Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


Print Media

At the point of their initial appropriation into the public sphere, both print and digital mediums catalyzed multivocal societies within decentered systems of communication---in other words, both produced a democratization of literary expression. When first efficient and inexpensive enough to be accessible to the masses for private use, the printing press issued individual expression on a such a large scale that it was, if only for a short time, uncontrollable and even anarchic. Consider society as a text: if a centered, autocratic voice authors its ideological configuration---if it is linear---it becomes fragmented, multi-linear, when the public gains voice on a local, or individual, level.

Take the growth of political pamphleteering as a potentially informing example. When the printing press became a public instrument in the mid-seventeenth century, the autocratic voice of England's King Charles I could no longer remain discrete, inexorable, or unchallenged. Pamphleteers could sound off to their allies and adversaries alike in the form of one-cent printed flyers created with Gutenberg's moveable type. This free (relatively speaking) flow of expression gave birth to the British Civil War. A newly multivocal society, as it were, permeated and then reconfigured the hegemonic voice that was hitherto positioned as its author; now new authors engendered a newer society.

After examining the implications of media in general as agents of cultural change in Part I of this project, I shall examine in Part II the printing press in general, and the pamphleteers specifically---in other words, I shall examine the trajectory of the pamphlet's dissemination in society, how available the medium was to masses, and how the resulting anarchy became sublimated. By briefly studying the pamphlet media produced in the two years between November 1640 and August 1642, I hope to glean an understanding of what kind of struggle the masses of England, as opposed to the political elite, believed they were fighting. British citizens who had hitherto found themselves limited by their social class, gender, location, or level of literacy gained agency via the printing press's cheap reproduction of pamphlets. Each pamphlet embodied certain underlying assumptions about the nature of government or religion, and many explored superstitions about miracles, monsters, demonic possessions, and other chimera. Individuals, whether aristocratic and indigent, suddenly found themselves equipped to contribute to---and reconfigure---the newly volatile politics of their nation and ultimately (perhaps inadvertently) inspire revolution.

Between the dates of November 1640 and August 1642, more so than ever, the British masses were barraged with printed pamphlets. November 1640 was the beginning of what has been called a "media revolution," an enormous growth in pamphlet production which began the moment the Long Parliament met and accelerated in the following years. After August 1642, however, the war began, and the proliferation of pamphleteering abated until several years before the war ended in 1649. The anarchy of public voices greatly influence the "confused political and religious issues around which the war was fought. Pamphleteering around the English Civil War dramatically changed the nature of English society and government, even though the period of Republican government (The Commonwealth), at first under Cromwell, eventually ended with the restoration of Charles II [1660]" (Sharpe 58). Government censorship of printed materials collapsed in the spring of 1641 and was not significantly revived again until the early 50s. During this explosive decade, the printing presses of England produced not only an unprecedented quantity of printed material, but candid and scandalous content without fear of government interference.

Ultimately, however, the political and economic powers of English society reinscribed a centrally-organized or hierarchical system of communication. The rash of literary expression continued for about a decade before it became institutionalized into the first modern magazines: The Tattler, which emerged in the 1660s, and The Gentleman, founded in 1687. Primary institutions of cultural exchange thus co-opted, or suppressed anarchy. The public utilization of the printing press at the time of the British Civil War establishes a paradigm for both a progressive movement from a univocal to a multivocal society and its retrogressive inversion. The British pamphleteers were some of "the first to use media as a powerful weapon against an entrenched array of monarchies, feudal lords, dictators, and repressive social structures" ("The Age of Paine" 154). And yet their ideological and political agency (represented in the ubiquity of their words) was quickly confined within the newly emerging magazine journalism. Why couldn't this free flow of information and ideas sustain itself? I shall address this in the body of my thesis.

Can we use the plight of the British pamphleteers to predict the potential politico-economic control over literary expression on the Internet? To predict, no, but to understand, yes. Print and digital mediums empower radically different ways of communicating---radically different "messages," in the words of McLuhan, which determine the fate of the medium and how it is controlled in society.

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