• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Clive James and the rich chaos of experience

Here’s how Clive James describes the “structure” of his influential 2007 book, Cultural Amnesia, a kind of example-driven inventory of humanity’s brilliant and terrifying creativity. As he assembled his vast compendium over four decades, working from individual parts toward a provisional whole, James started to see that the conventional vehicles of historiography were inadequate to the task of conveying his vision (p. xv):

In the forty years it took me to write this book, I only gradually realized that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern…. There could only be a linear cluster of nodal points, working the way the mind – or at any rate my mind, such as it is – works as it moves through time: a trail of clarities variously illuminating a dark sea of unrelenting turbulence, like the phosphorescent wake of a phantom ship. Far from a single argument, there would be scores of arguments.

Thus reads the brief manifesto that serves as prologue to an alphabetized series of memorable cameos, starting with poet Anna Akhmatova and concluding with novelist and biographer Stefan Zweig, stopping along the way to visit with such diverse luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Adolf Hitler, Beatrix Potter, and Tacitus. It’s a dramatis personae arrayed in a superficially tidy A-Z order, a nominal sequence that by its obvious insignificance encourages us to seek out alternate ways to understand (and to forge) links between and among them.

James’ overall dynamic is thus counter-schematic, to be sure, but hardly willy-nilly. By casting aside formula-driven paradigms so common to the tAgora, he aims not to undo but instead to foster understanding, not to obscure reality but rather to more faithfully mirror the rich chaos that actually is the history of Western homo sapiens. By refusing to impose a convenient but reductive pattern, he resists conventional principles of order in search of a new level of fidelity, a mode of representation less compromised by the operative rules and ideology of texts.

In effect, and strikingly, James is pursuing some of the same methods and goals as the Pathways Project, although his subject is not the same. He speaks of nodal points, a lack of pattern, and scores of possible arguments. Most centrally, he describes his book as “working the way the mind . . . works” – parallel to the Project’s fundamental credo that OT and IT (Internet Technology) mime the way we think. Even within the arena of the book and page, James strives to create a network for navigating, close kin to a morphing book.

Principles of order

In order to create this kind of representation, both Cultural Amnesia and the Pathways Project actively discard two major principles of ordering: hypotaxis and parataxis. Both of these terms have long histories in the study of rhetoric and communication, and both incorporate the Greek root taxis, “arrangement” or “order.” The difference between them lies in the first elements of the compounds: Greek hypo means “below” while para indicates “beside.” When authors employ a hypotactic style, then, they are resorting to a hierarchical arrangement, a nested logic where categories are divided into tiered subcategories, like a many-leveled index. A paratactic style, on the other hand, places all parts on an equivalent basis, side by side, and refrains from imposing any sort of hierarchy; as Aristotle puts it, the elements of paratactic logic are like beads on a string.

What these two communicative styles share is linearity: both proceed in one-after-another sequence, from start to finish. Within that single-arced trajectory hypotaxis creates relationships of higher and lower status, with certain elements subordinated to others. Parataxis also works linearly, with the difference that its equivalent parts are not organized into a higher-lower grid or pattern, leaving the reader or listener to supply criteria for interrelationship. For that reason it is perhaps no surprise that parataxis has been identified as a major rhetorical algorithm for oral tradition, in which phrases, scenes, and even performances are understood as existing side-by-side with other instances rather than as tightly configured into a predetermined (and textual) hypotaxis.

Easy examples of these two strategies would be the conventional outline (part I divided into parts a, b, and c, which are themselves subdivided and so on) versus parallel scenes in a double-plotted Shakespearean play. The former provides a roadmap that not only prescribes a unique route but also ranks the importance of landmarks and stipulates their relationship to one another. The latter sets two series of events side-by-side and leaves it up to the reader or audience to discover the implications of the analogical structure.

But, as it turns out, even the more open-ended strategy of parataxis falls short of an adequate description of oAgora and eAgora activity, primarily because of its ultimate dependence on linearity. Neither hypotaxis nor parataxis can operate outside the frame of sequence.


