• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley


Lurking behind the common adjective “protean,” meaning “changeable or mutable,” stands the sea-god Proteus from Greek mythology. Famous for his gift of prophecy, and infamous for not sharing it easily: just as soon as you confront him, he shape-shifts to a new identity. Proteus doesn’t overpower anybody; he escapes by morphing – the ultimate will o’ th’ wisp. (A few clever Greeks, Menelaus and Aristaeus, do manage to fool him and extract some much-needed information, but they’re very much the exceptions that prove the rule). To make matters more mysterious, sources disagree on Proteus’ family tree and where he lived, so even his basic bio-data can’t be fixed with anything like certainty. How ironic – and how appropriate – that such a unique resource should remain so frustratingly elusive.

Well, there’s a cognate irony underlying the study and representation of oral traditions as well: the inescapable fact that most of the academic world talks about this bookless, very protean phenomenon exclusively through the default academic medium – the silent, counter-protean monument of the book. With so many years (and so much of their own daily identity) invested in the reading and writing of documents, it’s hard to imagine conducting serious business in any other venue besides the tAgora. No matter the subject of inquiry, the book rules.

Rediscovering OT via texts

Take Milman Parry’s brilliant rediscovery of Homer’s archaic orality, a prime example of our deeply embedded cultural instinct to understand via texts. First, some chronology. Parry learned about the then-living South Slavic oral epic tradition before he completed his two landmark articles (1930, 1932) on Homer and oral tradition, so we can trace the germ of his thinking in part to that contemporary, real-life analogue. And it’s also true that he undertook paradigm-shifting fieldwork on oral epic in the Former Yugoslavia a few years afterward with Albert Lord (1933-35). Their collecting trips produced hundreds of oral epics recorded acoustically or by dictation, now deposited at the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature.

Nonetheless, Parry’s chief methodology in reclaiming the Iliad and Odyssey for the OT realm was at its source still decidedly textual. Poring over the highly edited manuscript remains of Homer, he focused on visually locating repeated phrases, whose frequency and structure he then interpreted as a litmus test for composition in performance and thus for OT origins. These repetitions, or “formulas” as he dubbed them (oWords in the Pathways Project), were thus taken as an unmistakable stamp, an inventory of telltale symptoms fixed forever in the transcribed performances that have somehow survived to us. Parry’s unexamined assumption in this line of thought is crucial, and at the same time revealing: meticulous visual analysis of texts, he was arguing, can prove non-textuality. In effect, he was contending that written can prove oral.

OTs from inside OTs

Of course, not everyone suffers from the same built-in handicap that afflicts the academy. Within cultures of origin, people approach oral tradition not as a curiosity but as a natural dimension of everyday life, as a set of highly functional tools for constructing, remembering, and transmitting identity, knowledge, and heritage. Uncompromised by the distance that outsider analysis and discussion automatically create, they don’t need a translation across media: they learn the language of oral tradition firsthand as a mother tongue, rather than secondhand from the equivalent of “Teach Yourself” textbooks.

Competence across media

And then there’s the middle ground, perhaps the most common situation worldwide. Many societies with highly developed literacy skills and even electronic networks also include members whose primary word-technology remains oral tradition. Additionally, and although early theory favored a binary “either-or” model, the very same individuals sometimes have expertise across the media-spectrum – from OT to books to IT (Internet Technology). In both of these middle-ground cases, oral tradition is not so much “the unknowable other” as an alternate, credible option for communication outside the textual and electronic arenas.

It’s one tool in the tool-kit.

Proteus and the Pathways Project

The Pathways Project as a multimedia network aims at quashing the built-in irony of understanding oral tradition solely via books. It seeks to fathom Proteus on his terms, not ours. Media suites and linkmaps will equip reader-surfers to co-create their experience of the OT-IT mesh, mirroring the dynamics of the oAgora by reflection in the eAgora.

To claim that the Pathways Project will serve as a cure-all for the disease of reductionism via books would be extremely naive, as would the conclusion that book technology can no longer serve useful purposes in understanding oral traditions. But the Project can take us in directions we haven’t explored before, directions that in some ways lead right back to the event and reality of oral performance.

In one respect we’re no different from any number of frustrated Greeks who tried to get Proteus to hold still long enough to pick his mind. But he kept on morphing – just like OT and IT and precisely counter to what book-fixation seems to do. With the Pathways Project we’re trying a new strategy. We’re recognizing that grasping Proteus is a complex, multidimensional, and ever-renewable challenge, and that we therefore need to understand him through his shapeshifting, not in spite of it.