• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

An agora is a verbal marketplace, a site for creation and exchange of knowledge, art, and ideas. The Pathways Project recognizes three agoras, or arenas for human communication. This node is devoted to the OT arena, the oAgora.

Roman Agora, Athens

The true currency of exchange in the oAgora is oWords—spoken, heard, and embodied words. Not typographical prompts or even audio or video facsimiles, but an actual, voiced, in-context performance experienced at that moment and in that place by a present audience. You participate in the oral marketplace via face-to-face transaction, not by swapping texts. Everything happens “in the moment”—right now, not at some convenient future time to be chosen by a detached, independent reader and forestalled until the time seems right. The oAgora event is all-consuming for audience and performer alike because it is unmediated by texts, with nothing held at arm’s length.



Before proceeding any further, let’s highlight a built-in structural comparison among the three nodes on principal media types: the oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora. From this point on – and across all three involved nodes – the section headings and organization will follow a mirroring logic. In other words, immediately below this paragraph you will find two sections entitled “Genus and species” and “Word-markets,” followed by another with the subheading of either “Public, not proprietary” or “Proprietary, not public,” depending on the agora in question. In fourth position you will encounter a brief discussion of “The evolutionary fallacy,” and so on. The purpose of this organizational strategy is to help demonstrate the comparisons and contrasts that lie at the heart of the Pathways Project. For a complete list of the inter-agora parallels, visit Agora correspondences.


Genus and species

Early investigations of the oAgora assumed a binary model, with literature on one side and oral tradition (OT) on the other. This exclusive taxonomy helped to make a place for studying communications that didn’t use the default technology of the tAgora, but it grossly oversimplified the media involved. As studies in oral tradition expanded, and especially with the advent of widespread fieldwork in living cultures, investigators came to realize that their models needed to reflect the remarkable human complexity of verbal technologies.

Within the OT genus, then, we now discern many different and fascinating species or types of oral tradition. Suffice it to say for now that this host of species varies by genre, social function, performers, sites (both physical and virtual), and modes of interaction with the textual world. Some of these interactions are counter-intuitive for tAgora citizens, and comparative research has established that OTs show enormous variety around the world and from ancient times to the present. The watchword for species within the genus OT must always be diversity.



Consider the wealth of different word-markets in which oral poets ply their trade, whether performers of Central Asian epic, Basque contest poetry, South African praise-poetry, Serbian magical charms, or North American slam poetry, all of which are discussed below, or some other oral tradition. There’s no possibility of, or need for, copyrighting what they do. And why? Because of all forms of verbal art, oral tradition is the most firmly and naturally rooted in the public domain. And those roots are both nourishing for each immediate event and necessary for the continuing survival of OT as a whole.


Public, not proprietary

Subject to specific cultural constraints, OTs can be performed by multiple people without fear of violating any laws governing exchange in what amounts to an open-source marketplace. Those rules may limit eligibility by gender, age, kinship, status, or calendar, for example, but no individual ever “authors” a tradition, any more than a single individual ever authors a language. Nor can any one person ever deliver the final, canonical, “best” performance until texts enter the picture and make such a dead-end concept of verbal art imaginable and feasible. Such a monolith simply isn’t either imaginable or feasible within the oAgora. Once the economy of the tAgora is fully in place, however, public gives way to proprietary, open-access gives way to object-exchange, and traditions stop being traditions.


The evolutionary fallacy

With the variant dynamics of the oral, textual, and Internet arenas in mind, it’s easy to see why “oral evolves to written” and “written evolves to electronic” are fallacies traceable to the ideology of the text. If we model our understanding of all verbal commerce on a singular creation attributed to a singular author and consumed by a singular audience (one-by-one), then the necessarily plural identity of performer(s), OTs, and audience(s) will appear primitive and underdeveloped. Likewise, we’ll fail to understand and credit the plural identity of web architects and surfers with their shared but diverse experiences in the eAgora.


