Oral Formulaic Composition and Associative Linking in John Miles Foley’s Pathways Project: A Review

By Rudolf Ammann

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This is a pre-print of a peer-reviewed article published in Literary and Linguistic Computing.

John Miles Foley (1947 — 2012) was an eminent scholar who studied three traditions of oral poetry: Ancient Greek, Early Medieval English, and South Slavic. He both spearheaded the institutional establishment of oral tradition as an academic field and its popularisation through public engagement.

In 2002 Foley published a popular book, How to Read an Oral Poem,which introduces an analogy he would subsequently pursue at great length: ‘the singer’s and the audience’s experience of an oral poem is more like a web-surfing expedition than a forensic examination of a textual corpse’ (2002b, p.221). Foley based his last major work, the Pathways Project, on this analogy, spending the last seven years of his life exploring the ‘fundamental similarities between humankind’s oldest and newest thought-technologies: oral tradition and the internet’ (Foley 2005b).

Foley undertook the Pathways Project among a number of other web projects he initiated in the final decade of his career. To ‘deepen and enrich’ (Foley 2002b, p.xii) the ideas in How to Read an Oral Poem, he complemented the book with a web-based ‘e-companion’ (Foley 2002a) offering ‘materials that don’t fit comfortably between the covers of a conventional book’ (Foley 2002a), such as audio recordings. Foley also reworked his scholarly edition of The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey (2004), a South Slavic oral epic recorded in 1935 by Milman Parry, combining digitized audio with a transcription and an English translation, and making them freely available on the web (Foley 2005c). In addition, he founded the Center for eResearch at the University of Missouri (Foley 2005a) and moved the scholarly journal Oral Traditions to an open access model (Foley 2006).

In 2005 Foley launched his Pathways Project with a public blog (Foley 2005b) whose posts he converted to a richly cross-linked wiki within two years of setting out (Foley 2007). He first posted an overview of the project’s themes as an 11,000-word article titled ‘Navigating Pathways: Oral Tradition and the Internet’ (2008). The book version, Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind (2012) appeared posthumously, with the wiki staying online as an alternate version of the project (2011b).

As the Pathways Project’s central proposition, Foley maintains that the ‘close correspondence between oral tradition and the Internet’ (2012, p.138 — 9) is defined by the activity of ‘navigating pathways’ (2012, pp.15, 19, 39, 138, 180, 258). The analogy suggests that both oral tradition and the web are a network of potentials, and that the act of performing an oral poem and of browsing the web both amount to a particular, contingent activation of the potential that inheres the respective network.

Foley supported ‘the cause of the nonspecialist’ (2002b, p.ix) and therefore addressed many of his works to a general readership. In discussing the ramifications of his analogy, he mostly avoids technical terminology and instead makes up a profusion of extemporaneous jargon patterned after Apple’s iDevices, chiefest among them the terms oAgora, tAgora and eAgora (2012, p.41) as shorthand notations for the cultures, respectively, of oral tradition, of literacy, and of the web, which are his three main points of comparison.

If Foley first used his analogy innocently, by way of promoting the ancient art of oral poetry among a contemporary general readership, he self-consciously advertises its elaboration in the Pathways Project as a ‘provocation’ (2012, p.xiii; 2012, p.26). He provides no discussion of the project’s intellectual lineage, yet it is this lineage which offers the clearest perspective on the analogy it proposes and the provocation it intends to deliver. The following review of the Pathways Project assesses the nature and limitations of its ‘provocation’ by contextualising it in the two intellectual lineages it tacitly intertwines: oral formulaic composition theory and the preoccupation with associative links in the early hypertext literature.

Oral Formulaic Composition Theory and the Web

In his academic career, Foley eschewed orthodoxy and pursued a research programme which ran counter to the dominant intellectual currents of his day. Declaring his ‘independence, for better or for worse, from any of the modern critical schools’ (1991, p.xiii), he embraced the theory of oral formulaic composition, which the pioneering scholars Milman Parry and Albert Lord, starting the in the nineteen-twenties, had developed from their work on Homeric and Serbo-Croatian poetry.

