• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

When stability and truth seem lacking

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 solution. Here’s a case in point:

Fieldworkers interviewing oral epic singers (guslari) in the Former Yugoslavia were often puzzled by the singers’ stubborn insistence that they told their stories exactly the same every time, “words for words” as they put it, and that these stories were doubtless “the truth.” Well, different performances of the same story – and even performances by the very same singer – varied significantly in length, detail, and sometimes in pattern and content as well. Their stories weren’t at all fixed or static; and if they weren’t static, then which of the variant versions do we count as “the truth”? Such apparent deviations led one scholar to criticize the epic poets for their inattention to precision, and to suggest that their poetry would profit from better awareness of what they were actually doing as they composed and performed! Only when investigators began to understand what their informants were really claiming – namely, fidelity in terms of oWords and oPathways – did their seemingly misguided claims start to make sense.

The problem? Simply that the fieldworkers and the scholar 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, could you return that dog-eared copy of Moby-Dick my father loaned you ten years ago?” “How long has it been since you rented Godfather I from Netflix?” “Don’t you just love Michael Hedges’ live cover of the Stones’ Gimme Shelter?”

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 static 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 static 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

“How has Moby-Dick morphed during the past decade?” “Do you want the 1972, 1981, 1995, or current version of Godfather I?” “Is it true that Michael Hedges re-performed his December 12, 1990 performance at the Bottom Line?

The second set of questions, on the other hand, seems nonsensical. For Herman Melville’s novel to have morphed in some fashion since your father first borrowed that well-worn paperback a decade ago is unthinkable: Moby-Dick is forever Moby-Dick precisely because it remains static, and the immutabilty of the artifact makes it so (remember the tAgora theorem of “text = work”). The Godfather I film that won an Academy Award in 1972 is frame-for-frame the same film you download or stream from Netflix, and not a re-edited, supplemented, or otherwise tinkered-with subsequent version. Hedges performed his engaging cover in a designated place at a designated time, at which point it was recorded and frozen into textuality; its particular artistry thus stems from its very uniqueness and lack of changeability.

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 stasis, the firmly held conviction that fixed, unchanging items are the necessary and exclusive basis for all serious communication.

Take the example of the South Slavic singer who relies on oWords rather than tWords for his claim of accuracy and truth, as described above. We can put it very straightforwardly: for performers and audiences of oral traditions there simply is no such category as stasis. To work through a performance of the same 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 won’t hold still but instead derives its authority from continuous updating and linking to other entries that are themselves always morphing, so the web itself 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 stasis, nor for that matter in the illusion of object.