Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind

Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind

by John Miles Foley

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The major purpose of this book is to illustrate and explain the fundamental similarities and correspondences between humankind's oldest and newest thought-technologies: oral tradition and the Internet. To illustrate these ideas, this volume is designed as a "morphing book," a collection of linked nodes that can be read in innumerable different ways. Challenging


The major purpose of this book is to illustrate and explain the fundamental similarities and correspondences between humankind's oldest and newest thought-technologies: oral tradition and the Internet. To illustrate these ideas, this volume is designed as a "morphing book," a collection of linked nodes that can be read in innumerable different ways. Challenging the default medium of the linear book and page and all that they entail, this "brick-and-mortar" book exists as an extension of The Pathways Project (pathwaysproject.org), an open-access online suite of chapter-nodes, linked websites, and multimedia all dedicated to exploring and demonstrating the dynamic relationship between oral tradition and Internet technology.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This workadds a decisive and stunning new dimension to John Miles Foley's already distinguished contributions to the study of oral traditions—ancient, medieval, and modern. His demonstration that they share significant features with the composition and communication of cultural production deploying digital technology and the internet will provoke a major upheaval in the study of long-term media history."
—Thomas Pettitt, coeditor of The Ballad As Narrative: Studies in the Ballad Tradition of England, Scotland, Germany, and Denmark

"Oral Tradition and the Internet is a stunningly ambitious and highly provocative multi-platform project in which John Miles Foley invites the reader to join him on a fascinating and compelling exploration of the interconnected architectonics of the human mind and the Internet. Wide-ranging, challenging, and intellectually rich, it will have an enormous and revolutionary impact on the field of oral studies and on many interconnected fields of humanistic study. Because it is as accessible as it is erudite, it will appeal alike to the specialist and non-specialist reader."
—Mark C. Amodio, author of Writing the Oral Tradition: Oral Poetics and Literate Culture in Medieval England

"With its intellectual arc from antiquity to the future just beyond our horizon, the book is a fitting monument to an imaginative, generous, and immensely productive scholar."—MLR

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Read an Excerpt

Oral Tradition and the Internet

Pathways of the Mind
By John Miles Foley

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2012 John Miles Foley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07869-9

Chapter One

For Book-readers Only

A Local Disclaimer

This node was created to serve as one possible introduction to (one of several avenues into) Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind, the book associated with the Pathways Project. For that purpose it emphasizes the disorientation necessarily involved in abandoning the default medium of the book in order to grasp the dynamics of alternative media—specifically OT and IT. As such, it explains how tAgora-speak (tAgora) doesn't and can't translate to the eAgora (eAgora).

The Book in Your Hands

You've picked up this book, gently cradling it in your hands as you've done so many times throughout your life in so many different situations. It's a cozy, familiar action, essentially a reflex, as you prepare to set sail through the smooth, silent seas of letters, words, lines, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. Everything lies before you in expectable sequence, reassuringly formatted and configured. Even the artifact itself comes complete with trusty features—a title embedded in an eye-catching design; a back-cover blurb to summarize the argument; the soft, cool feel of the pages as you turn them one by one. In ways that you don't consciously register, the book provides a powerful and uniquely welcome frame of reference (Texts and Intertextuality). You're ensconced on the sofa, the light's adjusted, your cup of tea's in place, peace reigns. You're about to reenter a world apart, a world you've visited before and long to revisit.

Let the Reader Beware

Comfortable, then? Well, caveat lector: let the reader beware! This particular book doesn't fit that tried-and-true mold; in fact, it seeks to expose the mold as an ideology we've adopted (Ideology of the Text), a tacit compromise we've forged with a much messier and more complex reality. For that reason it's a book more likely to enervate than entertain, at least until you get used to how it works (Getting Started). Instead of the dependable calm that proceeds from opening the dependably put-together artifact, what awaits you is, frankly, an unsettling experience. You may undergo a kind of culture shock, not so different from the disorientation we feel when we're suddenly immersed in a foreign society with language and customs far from our own (Culture Shock). And no apologies: Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind is actively intended to generate just that kind of disquiet and dissonance.

Why? Because we'll be doing nothing less fundamental than challenging the default medium of the linear book and page and all that they entail. We'll be addressing the very nature of text (Reading Backwards) and asking whether that's all there is to communication. Worse yet, perhaps, we'll be finding that there is indeed much, much more that we've made a cultural habit of ignoring or suppressing. We'll learn that there are large, complex, wholly viable, alternative worlds of media-technology (Agora Correspondences) out there—if only we're willing to explore, to think outside the usual, culturally constructed categories. We'll learn that oral tradition and Internet technology support thinking and creating and communicating in ways that books can't match. And we'll find that OT and IT work in strikingly similar fashion, offering us networks to navigate, webs of potentials that we will be in a position to activate. And that won't be a comfortable experience, at least initially. Not at all.

