Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation
Today's reading: Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, p. 3-106
The "Gutenberg Galaxy"
Marshall McLuhan, who was actually interested in what television was doing to us, posed the question: does the introduction of books make us think differently?
In its raw form, the question is very hard to take seriously. Maybe you like to think of yourself as a biological and genetic being, posessing varying amounts of genius or skill; or maybe you like to debate about 'nature' vs. 'nurture' or insist what God didn't give us, our mothers and teachers and society will. But this isn't what McLuhan was worried about.
McLuhan's question, which is also Elizabeth Eisenstein's question, is not about you or your individual potential. When he says "do books change how we think?" the 'we' is something like "western culture" or "Europe and Canada" (McLuhan was Canadian). McLuhan wants to know if 'our' culture-- and hence we as individuals-- would be different if we didn't have print. He called this period, from 1450 to the 1960's the Gutenberg Galaxy.
Of course, even 30 years later, it seems outdated, since you download your papers in Portable Document Format and search Oracle databases for books and read texts on Palm Pilots or print out fascimiles from a $100 printer. Indeed, some have taken to calling the present age the "Turing Universe".
Eisenstein on "Print Culture"
Eisenstein's book is a historical answer to McLuhan's provocation-- and as with all scholarship it turns out to be much more complicated than McLuhan thought.
Eisenstein is a historian, and wants other historians to approach the history of printing with a certain attitude: like the fish in the ocean. We are surrounded by books and tools for using them. From "card catalogs to page proofs" it is hard for us to notice that we live in a world of books, like the fish doesn't notice the water. Books and printing had become so natural that Eisenstein wants to de-naturalize them.
What came before print?
Features of Print:
Eisenstein does not focus on the purely technical aspects of print, such as metal type, wooden blocks, or oil-based ink. Instead she is interested in the effects that follow after printing itself becomes relatively stable.
Dissemination: Means more
texts in more places.
Standardization: standard images, texts, spellings, notations.
(Standardization is not automatic, but enabled by print.
In some cases, it even leads to strange uses.
Rationalization, Catloguing and Indexing:
Improvement and Corruption.
Fixity: Cumulative Change, stability, "print culture".
Much is Preserved when little is Written.
A concern arose over the stability of books: paper was weak and tended to disintegrate, books were fragile. Only by distributing them very widely, could their persistence be assured.
An interesting implication: Print is associated with the spread of democracy. Thomas Jeffrerson's quotation.
"Ceci tuera cela."
From Eisenstein, 1983.
|Christopher Kelty Last modified: Tue Jan 28 17:22:12 CST 2003|