Return to an Oral Tradition of Public Performance

Knowledge and performance are inextricably intertwined. All knowledge is communicated through performance of some means, whether staged, organic, live or textual. Necessarily then, the concept of public performance is similarly intermeshed with communal knowledge. Our collective heritage began with verbal, communal performances of knowledge and it appears that we are returning toward a similar disposition: communal performances of knowledge. What is yet to be seen is to what degree it will be verbal. With advances in telepresence technology, it is becoming an ever more imminent possibility.

The concept of an oral tradition is steeped in the interweaving of an individual’s knowledge and the community’s knowledge. The communal knowledge does not continue to exist if it is not performed and many such performances were by an individual. The communal knowledge persevered through the individual’s memory. Before written language, public performances were necessarily based in an oral tradition, “folktales, sayings, ballads, songs, or chants [made it] possible for a society to transmit oral history, oral literature, oral law and other knowledges across generations without a writing system, (” Performances were originally knowledge sharing exercises that were heard, memorized and shared, all through the spoken word, relying solely on an individual’s auditory memory and recall. The entirety of our knowledge base -histories, rituals, and other important information- was passed on verbally. An individual conveyed the communal knowledge.

John Miles Foley, Professor of Classics and English at MU who has been investigating oral tradition for over three decades would argue the “evolutionary fallacy” the idea that

“oral evolves to written” and “written evolves to electronic” are fallacies traceable to the ideology of the text. If we model our understanding of all verbal commerce on a singular creation attributed to a singular author and consumed by a singular audience (one-by-one), then the necessarily plural identity of performer(s) … and audience(s) will appear primitive and underdeveloped.

Written did evolve to the electronic, but –despite being unavoidably text based in that computers speak in the binary language of 1s and 0s- electronic is no longer exclusive to text. Electronic has long since broken free of the binds of text. Online public performances have come a long way since the nascent linear, textual chat rooms that was the origin of the internet. Public online performances now include photography, video (live and recorded), and even increasingly telepresence.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that his Pathways Project ( works to illustrate the interconnectedness between various modes of memory and performance.

An individual conveying the collective memory was perpetuated with the advent of the written word. We no longer had to rely on fickle human memory, instead we entrusted our memory to paper and performances were read, memorized and shared either orally (publicly performed) or textually (read, often to oneself). The majority of knowledge was conveyed via singularly authored texts. Public performances -of all media- were often primarily singularly authored texts, even if a community performed them. This singularity of memory persisted through the evolution of the written word. Communal knowledge, once vested in individuals, with the advent of writing was first preserved in books and then in individual computers.

Public performances on computers originated necessarily as solely textual, and while many remain so, advances in technology have provided the means for internet based public performances to become more verbally oriented, if not entirely oral, “live”, performances.

One thing that changed drastically with the advent of the internet was that public performances now had the ability to be exclusively text based, whereas text based previously implied nonpublic. The internet is reviving the oral tradition. At the base level, it is promoting collective knowledge that is shared and passed on in a public performance by the individual. Anyone can access any information, but it is tantamount to the original oral approach of many individuals working together to retain the collective memory. This idea of many individuals actively storing the collective memory includes living individuals remembering as well as individual computers storing information in their hard drives. Unlike living memory, however, individual computers can be linked together creating a networked memory, eliminating constraints of location, time and space: memory can be stored in The Cloud.

“When an often-told oral story is not actually being told, all that exists of it is the potential in certain human beings to tell it (Ong).” I would argue that with our collective memory being more and more relegated to The Cloud in one way or another, that modern often-told stories/performances exist in the potential for human beings to access it and by doing so, perform it.

Walter Ong, Professor Emeritus at Saint Louis University and has studied the evolution of consciousness extensively, makes the point that

secondary orality is a type of interpersonal communication that is neither classically oral nor literate, and has been made possible entirely through modern communication technologies…this communication is now instantaneous, so despite its use of the written word, it allows for transactions to be nearly as cyclical as orality; thoughts and ideas are repeated and revisited several times, instead of simply being stated once, as in literacy (

So the oral tradition of performance “wells up out of the unconscious” as Ong puts it (81), is stored collectively in individuals and is performed publicly which in turn allows it to be stored by new individuals and thus perpetuates the cycle. Following this logic, the internet is facilitating the same mnemonic. Performances of all media, both oral and text based are performed publicly online and become archived in individual computers, allowing it to later be performed publicly again by an individual either online or offline. Individuals performing offline allow the performance to be retained only in other individuals, while online performances are not only cached in living individuals, but additionally stored in other individual computers, which can then be accessed further: as cyclical as orality.

Furthermore, as Ong argues, “Oral cultures were additive rather than subordinate, closer to the human life world, and more situational and participatory than the more abstract qualities of literate cultures (”  In this way, too, the internet is promotes community memory over mere historical record. By the use of wikis, the most notable being Wikipedia, the community –with a self-moderated system of checks and balances- creates and updates archives of memory, which is by definition communal memory.

The ability for thoughts and ideas to be repeated and revisited several times and the additive nature of the internet create a mode of public performance that is daily more and more similar to oral tradition than it is to literary forms of performance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.