• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Why aren’t oral traditions always immediately written down or otherwise recorded just as soon as text-making becomes an available option? Why not take advantage of the newest, most advanced, most secure technology?

Imagine a smoothly functioning oAgora, with its interactive web of links connected and functional. Performers and audiences co-navigate along pathways established by earlier performers and audiences, constructing their shared reality as they go. The system of pathways provides both a framework of established connections and the freedom to surf. It offers, in other words, both an idiomatic vehicle for tale-telling or healing or lamenting or recounting history, and at the same time enough flexibility to adapt to the present, then-and-there particulars of the unique performance situation. Meaning derives from working creatively within a prescribed set of malleable rules—just like language, only more so.

The option of another agora

At some moment in a culture’s media-history the text, or more precisely the possibility of making texts (written, printed, audio, or video), appears on the horizon. From our twenty-first century perspective, imbued as we are with the ideology of the book, this new possibility may look like an irresistible opportunity, a Godsend for the deprived. Suddenly OT is ripe for harvesting (or should we say colonizing?), and the supposed potential benefits of em-booking are many.

As far as we text-consumers are concerned, the maddeningly protean tale or charm or dirge or historical narrative can finally be captured, fixed, and preserved once and for all. At last we can convert ceaseless change into the solid and permanent reality of pages or a CD or DVD. Later, and on a timetable entirely our own, we can revisit that same manufactured object as many times as we wish. What’s more—and this is crucial—“the work” won’t have morphed in the meantime. Our long-elusive quarry’s been caged; we’re in control. Or such is the self-serving fantasy of those who live and communicate within the tAgora.

Dead letters

But let’s step outside that default marketplace of books and pages for a moment, and ask a simple question. What possible purpose could such beautifully fashioned text-objects serve in an oAgora that simply has no use for text-objects? Consider the stark realities of the situation. Because they won’t plug into the network of exchange, because they don’t consist of pathways, texts have no intrinsic value, no negotiable worth. Their tWords are disembodied and em-booked. They’re dead letters.

Of course, someone can always re-perform the transcript of a prior OT event for a performer, who can then include the story or song or proverb in a living repertoire. Such a process re-embodies the transcript’s silenced, spatialized words and reconnects its contents to the living network. In this way the event-turned-item can re-enter the oral performance arena and become OT once again. This sort of “re-oralizing” event has indeed occurred, for example in American blues music, but worldwide and historically it’s the exception to the rule. When it does occur, notice what’s actually happening: someone is retranslating an item from the language of the tAgora to the language of the oAgora, converting a performance-derived script back to a performance.

Customarily, though, an OT performance once em-booked usually exits the oAgora for good, exerting no influence on subsequent oral performances because it’s no longer linked to the living pathways of the tradition. A tAgora reduction of an oAgora event is literally out of the loop.

Texts are for foreigners

Small wonder, then, that oral traditions are almost always recorded and converted into books by an agent or agents from outside the traditional culture, and not by members of that culture1. oAgora citizens don’t yearn to transform their smoothly functioning word-markets to serve an economy in which they don’t participate. Although it may be cognitively challenging and even uncomfortable for us to reset our default tAgora notions, the truth is that from inside the oAgora texts just don’t make sense. All they can do is get in the way, hindering the natural dynamics of exchange. OTs cannot be reduced to fixed items via an agenda invented and implemented from outside the oAgora and still retain their integrity. As we’ll see elsewhere, OTs stand a far better chance of survival as networked pathways in the eAgora.


1 See further Honko 2000.