Parry and Lord’s oral formulaic composition theory takes a structural view of oral narrative poetry and maintains a keen focus on ‘compositional process rather than textual product’ (Edwards 1983, p.152). Its core analytical concepts deal with ‘generative patterns and variation within limits’ (Roth 2010), meaning extemporized creation from formulas and variation across different performative instantiations of materials within the same tradition. According to the theory, the oral poet performs a narrative while working from a ‘grammar’ (Lord 2000, p.36) of basic formulas and exercising ‘the ability to compose and recompose the phrases for the idea of the moment on the pattern established by the basic formulas’ (Lord 2000, p.5). In linking such formulaic sequences, variation is ‘the rule in oral composition’ (Lord 2000, p.203). The theory is structuralist in its view of oral composition as a ‘transformational system’ (Edwards 1983, p.154).

Foley considered Parry and Lord’s theory to be ‘pathbreaking’ (1995, p.xiv), and spent his career expanding it into an internationally acclaimed, interdisciplinary approach through his tireless efforts towards building its infrastructure: He published an introduction and annotated bibliography (1985), he founded and directed both the academic journal Oral Traditions (Foley 1986a) and the Center for the Studies in Oral Tradition (Foley 1986b, p.167); he also wrote a history and methodological guide (1988), as well as a popular textbook (1998), and he founded the International Society for Studies in Oral Tradition (Foley 2010).

The analogy Foley proposes in his Pathways Project between oral tradition and the web turns on the tacit assumption that the core analytical concepts of oral formulaic composition theory — generative patterns and variation within limits — are applicable to the web: the activity of browsing the web is assumed to be analogous to a performance of oral poetry because the activity invites description under oral formulaic composition theory’s core concepts.

Foley thus hails the web as a ‘flexible, rule governed environment of variation within limits’ (2012, p.164) since the ‘finite array of choices’ (2012, p.164) offered by its hyperlinks are the equivalent of oral-formulaic composition theory’s generative patterns, supporting ‘rule-governed morphing’ (2012, p.207) in the recurrent activity of browsing. Foley’s idea of recurrence as the ‘governing rule’ (2012, p.210) of web browsing recasts oral formulaic composition’s generative formulas as ‘idiomatic response to a recognized scenario’ (2012, p.210), resulting in ‘variation within limits’ (2012, p.263 — 269) rather than the fixity of printed texts.

Foley also tacitly holds up the core analytical concepts of oral formulaic theory as a standard by which to measure literate culture and by which to find it wanting. The fallacies he alleges literate culture to succumb to are an ‘illusion of object’ (Foley 2012, p.125 — 127) and a corresponding ‘illusion of of stasis’ (2012, p.127 — 130). Upon inspection, these two presumed fallacies turn out to be the failures of print technology to conform to oral formulaic theory’s two core analytical concepts. In diagnosing literate culture’s ‘illusion of object’ (2012, p.125 — 127), Foley castigates the culture for its fixation on product rather than process, for its inability to support generative patterns. In diagnosing the ‘illusion of stasis’ (2012, p.127 — 30) he critiques print as a technology whose fixity does not allow for variation within limits.

2 Associative linking and the Critique of Literate Culture

Oral formulaic composition theory is not the only lineage from which the Pathways Project descends. Foley describes the defining elements of the web in use as ‘rule-governed flexibility, variation within limits, and cocreation’ (2012, p.164): if the first two items in this list reiterate the author’s commitment to oral formulaic composition, the third item derives from the early hypertext literature. As Foley explains, a network of ‘multiform possibilities’ (2012, p.237) needs to be navigated in order to activate these possibilities: ‘only in the act of speaking or clicking do potentials produce unique instances’ (2012, p.237). Foley believes that such navigation inherently amounts to a creative act and ‘means cocreation’ (2012, p.21). Thus, oral poets and web users ‘are cocreating the experience and cocreating meaning’ (2012, p.62) in the act of choosing a particular path through the network of an oral tradition and, respectively, of the web. In this, Foley offers a variation on a dominant theme of early hypertext literature: user empowerment through associative linking, of autonomously chosen paths through a network of documents.

The idea of the reader’s ‘participation in the creation of narrative’ (Wells 1997, p.150) has been advanced in the early hypertext literature most visibly by George Landow, who observes that thanks to hypertext’s feature of associative linking, ‘readers, rather than writers, control the materials they read and the order in which they read them’ (1992a, p.70). Consequently, Landow argues that hypertext ‘blurs the boundary between author and reader’ (1992a, p.70), so that the ‘reader is a reader-author’ (1992b, p.117) or ‘wreader‘(1994, p.14).

