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Print and the
Materiality of the Book
Change, Evolution and
Deibert and the influence of
Elizabeth Eisenstein
Deibert, like most other scholars working on the impact
of print, owes an enormous debt to Elizabeth Eisenstein.
He summarizes many of her ideas (sometimes without
explicitly saying so) and adds his unique pov - the
perspective of international relations. He provides a very
broad, birds-eye perspective.
By contrast – Chartier, a cultural historian, stresses how
many complex, contradictory things are going on as print
emerges. Evolution as well as revolution. Loathe to
make big generalizations. Latour tries to split the
difference, bringing both approaches together. All owe a
great debt to historian Elizabeth Eisenstein.
Elizabeth Eisenstein
Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote The Printing Press as an Agent of
Change – volumes one and two. These are long (very long),
detailed, historical works, the standard reference on the subject.
Eisenstein also wrote a much shorter, popular text that covers much
of the same ground called The Printing Revolution in Early Modern
Europe (only 250 pages, one volume, much easier to read with few
footnotes and a short bibliography).
Eisenstein takes seriously Francis Bacon's aphorism:
 "We should note the force, effect, and consequences of
inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those
three which were unknown to the ancients, namely, printing,
gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the
appearance and state of the world” (quoted in Eisenstein, p.34)
"What were some of the most important consequences of the
shift from script to print? Anticipating a strenuous effort to master
a large literature, I began to investigate what had been written on
this obviously important subject. To my surprise, I did not find
even a small literature available for consultation. No one had yet
attempted to survey the consequences of the fifteenth-century
communications shift.“ (p. xi) (CREATE THAT GAP)
Eisenstein’s work was
immediately influential
“No scholar has done more than Elizabeth Eisenstein to put the history of
printing into the mainstream of Western historical development. Her
Printing Press as an Agent of Change is unrivalled as the single most
important English language book about printing from the Reformation to
the French Revolution.” (Eighteenth Century Studies 27 (1): 121.)
 'For fifteen years we have been waiting for a deep level-headed
examination of the ways in which print transformed Europe. Elizabeth
Eisenstein has written that book ... Eisenstein has an intimate familiarity
with the great narrative of modern history since the 15th century. She
boasts an unsurpassed feeling for the strengths and weaknesses of the
ways in which historians have explained great changes. No mania to
find laws or principles of universal validity drives her. She is not afraid
of detail. Her eye for the telling oddity, the crucial contradiction, is
enviable.' --Commonweal
Originally published in two volumes, The
Printing Press as an Agent of Change is a
full-scale historical treatment of the advent of
printing and its importance as an agent of
change. Eisenstein begins by examining the
general implications of the shift from script to
print, and goes on to examine its part in three
of the major movements of early modern
times - the Renaissance, the Reformation,
and the rise of modern science.
Cliff’s notes version of Eisenstein: "Some Conjectures about the Impact
of Printing on Western Society and Thought: A Preliminary Report,"
Journal of Modern History (1968), 1-56. This provides the general
outline of much of Eisenstein’s later arguments, and formed the basis of
much of her later research.
Eisenstein argues that the emergence of printing (along with the
particular social, economic and cultural milieu that this emergence took
place within) is crucial to understanding the early modern era, the
renaissance and reformation – i.e. to a series of important intellectual,
cultural and theological shifts that take place in the west. She argues:
“The impact of printing, experienced first by literate groups in early modern
Europe, changed the character of the Italian Renaissance and ought to be
considered among the causes of both the Protestant Reformation and the
rise of modern science.”
Deibert and Eisenstein
Eisenstein is interested not just in the impact of literacy, but in how changes in
the materiality of the book (in its internal organization, its increasing fixity,
standardization, etc.) along with changes in the distribution and exchange of
printed material influence the social and economic networks it is part of
(particularly “the commonwealth of learning.”)
For example, she is less interested in the bulk increase in literate people, and
more interested in how the emergence of fixed, standardized texts with cross
referencing changes how knowledge and ideas are represented, circulated and
stored, and how communities can form around these texts.
If spaces between words can change the world, Eisenstein might argue that a
fixed text, plus the bibliographic technologies like indexes, footnotes, tables of
contents, cross referencing, etc. also change the world.
