• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Consider two scenarios, both of them real and both illustrative of how a person outside the oAgora can prove helpless and unable to function within it. One scenario involves emigration, the other immigration.

The perils of emigration

The first scenario entails a society whose word-marketplace transactions take place principally in the oAgora. That is, much of this group’s daily commerce in thought and communication depends on oPathways established over time and valued for their power and efficacy. People who utilize this non-textual technology are fluent in its specialized, coded language, which may support group identity, cultural history, medicine, rituals associated with birth, marriage, and death, and other crucial social functions. Such oAgora citizens are full-fledged, participatory members of an ecology of oral tradition.

So far, so good. But now certain members of that OT-based society choose to exit the village environment to pursue jobs in the city, where most forms of verbal commerce take place in the tAgora. Over time such emigrants become more and more enmeshed in the text-based marketplace and increasingly uninvolved with their oAgora of origin. On return to the village environment these new urbanites feel estranged from the local system of exchange, and are generally unable to function well in the old way (though there are exceptions). Oral traditions associated with local history, culture heroes, genealogies, or healing charms, for example, appear obsolete or irrelevant. Our emigrants have become oAgoraphobic, helpless to negotiate in the village context as they once did. Things (actually, practices rather than things) have changed.

In our fieldwork in Serbia we observed two such cases. One young man had left the village for a job with Mercedes Benz in Belgrade, and had real trouble crediting the oAgora ways of his parents and friends who remained behind. He had become a tAgora citizen with a different set of priorities and operating procedures, and he sometimes responded to village life by defensively ridiculing a mode of thinking and communicating that he could no longer comfortably manage himself. Of course, we saw many examples of similarly dismissive behavior among people who were raised in the city, but this young man was in effect denying his “technology of origin.” oAgoraphobia was now a controlling dimension of his reshaped identity.

Another more graphic example was the middle-aged man who tried but failed to perform an oral epic before shamefacedly handing the accompanying instrument, the gusle, to his father, who as a continuing member of the oral marketplace was still fluent in its specialized language and therefore able to perform. Bravado aside, the younger man no longer spoke the language; he no longer knew how to navigate the pathways. While his father could still work within the oAgora, the emigrant son was helpless to do so.

Facsimile immigrants

Our second scenario for oAgoraphobia features well-meaning immigrants: anthropologists and folklorists who enter the oAgora in order to investigate its dynamics and report back to the tAgora. In earlier years the ritual posture for such investigators was clear—assume, as naturally as possible, membership in the society; become, to the extent that you can, one of the people you’re studying. “Objective” observation, analysis, and reporting—always an illusion —was the goal, and in order to accomplish that goal it was necessary to minimize the interfering role of the participant-observer and pretend to serve as a lens that clarified without distortion. The idea was effectively to join the society, as completely and unobtrusively as possible.

But, as later research came to recognize, immigration doesn’t work quite that way. Entering another society causes ripples, sometimes major ripples, and the immigrants themselves are also affected by the intrusion. It’s a sort of uncertainty principle in the classic Heisenberg sense: the very act of intervening to make a measurement changes the system we’re seeking to measure. Viewed plainly, objectivity is no more than a sustaining mythology imported from the tAgora, a ruse that modern folklore and anthropology have exposed as fraudulent. Facsimile immigrants don’t simply blend into the group, and their ideas about what’s transpiring before them (and including them) are unavoidably conditioned by the tAgora baggage they bring along with them.

Our fieldwork in Serbia provided numerous examples of the sheer weight of that baggage, and of the inherent distortion in the lens we automatically imposed between village reality and our “take” on it. In such situations we of course never actively sought to misrepresent what we experienced. Quite the contrary—we always aimed at verisimilitude. But it would be naive to argue that our observations were or ever could be communicated to others outside the oAgora without media-translation. We had to use the tools at hand, after all; at that time there were no eCompanions, eEditions, or media suites. Fundamental biases in perception preceded and conditioned our attempts at analysis and communication, and it was from these basic mis-apprehensions that we learned the most about how oral tradition really worked.

A case in point is what villagers called pričanje, or oral genealogies, which we collected from elderly men. Surely, we presumed, the priest’s church records would provide the rock-solid standard against which we could check the completeness and accuracy of these oral performances, which recounted more than ten generations of lineage membership in decasyllabic poetic lines. According to the ideology we brought with us, the relative dependability of sources seemed patently obvious: we would check the (doubtless partial) oGenealogy against the (assuredly flawless) tGenealogy, and supplement the oral version as necessary. Imagine our surprise, then, when the supposedly inferior oAgora record turned up individuals and relationships missing from the written accounts. Unexpectedly (for us tAgora-trained immigrants, at any rate), OT won the day.

It was a sobering realization, a kind of technology-based ignominy. Although we were as sympathetic to and interested in OT dynamics as anyone could be, we had uncritically defaulted to tAgora values, the unassailable values of Western scholarly research, in prioritizing the media we were studying. We were helpless to accept pričanje on its own terms, as the primary vehicle for communication of kin-knowledge and (ironically) a tool superior to the overvalued tAgora tool. As facsimile immigrants, our approach had proven decidedly oAgoraphobic.