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"E-companion” and Oral Tradition Protection

— an Interview with John Miles Foley


  CSSN Reporter: Gloria Special Presenter: Chen Tingting

  Photo: Zhang Guochan Video Production: Li Xiaowan

Guest: John Miles Foley is Professor of University of Missouri, Director of Oral Tradition Center of University of Missouri. He is also an expert in American oral formulaic theory, as well as founder of academic journal “Oral Tradition” (1986).

Presenter: Mr. Foley, nice to meet you again! Thank you very much for participating in our brief interview today and we generally have two questions. The first question is that you talked about the “e-companion” in your lecture yesterday and we really want to know what kind of suggestion you have on the construction of “e-companions” in China, because they could be extremely useful in safeguarding and preserving the oral traditions.

Mr. Foley: Well, the e-companion or the electronic companion is something we developed because we felt that studying oral traditions only through the book was the wrong way to do it. It is very ironic that we would study for all those years and put down our thoughts on paper or in a book when the oral tradition is of course the living reality – it is not dead in the book. So we try to think how we could use the new medium to help to represent the oldest medium (that is still an important medium): oral tradition. And we decided that first we would use the electronic companion as a supplement. So instead of just talking about ballads or customs or rituals or epics, we could have an audio or photographs taken during the performance or video of the performance. And all of that could be connected or linked to the presentation in the book, so that we could have the best of the printed textual world in the book or paper and we could have the best performative multi-media in the video, audio, or photographs. So we really begin with using the e-companion as a supplement to a book,and the work integrated with the book and with the website. So now the oral tradition is online; this is very important. The e-companion and the texts of the articles are together online, so anybody who comes to the website is able to get them both, and is able to experience them both together instead of apart. You have such richness in China with all the minority traditions and all kinds of oral traditions within each minority tradition. Thus it seems to me the e-companion could be an ideal kind of strategy for understanding them. It is very important to think of practical considerations when you think of the e-companion. You should make sure that people can use them easily. So we have to make a decision now: would we take enormous video files now and put them online in the article? Well, no! Because some people didn’t have a fast enough connection to download the video to their computer. So in that case, we have a big e-companion file, and we have a link within each article and then it is not on the server but in a separate place. If the person decides to read the article, the e-companion is linked halfway through. So you can go and read the article while waiting for e-companion to download. So I think that is very important. Another suggestion might be to think about the rights – how you have to deal with the knowledge, the source, and make sure you have permissions from the performers and all the rest of that. And if the performer wants to put any restrictions on it – who can view it, or when they can view it, or how they can view it – so you have such richness, and you have no shortage of materials. You have the opportunity to do something really remarkable. And maybe one more thing: to think of the best ways to make that research available diachronically to the whole world. That is the mission of our center – not to charge people money and not to make it difficult for them to get materials, but to do everything we can to make it user-friendly and easy to get to. In that way, you get much more reaction too. We get quite a bit of reaction to our e-companions through special email addresses, or people will tell us their reaction and send it; this is very helpful, too.

Presenter: So that is reciprocal. You give them free access which is free of charge and they give you reactions. That is a process of mutual benefit.

Mr. Foley: Exactly! That is a very good way to put it: reciprocal and mutual benefit. That is right. That is why I think we need to do better in the world than in the past. With the new media we can do better than what we have done.

Presenter: The second question is about the Pathways Project. Could you please give us a brief introduction about how the Pathways Project works and what kind of role it plays in the international oral tradition research?