A Way Out ... If You Want One

Too much to ask? Well, there's a way out, of course, a strategy to avoid the discomfort (Agoraphobia). We can simply choose not to think outside the book—not to jump off the dock—and thus avoid the reshuffling of our cognitive categories that the Pathways Project demands. The sun will still rise in the east and set in the west, the twin illusions of object (Illusion of Object) and stasis (Illusion of Stasis) will remain (artificially) in force, and our hard-won and desperately held convictions about the certainty, permanence, and primacy of the book and page will rest undisturbed.

And perhaps there's a reasonable argument for doing just that. Having labored since Gutenberg to convert knowledge, art, and ideas to an item-based economy (Accuracy), are we now to throw away centuries of hard-won victories? Now that we've developed this marvelous textual prosthesis to help us manage the slippage that threatens to undo communication at every turn, are we now to discard it in favor of a broader view we can't yet appreciate and may not be able to control? Maybe, given all that texts have meant and continue to mean to myriad readers, including you and me, that's an irresponsible and indefensible act. Maybe we should remain on the dock. Maybe we should just close this book and return it to the shelf.

Opportunities Ahead

But that would be a mistake, and a missed opportunity. For the process ahead also promises to be exciting and rewarding, as long as we're willing to honestly confront some basic, unexamined assumptions and preconceived notions. That's the catch, of course: in order to make our way through the ideas housed within this book and networked within the Pathways Project in general, we're going to have to jump off the end of that proverbial dock and learn how to swim in a new and different environment. Only by relinquishing the relative safety of the stand-alone book can we start to understand how major media-types—oral tradition, Internet technology, and, yes, the book as well—really function. Only then can we then reorient ourselves and see how human communication actually works from a pluralistic, informed perspective (Citizenship in Multiple Agoras). Only by first letting go can we realistically recalibrate our thinking.

Culture shock can lead to acculturation. Or, to put it proverbially: no media pain, no media gain.

If you're ready to proceed, please turn the page to—or click on—Welcome to the Pathways Project (the book's Home Page) or Getting Started (Getting Started) and begin your journey.

Home Page: Welcome to the Pathways Project

The major purpose of the Pathways Project is to illustrate and explain the fundamental similarities and correspondences between humankind's oldest and newest thought-technologies: oral tradition and the Internet.

Despite superficial differences, both technologies are radically alike in depending not on static products but rather on continuous processes, not on "What?" but on "How do I get there?" In contrast to the fixed spatial organization of the page and book, the technologies of oral tradition and the Internet mime the way we think by processing along pathways within a network. In both media it's pathways—not things—that matter.

The Pathways Project consists of a website and a brick-and-mortar book, Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind. The website serves as the focal point for a suite of media that includes a network of linked topics (called nodes), suggested reading-routes through those nodes (called linkmaps), audio and video eCompanions (eCompanions), multimedia eEditions (eEditions), and eventually a moderated forum for user contributions.

To begin your journey, please turn the page or click on Getting Started (Getting Started).

Getting Started: How to Surf the Pathways Project

The Multimedia Project

What you're scrolling through on your virtual desktop or physically holding in your hands is in some ways a text, but it's also a great deal more than that. The Pathways Project departs from a stand-alone, linear text in two fundamental ways.

First, the online version of the Pathways Project consists of a network of linked nodes that presents the contents of the book but also adds many connections and opportunities that books just can't support.

Second, even the brick-and-mortar book entitled Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind is not simply a conventional text. It's a morphing book (Morphing Book), capable of being read in innumerable different ways.

In other words, you can surf the online facility or you can "read" the book, but in either case your experience will differ from the usual text-consuming scenario. More about those two options in a moment, but first a word about the general thesis of the Pathways Project.

The Homology

The goal of the Project is to explain and illustrate a central thesis—namely, that humankind's oldest and newest thought-technologies, oral tradition and the Internet (abbreviated throughout as OT and IT), are fundamentally alike. Hardly identical (Disclaimer), of course, but surprisingly similar in their structure and dynamics.

And how are they alike (Agora Correspondences)? Both media depend not on static products but on continuous processes, not on stationary points but on vectors with direction and magnitude, not on "What?" but on "How do I get there?" In contrast to the fixed, spatial linearity of the conventional page and the book, the twin technologies of OT and IT mime the way we think—by navigating along pathways within an interactive network.

In both cases, then, it's linked pathways—and not things—that matter. OT and IT don't operate by spatializing, sequencing, or objectifying. They don't fossilize ideas into freestanding museum exhibits (Museum of Verbal Art), as books typically do. Instead, they invite and require active participation and support a rich diversity of individual, one-time-only experiences. In place of the single, predetermined route typical of texts, they offer myriad different routes for exploration by engaging each user in nothing less than cocreating his or her own contingent reality (Contingency).

This built-in, rule-governed variability marks the crucial difference between the closed arena (Arena of the Text) of a textual script—what we'll be calling the tAgora (tAgora)—and the open, multiform environment of oral tradition and the electronic world of the Internet—the oAgora (oAgora) and eAgora (eAgora), respectively. Because of their inherent dynamics, both OT and IT are always in flux; they remain open, emergent, and forever under construction rather than closed, determined, and complete (Reality Remains in Play).

