• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

The Challenge

In a sense this is the most difficult of the three media-phobias for most of us to diagnose and understand. Why? Because the tAgora is radically different from the oral and electronic marketplaces, and, much more subtly, because text-speak amounts to our cultural mother-tongue. Especially since Gutenberg, we’ve been blindly loyal citizens of the tAgora, conditioned to think and communicate textually. We just don’t stop to examine and appreciate how our defaults are pre-set. For most of us textualization is as autonomic as respiration.

One symptom of that default cultural wiring is the consequent under-appreciation and under-utilization of other media, as when we disparage OT technology as inaccurate in comparison to texts, or when we mindlessly post frozen, non-interactive chunks of text (pixel-pages) on the Internet. In both cases our tAgora lens prevents a true, unqualified engagement with other media. Old cognitive habits die hard.

Such ingrained habits make it hard to see that round pegs just don’t fit square holes, no matter how carefully and imaginatively we labor to make them fit. To take full advantage of any medium or technology, we need to use the right tools—or combination of tools —for the job. And we need to use those tools with full awareness of the advantages and disadvantages of each one. Otherwise agoraphobia, perceived or not, will result.

In seeking to cure agoraphobia, we must look beyond the dependable cultural reinforcement provided by the tAgora. We must engage the agoras beyond the only too cozy sinecure of the page. That means stepping outside our comfort zone and coming to grips with our unexamined assumptions about communicative media. Actively experiencing the helplessness and disempowerment of tAgoraphobia—a malady masked by textual ideology —is thus the necessary preliminary to a more holistic view of all three agoras.

Toward that end—as with oAgoraphobia and eAgoraphobia—I offer two scenarios drawn from real-life practices: the textualizing imperative and the publishing imperative. In their different ways these two cases point up the radical non-fit between OT-based and text-based ways of knowing. They also show how the two media can interact in ways that we need to grasp more deeply. And let me openly admit that both scenarios are intended to cause us squirm a bit, to make us feel uneasy and uncomfortable with the largely invisible status quo imposed by the tAgora.

The textualizing imperative

The first scenario will seem familiar enough, although many of us haven’t thought through the actions involved. Why not? Precisely because they’re so automatic. It has to do with capturing Proteus, that is, with the task of confronting, analyzing, and explaining the elusive quarry of oral tradition. Left to our own devices, we typically seek to become an audience for OT in the only way we know—by converting living experience into frozen, lifeless text. We make Proteus stop morphing so that we can read him, after he expires.

Beginning in the ancient world with works as central as Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, and continuing through modern times, our conventional tAgora procedure has absolutely required making a text. That is, we “collect” OT—notice the item-based terminology—by freezing it, by stopping its motion, by sapping its natural vitality. We transfer the verbal activity from the oAgora to the tAgora. We “murder to dissect.”

That’s our textualizing imperative, and it’s something we as tAgora citizens insist upon as the first step toward charting the unexplored territory of the oAgora. We don’t (in many respects we can’t) engage the medium and technology of OT on its own terms, so we resort to what we know and practice by default: text-construction. Quite a dislocation, and a forthright example of oAgoraphobia on our part. We’re effectively helpless to do otherwise.

But now consider the phenomenon from the other side, as it were, from within the oAgora. As research on living traditions has demonstrated time and time again, the impulse to textualize almost always comes from outside the oral word-market. Writing down or recording an OT is not an action endemic to the oAgora. As Lauri Honko has shown, such fixation customarily takes place only via some outside agency, a person or a group with a tAgora agenda.

Of course, that’s merely common sense—only too obvious if we’re willing to suspend our blind commitment to texts as necessarily the one core reality underlying all verbal art. Think about it. Why would anyone actively seek to translate out of a known, functional medium and into a medium that is unknown or at least unfamiliar? If individuals or groups don’t celebrate textuality as the sole logical end of communication (and there are myriad such individuals and groups!), then why would they wholly abandon a technology in which they’re fluent in order to adopt a technology never used for that purpose? Doing so would clearly be counterproductive.