Such empowerment of the reader through associative links is commonly treated in the early hypertext literature as ‘the essential feature’ (Bush 1945) of hypertext, liberating its users from the ‘straightjacket of ink on paper’ (Collier 1987, p.271), and allowing readers to enjoy ‘a revolutionary kind of aesthetic freedom, which supposedly renders the reading of printed texts outdated in comparison’ (Wells 1997, p.150). Accordingly, Landow proclaims himself ‘leery of hierarchical or linear models’ (1992b, p.25) and commends hypertext’s network topography as a ‘rejection of linearity in form and explanation’ (1992b, p.24). He further asserts that this topography both highlights the ‘confinements of our literate culture’ (1992b, p.29), that it defies conventional ‘notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text’ (1992b, p.33), and that it thereby erodes the ‘power of the linear model and the book as related culturally dominant paradigms’ (1992b, p.29). Foley follows Landow and equally challenges ‘the default medium of the linear book and page and all they entail’ (2012, p.2). Denouncing literate culture at large as an opprobrious ‘ideology of text’ (2012, p.117 — 125), he claims that the web obviates the ‘one-way street of linear sequence’ (2012, p.18) and that it can ‘defeat the primacy of textual code’ (Foley 2011a).

Both Landow and Foley bring their respective academic discipline to the critique of literate culture as formulated in the early hypertext literature. Landow, in his ‘portrayal of deconstruction as hypertext prophecy’ (Aarseth 1997, p.84) does so explicitly: he promotes a reading of post-structuralist theory as ‘a normative attack on the limits of a specific communication technology (printing)’ (Aarseth 1997, p.84). Foley’s strictures against ‘ideology of text’ are rendered in the analytical categories of oral formulaic theory and may even be inspired by the theory’s latent animus against fixed text and memorisation, which are believed to sound the ‘death knell of the oral process’ (Lord 2000, p.137). Yet Foley’s proposition of a ‘close correspondence between oral tradition and the Internet’ (2012, p.138 — 9) is substantially a refurbishment of Landow’s signature claim that hypertext amounts to a ‘convergence of critical theory and technology’ (1992b, p.27), with oral formulaic composition standing in for theory: If Landow explicitly brings his expertise in post-structuralist theory to support the case of associative linking as user empowerment and as critique of literate culture, Foley deploys oral formulaic composition to support the same case — without, however, acknowledging that he is doing so. Foley cites an instance of the term ‘pathways’ in Homer’s Odyssey as his project’s inspiration (2012, p.158), but the substance of his pathways concept is identical with the concept of associative linking, and he presents it with the same enthusiastic claims about user empowerment with which associative linking is discussed in the early hypertext literature. Thus, the ‘provocation’ Foley intends the Pathway Project to deliver is provocative to the same extent that the provocations of the early hypertext literature still manage to provoke.

A Natural commons transcending materiality

In his Pathways Project, Foley not only endorses the benefits of associative linking, he also embraces the assumption, widely propagated in the early hypertext literature, that these benefits derive from hypertext’s ability to ‘support more “natural” interactions’ (Dillon 1996, p.26), and that, consequently, it ‘better accommodates to the way the mind works’ (Landow 1992b, p.14). Believing that associative links ‘mime the way we think’ (Foley 2005b; 2012, pp.5, 8, 19, 24, 188), Foley supports his proposition of a ‘natural homology between humankind’s first and most recent communications technologies’ (2010) with the claim that ‘the inimitable power and efficacy of navigating through networks’ (2012, p.269) derives from the ‘natural dynamics’ (2012, pp.38, 271) of associative links, whose ‘natural variability’ (2012, p.90) and ‘natural flow’ (2012, p.261) he presumes to be antithetical to the unnatural ‘cognitive and technological prosthesis’ (2012, p.239) of literate culture.

Foley takes this ‘naturalistic associationism’ (Dillon 1996, p.26) into legal and ontological territory. For one thing, he maintains that the web’s ‘natural ecology’ (2012, p.185) is a universal pre-legal commons. Given the web’s ‘shared pathways’ (2012, p.133) and its ‘truly interactive transactions’ (2012, p.90), there are ‘no true authors anywhere to be found’ (2012, p.89), so the web is ‘textless’ (2012, pp.9, 29, 152, 204, 237) and authors ‘as individual creators of original, unique, objectifiable, and usually published works — simply don’t exist’ (Foley 2012, p.88). Consequently, ‘the burden of “protecting their work” can’t fall to them’ (2012, p.88). Foley defines the web’s natural state in opposition to the ‘agreed-upon illusion of legally defined owning’ (2012, p.184) and in agreement with ‘the open sharing that fuels oral tradition’ (2012, p.184), maintaining that both oral tradition and the web thrive by ‘conducting their business very much in the public domain’ (2012, p.131). Foley believes that in both oral tradition and on the web ‘owning just isn’t a viable category’ (2012, p.253), so he rejects any copyright provisions as naturally inapplicable to the web. This stance extends to Creative Commons licensing, which he denounces as having ‘no utility’ (2012, p.90) and being ‘ideologically driven’ (2012, p.90) as an expression of the ‘ideology of the text’ (2012, p.174). Going far beyond the tempered, conventional critique of literate culture’s propensity to ‘exaggerated notions of authorial uniqueness and ownership’ (Delany & Landow 1991, p.16), Foley asserts that it is the web’s nature which renders all copyright arrangements inherently meaningless.

