Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


The Aftermath: Hierarchy Reinscribed

We already know how the story ends: in September, 1649, Parliament under Cromwell reinstituted censorship laws with the Printing Act, thereby suffocating the free expression of the pamphleteers. The new act presented the most detailed list of regulations for the press of the entire seventeenth century: all printing was limited to London, all books and pamphlets had to be licensed( in other words, neutered), and all "scandalous" and "seditious" material was prohibited, and all printed material sent by carrier or post was scrutinized. The Parliamentarians who had hitherto encouraged the furor of popular participation via the press decided, once they gained control that those liberties should be revoked, saying the press must be controlled in the interests of the state and of religion. As it turned out,

neither the Independents nor the Presbyterians, the Royalists nor the Roundheads, Parliament nor the Army, the Council of State nor Cromwell, had any real solution for the problem of printed news. Each cried out for a measure of freedom while rising to power; each sought to buttress acquired authority through some measure of control. To what extent and in what directions this control should be exercised was the immediate question presented to each. (Seibert 220)

When free speech was favorable to Parliament's agenda to overthrow the Crown, the Roundheads encouraged it. When it threatened their own stability, they snuffed it out with oppressive censorship laws. Power had shifted away from the monarch but, according to the demands of print culture --- linear, rational, hierarchical by the vary nature of the dominant medium --- a tyrannical central government under the Parliamentary forces, and ultimately King Charles II remained inexorable.

Complete freedom was not considered as one of the possible solutions largely for these reasons: historical precedents were lacking, experimentation had not yet demonstrated the ineffectiveness of traditional regulations, government was not yet considered an instrument of the people for their own well-being and therefore participation even by the middle classes although tolerated at times was not an accepted tenet of those in power, the sensitiveness of public officials to comment and criticism of the public at large, the inexperience of the channels of communication in delivering and the public in digesting the free and uncontrolled flow of information and comment on public issues, and lastly the age had not learned a restrained and civilized toleration of divergent points of view. All of those factors had to be modified before freedom of the press could be achieved. (Seibert 221)

Today, when most of these factors have been modified, the "free flow of expression" continues to be suppressed (albeit a nearly impossible endeavor within such a vastly distributed network as the Internet). I shall examine in Part III how digital media are contending with trends toward hierarchy and away from the anarchy of popular expression which such civil liberty activists as John Milton and Thomas Paine defended.

The pamphleteers of the British civil war were not necessarily sentenced to siilence. It was too late for that: as Samuel Hartlib, a friend of Milton, predicted in 1641, "the art of Printing will so spread knowledge that the common people, knowing their own rights and liberties will not be governed by way of oppression..." The people, indeed, had come to understand their power, but the print medium itself actually contributed to their governance by way of oppression. The ruling powers could most effectively impose their authority by means of a medium predisposed to tyranny. It became clear to the authorities of the Commonwealth that journalism, controlled or uncontrolled, had become a permanent social and political phenomenon. "Once the public had become interested and aware of its craving for information, ways and means were inevitably found to satisfy this demand... Gradually the problem shifted from one of suppression of all information to one of determining what and by what means information should be doled out" (Herd 42). The answer: institutionalizing the newspaper and the modern magazine, which fulfilled at once the public's desire for information, but ensured that government officials and aristocrats could regulate the content of printed material.

Serial newspapers, born in the 1620s, proliferated around the early 50s when pamphleteering abated. Parliamentary authorities commissioned newspapers geared in content towards the commoners --- that is, littered with cabalistic intrigue which kept the masses distracted and obedient. Parliament-ordained monopoly on printing rights, which limited the number of printing masters to twenty persisted for most of seventeenth century (although underground unlicensed printing existed; Milton, for one, took advantage of it). Such newspapers as The London Gazette --- under the strict jurisdiction of Parliament --- were, for all intensive purposes, the sole means of spreading political news until 1679 when public excitement, political commitment and the expiration of licensing provisions led to a sudden proliferation of unlicensed newspapers. By the turn of the century when periodicals such as Steele's Tatler, Addison's Spectator, and Defoe's Review emerged, thereby privatizing the dissemination of news even though they suffered under heavy taxing. Still, however, print media were controlled if not directly by the government, by members of the aristocracy. The anarchic hayday of pamphleteering had become co-opted by the hierarchy.

In conclusion, we cannot dismiss this rash of democratized expression and the political innovations of 1620-40 as inconsequential on the grounds that political order was reestablished under the third Stewart monarch, Charles II. "In the writings of the pamphleteers and in the demands of political and religious minorities are to be discovered the seeds from which later grew the doctrines of religious toleration, democracy in government, and liberty of the press" (Seibert 223).

Before continuing on to a discussion of digital media as agents of cultural change, I must qualify my usage of the term "revolution." The media revolution surrounding the British Civil War met a fate of some consequence --- that is, the anarchic expression in which pamphleteers took part brought about alarmingly literal ramifications: a revolution of bloodshed and the decapitation of a divinely-ordained (according to tradition) leader. With this in mind, the subsequent restoration of hierarchical rule made sense since vicious words turned out to be literal weapons. The digital revolution which presently gains ground is, thus far, a peaceful one. Were this literary activity to incite physical violence, I don't doubt we would have seriously to reconsider the amenities of the paradigmatic shift that the future potentially holds.

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