• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Wordsworth had it right

About 200 years ago William Wordsworth put it this way in a poem he entitled “The Tables Turned”:

Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

A serious charge: “we murder to dissect.” Exactly whom or what was he accusing?

The answer? In Pathways Project terms, this appears to be a tAgora crime.

From the beginning of the poem on, the principal object of the poet’s criticism is in fact none other than the book, which he unconditionally disparages as a source for wisdom. Wordsworth’s complaint against books was part of his program for composing poetry, which he felt should depend more on the simple experience of walking through nature – the source of “spontaneous wisdom” – than on the learned, page-turning craft of his immediate poetic predecessors. Quite an indictment of textual ideology.

Em-booking oral tradition

Our advocacy of eEditions as vehicles for studying and representing oral tradition springs from similar concerns and a parallel history. For all of its myriad benefits, the book has done to oral tradition exactly what in Wordsworth’s opinion it did to poetry: murdered a living creature by vivisection. The once-vibrant event or experience becomes a corpse, and although an autopsy may bring after-the-fact knowledge of its prior functions, the deed is irreversibly done.

So what’s the price exacted by the culturally approved em-booking process? Nothing less than the very viability of the subject under study. A steep price, to be sure, but one that tAgora ideology has conveniently hidden from view. Without examining the implications, we import the “other” into our usual default medium and consider the job well done.

The printed page

Experience has taught us how such euthanasia proceeds in the case of oAgora events. During the early days of “collection” (notice the insulating, object-centered jargon), fieldworkers struggled to extract a dictionary-certified, printable text from the messy reality of multimedia performance. The goal, of course, was to exhibit their elusive quarry within the approved museum space of the printed page. When the results fell below the threshold of an acceptable text, editors felt no compunction about “correcting” what their informants actually said and “restoring” what they “meant” to say. Thus the Grimm Brothers and their highly expurgated tales, for example.

The exclusive goal of this culturally sponsored text-hunt was to reduce the performance to a document, which collectors and editors assumed had to be the heart of the matter. Many of us still make that assumption, occasionally with a polite but perfunctory nod toward the perhaps 50-70% of the performance that’s discarded in the process (the intonations, pauses, vocal music, instrumentation, dance patterns, audience reactions, and so many other facets of performances that conventionally get suppressed in the course of conversion to texts).

Audio and video

The advent of audio and video recording raised our awareness, to be sure, making it possible to reach beyond textual remains and glimpse other dimensions of oAgora activity. Still, however, the final published yield of most field recordings is usually only the celebrated but mute transcription. Even when audio or video itself is made available, it’s rarely listened to or watched along with the text (or translation). Cultural and historical context is likewise segregated – relegated to an appendix, a companion, or the equivalent – if provided at all.

In short, our default method for representing oral traditions has been to convert events into items. We reduce systems to things. We dissect a multifaceted, emergent whole that demands our attention right now, at its own pace and on its own terms, and we settle for a pale reflection of some small part of that immediacy, comfortably static and distanced. We generate an asynchronous artifact that we can control by holding it at arm’s length. In Wordsworth’s sense, we effectively murder the living reality of the performance.

Rescuing performances

eEditions, on the other hand, hold out the promise of resynchronizing the event, of reconstituting the experience, of putting the parts back together to create at least a reasonable facsimile of the original whole.

Consider the eEdition of The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey as performed by Halil Bajgorić. With the text and translation reconnected to the audio record, and with the commentary, dictionary of idioms, and other materials electronically linked to the onward-moving performance script, users become more than mere readers of texts. To an extent they become part of the audience for that long-ago performance, only now (necessarily) removed from the day (in June of 1935) and place (Dabrica, in the Former Yugoslavia) of its original occurrence.

An eExperience for an eAudience

What’s so different? Well, through the agency of the eEdition the performance is once again continuous and multifaceted. Sure, you can stop it by pausing the audio or simply closing the web page altogether, just as you can close a book and go make a cup of coffee or check your e-mail. But as long as the eEdition is open and all of its systems are active, the potential exists for the “reader” to attend the performance in real time and, to the degree that linked resources restore at least some of the cultural, poetic, and historical context, in real space as well. Halil Bajgorić performs again: the story evolves, the vocal and instrumental melodies sound, some of the cultural and linguistic background expected of a fluent audience becomes available. The event happens, again, and you become a member of its audience.

Is this eExperience “the same as” the original that happened in 1935 Bosnia? Of course not, but it’s a facsimile of immersion we can manage here and now. It’s far more faithful to the original than fussing over the book-bound corpse and trying vainly to imagine what it must have been like while alive.

At the very least, the eEdition avoids the unpardonable sin of murder by dissection.