Blueprints and Circuits of Collective Authorship: Autopoietic Systems and Media Networks in Oral-Formulaic Theory

Adam Webb-Orenstein


The research on traditional oral composition conducted by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, presented in Lord’s The Singer of Tales, has been influential in, among other areas of study, the development of theoretical approaches to performance in the field of folkloristics and the formation of ideas about orality and literacy underpinning significant conceptual innovations in media theory, but the suggestion of this paper is that the reception of their work has generally missed the important mechanismic and nonlinear dimensions of oral composition elucidated by their findings. Employing analytical models not usually brought to bear upon Parry and Lord’s work, especially theorizations by Niklas Luhmann and Friedrich Kittler, this paper undertakes a reexamination of The Singer of Tales as well as some of the genealogies of scholarship in which it is embedded to propose an interpretation that foregrounds the emergent systematicity constitutive of oral tradition. Beyond a reconsideration of their treatment of collective oral authorship, the articulation of a systems theoretical reading of their project shows that Parry and Lord describe a communicative network for the reproduction of a traditional form that is routed through individual performers and bypasses any capacities that might be understood as creative or intentional. In doing so, it indicates both possibilities for the reassessment of folkloristics as a resource for media analysis and a new configuration for the cooperative mutual engagement of Luhmannian systems theory and Kittlerian media theory.


oral-formulaic composition; media technology; folkloristics; communication systems

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