Ultimately, Foley’s concept of naturalness rests on an ontological distinction. The subtitle of the book, Pathways of the Mind, which suggests both oral formulaic composition’s formulas and early hypertext theory’s naturalistic associationism, implies a contrast between mind and matter. When Foley frames his criticism of literate culture as ‘systems versus things’ (2012, p.237), when he proclaims that it is ‘pathways — not things — that matter’ (2005b), and when he pits the ‘objectlessness of interactive surfing’ (2012, p.91) against literate culture as an accumulation of ‘fixed, warehouse-able items’ (2012, p.182), he suggests that after oral tradition, the web now takes its natural place as ‘another “thing-less,” non-item-based medium’ (Foley 2012, p.185). In construing the immediacy of the web’s hyper-references as its immateriality, Foley bases his project on the quasi-religious belief that in their presumed emulation of the human mind, both oral tradition and the web transcend the materiality with which any culture is inseparably conjoined.

Normative idealism

Foley’s proposition that an activity as mundane as browsing the web should be analogous to an act of artistic creation in oral poetry, even while rendered in the core analytical terms of oral-formulaic composition, amounts to a refurbishment of the enthusiasm for associative links and user empowerment in the early hypertext literature. This enthusiasm is ‘understandable’ (Hayles 2007) within its original pre-web context but fails to be compelling from a contemporary perspective, in which it appears ‘obsolete’ (Liu 2004, p.63), ‘extravagant’ (Hayles 2007), and impossible to ‘resuscitate’ (Gitelman 2008, p.130). Especially, the presumed empowerment afforded by associative links will ‘remain at the level of speculation’ (White 2007) at best; at worst, it is a ‘purely ideological term, projecting an unfocused fantasy rather than a concept of any analytical substance’ (Aarseth 1997, p.51). Moreover, the belief that associative links are natural in their emulation of human thinking is supported only by ‘superficial or weakly articulated cognitive perspectives’ (Dillon 1996, p.28 — 9). Thus, Foley’s edifice rests on the shifting sands of highly idealistic theorising.

Foley spent his academic career studying oral tradition at close range. Yet his attempt at extending oral formulaic theory to the web is characterized by the lack of any corresponding fieldwork: In his account of the web as a natural ecology, Foley dismisses copyright provisions without any regard for their actual use and widespread observance throughout the actual medium. Just as Foley’s critique of literate culture turns on the application of oral formulaic theory’s criteria as normative standards, his account of the web as a public domain commons is normative rather than descriptive, an idealistic fantasy rather than a factual observation.

Neither is the non-materiality which Foley invokes as the web’s ulterior defining feature a realistic perspective. Information is ‘never disembodied’ (Hayles 1999a, p.83). Yet Foley, going beyond counter-cultural predictions that hypertext would facilitate a ‘liberated existence’ (Landow 1992b, p.33), turns to the notion that hypertext transcends the ‘stubborn materiality of the text’ (Delany & Landow 1991, p.4) and spins the ‘illusion that information is separate from materiality’ (Hayles 1999b, p.94) into a tale of redemption.

Foley’s proposition of a congruence between oral tradition and the web in which the respective cultures ‘operate like matched bookends’ (2012, p.131), bounding off the reign of literate culture on either side, is a utopian grand narrative of redemption in which the status quo of literate culture is disrupted by a resurgent oral tradition. This grand narrative is an non-historical yarn, an ‘alternate mythology’ (Foley 2012, p.263) with very little use as a research programme. Web history is still an ’emerging and unclearly defined field’ (Brügger 2010, p.1), yet it seems safe to to predict that future search in the field will derive little inspiration from Foley’s admixture of oral formulaic theory with the concern for associative links in the early hypertext literature, even if Foley recommends such a mix as a ‘heuristic’ (Foley 2012, pp.xii, 26) suitable to provoke further exploration.


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