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Oral Tradition 20.2 (2005) 233-263

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From Oral Performance to Paper-Text to Cyber-Edition

University of Missouri-Columbia

A performance is not a text, no more than an experience is an item or language is writing. At its very best a textual reproduction—with the palpable reality of the performance flattened onto a page and reduced to an artifact—is a script for reperformance, a libretto to be enacted and re-enacted, a prompt for an emergent reality. I start by recalling this self-evident truth because our culturally sanctioned ritual of converting performances into texts submerges the fact that in faithfully following out our customary editorial program we are doing nothing less radical than converting living species into museum exhibits, reducing the flora and fauna of verbal art to fossilized objects. In a vital sense textual reproductions become cenotaphs: they memorialize and commemorate, but they can never embody.

Even the seemingly neutral and innocuous terminology associated with the performance-to-print ritual bespeaks its underlying process and goal, if we pay attention to what these terms really imply. Oral traditional performances are collected, that is, caught and imprisoned in the anthropologist's or folklorist's game-bag via inscription on paper, acoustic media, or video media. Lest they wriggle away, these performances are in effect euthanized, stripped of the dynamism that characterizes their living identity in preparation for mounting on the game-hunter's wall. Then come transcribing and editing, the initial stages in textual taxidermy, as scholars, now thankfully removed from the messiness of the original performance arena and comfortably ensconced in more clinical surroundings, render synthetic order unto the chaos of what once was a multi-dimensional, context-dependent experience. With publication the trajectory is complete: representing the organism as a one-dimensional textual photograph [End Page 233] completes its transformation and permits its inclusion in a culture's anthology of epitomes.

And what licenses this reduction, this ritual sacrifice of the once-living performance? Viewed soberly and without the "cultural cover" (the unspoken defense of "business as usual"), this is of course an abhorrent, indefensible practice. It is in fact nothing less than uncivilized, since it undertakes the forcible colonization of a vast and highly diverse category of human expression, all in the name of subordinating its differences to our imperial notion of what verbal art must be and how it can be understood and represented.1 Although modern-day anthropology has put the lie to the myth of objective observation and recent methods of literary analysis have de-emphasized production in favor of a deeper consideration of the role of reception, scholars have been slow to recognize what is in some ways a more obvious, more patent, more fundamental problem: the unthinking, transgressive imposition of textuality upon an unsuspecting "nation" of oral performances.

The Challenge and Prior Solutions

Let me reframe the substance of these observations as a challenge to be confronted in the present essay, using the case of South Slavic oral epic as illustration. In seeking to represent oral performance with as much fidelity as possible, we are charged with the task of understanding, exporting, carrying over, and re-creating as much of the reality of the experience as we can. The edition that results must theoretically be useful and informative for specialist and nonspecialist "consumers" alike, and it is well to keep in mind that many such performances—South Slavic epic among them—will be unfamiliar in subject, context, and even story-line to the majority of those consumers.

For present purposes I will pass over the earliest editorial projects that sought to represent South Slavic oral epic, in particular the noteworthy nineteenth-century collection of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić,2 and concentrate [End Page 234] briefly on the latest series of edited volumes, Serbo-Croatian Heroic Songs (SCHS), the official publication of the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature at Harvard University.3 In terms of fidelity to oral performance, this project has certainly broken new ground. At the level of fieldwork, the research team of...


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