However, she is very careful to qualify all her claims – to point to the
contradictory and complex nature of changes associated with print. She does
this to inoculate herself against all kinds of criticisms and to prove her argument
is nuanced (e.g. her points about word-> image, the place of memory, etc. – 160
& 164.)
Intro to Eisenstein et al.
Some Key Features of many Pre-Print Manuscripts
Eisenstein argues that it is hard for us to appreciate how different manuscript
culture was, since we now see everything through the lens of print and the
book, because for a long time evolutionary changes co-existed (and concealed)
revolutionary ones, and because print and manuscript mirrored each other for a
“The absence of any apparent change in product was combined with a
complete change in methods of production, giving rise to a paradoxical
combination…of seeming continuity with radical change.” Eisenstein (155)
Spanned thousands of years and geographical
contexts: Mesopotamia, Classical Greece,
Medieval Europe
Written word facilitated reflection, abstraction,
debate, historical texts, etc.
But also control: codification of laws, accounting,
sacred texts
Writing as a new form of power
New spatial extension of economy and govt.
New status elite: scribes
Here are some of the main differences that Eisenstein focuses
Pre-print manuscripts are not very legible and were often written
for the convenience of the copyist. Pre-print manuscripts
commonly ran words together and were filled with abbreviations
(bad for the reader; easier on the copyist).
Drawings were often omitted or badly copied
Sixteenth-century title pages commonly hyphenate even major
words, including the author's name; inconsequential words may
be set in huge type faces. The lack of legibility and uniformity
hampered certain kinds of reading – e.g. skimming, non-linear
access; lack of indexes, fixed page numbers limits cataloguing
and cross referencing. Texts hard to relate to other texts, and
hard to speak of a unified “text.”
Books produced by scribes were made of vellum (calf or lamb
skin) because of its durability. For books that took more than a
year to produce, paper was too flimsy. However, for print books,
vellum was too costly to produce.
Printing press enables huge increase in circulation of books – in
1483, the Ripoli press produced 1000 copies of Plato’s Dialogues
in the time it took a scribe to produce one. “A man born in 1453,
the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his
fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about 8 million books had been
printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had
produced since Constantine founded his city in 330 A.D.”
(Clapham, quoted in Eisenstein, 152).
Scribal culture: 4 ways of making
books = scriptor, compiler,
commentator, and author.
SCRIPTOR: copying the work of another person
with nothing changed or added to the work. This
was the most common type prior to printing
COMPILER: copying the work of another but with
additions. Common when there were portions of
manuscripts missing or corrupted
COMMENTATOR copying the work of another and
adding, annotating or explicating information
Ancient and Medieval scribes faced tremendous difficulties in
preserving the knowledge that they already possessed, as it
inevitably grew more corrupted and fragmented over time.
With the establishment of printing presses, accumulation of
knowledge is much easier. Rather than spending most of their
energies searching for scattered manuscripts and copying
them, scholars could now focus their efforts on revision of
these texts and the gathering of new data.
New observations from a widely scattered readership could be
included in subsequent editions. According to Eisenstein, the
shift to printing reversed the whole orientation of attitudes
towards learning.
Scribal culture: preserving and
copying = key
"Scribal culture revered the ancients because they were closer to
uncorrupted knowledge—that is, knowledge not yet corrupted
through the process of scribal transmission... Print culture,
because it allows for cumulative advance of knowledge, views
the past from a fixed distance." (Mander)
Leed notes "the reversal of meaning undergone by the term
"original." In its old meaning it meant closest to the origin of
things, to the initial creation of the cosmos. In the first truly
typographical culture it increasingly meant "novel," a break with
precedent.” Link to “post-lapsarian” theology and notion of
Scribes put their name at the back of the book, barely noticed.
Publishers are huge self-promoters, and also promote authors
and artists. This “contributes to the celebration of lay culture
heroes” (rise of celebrity?) and advertisement and marketing.
Publishers put name, firm’s emblem on front. (158)
The body of knowledge preserved by scribes was scattered and
incomplete, with authorship of specific texts obscured, magical
incantations intermixed with scientific observations, and classical
literature interspersed with Christian writings. Under such
circumstances, it was possible for manuscript readers to imagine
that the past minds of antiquity had possessed a much more
complete understanding of the world, which had been fragmented
and degraded over time.
