Oral Tradition / Internet Technology / Digital Technology
|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 â€œmime the way we think.â€ 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 ITâ€”in contrast to the stable structure of print communicationâ€”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 â€œGutenberg Parenthesisâ€ 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 Foleyâ€™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. Pettittâ€™s metaphor, however, emphasizes the way we interpret historical transition, whereas Foleyâ€™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 Greyâ€™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 â€œguslar composes his poem [within a predetermined story line] as he performs,â€ the late Roman/early Medieval cento, a poem completely formed from pieces of other poems, and the contemporary Mashup, in which artists â€œmashâ€ 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. Greyâ€™s example also raises questions about the way that print-based ideologies restrict recombinatory practices. For instance, while copyright supports mass production (or, mass copyingâ€”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: