Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


Textual imperialism

The printing press gave Western civilization the means to limitlessly duplicate particular ideas in a particular, standardized text, to extend its ideological mantle over the rest of the world. McLuhan borrows from the findings of anthropologist Margaret Mead to explain that this phenomenon of expansive power and standardization is unnatural --- a prosthetic addendum to our communicative capacities:

Margaret Mead has reported that when she brought several copies of the same book to a Pacific Island there was great excitement. The natives had seen books, but only one copy of each, which they had assumed to be unique. Their astonishment at the identical character of several books was a natural response to what is after all the most magical and potent aspect of print and mass production. It involves a principal of extension by homogenization that is the key to understanding Western power. (UM 174)

Print radically minimized the number of man hours required to produce a text, which in turn maximized output and greatly contributed to the sprit of capitalism that began to dominate the Western world. Elizabeth Eisenstein explains that one printer could produce 1025 books in the time it took a scribe to produce one of the same. Each printed text could sell at three times the price the scribe might have sold it for. Within this economy of mass production, the printer became an urban entrepreneur, admittedly profit-motivated. Eisenstein quotes one early printer's admission of his dedication to "'mak[ing] illustrious this author's name and to benefit the world.' The profit motive was combined with other motives that were self-serving and altruistic, and even evangelistic at times."

Foremost among the amenities of the printing press lies the radical increase of diversity of promulgated and examinable knowledge --- which urged the Western world to acknowledge, develop, and specialize, new fields of study. In addition, printing generated the revolutionary standardization of maps, calendars, time-tables, dictionaries, catalogs, textbooks, newspapers, and the like --- bestowing upon Western man the ability to "rationalize, codify and catalog data" (Eisenstein 88). Instructional guides and conduct manuals emerged, thereby homogenizing, to some extent, expectations for behavior, and by extension, establishing more rigid norms which sharply distinguished the elite from the common.

The invention of typography ushered in a standard for alphabetic ordering: "Print altered not only the spelling and grammar but the accentuation and inflection of languages and made bad grammar possible" (GG 231). Further, printing necessitated the introduction of copyright law. For the first time, authors --- whose works lay in the hands of innumerable strangers --- fixated on notions of propriety with regard to the specific phrasing of words as well as the formulation of concepts in general. Alvin Kernan, in Printing Technology, says of the emerging preeminence of the author in print culture: "Copyright law, which dates from this period, also redefined the role of the author by making the writer the owner of his own writing" (4-5).

Along with a radical increase in standardized literary output, the scope of the reading public expanded immensely. The spread of literacy meant that the middle class individual could become autodidactic. The opportunity to self-instruct altered the roles of student and professor --- at once esteeming the professor (or, perhaps, the textbook) as a definitive authority who could gain notoriety and wide readership, and then detracting from his status, since individuals no longer had to rely on a professor for oral instruction. The novel capability not only to consume, but to produce literature revolutionized the intellectual capacity of the middle class: "Typography created a medium in which it was possible to speak out loud and bold to the word itself, just as it was possible to circumnavigate the world of books previously locked up in a pluralistic world of monastic cells. Boldness of type created boldness of expression" (UM 178).

Bold, standardized expression is at once emancipating and immuring. On the one hand, print authorized puissant expression, but on the other, it reduced the literary experience to a single sense --- the visual --- and relegated auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. McLuhan explains the fragmented experience to which a reading of the printed text is limited: "With typography, the principle of movable type introduced the means of mechanizing any handicraft by the process of segmenting and fragmenting an integral action. What had begun with the alphabet as a separation of the multiple gestures and sights and sounds in the spoken word, reached a new level of intensity, first with the woodcut and then with typography" (UM 82). Print, in other words, dramatically displaced the reader from the author, the author from her experience, and on a microscopic scale, the signifier from the signified.

McLuhan argues that subliminal effects of print are engendered by repeatedly scanning lines of print presented in a standardized format --- which can be calamitous according to McLuhan, since the standardized code so inadequately or inauthentically relays experience. The duplicated, standardized text subjects scores of individuals to the same literary experience, conforming on a large scale readers' mental habits --- that is, the manners in which they learn, think, read and perceive.

The uniformity and repeatability of print permeated the Renaissance with the idea of time and space as continuous, measurable quantities. The immediate effect of this idea was to desacralize the world of nature and the world of power alike. The new technique of control of physical processes by segmentation and fragmentation separated God and Nature as much as Man and Nature, or man and man. Shock at this departure from traditional vision and inclusive awareness was often directed toward the figure of Machiavelli, who had merely spelled out the new quantitative and neutral or scientific ideas of force as applied to the manipulation of kingdoms. (GG 173)

McLuhan sees the printed word as the architect of nationalism. He contends that the effect of the discovery of printing was evident in the savage religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, borrowing from Harold Innis's argument in The Bias of Communication that the application of power to communication industries hastened the consolidation of vernaculars and the rise of ethnocentrism and imperialism. McLuhan expounds: "It may well be that print and nationalism are axiological or coordinate, simply because by print a people sees itself for the first time. The vernacular in appearing in high visual definition affords a glimpse of social unity coextensive with vernacular boundaries" (GG 217). According to the analyses of McLuhan and Innis, we can surmise that if seeing their vernacular actualized in distinct, indelible, material typography influences a nation's perception of itself as discrete and authoritative, than the aesthetic of digital ephemera --- words and images which are inconsistent in their intensity and on-screen endurance --- may have the inverse effect, promoting in the viewers tolerance and humility.

But we must remember to be conservative in our assumptions about the ideological change that media effect. In Hypertext : The Convergence of Contemporaryy Critical Theory and Tecchnology, George Landow admonishes:

First of all such transitions [brought about by the introduction of printing] take a long time, certainly much longer than early studies of the shift from manuscript to print culture led one to expect. Students of technology and reading practice point to several hundred years of gradual change and accommodation, during which different reading practices, modes of publication, and conceptions of literature obtained. According to Kernan, not until about 1700 did print technology "transform the more advanced countries of Europe from oral to print societies, reordering the entire social world, and restructuring rather than merely modifying letters." How long then will it take computing, specifically, computer hypertext to effect similar changes? How long, one wonders will the change to electronic language take until it becomes culturally pervasive? And what byways, transient cultural accommodations and the like will intervene and thereby create a more confusing, if culturally more interesting, picture? (Hypertext 30-1)

According to Michael Joyce (as quoted in the preface) we have no way of accurately predicting the destiny of electronic communications, and the way in which we will culturally acclimate. But perhaps we can develop some hypotheses by examining the way seventeenth century England's weathered the crucible of the print media revolution.

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