Ramblings and Glitches in Oral Traditions

This week, as I took in the readings I was simultaneously in the Collaboratory messing with Crimson Hexagon, trying to get it to work for my purposes, trying desperately to get a dataset that was most interesting to my needs, trying to exclude the tweets I didn’t want, getting annoyed with my search for verses of the Qur’an online, because no matter how many times I thought I had figured out to get just quoted verses, or I had taken precautions to avoid the bigots spouting  racist diatribe against Islam, or those responding to them, I kept finding tweets that didn’t fit my needs.

And then of course, I keep stressing out and pulling out my hair as I’m trying to zero in on the overall point of this exercise— yes, I have a research question (more like several) that are fueling my overall efforts, but I keep worrying about how much I keep manipulating my own perception of the data in order to see what I wanted to see.

“In short, failure is a phenomenon to overcome, while a glitch is incorporated further into technological or interpretive processes.” (27)

I want to see glitches.  But the failures keep piling up.  A glitch, as Menkman says, “refers to a not yet defined break from a procedural flow.” (27)  And this is exactly what I want to find.  Where is the break in the flow from oral or aural text to written to digital to short-without-context tweets.  I want to see the shift in experience of the Qur’an on social media, on Twitter specifically, perhaps Facebook, or even youtube.  I want to see what happens when certain verses make it to the online platform while others don’t.  When certain translations make it and others don’t.  When certain voices dominate.  When the essence of the Qur’an and its esoteric meaning/flow is disrupted, but somehow reaches a much larger audience than ever before at greater speed and regularity.    But I can’t help but think, perhaps this idea of glitch doesn’t quite work with oral traditions.  Perhaps oral traditions don’t really care about glitch.

The stuff I’m reading right now, about the compilation of the Qur’an, hadith, and Arabic poetic traditions seems to think so.  The readings criticize the Western focus on accuracy, seeing this as being irrelevant.  For religious texts, this may sound ludicrous.  And it kind of is, I suppose.  But maybe not so much.  Menkman writes “The first encounter with a glitch comes hand in hand with a feeling of shock, with being lost and in awe. The glitch is a powerful interruption that shifts an object away from its flow and ordinary discourse, towards the ruins of destructed meaning.” (29)  When looking at the Arabic poetic tradition, there are constant glitches or even failures according to this terminology, in that little was written down, and therefore the poems themselves would be retold, “rewritten,” re-mediated even, sometimes even “improved” upon, sometimes made worse, catered towards different locales, and therefore became living things.  The glitch that would disrupt this normal flow of things then, is when the primarily oral tradition comes into a head on collision with the dominant written culture, or the need for written culture, so that the oral tradition won’t die out.  Could I say then, that the glitch in the data I’m looking at is that it has been re-contextualized and re-mediated so much that the oral tradition of Qur’anic recitation itself has been infringed upon, disrupted to a certain extent.  People are learning the proper recitation (tajwid) through youtube videos and websites rather than with a teacher.  People are reading the Qur’an, or at least taking in bits and pieces of daily inspiration through twitter accounts and chopped up verses that sound nice.  Is modernity itself the glitch in the oral traditions of Islam?  Perhaps I’m going way too off the deep end here… I feel like I’m rambling.

“A glitch is the most puzzling, difficultt to define and enchanting noise artifact; it reveals itself to perception as accident, chaos or laceration and gives a glimpse into normally obfuscated machine language. Rather than creating the illusion of a transparent, well-working interface to information, the glitch captures the machine revealing itself.” (29-30)


According to the quote above, maybe modernity and social media aren’t the problem.  Maybe the Qur’an via Twitter is actually allowing the “machine [to reveal] itself.”


My project (and career in academia) is still coming together, or falling apart depending on  how you read this rambling piece, but perhaps the fogginess in my own thoughts is merely setting the stage for clarity:


“Noise turns to glitch when it passes a momentary tipping point, at which it could  tip away into a failure, or instead force new knowledge about the glitch’s techné, and actual and presumed media flows, onto the viewer.” (31)


I’m thinking this quote means there is a real purpose, perhaps even potentially incredibly interesting end to my project.  Or perhaps, and excuse my language, I’m just writing convoluted and unecssary bullshit and I need to shape up.

Ramblings and Glitches in Oral Traditions

Overcooked Data

Gitelman’s idea of “raw data” being an oxymoron and the various degrees of which it can be cooked has taken me backward historically in my research area, rather than what I thought would be the case— looking at the digitizing of Islamic literature, and the Quran in particular.  The various cooking methods have gotten me to think about its status as a purely oral text for the first many years of its existence, which then transitioned back and forth between written and oral forms (while remaining primarily oral) until about twenty years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, when the Caliph Uthman began the process of collecting and canonizing the chapters of the Quran into the version we have today (most scholars agree to this narrative).

If this is the case, the text itself was “generated” (not “discovered”), according to Islamic tradition, in a pure “raw” form through an oral transmission to the prophet over a period of years form the angel Gabriel.  The only true raw form of it can then only be the recited word, which makes sense given the emphasis and importance on this quality of text and its place in the lives of Muslims who pray five times a day, reciting these words aloud or in their own heads.  After revelation it was then taught to Prophet’s companions who memorized the text in its entirety.  Even here there is a certain stage of “cooking” that occurs in terms of the order of the Quran, because the version that is accepted today was not compiled chronologically according to the order of revelation.  The memorizers of the Quran continued the oral tradition and recitation, sometimes with small portions written down as memory aides (the first time that Quran was ever turned into text), until the compilation began under Uthman’s caliphate.

Fast forward many years and the Quran has turned into cassette tapes, cds, audio files, digital versions for computers and smart phones, etc.  The number of forms it takes add different layers to the “cooking” process, sometimes taking the oral component into account and sometimes not.  If we can refer to the original recitation as “raw data” then what we have now has been cooked too many times to count (not even mentioning translation)— which is usually fuel for some scholars (usually from the West) to question the authenticity and/or completeness of the holy book.  In any case, both articles we read this week have got me thinking about whether or not it is truly possible to experience the Quran in a truly raw and uninterrupted way.  Gitelman mentions the lack of objectivity in machines when reproducing pieces of art, and I wonder whether the current way in which most Western Muslims in particular who get their religious literature through bits and pieces on their phones or through social media (twitter handles and memes devoted entirely to spreading inspirational and life advising hadith or verses of the Quran), regardless of the “aggregate quality of data,” are receiving tiny pieces of data so overcooked it is perhaps impossible to grasp the actual essence of the message, which is already an esoteric and lifelong endeavor.

And here’s a recitation by a world famous reciter, there are so many things happening around her interfering, talking over, and muffling the text— that I hardly think “raw” is the right word for this bit of data.



Overcooked Data