Key Terminology: o-, e-, and t-

Before we turn to the question of how to surf the online network and read the morphing book, let's add a brief note on terminology. Throughout both modes of presentation, we'll be using an extended version of web-speak to describe words, pathways, and other phenomena across the three agoras (Three Agoras). Thus oral words will be oWords (oWords), electronic pathways will be ePathways (ePathways), textual agoraphobia will be tAgoraphobia, and so forth.

Surfing the Wiki

Instead of wrestling with the built-in barriers of book technology and the tAgora, the online facility allows you to fashion a unique, individualized encounter with its assets by choosing among practically innumerable combinations of pathways. Instead of interpreting a monolithic text, you immerse yourself in a wiki, a collaborative electronic space where you can choose your route and contribute in various ways. In practical terms, you are responsible for molding the wiki's networked, interactive contents into your own personal experience. You are an active participant in charge of a process: you set the agenda and prescribe the itinerary. And your experience happens—actually takes living shape—even as you click through the network. Note that the Pathways Project wiki supports contributions—in Contributions1—but not direct editing of preexisting contents.


Here are four ways you can proceed:

1. Via the default method: "straight through." The Pathways Project wiki can be read straight through, so to speak, by following the alphabetical order given in the Full Table of Nodes continuously available in the left menubar. Mirroring the page-turning sequence of Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind (itself only one choice among myriad alternatives), this nominal sequence amounts to merely one of many potential routes through the network.

2. Via the three principal media environments. Another way to surf the wiki is to focus on one of the three principal media environments—the oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora—that lie at the heart of the OT-IT thesis and at the foundation of the Pathways Project as a whole. All three agoras are always accessible from the top menu-bar.

The oAgora is the word-marketplace (Agora As Verbal Marketplace) or the arena for oral tradition (Arena of Oral Tradition), the "place" where OT is performed for audiences. As demonstrated elsewhere (Homo Sapiens' Calendar Year), it serves as the site for humankind's oldest and most pervasive communications technology. The tAgora, next in historical succession, names the communications technology that involves the creation of texts as cognitive prostheses for thinking and exchanging ideas. The eAgora, or electronic marketplace, is of course the virtual world of the Internet and digital media. Today these technologies coexist in a complex array of media channels, a situation that the Pathways Project aims to represent as well as explain.

If you choose to start with one or more of these three major ideas, you can then proceed from that basic frame of reference to any other part of the wiki. (One radical advantage of this eTool is that you're offered numerous opportunities to explore related links at any and all points in your "reading.")

3. Via linkmaps. Linkmaps amount to suggested routes through the wiki network, particular sequences of ePathways that we have clicked through and found illuminating in one way or another. An example is the eWorld (Linkmaps), a series of nodes that leads from Leapfrogging the Text, to Museum of Verbal Art, to Resynchronizing the Event, to Systems versus Things. En route the surfer will have an opportunity to think about a textless world, the new-media landscape for literature and oral tradition, an ancient Greek myth of transformation, the re-creation of performance events, and communication without "things." What's more, the entire itinerary revolves around the core OT-IT thesis of the Pathways Project.

But that's just one option. Potential surfers may opt to follow this or some other predesignated pattern (any of which they can always exit at any point). Or they may choose to strike out on their own, fashioning their own experiences at every juncture—effectively creating their own linkmaps as they go. The freedom to explore and to construe is nearly absolute (Variation within Limits), and all we ask in return is that surfers consider the option of contributing their newly discovered itineraries to the Pathways Project linkmap digest as possible "guidebooks" for future users.

4. Via branches. All topic nodes contain multiple branches, links that allow navigation to other internal or external nodes related in some fashion to the particular idea under discussion. As with other aspects of the online facility, the choice of how to proceed rests with the surfer. You may decide to keep on reading past the branch or to "depart" the present topic node for another destination. Of course, the whole point of the online digital configuration is to erase the tAgora notion of departure and to image the pathways of OT and IT.

Here is a screenshot of the Pathways Project wiki with all of its features described simply:


A Brief Tour of the Pathways Project Home Page

[This section is intended most immediately for those of you who are interacting with the website, but may also serve as an incentive and guide for readers of Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind who wish to explore the website.]


The features described below appear on every electronic page and will follow you wherever you travel within the Pathways Project, always available to support your cocreative surfing.

Horizontal orange menu-bar

Here you have the option of creating an account to surf the Pathways Project website. You're welcome to surf the site without an account; it is free and open to anyone with a web connection and a browser. If you choose to establish an account, however, you can contribute linkmaps of your own design to our linkmap digest (for the benefit of others) and, eventually, offer comments, responses, and other reactions to the site.


Excerpted from Oral Tradition and the Internet by John Miles Foley Copyright © 2012 by John Miles Foley. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Miles Foley is William H. Byler Chair in the Humanities, Curators' Professor of Classical Studies and English, and the director of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He is the author or editor of twenty books, including How to Read an Oral Poem.

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