To fill the gap, then, let me suggest the term polytaxis, a newly minted coinage that literally means “multiple arrangement.” Our tAgora-biased language is unavoidably slippery here, but the main thrust of the term is toward a non-predetermined, always-emergent pattern whose strength and sustainability lie in its ability to take not one but many different possible shapes. And the distinction indicated by that first element, poly-, is categorical: neither “above” nor “beside,” both of which defer to spatial order, but rather “multiple.”

How does polytaxis work? Well, first and foremost it requires the active participation of an OT performer or an IT user surfing through a network of potentials, making choices that engender new sets of choices and constructing reality en route. Only after the fact, only after the pathways have been traveled is it ever possible to talk about linearity – about a discernible track through a certain selection of nodes – and then it’s only a memory of an already completed process and not the process itself. A definitive map becomes available only after the journey has come to an end.

The role of the surfer in both media-technologies is absolutely crucial, as is the ever-evolving nature of the experience. Without these two core features, polytaxis can’t happen. For the same reason, it can’t happen in the tAgora, which of course has no pathways.

And there are other implications as well. The indeterminate nature of polytaxis, which requires surfers to take the initiative but does not mandate choice(s), supports and encourages diversity of experience. No one surfer ever has the final “take” on the network, and even the same individual can configure the elements (which themselves can morph) differently during different excursions. Multiple oral poets will narrate a story in multiple ways, and even the same bard will vary the itinerary from one performance to another. Web surfers profit from having the interactive network open before them, and the decisions they make will not be identical from person to person or from session to session.

Polytaxis means contingency. It also means that everyone can participate, subject to applicable cultural and web-specific rules, and that reality will remain plural.

From diversity of experience it’s but a short step to distributed authorship. Create a website, install links in existing websites, innovate code – all of these are “authoring” activities that depend directly on the efforts of others. New sites are inextricably linked to the larger Internet; links to other sites blaze pathways that didn’t exist before; revising or adding code opens up realities that the innovator is complicit in engineering. Like the oral poet who works within a larger tradition – essentially within a constellation of pathways that operates like an IT cloud – your role is contributory and shared, not final or supervening (the “final word” being no more than a tAgora myth in any case). Authors who practice polytaxis are always co-authors.

Democracy of reception

Polytaxis has a political dimension as well. Within the code of conduct that applies to transactions in the oAgora and eAgora, it licenses a fundamental democracy in exchange that, while liberating in many respects, may also lead to agoraphobia. In other words, a “multiple-arrangement” will inevitably free up communication at both ends of the sender-receiver circuit. Reality and experience will be shared and democratic, worked out in partnership, flexible within a rule-governed environment. That’s the upside of democracy in virtual environments.

At the same time, tAgora citizens pledged ideologically to brick-and-mortar politics, subscribing without question to the twin illusions of object and stasis, will find polytaxis unsettling in its lack of linearity and predictability. They will sense something missing, and perhaps even indulge in media-smearing that portrays the oAgora and eAgora as somehow inferior rather than simply alternative. Democracy will seem more like anarchy to those without citizenship in multiple agoras.

Wallace Stevens had it right

So here’s the challenge, then. Do we settle now and forever on a repeatable, singular sequence? Are we content with limiting our choices to the two possibilities of either a hierarchical or a parallel format? Is a single trip through the multiplex network sufficient? Are we so fulfilled by trekking that we have no need of navigating? Even more basically, can we in good conscience reduce OT and IT to tAgora artifacts?

From a polytactic perspective, the response is obvious. To circumscribe knowledge, art, and ideas via tAgora-specific strategies is to reduce living complexity to a collection of manageable but highly artificial facsimiles. Clive James knows this, and he demonstrates it in Cultural Amnesia. Wallace Stevens knew it when he created Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, a kind of white paper on polytaxis or, for that matter, a kind of polytaxis on white paper.

Stevens had it right—there isn’t just one way; there are at least 13. And James has it right—A-to-Z order is merely nominal; we need to find more meaningful (if less conventional) links.

In Pathways Project language, reality remains in play.