Mr. Foley: The Pathways Project begins about 7 years ago with a blog, and I had this idea that it would be plausible to compare oral tradition and internet technology and I was looking for ways to illustrate my belief that they work in similar ways. Oral traditions and internet technology function in a similar way and they are both different from texts. Again we get back to the question that texts don’t do a very good job in representing oral traditions. So in trying to invent the Pathways Project, I had one idea, which first was to compare oral tradition and internet technology as having the same fundamental dynamic, and that is to navigate networks. Now simply put: we don’t think like this – going line by line and then turning the page and then another page and then going to another chapter – that is not the way we think. We think by navigating all possible options. That is why I’m convinced that the oral tradition and internet technology are much more the way we naturally think than texts are. Texts are very convenient, and they are very economical, because they get you from one point to another very quickly and they don’t let you think this way or that way or consider other possibilities – just go right through, and you are done. That can be useful, but that is not the way we think. The way we think is by navigating, just the same way as on the internet. So the first idea was to compare the two technologies and the second idea was to represent that kind of dynamic in the project itself. When you go to the project, there is no one way to read it; there is no one way to understand it, as you can in a book. The project consists of two parts: the first, the book; and the second, the website. But the book is not a usual book; it’s not a normal book. I call it a “morphing book”, or a “changing book”, because even though you can read it – page one, page two, page three, page four – you can also read it in many other ways: migrating from here to there, and there are different connections in the book. You can explore, and you don’t need to do it the same way each time, either. On Tuesday, you can do it in one way, and on Wednesday, you can start from another place, go to a different place. All of those, if we did it right, will make sense. And so it demonstrates the fact once again the knowledge that we accrue, the knowledge that we learn and the knowledge that we make our own, we take responsibility for, we are making that knowledge too, we are co-creating what we do. So the book illustrates that to a degree. But the book is after all still a book, so that is why we have the website that called the Pathways Project and it is free and open to the public. In that way you can move through all the linked web of the Pathways Project in any way you like. And it is electronically very much easier to understand that you have different pathways, different possibilities – today you can start here; tomorrow you can start there; perhaps you have only thirty minutes today; perhaps you have two hours tomorrow; and you can use the time in many ways as you wish. And it prescribes, it links the responsibility to understand equally with the person who is doing the surfing, and not just with the person who built the website. So, where does the idea come from? It’s an old idea. It comes from approximately the 8th century BC. Probably long before that, but the first record probably comes from the 8th century BC from an ancient Greek oral poem of Homer. And Homer in book 8 of his Odyssey, when he is describing what makes a good singer, doesn’t say the singer has a strong voice; he doesn’t say the singer has good memory; he doesn’t say the singer has a large repertoire of epics. What he says is that the singer knows many kinds of pathways. So he has already in the 8th century BC grabbed the idea that we think by negotiating networks, that we think by finding our way through this linked web of potentials. And this is of course before the internet – millennia before the internet. But it is the core of what the singer does for Homer. So the Pathways Project tries to examine the correlation between the oral tradition and the internet technology. And it consists of some very small parts – most of them are extremely small, just 2 to 5 pages – on different topics are linked in a kind of universe, and they are linked together for people to explore. So what we do then is to offer them the small universe and say: make it what you will, and understand it in a way you would like to understand it. And we are very happy to have them do it then.

Presenter: Do you think there are any other media which are better than the internet to represent the oral tradition and the way it works?

Mr. Foley: At the moment, no. But who knows two years from now that there won’t be something else? I make the real distinction when I talk about internet technology – the real distinction between the static files and the internet, the interactive files on the internet. So if we have a document, let’s say, a newspaper, and it is on the internet, and it is not interactive – you just go and read it. That is much like buying a newspaper and reading it, as if it were an object. But in interactivity, you go back and forth and you are constantly making decisions about what you are going to do and you are reacting to what you see, just the same way as a singer reacts to his audience – trying to see that these people are interested in this or not; this person wants more detail over here and I can tell them a really interesting part of the story and I can expand that a little bit; get to another part of the story, you are not interested, that’s ok, I will make it a little smaller constant interaction. I think that is what’s happening in internet exploration, too. The internet is coming into existence during my lifetime – you know, you don’t even remember when it wasn’t available – but to see that change happens, to understand this represents all sorts of new possibilities, even though for some people it is forbidding; some people are still a little bit worried about the internet and so on. But if you read the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, you will find out that he felt the same way about writing. New technology is someone’s suspicion, and we are not quite sure how it works. Some people, mostly older people today, feel the same way about the internet. But in a sense we are returning to our origins; we are returning to the most basic way of thinking. And I think if you would explain things to people in that way, they would feel much more comfortable.

Presenter: OK, thank you very much for your enlightening answers and for participating in our interview.

Mr. Foley: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.








Editor: Du Mei     Source:Chinese Social Sciences Net     2013-12-23 02:51:00

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