The assumption, both with regard to biblical writings and to classical
treatises on science, was that each revised work that further sorted
out the jumbled legacy would help make this wisdom clearer. But
revised editions of scripture revealed inconsistencies and
ambiguities in the texts which could not be easily resolved. Laying
inherited scientific works side by side for the first time also pointed up
discrepancies and contradictions. At the same time, the new ability to
convey maps, charts, and pictures in a uniform and permanent way
meant that older theories in cartography, astronomy, anatomy, and
botany could be checked against new observations.
Preservation through mass
“The lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what
remains; not by vaults and locks which fence them
from the public eye and use, in consigning them to
the waste of time but by such a multiplication of
copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of
accident.” (Thomas Jefferson)
The notion that valuable data could be preserved
best by being made public, rather than by being kept
secret, ran counter to tradition, led to clashes with
new censors, and was central both to early modern
science and to Enlightenment thought.
Pre-print manuscripts were often very large and not very portable
Pre-print manuscripts were expensive, and took a long time to
produce. In some cases scientists and other specialists needed to
do the copying in order for the text to be accurate.
Pre-print manuscripts were not “fixed.” They varied enormously,
changed as they were copied, did not share the same pagination.
As a result they were very difficult to cross reference. They usually
did not have running heads, footnotes, cross references, tables of
contents, etc. Technical drawings or complex charts which depend
on accurate portrayal of spatial relationships do not survive the
vagaries of successive copiers.
ALPHABETIC order begins.
Pre-print manuscripts rarely had indexes (two
manuscripts of a given work almost never correspond
page for page, so each manuscript of a given work
would require a separate index – a lot of effort). Library
indexing was sometimes done by rhyme, or by first
sound (Halzones listed under ‘a” as “h” sound not
pronounced) or by various idiosyncratic methods
(“Apollo” listed before other “A” words due to
importance). Rhymed book lists were incomplete as
metrical exigencies excluded some works. “When it
comes to cataloguing, a poem is a far cry from a card
index.” (Reynold and Wilson, in Eisenstein p. 65).
Intro To Eisenstein et al.
■ Pre-print manuscripts often contained several
works squashed together, and lacked title
pages. A pre-print manuscript is normally
catalogued by its "incipit" (L., "it begins), the first
words of its text. Ong (1982; 126) speculates
that the book had to be reconceptualized, from a
recorded utterance to an object, for titles to
make an appearance: "Homer would hardly
have begun recitation of episodes from the Iliad
by announcing 'The Iliad''.
■ Without a title page, how do you catalogue a
Accessible publications  new, text-based
communities, movements (Protestant
Reformation, liberal and Parliamentarian
political movements)
Standardization of language  new sense of
national belonging
New patron: the printer as capitalist
Printing as prototype for industrial mass
production for profit
The new print shops - scholars, artisans and
translators from various nations and religions found
themselves working together, and cooperating in a
new, more cosmopolitan environment which
encouraged questioning and individual
Church decreases as intermediary in knowledge
access. Church key site of information - sermons
included local and foreign news, real estate, etc.
With pamphlets, books, newspapers, this shifts.
Print as completion of the chirographic revolution
Reified the word as object
Secularization, commodification, and final dominance of
sight over sound
Printed text as efficient, complete thought, vs. the
ornateness and openness of writing
 Emphasis on individual authorship, creativity,
autonomy – scribal culture is primarily about copying
and preserving.
But oral and chirographic culture did not disappear;
literacy was slow in spreading (Chartier, Eisenstein)
Spread of heretical words &
Chartier asks “Do books cause revolutions…books themselves do not, but the
ways they are made, used, and read just might.” Not always for the best, we
might add. Can we think of some examples?
Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield
Civil Disobedience Henry Thoreau
The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx
Declaration to His Countrymen: 95Theses Martin Luther
Family Limitation Margaret Sanger
The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan
Mein Kamp Adolf Hitler
The Origin of the Species Charles Darwin
The Rights of Man Thomas Paine
Satanic Verses Salman Rushdie
Sexual Behavior in the Human Male Alfred Kinsey
The Works of Mao Tse-Tung