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Of course, even 30 years later, it seems outdated, since you download your papers in Portable Document Format and search Oracle databases for books and read texts on Palm Pilots or print out fascimiles from a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?
How was scriptural writing different?
How did printing make life different?
Does print make people think differently?
Eisenstein's project is historical, but it might also be called 'historical anthropology' since it deals with the social character of knowledge and the nature of how particular humans have organized particular kinds of thoughts.

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.
The comparison of texts made easier, combination and quick thinking made easier.
Leads to both trustworthy and untrustworthy knowledge: Tycho Brahe and Hermes Trismegistus.

Standardization: standard images, texts, spellings, notations. (Standardization is not automatic, but enabled by print. In some cases, it even leads to strange uses.
Does standardization make people more aware of individual difference?

Rationalization, Catloguing and Indexing:
Alphabetical Order
Method and Topic (Ramism)
Laws and Statutes
Does order change thought?

Data Collection: Improvement and Corruption.
Eisenstein suggests that Manuscripts steadliy deteriorated, were copied incorrectly, and were therefore untrustworthy. Is this necessarily contradicted by print? Some printers and copy-editors were more trustworthy than others. Trust still determined by social networks.

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."
Does the Book destroy Memory?

p. 35-7

Active vs. passive reading of books (Is the the book a repository of knowledge? Or is it, like the birder's field guide, a hand book, an inspirational book, a proof, a commentary or even (consider the wicked bible: a dangerous artifact etc.)

Individual vs. Social Memory: A struggle between the necessity of apprenticeship (learning from others) and the possibility for auto-didacticism (teaching onself). The network of knowledgeable people (experts and gentlemen) who teach and discuss with each other vs. the individual genius or the inspired or lucky person.

Knowing a fact in common with others vs. knowing it alone: What does it mean to "agree" about a fact or about truth? Such a question has implications for ethics: what 'we' expect someone else to know, or what 'they' expect us to know depends on which community of knowers we belong to. How might scriptural culture and print culture affect this?

Books of Nature and Books of Men: print and the scientific revolution

A Myth? There is a fable of the scientific revolution that many people still like to tell, it goes like this: In the Medieval era, the theologians and the scholastics were in charge, and all they knew about the world came from books and from arcane and theological arguments about God. Then a handful of Great Men came along (variously, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, etc.) and the observed the world around them instead of the world of books, and hence forth, natural science triumphed.

One simple reason this is not quite true is that all of the new breed of natural philosophers (scientists) were easily as well if not more well read than the Medieval scholars. They read as many "books of men" as they did "books of nature". Not only that, but as we have seen, the Medieval and ancient world also saw nature itself as a book (the book of life or the book of nature).

Another difficulty is that it is impossible to identify any thing or set of things that mark a fundamental break with the past. Print only serves to explain the speed and scale of the change.

A question does emerge, however: Does the increased ability to circulate, compare and rewrite make people more likely to pursue knowledge about the world? Is the change in the number and accessibility of books sufficient to help people do better or more or different research?

The Press
	      Descends from Heaven

From Eisenstein, 1983.


Some Concepts:

What is the difference between:

  • oral vs. scriptural vs. print culture
  • writing vs. publication
  • copying vs. reprinting
  • technological determinism
  • social change
  • causality vs. narrative
  • historical proof: textual, scriptural, archival, theoretical
  • individual vs. social character of knowledge
Christopher Kelty
Last modified: Tue Jan 28 17:22:12 CST 2003