In either case, non-written, non-textualized communication will seem to lack something, to fail to measure up according to our ideologically imposed criteria. After all, until recently collectors of OTs have unquestioningly subscribed to an implicit rank-ordering by converting the living webs that support oral traditions into freestanding objects suitable for display in the Museum of Verbal Art. And how many times each day do you hear or read about people bemoaning the informality and impermanence of the web? They too undergo a kind of media-specific culture shock and feel compelled to “diss” whatever isn’t text.

But of course it’s not just a matter of one situation—one agora—evolving progressively and inevitably toward another. Each arena operates according to its own idiosyncratic economy. The oAgora uses a different currency of exchange than the tAgora – embodied versus entexted words, oWords versus tWords. And the eAgora uses eWords, similar in many ways to oWords and far removed from tWords. The eAgora sponsors code – like URLs and HTML – that depends for its power and efficacy on its performative nature; eCode actually causes something to happen, and does so recurrently, not repetitively. None of the three currencies is inherently better, more valuable, or more advanced than the other two. Each is simply the coin of its particular realm.

This is not to claim that any arena is entirely homogeneous. Nor is it to contend that they never interact, or that hybrid agoras can’t form; they do and they can, in fascinating ways. But it is a fatal mistake to posit a one-way developmental trajectory, to view verbal technology as working its way inexorably from a text-deprived Dark Age toward a thoroughly evolved and fully textual us, and on the way to a (fascinating though feared) virtuality. We need to resist the ideologically driven assumption that limits our imagination and citizenship to the textual arena.


Five OT word-markets

Let’s start by visiting five modern oAgoras to investigate who “shops” there (both performers and audiences) and how their economies work, at least in general terms. For this purpose I’ve chosen an Asian, an African, a North American, and two quite disparate European word-markets, with the varieties of verbal art ranging from epic to praise to contest to magic to social protest. These examples are intentionally highly diverse, engaging different geographical areas, ethnic contexts, performance styles, and cultural functions. But they also have something vital in common: they depend upon several key features of all oAgoras – continuity, emergence, rule-governed morphing, roots in the public domain, and pathway-navigation.

Central Asian epic
The stories and story-cycles of Turkic oral epic stretch across a huge area of central Asia, and can be traced back before the fourteenth century. Some of the principal “owners” of the epics are the Uzbek, Karakalpak, Kazakh, and Kirghiz peoples, who collectively range over large sections of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkestan, and northwestern China. When we add that many of these same heroic tales are told in Mongolian, Tibetan, and Tuzu, languages unrelated to the Turkic tongues, it becomes clear that the oAgora for this tradition of oral epic is enormous and multidimensional geographically, linguistically, and chronologically. Singers, variously named in various areas, must have numbered in the thousands, each with scores of audiences over time. Within this complex and multifaceted scenario we will search in vain for individual authors and authoritative works. What we will find is multiple performers telling and retelling tales involving Gesar, Janggar, and other heroes by surfing the web of story shared throughout this oAgora. We’ll find performers and audiences enmeshed in a continuous process of re-creation, navigating the linked pathways of their story-net.

No strategy for fixation and copyright – the core, defining activities of the tAgora – could ever begin to capture and protect even a fraction of the ever-morphing wealth of Turkic oral epic. Nor could such book-intensive strategies serve any purpose within the oAgora, since they work against the continuity typical of (and necessary to) OT by transforming living pathways into lifeless objects. While text-objects may constitute the official medium of exchange in the tAgora, they are non-negotiable in the oAgora.