A sobering reality asserts itself: to textualize OT is always to distort it, often beyond recognition. We need to recognize the disjunction between media, and feel the dislocation of tAgoraphobia. Only then will we be in a position to fairly evaluate the consequences of translation from one technology to another, and to find a better solution for the challenging problem of representing and analyzing OT.

Meanwhile, let’s consider another example of a practice that usually flies under the radar. But let the reader/surfer beware: a look behind the scenes of this activity may induce a media-based form of culture shock.

The publishing imperative

Invisible to us most of the time, this second scenario involves the act and process of publishing—reporting and promulgating information—and the default vehicle we use for that purpose. No matter what we want to convey or whom we’re addressing, we seem to know only one “best” method for doing so: constructing a text.

Just as tAgora citizens naturally bring with them the predisposition to understand oAgora activities through a textual lens, so investigators conventionally report their observations through tAgora technology. We explain OT—and everything else, for that matter—by enshrining our thoughts in texts. What’s more, we encode them so that the reader’s options are systematically foreclosed upon.

And what awaits text-users? To construe the communication as an item; to follow a one-way route toward the author’s goal, left to right, top to bottom, from one numbered page to the next, beginning to end. No network of pathways here.

Of course, any reader will always be required to supply the missing information that helps complete the story—whether an interpretation of a character, a reaction to a situation, or some other contribution that fills out the textual blueprint. That’s part of reception, of serving as a productive partner in communication. But, and this is crucial, text-users aren’t navigating pathways; they’re not surfing through linked systems of possibilities.

Under the surface, then, the publishing imperative amounts to short-circuiting the dynamics of the oAgora. How do we learn about the oral ecology of this or that society? Until recently, the answer has been to check books out of the library, to scan through databases of professional journals, in short to access the static, page-epitomized warehouse of textualized knowledge. We “go right to the source” by not going right to the source. We proceed by examining the shadow of the reality rather than the reality itself. The tAgora is shrouded in such shadows.

Audio recordings can certainly suggest some of the immediacy and life of the oral performance, by restoring sounds in real time and creating a vicarious, facsimile experience. Unfortunately, however, that real-time experience falls short in at least two ways: unlike OT it never morphs, and it requires only passive participation by the listener. Phenomenologically, audio recordings aren’t present; they’re past. They don’t involve a here-and-now interaction with an audience; they’re over and done with, so we join the audience only as interlopers in a sealed-off process. Audio recordings, as full of voice as they are, are essentially texts.

Videos take us yet closer, offering not only sounds but also mobile images associated with oAgora exchange. Through video we can edge a bit nearer to immersion in the event, but there’s still an inevitable shortfall: we connect only through the agency of a filmic text. In the end we read the video just as we read the audio or the transcription. We visit precisely the same moment(s) in time again and again, in the same order, with the same beginning, middle, and end. Still no alternate pathways, still no network of potentials.

The multimedia reality of video offers improvement over the page and the audio recording, but it also distorts because in a vital sense it converts morphing and living to fixed and dead. Video tAuthorship resides wholly in the single film-maker rather than in many film-makers and their many audiences, leaving film-watchers far from equal partnership in the negotiations. Authorship is not distributed over multiple authors and audiences, as is typically the case in the oAgora and eAgora.

Feeling the pressure

As early twenty-first century citizens of the tAgora, we feel the cultural pressure of both the textualizing imperative and the publishing imperative. We can hardly imagine any other way to communicate important information and ideas. Because our cognitive habits are so deeply embedded and so crippling (as well as so ruthlessly effective, as long as we stay in the tAgora), recognizing their limitations is very hard. And even when we manage to step outside our default marketplace, the “otherness” we find outside the tAgora can make us extremely uncomfortable. It can, in short, cause a nasty case of agoraphobia. In reaction to this discomfort, we often revert from unfamiliar and ennervating ways of communicating back into the familiar, back into the cognitive sinecure that has made the verb to document come to mean to establish as fact. We respond by translating the Other back to the Known.