• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

The idea of pathways

Pathways sport a double identity: individually, they lead from one node to another; but corporately, they constitute an interactive network with innumerable built-in possibilities. The idea and term stem from the oAgora, the arena in which Homer describes the qualities that an ancient Greek oral epic singer must possess in order to be a successful bard. Here’s a hint: he doesn’t mention a loud and clear voice, a fine memory, or a large repertoire:

For among all mortal men the singers have a share in honor
and reverence, since to them the Muse has taught the pathways,
for she loves the singers’ tribe. (Odyssey, Book 8, lines 479-81)

What the Muse teaches, in other words, is the ability to navigate the web of OT, to surf through the shared riches of the story-hoard and shape a performance that is intelligible to and enjoyable for performer and audience alike. What the Muse imparts is knowledge of system or process, not of things or products. She teaches not “what,” but rather “how to get there.”

What oPathways support

Individual oPathways route an oral performance from one point to another as the surfer/co-creator initiates the event, generates a constellation of linked options, chooses one of those options and generates another set, and so forth. Watch the Pathways Project animated logo at the top of every node of the website and you’ll see how options lead to more options. Stories or other oral traditions will follow roughly construed linkmaps, with alternatives available at every node in the network. At every node in the network, there will always be multiple opportunities for co-creation: light or heavy development of characters, lengthy or brief descriptions, detours from the principal story-line, and different kinds and levels of response to the partnering audience.

This flexibility and generativity—rather than the twin illusions of object and stasis at the heart of the tAgora—are the lifeblood of communication in the oAgora. And everything is accomplished by leveraging a system of linked oPathways and a vocabulary of oWords.

South Slavic oral epic singers, or guslari, provide us undeniable evidence of this dynamic of variation within limits when they express puzzlement over fieldworkers’ identification of songs by titles. OT-fluent citizens don’t conceive of their performances by attaching labels suitable for fixed, brick-and-mortar products. Instead, they think in terms of sequences of pathways that reveal the oAgora communication as a kinetic, emergent, in-the-making process. It’s a matter of cognitive predispositions. An item like “The Wedding of Bećirbey” meant little or nothing to them, whereas linked oPathways such as “When General Pero kidnapped Fatima, and Mustajbey of the Lika raised an army, and Tale of Orašac arrived, and they all journeyed to Zadar in order to rescue her, and she married her fiancé Bećirbey” speak in pathway-language, indicating what amounts to a sequence of clicks. It’s simply a matter of how the oAgora mindset works.

Homology and difference

Pathways are the essence of the oAgora and eAgora, where surfing through networks of multiple possibilities is the core process that underlies all communication. Even though it will seem counterintuitive to readers of fixed, warehousable items, constellations of oPathways and ePathways boast a dynamic strength and diversity of expression and reception that texts cannot match. The tAgora, which depends on an ideological commitment to spatialization and storage of knowledge, art, and ideas as inert things, is for that very reason pathwayless.

oPathways work for the same reason that oral traditions work—because they actively support morphing and insure that reality remains in play.