• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

When titles just don’t work

Sometimes even the most basic assumptions prove illusory, and we can profit by taking a step back and reexamining what seemed like an utterly straightforward situation. Here’s a case in point:

Fieldworkers interviewing oral epic singers (guslari) in the Former Yugoslavia were often puzzled by the singers’ failure to understand which stories they were being asked to perform. Citing titles like “The Wedding of Smailagić Meho” or “Alagić Alija in Captivity” usually elicited only blank stares, in spite of the fact that such designations were regularly associated with published versions of these narratives. Only when the investigators framed their requests in the form of what amount to oPathways – such as “Tell me the story of the young hero Meho coming of age, and the kidnapping of his fiancée Fatima, and the great battle against General Pero to reclaim her” – did the guslari recognize what was wanted. Titles, it turns out, were merely textual cues and thus meant little or nothing to them; only a key to active navigation would suffice.

The problem? Simply that the fieldworkers were proceeding by making tAgora assumptions about what was clearly an oAgora phenomenon. They were speaking the language of things rather than the language of systems.

Let’s dramatize this disparity in marketplaces by formulating two sets of questions.

Questions we expect to hear

“Say, hand me Beloved, will you?” “Have you downloaded the latest Coen Brothers film yet?” “I don’t have that rendition of Moonlight Sonata by Vladimir Ashkenazy, do you?”

None of these questions – or the myriad others that we could pose about myriad works of art – seem strange or unusual. Why not? Because the presupposition that the work under discussion is a text, an item, a thing is the operating assumption, the ultimate tAgora bottom line. Someone constructed that thing, felt it had reached final form, and then made it available (under applicable rules, of course) as a fixed, immutable object for us to own and then to interpret as we wish. Our interpretations will always vary, perhaps radically, but artifacts supported in the tAgora will not and cannot. And since we understand the work as contained wholly in the artifact, the work seems just as thing-like as the object. Nothing curious or suspicious here; just business as usual in the tAgora.

Now for the other side of the coin.

Questions we don’t expect to hear

“So how did Toni Morrison perform Beloved last Thursday?” “How do you expect the Coen Brothers to adapt their latest film for showings in 15 major cities over the next year?” “Do I understand correctly that Ashkenazy wrote some new material to insert in Moonlight Sonata for his European tour?”

This second set of questions, on the other hand, seems nonsensical. For Morrison to reconstruct her novel, by adding, subtracting, or substituting dialogue, for example, would be to collapse the “work = text” theorem that we take for granted. For the Coen Brothers to abandon their carefully edited film-text in favor of multiple variants would be to undo countless hours of fine-tuning and compromise its artistry. For Ashkenazy to “add new material” to the magical, immortal score created by Ludwig van Beethoven would be outright heresy. Such interventions, entirely typical in the oAgora and eAgora, represent serious violations of textual laws.

Ideology and the tAgora

Under the influence of textual ideology we conventionally make a number of automatic, unthinking assumptions about the creation, transmission, and reception of knowledge, art, and ideas. But none of them is more fundamental than the illusion of object, the firmly held conviction that all serious communication can be contained in and transferred by a collection of unchanging items.

Take the example of the South Slavic singer requiring a network-based prompt rather than a title to understand how to surf his shared epic tradition, as described above. We can put it very straightforwardly: for performers and audiences of oral traditions there simply is no such thing as a thing. To recompose the story, which recurs without repeating, is to navigate a linked web of potentials rather than to trek through a book or CD or DVD (or their static eFile equivalents). What the guslar does is being determined right now, in an ongoing fashion, and will take shape according to choices not yet made. Its ultimate form will differ from yesterday’s or tomorrow’s or next year’s performance, just as one singer’s performance will vary from another’s. Variation within limits is the name of the game. To regard any single surfing expedition as globally authoritative raises the specter of agoraphobia and culture shock.

Correspondingly, the Internet offers us a vast route-system that likewise draws its strength from variability and connectedness. Just as Wikipedia can’t be housed between two covers as a thing complete in itself (though some have tried), so the web in general depends on opportunities and choices that lie beyond the textual world.

Process first, products second

The oAgora and eAgora prosper by sponsoring processes that lead not to a single result but to an infinite array of products. As platforms for communication they are forever under construction, and their builders and users are always free – in fact, their builders and users are absolutely required – to co-create whatever emerges. Communication is a shared dynamic, and reality remains in play.

Ideology notwithstanding, the oAgora and eAgora don’t trade in the illusion of object, nor for that matter in the illusion of stasis.