Performing the Scholarly Monograph in Contemporary Digital Culture

6.1 From Orality to Fixity?

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In line with the general discourse surrounding the history of the book I discussed previously, the main debate concerning the development of fixity focuses on whether a book can ever be defined as a stable text; and, if so, whether this quality of stability and fixity is an intrinsic element of print—or in a lesser extent of manuscripts—or whether it is something that has been imposed on the printed object by historical actors.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 As I established earlier, Eisenstein is a proponent of the former view. She sees standardisation and uniformity as properties of print culture, properties that were usually absent in a predominantly scribal environment (1979: 16). Where Eisenstein emphasises the fixity brought about by printing in comparison to the scribal culture that preceded it, Ong meanwhile focuses more on the relationship between orality and literacy, specifically on the differences in mentality between oral and writing cultures. The shift from orality to writing, he argues, is essentially a shift from sound to visual space, where print mostly had effects on the use of the latter. Writing locks words into a visual field—as opposed to orality where language is much more flexible (Ong 1982: 11). In oral culture, language is fluid and stories are adapted according to the situation and the specific audience, knowledge being stored in mnemonic formulas of repetition and cliché (Ong 1982: 59). With writing these elaborate techniques were no longer necessary, freeing the mind for more abstract and original thinking (Ong 1982: 24). For Ong, it is thus writing and literacy that are inherently connected to fixity and stability: he argues that scientific thinking is also a result of writing, for instance.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Eisenstein, however, emphasises that fixity could only really come about with the development of print. Hand copying of manuscripts was based on luck or chance as the survival of a book or text depended on the shifting demand for copies by local elites, on copies being made by interested scholars, and on the availability and skills of scribes. Copies were also not always ‘identical’ or identically multiplied, as hand-copying often led to variants in the text copied (Eisenstein 1979: 46). No manuscript at that time could thus be preserved without undergoing corruption by copyists. Long-term preservation of these unique objects also left a lot to be desired, as the use of manuscripts lead to wear and tear, while moisture, vermin, theft and fire all meant that ‘their ultimate dispersal and loss was inevitable’ (Eisenstein 1979: 114). Although printing required the use of paper, which is much less durable than either parchment or vellum, the preservative powers of print lay mainly in its strategy of conservation by duplication and making public: printing a lot of books and spreading them widely proved a viable preservation strategy.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Eisenstein analyses how print influenced many aspects of scholarship and science. Print influenced the dissemination, standardisation, and organisation of research results, but it also impacted upon data collection and the preservation, amplification and reinforcement of science (Eisenstein 1979: 71). Books became much cheaper and a more varied selection of books was available, to the benefit of scholars. It encouraged the transition from the wandering to the sedentary scholar and stimulated the cross-referencing of books. Increasingly printers also began standardising the design of books. They started by experimenting with the readability and classification of data in books, introducing title pages, indexes, running heads, footnotes, and cross-references (Eisenstein 1979: 52, Ong 1982: 121–123). Nonetheless, as McLuhan, Eisenstein and Ong among others have made clear, scholars benefitted most from the standardisation of printed images, maps, charts, and diagrams, which had previously proven very difficult to multiply identically by hand. This was essential for the development of modern science (McLuhan 1962: 78, Ong 1982: 124). As McLuhan argues, print enhanced visuality over audile-tactile culture, creating a predominantly visual-based world, promoting homogeneity, uniformity and repeatability (1962: 24).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 McLuhan speaks in this respect of the frontier of two cultures and of conflicting technologies, which have led to the typographic and electronic revolutions, as he calls them. Eisenstein similarly points out that printing, through its powers of precise reproduction, helped spread a number of cultural revolutions (i.e. the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution); revolutions that were, as Eisenstein claims, essential in the shaping of the modern mind (1979: 170–172). Febvre and Martin also explore the influence of the book on the Renaissance and the Reformation, analysing print’s causes and effects as part of a socio-economic history of book production and consumption over a long period of time. Being slightly more cautious, they wonder how successful the book has been as an agent for the propagation of new ideas (Febvre and Martin 1997: 9). They see preservation through duplication and (typographic) fixity as basic prerequisites for the advancement of learning, agreeing that it was print that gave the book a permanent and unchanging text (Febvre and Martin 1997: 320). However, printing for them is just part of a set of innovations. The printing press is only one of a number of actors in the general social and political history they try to reconstruct.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Although Eisenstein acknowledges this plurality of actors, in her view print was the main agent of change impacting on the revolutionary developments detailed above. Of course it builds on previous achievements, however, the preservative powers of print were more permanent than previous movements. As Eisenstein emphasises, print revolutionised these previous systems. Even though the early modern hand press did not of course meet modern standards of duplication, its development still meant that early print books were more fixed and standardised than hand-copied manuscripts (Eisenstein 1979: 345–346). Where scribal copying ultimately led to more mistakes and corruption of the text, successive print editions allowed for corrections and improvements to be made, so with fixity came ‘cumulative cognitive advance’ (Eisenstein 1979: 432). Even if the printing press also multiplied and accelerated errors and variants—and many errata had to be issued—the fact was that errata could now be issued. Print thus made corruption more visible at the same time (Eisenstein 1979: 80). Texts were now sufficiently alike for scholars in different regions to correspond with each other about what was, to all intents and purposes, a uniform text. Networks of correspondents were created which in turn lead to new forms of feedback that had not been possible in the age of scribes. This again was an influence on the scientific method, and on the modern idea of scientific cooperation. Print, however, went further than just encouraging popularisation and propaganda and the mere spreading of new ideas (Eisenstein 1979: 454). It was the availability and access to diverse materials that was really revolutionary.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Permanence was also able to bring out progressive change where ‘the preservation of the old (…) launched a tradition of the new’ (Eisenstein 1979: 124). From valuing the ancients the emphasis increasingly came to be placed on admiring the new. Classical texts were recovered through print, offering adequate equipment to systematically explore and classify antiquity. According to Eisenstein, the communications revolution created a ‘fixed distance in time’, influencing the development of a modern historical consciousness. McLuhan similarly claims that with print a fixed point of view became possible where print fosters the separation of functions and a specialist outlook (1962: 175). Eisenstein confesses that it is hard to establish how exactly printed materials affected human behaviour; nonetheless, we have to understand how greater access to a greater abundance of records and a standardisation brought about by printing influenced the literate elite (1979: 8). Printing standardised vernacular languages and led to the nationalisation of politics (where increasingly political documents were written in the vernacular) and the fragmentation of Latin. Drawing further on McLuhan, Eisenstein also shows how the thoughts of readers are guided by the way the contents of books are arranged and presented. Basic changes in book format thus lead to changes in thought patterns. Standardisation helped to reorder the thought of all readers and a new ‘esprit de système’ was developed (including systematic cataloguing and indexing) which proved of the utmost importance for the commercial book-trade. Bookseller’s lists were created to promote works and attract customers, for instance. Eisenstein also makes a clear claim for the importance of print on the development of the Reformation. The press was the ultimate propaganda machine. However, Eisenstein points out that print not only diffused Reformation views but also shaped them. Where print stabilised ‘the bible’ (and scholars were being provided with Greek and Hebrew texts), its availability in vernacular languages changed who read the bible and how they read it (Eisenstein 1979: 326).

