• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

To indulge ourselves in an inexcusable pun, the Cloud is poised on our near horizon. And it’s headed this way.

Grids, shifts, and redefining “here”

Wikipedia defines the Cloud as “Internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices on-demand, like the electricity grid.” But of course this new initiative hasn’t made its appearance without causing ripples. No radical change in media ever fails to elicit a mix of excitement and resistance, and typically we hear both encouraging and worried pronouncements about what the Cloud means for the ongoing evolution of the eAgora. There are immediate prospective gains – universal accessibility, the unique power of the morphing network, the geometrically increased opportunities for innovation. On the other hand, textual ideology makes it very hard for predisposed tAgora citizens to grasp this latest trend in a marketplace already brimming with perceived reasons for culture shock and agoraphobia. Compare Plato’s cautions about the advent of then-new writing technology in early Greece.

But here’s the key (if also counter-intuitive) point. As the virtual world evolves, what’s not physically on your machine is rapidly becoming as or more important than what actually resides on that machine. As tools for communicating with the unprecedented riches of the interactive web proliferate, we’re beginning to shift allegiances – not only spending more time learning, sharing, and doing on the Internet but actually committing more and more of ourselves to the Cloud. This shift amounts to a trend toward disembodiment, toward a new concept of ownership, and it only promises to accelerate. In fact, with ready-to-click, always/anywhere access to whatever we want to learn, explore, or contribute to the ether, the question of “Is it here?” modulates from a spatial to a philosophical inquiry. Fundamentally, in order to make it “here” all that’s required is an ePathway.

IT (Internet Technology)-OT parallels

1. Access and instances

Rethinking the simple notion of “here” applies to the oAgora concept of tradition as well as to the eAgora concept of Cloud. In both marketplaces access depends on pathways, and for that reason every navigation will be nothing more (or less) than a single co-created instance of the network – and not “the thing itself.” For at bottom there simply is no thing. Burdened as we are by the twin illusions of object and stasis, we will initially find it difficult to understand how the Cloud can’t be contained and an oral tradition can’t be exhausted. But keep in mind that both IT and OT versions of this inexhaustible resource are far more process than product, that they are always under construction, and that their strength derives from rule-governed morphing.

2. Recurrence, not repetition

Navigation episodes undertaken in both agoras may very well recur – on successive days or weeks, or on a staccato schedule – but they can’t ever truly repeat. Using your local machine to access and work within the Cloud involves a process that takes its meaning not from your last episode, but rather from the systemic network of linked ePathways that supports all activities. Since the experience in which you participate is emergent and ongoing, what you do isn’t an instance until you complete the journey. And for those same reasons any later episode will necessarily amount to a separate, different instance that doesn’t relate in a linear fashion to any other episode – even though it may be similar or cognate and even though you may intend an identical journey.

Likewise, the oCloud that produces real-world instances of an oral tradition serves as a linked web of potentials that supports recurrence (of stories, or charms, or histories and genealogies, and so forth) but never repetition. Even those oral traditions that boast word-for-word transmission and performance are staking ideological claims that don’t hold up to textual examination. Once again the strength of the OT process lies in its ability to morph as needed under applicable rules, using oPathways and oWords. From an exclusively tAgora point of view it’s easy to see the common blindspot: we’ve often failed to understand oAgora and eAgora dynamics because we’ve focused linearly on comparing two products as wholly discrete artifacts, rather than as genetically related instances of an ever-variable process.

3. Always immanent

The Cloud makes the network and data we need ever-present anywhere, as long as we have a connection, authenticating codes, and the eFluency to navigate effectively. The riches we seek aren’t (nor can they be) sequestered in a book, which would at any rate perhaps be available only in designated, geographically remote libraries, or uniquely on your laptop, for example. The Cloud makes these riches universally accessible and alive. And what you create, in partnership with website architects and other users, is accomplished across the limitless expanse and networked potentials of the eAgora. You start with your local situation – your ideas and your physical machine and its eTools – but with the Cloud you enter an “always-here” process of community sharing that profits immensely from being collective and individual at the same time.

Just so with the traditions that provide networks for performances within the oAgora. The shared code of oWords and oPathways connects individual instances or products to an ever-present background resource that for fluent performers and audiences is always effectively online. It’s that immanent tradition – an implied web of potentials – that fills out the momentary utterance via a characteristic part-stands-for-the-whole dynamic. So Homer’s “green fear” expands to “fear caused by a supernatural agency” and the South Slavic epic singers’ “jumped to his or her light feet” guarantees a heroic, life-or-death adventure to follow. Tradition provides an oCloud that turns literal into idiomatic.

4. Moveable performance arenas

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s famous title, could well be applied to the Cloud and to tradition. Because these resources are always “here,” always available and interactive according to applicable agora-rules, surfing performances aren’t restricted to any particular physical location(s). The arena of the web and the arena of oral tradition are anywhere and everywhere because they occupy virtual, not geographical, space. You can access the Cloud from your home or any foreign country where you can find a connection to the web. Once connected, the limitless vista of ePathways stretches out before you, independently of your (meaningless) brick-and-mortar site. Just so, performers and audiences make their own virtual marketplace and stage their own virtual event – wherever they happen to physically be – by shared reference to and dependence on the tradition that informs every instance of an oral tradition. Neither the oAgora nor the eAgora is confined to artifacts or physical spaces. Performance arenas connect to and are defined by Clouds.

