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Between OT and IT

A visit with John Miles Foley, Professor, Departments of Classical Studies and English

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: English teaching Homer french literature

Ever since the third grade, when an assistant principal generously offered to teach him and two classmates French, John Miles Foley has been curious about how languages work. His epiphany occurred while riding back from school: “I can remember, on the way home, I looked up at a tree and said to myself, ‘My gosh, the French don’t mean the sea and code it as la mer, they mean la mer and we code it as the sea!’” This small insight eventually prompted Foley to recognize the necessity of construing the world through diverse perspectives, and later to realizing that language is always embedded in culture. “Without understanding that embedding,” he adds, “you couldn’t possibly understand the languages.”

This line of thinking inevitably led to oral tradition, which the W. H. Byler and Curators’ Professor of Classics and English at MU has been investigating for over three decades. It will surely be a lifelong journey, for the field far outstrips written literature in size, diversity, and social function. In fact, all the written literature we have, Foley is fond of saying, “is dwarfed by oral traditions.” Moreover, despite our “ideological fixation” on texts and print, “the communications technology we call oral tradition” is “a much more fundamental technology.” It’s been with us for most of homo sapiens’ existence, whereas writing was introduced only relatively recently (circa 3200 B.C.E.).

In light of this fact, Foley cautions that we must approach oral traditions differently from how we approach written texts. Of the eighteen books he has written and edited, How to Read an Oral Poem (2002) offers a methodology for approaching oral traditions while paying attention to crucial aspects such as performance, audience, structure, and specialized language. An oral poem doesn’t stand alone, Foley explains. Like a single star that makes up part of a larger constellation, “any performance (or item of oral poetry) is incomplete without the continuity of its tradition.”

Foley wrestles with this idea in many of his books, especially Traditional Oral Epic (1990), which examines the structure of three epic traditions (ancient Greek, early medieval English, and South Slavic) in order to show that, from poetic lines to scenes to whole stories, everything depends on generative patterns and variation within limits. Another influential book, Immanent Art (1991), likewise seeks to explain the special idiomatic meaning associated with the structures of oral poetry, a kind of traditional art made possible by code-sharing between performers and their audiences.

But it’s another book that Foley describes as particularly dear to his heart. Focusing in depth on one particular instance of oral poetry, The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey as Performed by Halil Bajgorić (2004), together with its online electronic edition, attempts to place a South Slavic epic back into its oral and aural context. That is, you can download an mp3 from the website and hear Halil Bajgorić sing the entire song (about 90 minutes long), originally recorded on aluminum records as long ago as 1935 in what is today Bosnia. While listening to this action-packed epic that recounts a wedding and a great battle, you can follow the lyrics in either the South Slavic original or its English translation. When you come across a word or idiom you don’t understand, you can simply click within the hypertext to bring up commentary and cultural context in a designated box on the same electronic page.

While The Wedding also exists in conventional paper format, its presence on the web is truer to the 75-year-old performance. Whereas the book chops up the performance into little pieces, segregating them for the sake of creating a physical book, the eEdition reintegrates the isolated parts. Though it can’t reproduce the original performance context, the electronic facsimile takes an important step in the right direction of “resynchronizing the performance” of oral poetry.

That the eEdition is offered free of charge to the online community also conforms to the philosophy of the two centers that Foley directs—the Center for the Studies in Oral Tradition (founded in 1986) and the Center for eResearch (founded in 2005)—in the notion “that knowledge, art, and ideas should be shared freely, democratically, and that barriers of price and distribution should not exist.” Intellectual inquiry, especially in a field like oral tradition, should involve anyone who wants to participate, anywhere in the world, he believes.