Basque contest poetry
This genre of improvised verbal sparring, called bertsolaritza by its practitioners and enthusiasts, permeates Basque society at all levels. Communities sponsor after-dinner duels between hired bertsolari, and local and regional competitions lead to a national event that culminates in an overall championship every four years. In all cases a competitor must extemporaneously perform a short poem on an assigned but unpreviewed topic, using a particular traditional rhyme-scheme, melody, and verse-form, and his or her opponent must then counter with an immediate rebuttal composed within the same set of structural conditions. While each poem is unique and unprecedented, each one is also embedded in the web of bersolaritza tradition that is owned not by an individual singer or even a designated group of singers, but by the Basque community as a whole. In actual performance, audiences often sing the last few lines (of this original, never-before-heard poem) in unison with the bertsolari, a practice made possible by their fluency in the specialized poetic language and co-application of the compositional rules. As the rhymes, music, and verse-form converge toward an inevitable climax, the audience joins the extemporizing poet in mutual performance. Collectively, the Basque people as an ethnic group support this contest poetry through an organization called Bertsozale Elkartea.

Basque oral poetry championship 2006
Photo by Alberto Elosegi from the collection of Xenpelar Dokumentazio Zentroa, Bertsozale Elkartea

South African praise-poetry
In earlier years Xhosa and Zulu praise-poetry served as an oral résumé for chiefs, a way to “document” and “publish” credentials and reputation via the oral traditional network. Composed for individual chiefs and based on well-defined rules for versification and performance, these poems celebrated the accomplishments and lineage of the tribal leader. In more recent times praise-poetry, which always could be used to criticize as well as praise the figures in question, has been employed as a vehicle for social and political commentary, both positive and negative. One of the most famous positive uses is the many “praises” of Nelson Mandela on his emergence from long-term imprisonment.

Serbian magical charms
In a Serbian village, medical treatments for skin disease and various other maladies take the form of incantations whispered by bajalice, or conjurers. As specialists in healing, these women learn their traditional remedies before the onset of puberty but don’t actually perform them until their fertile years are concluded. Charms are considered part of the bride’s dowry, and are passed from grandmother to grand-daughter as a living inheritance, joint property of the natal extended family from which a woman derives and the affinal extended family into which her descendants will be born. The audience for these healing performances is the single patient, into whose ear the conjurer speaks the spell, even though the treatment may well take place quite publicly, with other people well within earshot.

In order to study and analyze Serbian magical charms, collectively known as bajanje in the local idiom, our fieldwork team quite naturally sought to record multiple performances on audio tape. Especially because this highly focused genre employs an often arcane vocabulary, with numerous archaisms and other rare forms not found in everyday language, and also because it is spoken so rapidly and sotto voce, we needed recordings that we could play again and again as we struggled to transcribe, translate, and understand the nuances of bajanje. We had already sought and received permission to make audio recordings of performances of other oral genres in the same village, so we anticipated no objections.

But objections there most certainly were, right from the moment we brought out the audio equipment, providing us with an instance of how a generally open-access medium can be culturally restricted. Our initial explanation – that we were studying the charms “kao poezija” (as poetry) – did little or nothing to dispel peoples’ fears. It soon became apparent that our proposed text-making activities threatened to disrupt the traditional ecology of bajanje. By creating what amounted to objects that could be circulated outside their prescribed ritual environment in an unlicensed fashion, we were threatening to extend knowledge of the precious remedies beyond their “owners.” In other words, a charm that constituted a valuable asset in one woman’s dowry (and for which she had established a village clientele who recognized and paid for her particular expertise) might become another woman’s property as well, to do with as she pleased. What we regarded as harmless recordings for research purposes ran the risk of collapsing “proprietary” distinctions among women who practiced individual specialties within a common, shared tradition. Far from being an advance or an evolutionary next step, texts were potentially a uniquely destructive medium, a short-circuit that practitioners of these healing remedies wanted very much to avoid.

The solution? Effectively, to install another living node in the web of oral transmission, but one that would pose no danger to the overall charm ecology, and to entrust the charms to her safekeeping. For this purpose Barbara Kerewsky Halpern, mother of two teenage (and, strictly speaking, marriageable) daughters, was designated an honorary baba (grandmother) and identified as the recipient of the bajanje. By age and status she was deemed eligible to practice the healing arts, but as a Western anthropologist rather than a village baba she of course would never do so. Once this “dead-end” node was in place, and after pledging not to play the audio recordings for anyone in the village or the tradition at large, we were cleared to textualize the performances – for our non-proliferating, outside-the-circuit use only. From the perspective of the charm tradition as a village intranet, I presented no threat whatsoever to the process; as a male, I was automatically segregated by gender outside the set of pathways that constituted the tradition, and so I was allowed to be present at the various performances in order to run the tape recorder. What really mattered was maintaining control of the pathways among those who could participate, and this in turn meant keeping texts out of the loop. Overall, we learned a valuable lesson about how texts – our default medium in the tAgora – could present a dangerous threat to oAgora dynamics.

North American slam poetry
Step into a café in any large or medium-sized North American city, especially on a weekend night, and chances are you’ll encounter an increasingly popular oral tradition known as slam poetry. Often a vehicle for social commentary or protest, this tradition arose in the mid-1980s in Chicago and has quickly evolved into a popular, well-attended activity with local, regional, and national levels of competition. In its purest form, slam lives solely for performance: although poets compose their verse in writing, they do so strictly for live presentation, ignoring or even discarding the script after the poem is initially committed to memory. A text has no status or function in this oAgora, and as a result the poetic performance morphs naturally over time. According to the rules for both individual and team contests, the scores awarded by judges allot 50% to the poem and 50% to its performance. In practice, the two are indistinguishable.

In any given competition the oAgora for slam can involve either individual competitors or teams, supported by highly engaged audiences who also play a significant role in their word-market transactions. Guidelines prohibit the use of scripts or props, as well as set time limits on each performance. Although experienced experts evaluate the results at the level of the national championship, the customary local arrangement is to select as judges people who are new to slam – in order, as it was explained to me, to keep this activity a “people’s poetry.” Audiences enthusiastically enter the fray both during and immediately after each performance, shouting their approval or disdain in the hope of influencing the scores awarded to their favorites. Except at the national level, the prizes are usually nominal: $25 to the winner, for example. As Allan Wolf famously put it, “The points are not the point, the point is poetry.”


No real authors

Authors – in our modern and highly ideological sense of the term as individual creators of original, unique, objectifiable, and usually published workssimply don’t exist in the oAgora. And if authors as such don’t exist, then the burden of “protecting the work” can’t fall to them. Most fundamentally, there’s usually nothing to protect, since the story or lyric or eulogy or charm usually doesn’t belong exclusively and forever to any single individual. It can’t be owned in the way a freestanding text-object can be owned, and therefore can’t be used or transferred under carefully written and implemented guidelines. In most cases there’s nothing to prevent another person, sooner or later, here or somewhere else, from performing the “same” work, although the next performer will inevitably make changes in the “original” (which of course wasn’t really an original in the first place). Even when a performer creates and re-creates a singular work (as with slam poets), each transaction in the word-market – always involving a different audience, time, place, and set of conditions – is but one transitory instance of an ever-evolving process. Culture gets continuously mashed-up and remixed in the oAgora.


Five non-authors

The five word-markets mentioned above are alive and bristling with poetry, but they all lack what we would call “authors.” Consider the dynamics of each OT arena. With their stories strung out across enormous geographical tracts and throughout both Turkic- and Mongolian-speaking populations, central Asian epic singers can hardly be classified as authors in our sense of the term. Basque bertsolari likewise depend on and draw from a tradition, creating unique poems by performing within the designated rules that govern their oAgora. The situation is extremely similar with South African praise-poets, both Xhosa and Zulu, who construct personalized poetic résumés by working within a traditional matrix; the ability of this kind of poetry to morph is well illustrated by its application to political leaders for both praise and criticism. And though a degree of ownership does enter the picture with Serbian bajalice, they all intone their healing charms using the octosyllabic, rhyming language of their shared genre. Even slam poets, who start by composing their verses on paper or a computer display, do so only in order to ready themselves to perform it. They typically do not seek publication, since their poems are meant specifically and strictly for the oAgora of live performance. Strange as it may seem, there are no true authors anywhere to be found in the oAgora.


oAgora sharing and re-use

It’s primarily an issue for the eAgora, but we might pause for just a moment to weigh some alternatives to conventional copyright (a.k.a. “Big C”), which as we’ve seen can’t apply to the itemless word-markets of oral tradition. But maybe another kind of “little c” copyright might apply to the oAgora. Let’s briefly consider two of the licenses offered by the Creative Commons website – the most and the least restrictive of the six contracts – with a view toward determining whether either of them could help in governing performance and exchange of oral traditions.