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 As we have established previously, in opposition to Eisenstein’s arguments for the agency of print, Adrian Johns emphasises that it is not printing per se that possesses preservative power, but the way printing is put to use in particular ways. He states that knowledge such as we understand it today has come to depend on stability; however, such a situation of stability has not always been prevalent. It is not easy for us to imagine a realm in which printed records were not necessarily authorised or faithful, Johns remarks. What could one know in such a realm, and how could one know it? (Johns 1998: 5). If we were to reassess the way print has been ‘constructed’, we can contribute to our historical understanding of the conditions of knowledge itself and how knowledge emerged (Johns 1998: 6). Printed books themselves do not contain attributes of credibility and fixity, which are features that take much work to maintain. According to Johns, it was the social system then in place, not the technology, which needed to change first in order for the printing revolution or print culture to gain ground.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Johns brings the cultural and the social to the centre of our attention through his interest in the roles of historical figures (i.e. readers, authors and publishers) in bringing about fixity (1998: 19–20). He argues that Eisenstein neglects the labours through which fixity was achieved, to the extent that she describes what Johns sees as being the results of those labours, as being powers or agency intrinsic to texts instead (Johns 1998: 19). For Johns, then, fixity is not an inherent quality but a transitive one; fixity exists only inasmuch as it is recognized and acted upon by people—and not otherwise. In this sense, fixity is the result of manifold representations, practices and, most importantly, conflicts and struggles that arise out of the establishment of different print cultures.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Chartier similarly argues against the direct influence of print on readers’ consciousness. Chartier is interested in the effects of meaning that books as material forms produce, forms that in his view do not impose, but command uses and appropriations (1994: viii–ix). This means that works have no stable, universal, or fixed meaning as they are invested with plural and mobile significations that are constructed in the encounter between a proposal and a reception. Chartier sees it as part of his work as a historian to reconstruct the variations in what he calls the ‘espaces lisibles’, the texts in their discursive and material forms, and the variations that govern their effectuation. According to Chartier, books aim at installing an order during their whole production process: there is the order of the author’s intentions, of the institution or authority which sponsored or allowed the book, and there is the order that is imposed by the materiality or the physical form of the book, via its diverse modalities. Chartier’s route map to a history of reading is based on the paradox of the freedom of the reader versus the order of the book. How is the order of the book constructed and how is it subverted through reading? Reception and decipherment of material forms again take place according to the mental and affective schemes that make up the culture of communities of readers. In this respect Chartier is interested in the relationship between the text, the book, and the reader (1994: 10).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Although Johns acknowledges that print to some extent led to the stabilisation of texts, he questions ‘the character of the link between the two’ (1998: 36). For him, printed texts were not intrinsically trustworthy, nor were they seen as self-evidently creditable in early modern times, where piracy and plagiarism and other forms of ‘impropriety’ were widespread. This meant that the focus was not so much on ‘assumptions of fixity’, as Johns calls it, but on ‘questions of credit’ and on the importance of trust in the making of knowledge (1998: 31). Print culture came about through changes in the conventions of civility and in the practice of investing credit in materials (i.e. by the historical labours of publishers, authors and readers) as much as through changes in technology (Johns 1998: 35–36). Johns is therefore interested in how knowledge was made (where knowledge is seen as contingent). How did readers decide what to believe?