5. Homer’s ancient Greek Cloud

Testimony that comes directly from oAgora citizens is precious indeed, such as the information on oWords provided by the South Slavic epic singers. In this vein consider just a single hexameter line of Homer’s Odyssey, the tenth verse of Book 1 to be exact. It concludes the so-called prologue to the poem, in which Homer addresses the Muse and asks her literally to “sing in me [the adventures of] the many-turning man,” the hero Odysseus. Here’s how the prologue ends:

tôn hamothen ge, thea, thugater Dios, eipe kai hêmin.

Of these things from somewhere, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak also to us.

“These things,” conventionally understood as the Odysseus story, clearly exist “somewhere” else – within the epic tradition or oCloud. For that reason the singer must enlist the Muse’s help in navigating the oPathways or oimai that Homer himself identifies as the performer’s critical skill, taught specifically by the Muse. Let me emphasize that crucial point: the adventures reside in the oCloud, not in hard memorized local form, and the bard is asking for help in clicking through a network of oURLs. He underlines that dependence on tradition by requesting that Zeus’ daughter “speak also to us,” indicating a shared resource that has been, is now, and presumably will remain available to other performers and other audiences. In essence, this single hexameter tells us that within the oAgora, and through its built-in strategies, the oCloud provides the performer-audience amalgam with a co-created, emergent experience in which reality remains in play.

6. The Beowulf poet’s medieval English Cloud

The anonymous poet of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf also provides inside testimony on the cloudlike tradition to which any performance of an oral poem connects. His story-ethnography of another singer’s oral performance takes place during the group expedition to the watery lair of Grendel’s mother, which they reach by following her son’s tracks to the edge of the mere. On the way back, initial wonder at the hero’s achievement gives way to celebration, and particularly to Hrothgar’s court bard considering what kind of king the youthful warrior will eventually become. To present embodied alternatives, the bard draws two example figures from the oCloud – called the “word-hoard” in several Old English poems – and presents them as options in his contingent narrative of the future. These figures are, on the positive side, Sigemund, a dragon-slaying and protective ruler revered throughout Germanic saga; and on the negative side the despised Heremod, who failed his people at battle and brought them only sorrow.

So tradition provides Hrothgar’s court bard with ready examples of two possible futures drawn from the word-hoard or oCloud. But even more interesting than this navigation-based procedure is the language that the Beowulf poet uses to describe his surfing through the Germanic myth-web. Here’s what immediately precedes the brief biographies of Sigemund and Heremod (lines 867b-74):

                    Hwilum cyninges þegn,
guma gilphlæden,     gidda gemyndig,
se ðe ealfela     ealdgesegena
worn gemunde,     word oþer fand     870
soðe gebunden;     secg eft ongan
sið Beowulfes     snyttrum styrian,
ond on sped wrecan     spel gerade,
wordum wrixlan;     welhwylc gecwæð,…

At times the king’s thane, a man laden with proud words, mindful of stories, he who remembered many of all the old traditions, found another word bound in truth; the man began in turn to steer the adventure of Beowulf wisely, and to skillfully perform a fitting story, to exchange words; he spoke everything,…

To translate from Old to modern English and then to Cloud-speak, the king’s bard is fluent in oWords and oPathways, and he remembers how to navigate through the tradition of the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic story-web. For his present goal—providing a double-vision of what kind of ruler the splendidly successful young Beowulf may eventually become—he finds another oWord bound in truth: another story (actually two) that are linked and accessible within the overall mythological network. By performing the stories of Sigemund (+) and Heremod (-), he foreshadows two possible outcomes for the promising slayer of Grendel, steering Beowulf’s contingent future wisely, choosing fitting tales (in telegraphic format, since they are well known to his co-creating audience). By “exchanging oWords” he takes advantage of the oCloud to suggest how the hero and his epic may ultimately turn out. And, although like any in-process experience it will reach completion only when the story is actually told, singer and audience play the dynamic uncertainty off against their prior knowledge of how events must evolve. Beowulf’s biography will mirror Sigemund’s, and decidedly not Heremod’s. Tradition, or the oCloud, thus provides a nuanced sense of irony, dependent as much on shared oAgora dynamics as any individual contribution.

7. Texts can’t connect

Texts don’t interact with the Cloud or with tradition. Oh, you can store textual data in the form of static eFiles in the Cloud and then access that fixed material electronically, even edit and redeposit the edited version. But when those materials tip toward interactive networks with potential for navigation via options and co-creativity, they aren’t texts anymore. The tAgora doesn’t support shared networks because it doesn’t support pathways or variation within limits. It functions by amassing finite instances and then making them locally – not systemically – available according to the restrictive rules of that particular marketplace. Instances are all there is, as the fraught concept of intertextuality – which by nature and etymology cannot apply to either the eAgora or the oAgora – very clearly demonstrates.

Nor can texts interact with tradition. The common misconception that the advent of writing technology cues the immediate closure of the oAgora has proven time and again to be nothing more than blind tAgora bias. Writing is used initially for record-keeping and similar accounting procedures, most certainly not for preserving group and personal identity, remembering history, transmitting remedies for disease, and the myriad other social functions performed by oral traditions. Societies and individuals are quite capable of becoming and remaining citizens of more than one marketplace, transacting some of their business in the oAgora and some in the tAgora. What’s more, without a pathway-driven connection, there’s simply no way for texts to enter or influence ongoing oral traditions – except through the agency of go-betweens or performer/readers who can communicate fluently in both the arena of the text and the arena of oral tradition. As artifacts, texts don’t connect to the oCloud anymore than they connect to the eCloud.