The most stringent
The “Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives” license stands at the conservative end of the Creative Commons spectrum, that is, closest to the ideologically driven concept of Big C copyright that governs the tAgora. This contract “allows others to download your works and share them with others as long as they mention you and link back to you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.” Of course, since transactions in the oAgora don’t involve authors or static, finite works – not to mention tAgora definitions and rules – this license can have no utility for oral tradition.

The most open
At the other end of the spectrum lies the simple “Attribution” license, which “lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.” This one sounds like a perfect fit for the business of our oral word-market until we get to the final clause calling for acknowledgment of an original work by, we must suppose, an original creator. In other words, even the most liberal license offered by Creative Commons, an institution dedicated to enabling the remixing of culture, assumes a fixed, finite object eligible for sharing and remaking. Although this least inhibiting of licenses speaks cogently to the realities of distribution, remixing, tweaking, and building upon as we encounter them within the oAgora, it still doesn’t recognize the radical morphing and objectlessness of OT. The ideology of the text – whether a book, a musical score, a painting, a film, or whatever – dies hard.


Variation within limits

It’s counterintuitive for us, but continuous morphing in the oAgora doesn’t lead to anarchy. Things don’t fall apart, primarily because there aren’t any “things” in the first place. OT in fact draws its strength from variation within limits, from its rule-governed ability to change systemically – just like language itself, only more so. Performers always have a choice; they can select from viable, systemically arrayed options. They can follow multiple different pathways in realizing their emergent performances, which will not be photocopies or diskcopies of yesterday’s or last year’s or any other “edition.” They may choose one route today, another similar but non-identical route next week, and so forth, depending on factors such as their own state of mind, the nature of the audience, and the particulars of the occasion. Motion never freezes into stasis, the journey of discovery never devolves into the closed circuit of a daily commute, pathways never become ruts.

Variation within Homer
We know the Iliad and Odyssey only through manuscripts from the ancient world. Nonetheless, even these silent, static remains show evidence of the systematic remixing typical of verbal art in the oAgora. We can describe three kinds of recurrent patterning in these oral-derived poems.

At the level of poetic lines, traditional formulas provide pathways within the network of Homeric epic language. For example, such predicates as “Then [he/she] answered him/her” combine with a broad array of subjects, such as “much-suffering divine Odysseus,” “grey-eyed goddess Athena,” and numerous other stock names, in order to produce a large array of introductions to speeches. There is variation, to be sure, but it’s limited – and that double-edged dynamic makes the remixing strategy useful, effective, and evocative, not willy-nilly, overdetermined, or clichéd.

Likewise, typical scenes, such as the frequent ritual of the Homeric feast, operate by meshing individual, situation-specific details with a recurrent series of actions, that is, by placing unique moments in a larger, resonant (because traditional) context. The systematic nature of these recurrent scenes provides a recognizable frame of reference even as unprecedented developments occur within them. Thus the aberrant behavior of the usurping suitors at the opening of the Odyssey stands in stark contrast to the standard, expected series of feasting details, and the composite portrayal gains depth from the powerful juxtaposition of disorder and order. Once again, the traditional is creatively remixed.

