Navigating Labyrinths of Expression

Foley, John Miles 2012: Oral Tradition and the Internet. Pathways of the Mind. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. xv + 292 pages.


Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind is nothing less than brilliant. The book is a printed counterpart to the Pathways Project website. As the title suggests, oral tradition as a social phenomenon is placed in dialogue with social phenomena on the internet, comparing oral and electronic technologies. By doing so, Foley draws attention to fundamental patterns that underpin human expression and communication between these quite different media. This is an exemplar of how different perspectives and frames of reference are able to produce new knowledge. The work has a strong theoretical emphasis. This might sound intimidating, but it is written in a relaxed, conversational style that is engaging, easy to follow, and a pleasure to read. At the same time, Foley plays with abbreviations that are quite transparent but which transform the texture of discussion in a way that shakes up the expectations and assumptions that we as readers might bring to the text. This includes the abbreviations OT for oral tradition and IT for internet technology, which I will adopt here and refer to Oral Tradition and the Internet as OT & IT below.

The Book and the Pathways Project

OT & IT presents a somewhat abridged version of the texts on the Pathways Project website, omitting most images and some other features while converting hyperlinks to endnotes. The website also has the capacity to evolve: it is a wiki with gatekeeping (requiring login). As Foley puts it: “the book is meant to house the core theory in a familiar, default format, while the online resource offers more materials, additional options for exploration, and the built-in possibility of growth” (p. 21 /

OT & IT and the website seem to have reciprocally structured on another. The website includes nodes customary to a book medium (“Preface”, “Dedication”) while the book has a “Table of Nodes” rather than a table of contents. It opens with the main nodes from navigation bars of the website (“Home Page”, “Getting Started”, and so forth) with an added node “For Book-Readers Only”, which “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” (p. 1). These nodes serve as an introduction, guiding the reader into the medium with a familiar linear progression of nodes/chapters. At the end of the book there is a list of further reading and a valuable index. The body of the work is comprised of other nodes of the website organized alphabetically, a structure that prompts the reader to proceed in a non-linear fashion, following the links of cross-references as an active explorer.

I found the structuring of the text in this way both enjoyable and practical. Interestingly, I had browsed a few nodes of the Pathways Project previously but the printed book could hold my attention as the webpages could not. A central theme of OT & IT is how we engage with different media: my own attention span is quite short for reading webpages (as opposed to articles in pdf with the verisimilitude of printed pages), and I will surf through two or three pages of a website, read sentences and paragraphs here and there before moving on; the printed book, on the other hand, is something I could sit down with an enjoy reading rather than surfing. The organization of the nodes leads to a sometimes active, sometimes arbitrary movement between constituent texts. This is similar to surfing the internet, but the book contains all of these possible nodes in a physically defined artefact with a presence that occasionally reminds you to pick it up again. In this respect, I found it more like the scientific equivalent of an alternative novel organized as a dictionary than a website. The short texts and ease of movement between them made OT & IT very easy to pick up and put down. I found it especially suited to reading while commuting and travelling.

Modelling Three Media Environments in Dialogue

OT & IT places not two but three media environments in dialogue: oral discourse, printed written discourse and discourse via electronic media. A great deal of attention is given to the ideology that structures the (re)production, reception and variation of texts of each media. Many of the strategies and tools used by Foley here can be recognized from earlier works. In other respects, however, he leaves those earlier works behind and builds something new. He introduces pseudo-proverbs such as “OT and IT work like language, only more so” (p. 191, original emphasis / There are numerous illustrative anecdotes, such as how Foley learned the culturally appropriate way to order a cup of coffee in a foreign oral environment. Concrete illustrations work to make the theoretical side of discussion transparent to the reader. Some of the key terms that have become established in OT research through Foley’s work, such as register and performance arena, are not used here. Instead, Foley develops a new vocabulary and shorthand in order to talk about similarities and differences in the three major media environments, providing the reader with a new toolbox of terminology for analysis.

The new lexicon combines the development of a new vocabulary with systems of abbreviation. In addition to the abbreviations OT and IT is a letter-coding system that is used to differentiate the three media: o = oral; t = (printed) textual; e = electronic. Building from established conventions of using e- in terms like eEdition, eArchive and eCompanion, these letter-codes are used as prefixes through the work. This strategy produces new specialized terms like oPublication and tAuthorship. On the one hand, this coding of terms helps “emphasize the disorientation” of moving outside familiar frameworks of book culture and the terminology used there. On the other hand, it enables Foley to develop a complex yet accessible technical vocabulary for talking about differences between language and variation across these different categories.

