• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Oral traditions amount to cultural intranets, complex and ever-ramifying networks of options that the performer effectively clicks into being. When a teller performs a story, he or she surfs through a shared intranet, following a series of oPathways and activating certain nodes in the process.

This model can offer a fresh perspective on two longstanding and stubborn questions in OT studies: (1) What does a story consist of? and (2) What happens when a living, performed story is textualized?

What does a story consist of?

In short, and in the OT/IT (Internet Technology) terms we espouse throughout the Pathways Project, stories are linkmaps. Just like the alternate pathway-sequences offered within the wiki and the alternate reading sequences suggested in the opening pages of Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind, stories consist of familiar, rough-hewn itineraries within the larger web of oral tradition.

But while the trails are well blazed, performers don’t simply trace the footprints left by prior performers or by themselves. For one thing, the flexibility of the medium means that there would always be more than one set of footprints, each varying in some way from the others. More fundamentally, and although textual ideology teaches otherwise, specific footprints aren’t permanent in the oAgora: they vanish as soon as the story-event ceases.

Navigating linkmaps

To grasp how stories consist of linkmaps, consider what actually happens over time.

When tellers perform and re-perform a story, some aspects vary while much remains the same. Because the tale is being re-created by surfing along oPathways, which offer options at every juncture, versions will naturally differ somewhat, even when the same teller is involved and other factors are relatively constant (audience, setting, mood, and so forth). But the variation among different performances will also be limited because the teller is traveling the same general route through the OT network. The starting point, the destination, and most of the in-between journey are relatively stable, with differences arising as the inevitable product of a flexible method of creation.

For example, the famous Grimm Brothers tale of “Hansel and Gretel” will unfailingly involve the two title characters, a witch, and a gingerbread house. That much remains constant and expectable. Likewise, the interactions among the principal characters will be identifiable across the spectrum of performances. The general sequence of oPathways through the story-web—let’s call it the story-route—will retain its fundamental integrity. It must; otherwise, we wouldn’t understand the story. And why not? Because we wouldn’t be able to surf along with the performer.

At the same time, however, the details of particular performances will inevitably morph. One teller may decide to focus on Hansel’s adventurous attitude more than another; Gretel’s reactions to the witch may figure more prominently in Tuesday evening’s than in Sunday afternoon’s rendition; or the gingerbread house may be described in a few words or at considerable length. oPathways allow for—even encourage—these somewhat variant realizations of the always-emergent story.

The crucial point—for both the teller and the audience—is that the story-route remains the same while small-scale navigation allows for individual creative differences. Fluent in the oAgora medium, we recognize “Hansel and Gretel” at the same time that we can appreciate different tellers’ versions.

What happens when a living, performed story is textualized?

To textualize a living story-event is to lose the forest for the trees or, to be more exact, to construe the forest as consisting of only a few dozen particular trees. It amounts to losing the web for the linkmap, to mistaking a single, freestanding, set-in-stone linkmap for the larger story.

Transcription, then edition

Let’s think through what happens when we construct a story-text.

1. First comes the transcription, whether in video, audio, or paper format. It’s well to remember that while each of these media offers a different reflection of the living event, all transciptions are fossils. They continue as fixed, non-changeable entities, but pay for that status with their media-lives. And at some point—whether before or after the recording—a selection of which performance is to be fixed and memorialized has to take place. Remember: there is no “original,” no “epitome,” no “finest version.”

2. Next, raw transcriptions become formal editions, according to the best judgment of an editor whose responsibility is to make the item understandable to a tAgora audience. In earlier times, the Brothers Grimm saw fit to rewrite the folktales they transcribed from fieldwork, often adjusting the stories’ language radically to suit their imagined audience. But even the most scholarly book-editions add another level of interpretation and distance, taking us another step away from the living, contextualized event. Audio and video texts may encode more information than the printed page, but they too are interpretations of single performances.

The tAgora has its own demanding structures, and they do not mesh with OT dynamics. The more textualized the oral performance, the more limited, artificial, and devoid of life it becomes.

What’s lost

By textualizing a story, transcribers and editors detach one realization of the linkmap from the OT web. They take it offline, severing all connection to the network of possibility and implication in which oral traditions are naturally embedded. Consequently, the web of other options and idiomatic meaning is lost, emergent experience is diminished to a flat surface of minimal linear portrayal, and reality no longer remains in play. It’s a denaturing process parallel to the eAgoraphobic act of freezing Wikipedia into a linkless, static, forever fixed document.

In short, the price of textualization, of converting the story to a trekkable, one-dimensional route suitable to the tAgora, is nothing less than forfeiting its viability in the oAgora. Of course, the story as linkmap still prospers as an OT phenomenon within its natural marketplace, and in most cases is not affected at all by the reduction of one of its myriad performances to an item and removal of that no longer viable item to the textual marketplace. There just isn’t any feedback loop connecting the dead artifact back to the variable linkmap and the living oral tradition.

Representation of OT performances, as discussed and illustrated throughout the Pathways Project, is more faithfully pursued through eEditions. To show how stories are linkmaps, we need to set the textual object aside and exploit the OT-IT homology.

Chinese_version