The writing of both Eisenstein shows the various ways that writing and its propagation have shaped the identities of both individuals and societies. This link between word and consciousness, discourse and power, is complex and multi-faceted, reliant upon several simultaneous sites of production and technology writ large and small across time and cultures.
In the first half of Eisenstein’s book, she discusses the ways that printing technologies affected not only obvious issues such as literacy and trade, but also intellectual and religious cross-pollination, social interactions, and tensions between individualism and standardization. Her argument demonstrates that the rise of print culture was not a simple linear progression with easy to describe consequences, but rather a complex, multimodal spread across multiple sites. In addition to the increase of alphabetic texts, Eisenstein shows how graphics – images, maps, charts, etc. – altered the way that texts were used and understood by readers. Texts which once were the province of a few people – or even one person – could now be preserved not by hiding the text or keeping it from view, but through reproduction and dissemination into the hands of the many.
Eisenstein’s discussion about the texts that were lost – or could have been lost – as well as the manner in which they were copied (or failed to be copied) for centuries leaves me with so many questions about the nature of texts we have available now which are supposedly “penned by the ancients.” How many of these texts represent what was originally written? Between lost and/or conflicting copies, errors in transcription, intranslatable words, etc., etc., I wonder how many of these texts can still be names as those texts. What does the title/author mean once a text has transformed through so many iterations? What is the history of these texts and how does that affect how/what we read today? How might these texts have been altered or “revised” to be more in congruence with social ideologies? What was taken out? Added? “Amended?”
This is a matter of academic curiosity in some regards, but when one considers the violence and wars that have been enacted in the name of textual interpretations (e.g. the bible) it takes on a more immediate and pressing nature. As Eisenstein notes, “the purification and codification of all major European languages” was strongly affected by typography, thus “fixing” linguistic conventions and nationalism (93-4). The implications for these cultural/linguistic moves cannot be read innocently, as dominant ideologies generally served particular classes and not others and/or privileged particular epistemologies. How did the rise of print culture reproduce or resist this?
I was also intrigued by the discussion of the implications for social interactions as the result of the spread of print media. As she notes, “a reading public was not only more dispersed; it was also more atomistic and individualistic than a hearing one,” showing the ways that print can simultaneously bring together a more disperse group of people, while at the same time ensuring, by the nature of the interface with the technology, that consumption of the media inhibits face to face social interactions (105). This same dynamic is often noted in the rise of internet and computer communications which, like reading printed materials, requires “temporary isolation” while the text (widely defined) is being taken in (106). How did this change the conception that individuals held of society? What was life like before print culture.
These chapters also bring up issues of access – not just to literacy, but to the printing apparatus. She discusses the ways in which heads of state circulated their images which “made it possible for a reigning dynast to impress a personal presence on mass consciousness in a new way” (108). She notes two influential American writers – Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin – and their relationship to access to printing presses, as well as the tension between writers who “expressed disgust at the vulgar sensationalism of others [though] none could abandon hope of creating a sensation himself” (114, 117). How has this access shaped society, thinking, ideology, and power? Though Eisenstein genuinely attempts (I think) to frame the complexity of these relationships, I find that with every page I generate another string of questions about the implications of all of these relationships.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. 2nd Ed. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.