-sided tale, which Wikipedia tells as a series of nodes that starts with woodblock printing in East Asia in around 200 CE, continues through movable type (some 800 years later), lithography, and offset printing to contemporary methods such as laser, dot matrix, inkjet, and digital press printing. Each of these technologies involves not only a physical invention, but also a specific user base and set of specific purposes. All print media were certainly not created equal, either as technologies or as market-making strategies.

As we continue on to the kind of tAgora that Gutenberg’s movable type made possible, it’s well to recall the practical dimensions and effects of this game-changing technology. Instead of the laborious, time-consuming task associated with duplicating manuscripts, multiple exact copies could be produced relatively quickly and easily. Instead of an object that only one person at a time could read (and which could be shared among a group only by reading aloud), a multiply reproduced text could create a mass readership that stretched over time and place, bringing the work concurrently to scores of readers and groups. Texts could become instruments and not ceremonial objects; they could for all practical purposes contain the works they presented. They could demonstrate the features we have identified as important to full-blown modern tAgora communication: fixity, single authorship, exact replicability, resistence to morphing, free-standing status, proprietary nature, and (for texts a positive value) a complete lack of pathways.

Movable type actually first appeared in China around 1040 CE, originally in the form of clay plates. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, wooden and then metal type had been invented in China and Korea, still more than a century before Gutenberg’s printing press, conventionally dated to 1440. There is no clear evidence that the East influenced the West in establishing the new technology, but, whatever the case, Gutenberg’s machine arrived at precisely the right moment, as literacy became more widespread and the demand for texts was markedly increasing.

Over the next five and one-half centuries the reign of the book effectively became absolute, as print technology evolved from the first struggling efforts of small-press tradespeople to the polished, corporate world of twentieth-century commercial presses and large-scale publishing companies. Hand in hand with new inventions and methods went the audiences they were designed to involve and maintain: libraries that developed from unique depositories of one-of-a-kind materials to mega-institutions that drew from publishers’ annual lists and subscribed to established journals; and a reading public that increased geometrically not only in number but in diversity and demands. The history of the power of the printed book is in large part also the political, social, and even demographic history of its readership1.

Static eFiles in pixels

Just because something exists on the web doesn’t mean it belongs to the eAgora. Throughout the Pathways Project we carefully differentiate between static and interactive resources—between fixed and morphable entities—on the Internet. Focusing on media dynamics, we reserve the eExperience for online opportunities that involve built-in options and multiple alternative realities. In other words, true eAgora species support emergence and co-creative surfing by incorporating and leveraging ePathways.

Consider the range of destinations on the web. At one extreme we encounter static eFiles, such as unadorned PDF documents that contain no links and are posted “as is” for straightforward tAgora-type consumption by readers. Such readers visit these frozen texts not as platforms for surfing but as immutable objects. Their value lies in their categorical resistance to morphing, or so goes the ideological gospel. Apart from the disparity in physical vehicles, there isn’t much difference between opening a PDF for scrolling and opening a book for page-turning. For static texts, paper and pixels serve the same fundamental function.

At the other extreme, and counterposed to static eFiles, are facilities like the Pathways Project, which not only permit but require interactive participation. As explained in Getting Started, both the morphing book and the wiki-website promote co-creative participation by users in four ways. First, you can read the roster of nodes “straight through,” although the only available “sequence” is alphabetical—a nominal and artificial ordering principle meant to suggest the uselessness of purely linear organization in IT (and OT) marketplaces. Second, you can consult the three principal media environments, the oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora. This approach will highlight direct comparisons and contrasts associated with the OT-IT homology and its implications. Third, you can navigate along one or more prescribed linkmaps, following a trail that someone else has blazed and found rewarding. And fourth, you can click on any one of the myriad links, called branches, in any of the nodes. These branches offer pathways to other nodes within the Pathways Project or, more rarely, to external sites and the opportunities they present.

Between these two poles—static eFiles and highly interactive systems—we will find websites that license and require many different kinds and levels of interactivity. Let me emphasize that I attempt no definition or policy that infallibly distinguishes true eAgora experiences from tAgora text-engagement in electronic media, no rule that dependably sorts web experiences into two tidy, mutually exclusive categories. Why not? Because to do so would be to reify the orality-versus-literacy binary in a new arena, to replace natural richness and complexity with a false dichotomy. Such open-and-shut theories emerge from (textual) certainty that media-technologies are separable, non-overlapping strategies, and that is an illusion. Nor do web phenomena necessarily remain unchanged in their structure and dynamics over time. A once-static electronic text could well be retooled as a pathway-driven platform for eAgora surfing, while a wiki-site could be reduced to a screenshot and posted online as a static eFile.

Unproductive discriminations aside, our major concern here is to affirm that static eFiles—notwithstanding their accessibility through browsers—belong to the tAgora. As pathwayless documents they support what readers have been doing ever since they consulted clay tokens and tablets to get the final and authoritative word—the "last word"—on whatever challenge arose. As such, they foster trekking, not surfing. To put it another way, those early tokens and tablets didn’t offer networks; indeed, they worked so well precisely because they weren’t networked. Neither are static eFiles.


1 For a detailed survey, see Henri-Jean Martin, The History and Power of Writing. Trans. by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 182-506.