Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


Scribal culture

"The invention of typography confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, the first assembly line and the first mass-production" -- Marshall McLuhan, Gutenberg Galaxy

The printing press, as Francis Bacon suggested, changed the "appearance and the state of the whole world," though these changes were not necessarily witnessed for several centuries after the press was introduced. In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein asserts that for at least the first two centuries following Gutenberg's invention, most printed texts were classic works previously conceived in manuscript, namely, the Bible.

Our knowledge of scribal culture is limited by the very fact that most of what we do know we access through printed material and an inestimable, but presumably large amount of the primary sources have been lost or damaged. Scribal culture is, by the nature of the medium, motley and inconsistent. It is impossible to make reliable generalizations in light of the fact that "findings are bound to vary enormously depending on date and place. Contradictory verdicts are especially likely to proliferate with regard to the last century before printing --- an interval when paper had become available and the literate man was more likely to become his own scribe" (Eisenstein 11).

By the very fact that there was no way to duplicate on a wide scale a particular standard, we can find nothing typical --that is, no typical scribe or manuscript or production procedure or reading experience. In its lack of a viable or enforceable standard, scribal culture exemplified perspectivism as no fixed, literary position or point of view could yet preside. Each manuscript was individualized, interpretive --- right down to the scribe's personal understanding of facts regarding dates, geography, etc. Eisenstein reminds us that "the more thoroughly we are trained to master the events and dates contained in modern history books, the less likely we are to appreciate the difficulties confronting scribal scholars who had access to assorted written records, but lacked uniform chronologies, maps and all the other reference guides which are now in common use" (36). Each scribal text was uniquely flawed --- or, arguably, uniquely correct with regard to subjective understanding. The Internet activity today is perhaps returning to this kind of perspectivism: within its morass of networked information a theoretical or factual consensus is absolutely infeasible.

What Eisenstein calls "textual drift" --- the fact that each edition of the same text varied significantly from others not only in layout, but content --- explains why no fixed unitary text could prevail in scribal culture. The lasting vestiges of oral culture --- on which scribal culture had to rely because of the limited availability of the manuscripts --- exacerbated textual drift . Eisenstein asserts that "scribal culture was so thin that heavy reliance was placed on oral transmission... producing a hybrid half-oral half literate culture that has no precise counterpart today" (111). A precise counterpart may not exist, but the digital culture out of which the Internet is rising is necessarily interactive, which means no authoritative account or text can prevail without the appendage of some reaction to, or interpretation of, the assumptions it exhibits. Each manuscript was usually accompanied by illuminations, thus combining word and image in a way that to a large extent dissipated with the introduction of print, but is being revitalized today with multimedia.

The value of the scribal manuscript is indeed something that has no precise counterpart today. Producing a manuscript --- and each piece was unquestionably original --- required an exorbitant amount of man hours. Manuscripts were used only for high-scholarly purposes rather than layman education or entertainment. In fact, many members of the elite saw a printed work as radically depreciated in value and regarded manuscripts as aesthetically superior (what was once a hand-painted illumination became a duplicable wood-cut or lithographic print). The Medicis, for example, are said to have insisted that their libraries only hold manuscripts. In addition, the value of the reading experience, unlike today, was a rare, highly privileged, even revelatory glance reserved only for the meager little collection of literate aristocrats. Handling a manuscript endangered its preservation. Literary work was meant to be disseminated orally, but preserved in manuscript, and we realize in retrospect that the function as well as the form of the text was about to change.

For years after printed books became available to the public, some owners even took them to the nearest scribe to have it translated into a "work of art." Print called the conventional understanding of a work of art radically into question. In his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," early twentieth-century critic Walter Benjamin suggests that new technologies such as photography and film (and in our case, print) not only demystify the process of creating art, they radically alter the role of art in society: because art can now be easily and cheaply reproduced in great quantities, it no longer resides exclusively in the domain of the bourgeoisie. Such technologies, Benjamin argues, clear the way for the "formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art" (113).

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