Finally, the Odyssey as a whole is but one version of what may be the oldest and most widespread story-pattern in the world, distributed as it is from Ireland to India and Pakistan and witnessed from ancient times to the present day in many hundreds of examples. The gist of the tale involves a hero summoned away to war just before or after his wedding (or the birth of his first child) and forcibly detained in foreign lands for many years. After a series of life-threatening adventures he returns in disguise to find his wife or fiancée besieged by suitors. He then defeats his rivals, tests the loyalty of his family and servants, discovers his mate’s fidelity or treachery, and either reassumes his place (if she is faithful) or starts another adventure (if she is not). The identity of the hero and heroine change, along with geographical and cultural particulars, but the tale-type remains recognizably the same, varying within limits. The return pattern, a highly generative story-system, simply gets remixed.


The analogy to language

Think about living, spoken language – continuously mixed and remixed – rather than its reduction to the page. We don’t resort each and every day to one of a limited number of fixed monologues or conversations, do we? Even similar pronouncements or exchanges on identical topics involve innumerable choices and adaptations, made in the moment and outside the scope of any fossilized, predetermined scheme. We depend on our human ability to generate rule-governed communication, we vary our speech-acts within limits, we suit our discourse to different situations. OT does the same.

A basic proverb
Consider this homemade proverb: “Oral tradition works like language, only more so.” OT is anything but objectified and static. It morphs according to rules that provide guidance and stability, but which also promote – to different degrees depending upon the particular genre – creativity and individual realization. In that regard, OT is simply a special case of language.

But how about the “more so”? Everyday language is necessarily broad-spectrum; general conversational language, for example, supports a great many interactions, with optional adjustments for your relationship with your addressee, or for the physical site of the exchange, the time of day, the weather, and so on. But OTs require more rules. Superimposed on the broad-spectrum language are additional rules that identify the communication as a particular kind of speech-act – perhaps there’s a melody, for instance, or a rhyming constraint or a particular rhythm. OT languages are narrow-spectrum tools; they serve fewer functions, but they fulfill those fewer functions much more economically than could general languages.

This built-in focus in turn means that OT languages are more densely idiomatic, with designated parts standing for much larger and more complex wholes. Thus Homer’s phrase “green fear” carries the connotation of a fear that has its origins in a supernatural source. Similarly, the South Slavic poets’ idiom “black cuckoo” takes on the traditional sense of a woman who has been widowed or is about to be widowed. Neither of these specialized meanings is reported in any dictionary or lexicon, since such textual resources gloss the broader-spectrum language of texts; they are formulated to serve the purposes of the tAgora. The oWords employed as currency in the oAgora operate under an enhanced set of rules and carry with them an enhanced idiomatic value. Like the eWords that we will discuss in relation to the eAgora, they “work like language, only more so.”


Recurrence, not repetition

What does it mean to say that something repeats? The scenario is familiar enough: a discrete and item-like event happens once, then it happens again, and so forth. A best-selling novel, for instance, may be published one year and reprinted the next, so that the title repeats on the bookstore or library shelf. Or consider a poetic refrain that appears at the end of every stanza, so that each iteration echoes those that precede it. Or the chorus to a song, which will dependably repeat after each verse. All of these cases are clearly repetitive because subsequent occurrences derive their meaning primarily from earlier ones within a finite, limited context. The chain of meaning is linear and contained, deriving from direct correspondences from one item to the next.

mise en abŷme images illustrate linearity


But that isn’t the way OT works. OT actively depends on recurrence rather than serial repetition. It operates via idiomatic responses that follow networked pathways. Consider two simple analogues. Perhaps you’re a college student and you make a habit of greeting your friends with a wave of the hand and a ritualistic phrase like “What’s up?” You react in this way regularly, every time you pass any of your friends on the street. Or perhaps you’re a Navy airman and your daily routine involves saluting a succession of officers, using exactly the same motion on every occasion. But in neither case are you really repeating the greeting; instead, you’re resorting to an approved, idiomatic signal that indexes your encounter and relationship. You’re following an established pathway, using a recurrent action to accomplish your purpose.

To illustrate the nature of recurrence in the oAgora, here are two kinds of examples from South Slavic oral epic: recurrent beginnings and recurrent performances.

