Oral Tradition / Internet Technology / Digital Technology

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4fc6e644e3757b27e27b826d7d5e84d6 Sarah Zurhellen 1 post(s) To take on Oral Tradition and Digital Technology as a discussion topic feels overwhelming, which is perhaps the best sign of the richness of this relatively new area of study. In very practical ways, digital technology has aided those working in the field by increasing both the amount of data they can collect and the speed at which they can collect and disseminate that data. For those with access to the Internet, opportunities are multiplying both to share oral traditional performances and to view them. And, of course, each new tool raises far-ranging questions from the efficacy of a particular methodology to the authenticity of the performance experience for audiences separated by many miles or years.

Some of the most compelling responses to the questions raised by the emergence of digital technology and its relationship to oral tradition come from scholars who examine structural and functional similarities between these different (and not-so-different) modes of communication. For example, in the Pathways Project, John Miles Foley illustrates the primary connection between oral tradition and internet technology as communication technologies that “mime the way we think.” Because OT and IT are comprised of flexible systems that operate by variation within limits, communication is structured by recurrence rather than repetition, which Foley associates with the print tradition. The flexibility of OT and IT—in contrast to the stable structure of print communication—means that communication in these arenas is fluid and dynamic, governed by the idiomatic rather than the institutionalized.

Relatedly, Thomas Pettitt has popularized the phrase “Gutenberg Parenthesis” as a kind of grammatical metaphor for thinking about the time period during which print ruled the day. According to Pettitt, this period is distinguished from the pre- and post-parenthetical periods during which other modes of cultural production are privileged. Like Foley’s pathways, the parenthesis is a generative metaphor because it highlights the way in which what happens during what we might call the print blip affects not only what comes after but also how we interpret and think about what came before. Pettitt’s metaphor, however, emphasizes the way we interpret historical transition, whereas Foley’s metaphor of the pathways focuses on structural similarities in cognitive processes. Nevertheless, both scholars are clear in the distinctions they draw between OT/IT/DT and the print tradition: OT/IT/DT are participatory, emergent, recursive, and mobile, while print is hierarchical, contained, repetitive, and stable.

Morgan Grey’s contribution to the Pathways Project is one particularly productive illustration of some of the elements identified by Foley and Pettitt. Focusing on the practice of recombination as one strategy in a system based on variation within limits, Grey compares the South Slavic Epic, in which the “guslar composes his poem [within a predetermined story line] as he performs,” the late Roman/early Medieval cento, a poem completely formed from pieces of other poems, and the contemporary Mashup, in which artists “mash” two or more songs together to create a new piece of music. Like Foley and Pettitt, Grey emphasizes that she is outlining a set of parallels, not making a totalizing equivalency. The parallels that she draws suggest that recombination is an important strategy for innovation and creativity. Grey’s example also raises questions about the way that print-based ideologies restrict recombinatory practices. For instance, while copyright supports mass production (or, mass copying—repetition), it significantly regulates sampling. Such examples raise questions about the way that available mediums affect cultural production and invite us to consider creativity as a collaborative human activity.

It is in that spirit that I hope this brief overview helps to prompt a fruitful discussion on the ways that we study, perform, share, and interpret our oldest and newest communication technologies. Some possible avenues I see for this discussion include (but are certainly not limited to) the following:

  • How do economic and legal systems affect cultural production in OT, DT, and print worlds? And, conversely, how do certain forms of cultural production affect the economic and legal systems with which they interact? In other words, is it possible to consider that changes in the medium of cultural production can influence parallel changes in other modes of production?

  • What are the nuances of materiality in these traditions? As Peter and Rebecca have been considering in
  • another ISSOT forum, moments of transition (from OT to print to DT) seem particularly fraught with fruitful contradictions from which we might glean all kinds of ideas about what and how we communicate during times of intense language change.

  • How might the emerging and interdisciplinary field of cognitive studies contribute to what we know about OT/IT/DT strategies? How might OT/IT/DT scholars contribute to cognitive studies research? Quite literally, what is the relationship between thinking metaphorically about pathways of the mind and actually mapping those pathways?

  • In addition to the Internet and mashups, what are other digital technologies that use strategies similar to OT? For instance, where does “electronic literature” fall within these parallels? Should we call it literature if it’s not print? What about content management systems? Conversely, what digital communication technologies seem to more accurately mirror print, and what does that say about our continued commitment to print practices? Blogs come to my mind, but perhaps there are others.


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