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Reading practices were very important to cope with the appraisal of books. Especially with respect to the issue of piracy, the credibility of print became a significant issue, one with both economic and epistemic implications (Johns 1998: 32). Charges of piracy could lead to allegations of plagiarism (as Johns notes, ‘they were seldom just claims of piracy’), which meant that such charges had direct implications for the reputation of authors as well as threatening the credibility attributed to their ideas. Piracy was always in a way accompanied by accusations of appropriation, and (textual) corruption, meaning the violation of virtues and propriety, which would put at risk a scholar’s authorship, knowledge, and livelihood, as well as those of a publisher or bookseller (Johns 1998: 460). Piracy thus affected both ‘the structure and content of knowledge’ (Johns 1998: 33).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 As discussed in previous chapters, the character of a printer or Stationer was very influential in the establishment of trust or credit. This trust was related to a respect of the principle of copy, meaning the recognition of another (printer’s) prior claim to the printing of a work, based on a repudiation of piracy. As Johns shows, the name of the Stationer on a book’s title page could tell a prospective reader as much about the contents as could that of the author (1998: 147). The character of booksellers mattered, too, as they determined what appeared in print and what could be bought, sold, borrowed, and read. Readers thus assessed printed books according to the places, personnel, and practices of their production and distribution. To contemporaries, the link between print and stable or fixed knowledge seemed far less secure, not least because a certain amount of creativity (i.e. textual adaptation) was essential to the Stationer’s craft. Piracy was also not unfamiliar: it was far more common than was certainty and uniform editions. Furthermore, pirates were not a distinguishable social group, existing as they did at all ranks of the Stationers’ community, and at times they were among its most prominent and ‘proper’ members, Johns explains (1998: 167). It is important in this respect to realise that piracy was not attached to an object; it was used as a category or a label to cope with print, as a tactic to construct and maintain truth-claims.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The reliability of printed books thus depended in large part on representations of the larger Stationers’ community as proper and well ordered (Johns 1998: 624). This clashed with the characteristic feature of the Stationers’ Commonwealth, namely uncertainty, where print culture was characterized by endemic distrust, conspiracies and ‘counterfeits’. The concept of piracy was used as a representation of these cultural conditions and practices as they were prevailing in the domain of print. With this uncertainty it became clear that the achievement of print-based knowledge as well as authorship was transient (Johns 1998: 187). Yet readers did come to trust and use print, as books were of course produced, sold, read, and put to use, meaning that the epistemological problems of reading them were, in practice, overcome. Trust could become possible, Johns argues, because of a disciplining regime—including elaborate mechanisms to deal with all the problems of piracy—brought about by publishers, booksellers, authors and the wider realm of institutions and governments, as is exemplified for Johns by the Stationers’ Company. Licensing, patenting and copyright were similarly machineries for producing credit. But the register set up by the Royal Society—which became one of the defining symbols of experimental propriety in the Society itself—and the Philosophical Transactions, which came to function as its brand abroad, were similarly achievements that required strenuous efforts to discipline the processes of printing and reading (Johns 1998: 623). With this regime in place, Johns claims that trust in printed books could become a routine possibility (1998: 188). As he explains, however, struggles over power arose regarding who gets to decide on or govern these social mechanisms for generating and protecting credit in printed books, displaying the complex interactions of piracy, propriety, political power, and knowledge. Conflicts arose over the implementation of patents and/or copyright and on the different consequences a print culture governed by a specific entity (e.g. Stationers or the crown, for Johns) would face. These conflicts held, according to Johns, ‘the potential for a fundamental reconsideration of the nature, order, and consequences of printing in early modern society’ (1998: 258–259).

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