Recurrent beginnings
Epic singers within this OT start their performances in one of two ways – either with or without a prologue (called a pripjev). If they opt to use a pripjev, the first few lines of the song might go something like this:

Ej! Where we sit, let us make merry!
Let us make merry and have conversation!
Let us sing a little song of times long past;
Long ago it was and now we are remembering.

What this short introduction does is to set the stage, to establish the performance arena, to admit performer and audience to the oAgora. It doesn’t prescribe the specifics of the story to follow, and in fact any epic tale can then ensue, regardless of story-pattern, characters, action, or whatever. In their overall function such prologues resemble the “Once upon a time” of Grimm brothers’ fairytales, recurrent but non-specific cues that a story is beginning. Prologues are first-step pathways that get things started in an idiomatic way.

The epic singer, or guslar, may also choose not to use a pripjev, and to plunge directly into the story (usually after an instrumental prelude to signal the performance arena). If this is the case, he has the option of following a broad, multi-purpose pathway or a focused, single-purpose pathway. For example, many performances begin with a line such as “Mujo of Kladusha was drinking wine,” which can signal a wide variety of story-types, involving weddings, sieges of cities, or other subjects. But if the oral poet starts his performance with the phrase “[Someone] was crying out” (Pocmilije), there can be only one result: a Return Song. That is, if the guslar sings “Pocmilije X,” where X names any of the dozens of heroes in the Moslem tradition of the South Slavs, he is alerting the audience to expect an Odyssey-type story about that hero. Of course, they cannot know in advance how the specifics of the narrative will unfold, or even whether the hero’s mate will prove faithful or treacherous, but that brief idiomatic phrase unmistakably marks a pathway toward a single generic story-pattern. And it does so not because it repeats (in this performance or any other), but because it recurs.

Recurrent performances
Just so with entire performances. Each version of a South Slavic epic tale is equally “the work”; no one of them repeats any other, or depends for its meaning on any particular prior rendition. A guslar may perform “The Captivity of Alagić Alija” on a Tuesday, for example, then again later that week and again two weeks later – all without repeating himself. How is that possible? Because these performances are not first, second, and third editions of a book, nor do they constitute a draft followed by a series of revisions. Each of these epic songs is a individual realization of the story, a singular navigation of the multidimensional pathways that – as a composite song-web – collectively make up the story-system. The epic tale doesn’t repeat; it recurs.

Built-in “copyright”

It will seem counterintuitive to us at first, but oral traditions are powerful precisely because they can’t be fixed, precisely because they morph while recurring. Because it isn’t predetermined and remains open to innovation that is idiomatically driven and forever under construction, the Internet also harnesses the cumulative energy and contributions typical of distributed rather than single authorship. Unless or until they get textualized, OTs never weaken into finite, fossilized, and therefore discardable items.

What’s more, and again it will initially seem contradictory, the non-fixity of the oAgora guarantees a built-in kind of “copyright protection” for artistic activity by setting limits on variation. Rule-governed flexibility is of course the engine of recurrence and continuity, but too radical a departure from the implicit rules will turn an intelligible performance into gibberish. Fluent performance requires both an inherent grasp of those limits and an ability to fashion a here-and-now, true-to-the-place-and-moment creation. Otherwise audiences will complain or simply stop attending, and performers (or at least their performances) will be marginalized.


Survival of the fittest

To put it another way, the self-sufficient ecology of oral tradition will naturally select which performers and performances are to be understood as viable. No single member of that ecosystem will be able to claim—or have any need to claim—that he or she “owns” a particular work, at least in our default textual sense. If it’s not recognized as a tangible item, you can’t own it. And if you can’t own it, you can’t restrict its use. There’s nothing (no thing) to restrict.

In the OT arena, strength and continuity reside not in stasis but in ongoingness, not in fixity but in rule-governed flexibility. The oAgora is a word-market for living, embodied, systematic communication.

The oAgora works via pathways.