Citizenship in Verbal Marketplaces

The analytical vocabulary of OT & IT is used in relation to a complex metaphor. Foley takes up the Greek term agora, denoting a physical marketplace, and puts it into service as a term for “a verbal marketplace, a virtual site for exchange, a public space and nexus where ideas and knowledge are shared via whatever medium the community has adopted as the default technology” (p. 40, original emphasis / This use of agora overlaps with what he earlier referred to as a performance arena when addressing OTs. A performance arena is not a physical arena, but a socially constructed frame of reference associated with certain contexts, situations or practices for the production and reception of preformed texts and behaviours. Thus the performance arena of South Slavic epic or of Karelian lament is the particular set of expectations for the linguistic and para-linguistic behaviours and the frameworks for their interpretation. The term agora is, however, used more broadly: the oAgora can be inclusive of all speech behaviours or oral media. The term can also be calibrated to refer to the oAgora of Karelian lament (equivalent to its performance arena) or the oAgora of ordering lunch at a bistro in France (equally associated with competencies and expectations). It is also possible to talk of the eAgora in general or of the eAgora of Facebook, Twitter or Wikipedia. The marketplace metaphor is advanced by addressing interactions in terms of transactions, and the currencies of exchange for the three agoras are described as oWords, tWords and eWords, respectively. This sets up a single common, consistent framework for discussing and comparing these diverse media.

Bringing especially traditional OT culture into correlation with IT culture presents a significant challenge in the difference of communities involved. It can be practical to talk about cultural competence when addressing speech behaviours of the oAgora but communities formed in the eAgora are often transcultural. Foley navigates this difficulty by focusing on media-based competency. This is described in terms of belonging to an agora as a ‘citizen’: “To belong to an agora as a citizen in good standing is like belonging to a culture. The marketplace feels native, and you can transact your business fluently – without hesitation and without conscious adjustments and recalculations.” (P. 52 / The metaphor of citizenship for competence seems quite fruitful, for example when discussing different types of ‘dual citizenship’ (like tCitizenship and eCitizenship without oCitizenship), ‘agoraphobia’ (the fear of marketplaces) and ‘culture shock’ as the metaphor is extended.

Viewing OT through IT and IT through OT

Foley’s comparison of OT and IT phenomena of expression, exchange and sharing involves identifying points of comparison and viewing each through the models for understanding the other. This leads to a dialectic of changing perspectives which is extremely fruitful, for example in the case of ‘distributed authorship’. This concept is equally applicable to a Wikipedia article and a traditional oral epic, even if there are formal differences: the former is enabled through a wiki prosthesis that maintains the evolving, multiform article as an objective entity in the eAgora; the epic is maintained through social practice as an intersubjective, multiform entity in an oAgora. However, the vision behind OT & IT has a scope that may prove challenging for some readers to follow.

The IT web is so vast, complex and lacking in materiality that it is difficult to conceive beyond the limited perspective of our personal, customary interfaces with it. It may therefore be challenging to conceptualize this as a metaphor for viewing OT as a distinct web of technology and resources. Similarly, the ‘pathways’ of the Pathways Project and mentioned in subtitle of OT & IT are the links and networks connecting the nodes of each respective web. This model of pathways is extended to viewing traditional narrative plots in terms of linkmaps and reciprocally looking at surfing the web, in which the surfer can be seen as an active co-creator, as a type of performance. These levels of analogical comparison require reflection to process. For example, surfing in the sense of a recurrent activity or behaviour may not seem like performance if one is not consciously communicating. In practice, however, surfing is also a form of reciprocal communication: Facebook lets you see how many friends have viewed a post whether or not they ‘like’ it; for every hit, lets you know the country of the surfer and usually the site linked from; in the world of cookies, the pathways you surf become data that is reciprocally used to shape the pathways of the internet. Time will tell how productive Foley’s analogy proves for the study of IT phenomena of the eAgora and which of the tools provided in OT & IT are taken into wider use. However, I have no doubt of the significance of this work and its contribution to the study of OT and the oAgora.


Docent Frog is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Folklore Studies, University of Helsinki.