BMCR 2014.01.41

Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind

, Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind. Urbana; Chicago; Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2012. xv, 292. ISBN 9780252078699. $30.00 (pb).


Ancient Greek epics composed by oral poets and the hyperlinked networks of the Internet share something fundamental. According to the late John Miles Foley of the University of Missouri in his posthumously published book, Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind, both oral tradition and Internet technology involve navigating through “linked networks of potentials” (17) that, far more than the experience of reading the fixed text of a published hard copy book, replicate the actual thinking processes of the human mind. That is, oral tradition, exemplified in the Homeric poems and still carried on by, among others, Basque and Sardinian poets (33-35) who compete in oral poetry competitions, bears a striking resemblance to that most up-to-moment of technologies, the Internet with its seemingly infinite, interconnected panoply of web pages, wikis, social media sites, et alia.

The reason for this unexpected affinity lies in the techniques that poets use to compose their poems and in these texts being orally transmitted via live performance, before a community of listeners. Similarly, our use of the internet, whether we are surfing through webpages or posting texts in the form of blogs, tweets or status updates on the “ eAgora ” is, Foley writes, a communal and shared experience. But a “brick-and-mortar book” does just what is said about writing in Plato’s Phaedrus (275D-E), silently and always indicating “only the same thing.” The words in a text or “ tWords ” have an “inertness and detachment from real-time” and are “vulnerable to wholesale reconstrual and outright misinterpretation” (240).

These ideas are at the heart of Oral Tradition and the Internet. Foley seeks not only to identify and explain what he sees as correspondences between media technologies ancient and modern. The book is itself set up to “mime” the sorts of cognitive pathways that Foley sees both oral poets and Internet users as engaging in (17).

Oral Tradition and the Internet is meant to be “morphing book” (146-149) in which a reader can flip back and forth and back again amid linked nodes ” rather than proceeding through page after page of a book structured in a linear fashion, the default mode of printed media. It was created to accompany the Pathways Project ”, a website at that is intended as a “focal point for a suite of media.” The site contains more nodes and images than the book, which is “ meant to house the core theory in a familiar, default format.”

It is no easy task to convey, via the static format of a book, the pathways that are intrinsic to oral tradition and characteristic of the activity of using the Internet. One way Foley attempts to do so is via terminology more often encountered on a website; Oral Tradition and the Internet does not have chapters but the aforementioned nodes, arranged alphabetically as they might be in a website’s site index. To simulate the links in a webpage, Foley inserts the names of various nodes in parentheses, to point the reader elsewhere just as digital webpages built with HTML contain links that, on clicking or tapping, lead us to yet more virtual spaces. In a preface, Foley emphasizes that the book need not be read as a traditional book, going from page 1 to 2 to 3 etc. in sequence; rather, the reader is invited to flip from node to node. The reader also encounters a number of abbreviations (oral tradition = OT, Internet technology = IT) that recall the neologisms (OS, UX) that have become part of our everyday speech, reflecting the dominance of technology in our daily activities.

Since Oral Tradition and the Internet is a book not a website (and this is, indeed, a book review rather than one of the site), the attempt to replicate the web-surfing experience in book form is by definition impossible. The interconnectivity that Foley seeks to create in his “morphing book” (which is, of course, a physical object) can feel two-dimensional in comparison to the ease and immediacy with which we access websites. The limitations of the book as medium are repeatedly noted by Foley. He takes great pains to define and delimit the three media technologies of o ral tradition, the printed t ext of a book and the Protean morphing made possible by e lectronic media. To this end, there are nodes about oWords, tWords and eWords; about the oAgora, tAgora and eAgora, to show how different media – an oral performance of a poem, the fixed words on a page of a book, the hyperlinks on a webpage – offer alternate, and in some cases overlapping, cognitive experiences. If oral tradition and the Internet are Protean and in flux (66-67) and ever able to change shape based on the occasion, Oral Tradition and the Internet rather resembles Proteus in chains.

Foley is hardly the first to create a written text that seeks to replicate the workings of the Internet. There are other books that, to some extent, recreate the Internet’s “hyper-intertextuality-and-connectivity” such as Anne Carson’s 2009 Nox with its assemblage of documents and images; a number of hypertext novels appeared in the 1990s as well as works like those by Donna Leishman that invite a reader to choose her or his own path through the narrative by interfacing with a website. Straightforwardly aligning the workings of the Internet with the oral poetics of Homer and other “singers of tales” is Foley’s specific contribution and not surprisingly, in view of his being an authority on comparative oral traditions, the founder of the journal Oral Tradition and of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition at the University of Missouri. Oral Tradition and the Internet ’s Further Reading reflects this; texts about oral traditions, writing and literacy predominate.This includes several books about the cultural and cognitive shifts that have occurred and that are occurring as we turn less to printed matter and more to digital media for information, for education, for entertainment, for communication (e.g. Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia and Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity). One is intrigued to consider how Foley would have extended the discussion of his ideas about the homology of oral tradition and internet technology vis-a-vis scholarship in digital humanities, such as the work of Sherry Turkle on our relationships with technology and of David M. Berry on digital media and software studies.

In Foley’s book, the Internet is a force of good, enabling democratic discourse and sharing, all while fostering relationships and links among people in far-flung places. But, as we have too often been learning, the Internet is as often a tool to aid and abet questionable activities as well as beneficial ones. Oral Tradition and the Internet offers a sanguine and optimistic view of the web that does not grapple with the many new problems that have risen as a result of electronic technology: cyberbullying, the still-unfolding NSA spying scandal, online pornography, concerns about privacy and the use of personal and medical information by social media sites such as Facebook and many more. The very features of the Internet that Foley extolls – its openness, the freedom of expression and participation it allows, the phenomenon of cloud storage – are precisely those that make it liable to be used for untoward ends.

To ask a book to do more than it does is to return to Foley’s own point about the limitations of print media. We are fortunate that Foley, along with his extensive oeuvre about comparative oral traditions, left us with one more work and especially one that reminds us that, in a digital age, Homer is not simply relevant but could be called the ghost in the machinery of the Internet. As the student of Classics learns time and again, everything old is new again.