If The Wedding won the Modern Language Association of America’s biennial award for the most important scholarly edition in 2003 and 2004, Foley’s current Pathways Project is surely on a similar trajectory. Appropriately, he explains that the idea for this latest venture took root from within oral tradition itself (to be precise, from the Greek word oimai): “When Homer is talking about what makes a good singer, a good bard, a good epic poet, he doesn’t praise his voice, his memory, or his large repertoire. Homer observes that oral poets know the many oimai, the many pathways. In other words, they know how to navigate the web of the oral tradition.” It’s not because they have memorized things, Foley clarifies, but because "they know how to get there,” how to navigate the route-system.

Aligning the technologies of OT (oral tradition) and IT (Internet technology), Foley found a counter-intuitive similarity between the way oral poetry works and the way the Internet works. In both cases, “we use pathways, or links,” he explains, that “lead us to certain places, and every time we make a choice, that generates a constellation of other choices. We make a second choice, and then another constellation appears.” For that reason, you can’t really plan too exactly in advance, he says, making this “navigate-as-you-go” process an emergent, always developing experience, “happening in real time, right now, with full attention.” The Pathways Project examines the radical correspondences between these twin technologies of thought and communication—the one old, the other very new.

When it’s finished, Foley will have published his nineteenth paper book, Pathways of the Mind (forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press), yet he believes the web-form of the Pathways Project will explain the OT-IT analogy more vividly. The underlying premise of the electronic version, he explains, is that “texts are, in a way, artificial cognitive prostheses.” Paper texts function to constrain and distort as well as to communicate. However, according to Foley, the web mirrors oral tradition, and navigating through networks—whether OT or IT networks—mimics the very way we think.

In regard to brick-and-mortar books, Foley remarks that, for all of their advantages, “we’re used to being led by the nose.” From this perspective, he explains, “a text is a falsification of reality. Reality doesn’t read one way. Reality reads many ways.” For example, he criticizes the recent decision by the German publisher Bertelsmann to publish the 25,000 “best” German Wikipedia entries as a paper book on an annual basis. “That totally misses the point,” he observes, noting that the strength of Wikipedia derives not from its fixity and stand-alone qualities but rather from its adaptability, updatability, and multiple linkages. “You can’t do any of that in a conventional book,” he adds. “They’ve taken Wikipedia and robbed it of 75% of its power. Whereas they think they’re epitomizing it, they’ve in fact degraded it.”

In this spirit, the goal of the Pathways Project is to avoid linearity and offer viewers/surfers more than one set of pathways through the material. Unlike paper books, the Project website requires readers to continually make decisions about what kind of journey they will take and how they will get there. This approach is “much less predetermined and far more interactive, emergent, and performative,” Foley explains, just like oral tradition itself.

Paper books have other limitations beyond their linearity. Once a book is printed, for example, it cannot change. Even Pathways of the Mind, designed as a “morphing book” that can be read in multiple, perhaps infinite different ways, will eventually “come to a screeching halt” when it is printed. The e-version, on the other hand, will continue to live on and evolve. Unlike the paper book, there will be no copyright, no end date, and no final version. That network-based limitlessness reflects the natural way humans communicate “in a cumulative, ongoing sense. Textual ideology aside, our ideas are always under construction."

This philosophy informs all of Foley’s ongoing projects, including the 2006 relocation of the journal Oral Tradition (which he founded in 1986) from the original paper format to its rebirth on the web. The decision to put the journal online responded to a demonstrated need, that is, a lack of accessibility to the printed form that disenfranchised a great many scholars and students internationally. The current distribution systems for journals, charges Foley, “are clogged by artifacts” and costs that inhibit the flow of information to people. “We wanted to take advantage of the web, to promote what we think is important in the democracy of learning and sharing. And so we migrated the journal to the web and made it free, so that now anyone with a browser and a connection to the Net can have all 25 years and 10,000-plus pages of the journal.”

By simply eliminating this media-based constraint on the sharing of information, the readership of Oral Tradition dramatically increased when it went online (last year it had nearly 40,000 non-identical readers). Adding to this success, the journal now receives submissions from a remarkable diversity of places around the world, and thus helps create a more level playing field for studies in oral tradition while contributing to the democratization of learning.