Sunday, September 20, 2015

Out of the Gutenberg Galaxy

Too busy screwing together Ikea (company motto: "you buy it, you break it") furniture to do any writing or much anything else today. Here are some excerpts from Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy, which I've had a hard time putting down lately.


Scribal culture could have neither authors nor publics such as were created by typography.

Although we have seen with Hajnal a good deal about the scribal making of books, the assumptions and attitudes of authors about books and readers has not been looked at. Since it was precisely these assumptions that were to undergo very great changes, it is necessary to specify them, however succinctly. For this purpose the work of E. P. Goldschmidt, Medieval Texts and Their First Appearance in Print, is indispensable. His study of the habits and procedures of authorship under manuscript conditions leads him to conclude (p. 116):
What I have tried to demonstrate is that the Middle Ages for various reasons and from various causes did not possess the concept of “authorship” in exactly the same significance as we have it now. Much of the prestige and glamour with which we moderns invest the term, and which makes us look upon an author who has succeeded in getting a book published as having progressed a stage nearer to becoming a great man, must be a recent accretion. The indifference of medieval scholars to the precise identity of the authors whose books they studied is undeniable. The writers themselves, on the other hand, did not always trouble to “quote” what they took from other books or to indicate where they took it from; they were diffident about signing even what was clearly their own in an unambiguous and unmistakable manner.
The invention of printing did away with many of the technical causes of anonymity, while at the same time the movement of the Renaissance created new ideas of literary fame and intellectual property.
It is not entirely self-evident today that typography should have been the means and occasion of individualism and self-expression in society. That it should have been the means of fostering habits of private property, privacy, and many forms of “enclosure” is, perhaps, more evident. But most obvious is the fact of printed publication as the direct means of fame and perpetual memory. For, until the modern movie, there had been in the world no means of broadcasting a private image to equal the printed book. Manuscript culture did not foster any grand ideas in this department. Print did. Most of the Renaissance megalomania from Aretino to Tamburlaine is the immediate child of typography which provided the physical means of extending the dimensions of the private author in space and time. But to the student of manuscript culture, as Goldschmidt says (p. 88): “One thing is immediately obvious: before 1500 or thereabouts people did not attach the same importance to ascertaining the precise identity of the author of a book they were reading or quoting as we do now. We very rarely find them discussing such points.”

Oddly enough, it is a consumer-oriented culture that is concerned about authors and labels of authenticity. Manuscript culture was producer-oriented, almost entirely a do-it-yourself culture, and naturally looked to the relevance and usability of items rather than their sources.
The practice of multiplying literary texts by typography has brought about such a profound change in our attitude towards the book and in our appraisal of different literary activities, that it requires some effort of historical imagination to realize vividly the very different conditions under which books were produced, acquired, disseminated, and procured in medieval times. I must ask you to be a little patient in following some of the reflections I am about to set down which may well appear to be obvious and self-evident. But it can hardly be denied that these material conditions are much too often lost sight of in discussing literary problems of the Middle Ages, and that our mental inertia tends to make us apply criteria of value and of conduct to the writers of medieval books which have originated in our minds under totally different modern conditions. (p. 89)
Not only was private authorship in the later print meanings unknown, but there was no reading public in our sense, either. This is a matter that has usually been confused with ideas about “the extent of literacy.” But even if literacy were universal, under manuscript conditions an author would still have no public. An advanced scientist today has no public. He has a few friends and colleagues with whom he talks about his work. What we need to have in mind is that the manuscript book was slow to read and slow to move or be circulated. Goldschmidt asks (p. 90) us to
try to visualize a medieval author at work in his study. Having conceived the plan to compose a book, he would first of all proceed to collect material and to accumulate notes. He would search for books on kindred subjects, firstly in the library of his own monastery. If he found something he could use, he would write out relevant chapters or entire pieces on sheets of vellum, which he would keep in his cell to be made use of in due course. If in the course of his reading he came upon a mention of a book which was not available in his library, he would be anxious to find out where he could obtain sight of it, not an easy matter in those days. He would write to friends in other abbeys reputed to have big libraries to inquire whether they knew of a copy, and he would have to wait a long time for their replies. A large part of the extant correspondence of medieval scholars consists of such requests for search after the whereabouts of some book, requests for copies of books which are said to exist in the place of the addressee’s residence, requests for the loan of books for copying purposes...
Authorship before print was in a large degree the building of a mosaic:
Nowadays, when an author dies, we can see clearly that his own printed works standing in his bookcases are those works which he regarded as completed and finished, and that they are in the form in which he wished to transmit them to posterity; his handwritten” papers,” lying in his drawers, would obviously be regarded differently; they were clearly not considered by him as ultimately finished and done with. But in the days before the invention of printing this distinction would not by any means be so apparent. Nor could it be determined so easily by others whether any particular piece written in the dead author’s handwriting was of his own composition or a copy made by him of somebody else’s work. Here we have an obvious source of a great deal of the anonymity and ambiguity of authorship of so many of our medieval texts. (p. 92)
Not only was the assembly of the parts of the book often a collective scribal affair, but librarians and users of books took a large hand in composition since small books which only took a few pages, could never be transmitted except in volumes of miscellaneous content. “These volumes comprising many pieces, which probably constituted the majority of the books in the library, were created as units not by the authors or even by the scribes but by the librarians or bookbinders (very often identical).” (p. 94)

Goldschmidt then points out (pp. 96– 7) many other circumstances of pre-print book-making and -using that rendered authorship very secondary:
Whatever the method adopted, a volume containing twenty different pieces by ten different authors would necessarily have to be listed under one name, whatever the librarian might decide to do about the other nine names. And if the first tract in the volume was by St. Augustine, under St. Augustine it would go. If you wanted to see the volume you would have to ask for St. Augustine, even if it should be the fifth treatise in the volume you wanted to consult, which might be by Hugo de Sancto Caro. And if you asked a friend in another abbey to copy something for you which you had noted on a former visit you would have to write to him: “Please copy the treatise on fols. 50 to 70 in your ‘Augustinus.’” This would not necessarily imply that the writer was not aware that the author of this treatise was not Augustinus; whether he thought so or not, he would have to request this book “ex Augustino.” In another library this same text, say the De duodecim abusivis, would be bound third in a volume beginning with something by St. Cyprian. There the same treatise would be “ex Cypriano.” This is but one prolific source of ‘authorship’ attributions, which cause one and the same text to be referred to by a variety of names.
There is another circumstance, much too often forgotten, which greatly adds to the confusion. To the medieval scholar the question: Who wrote this book? would not necessarily or even primarily mean: Who composed this book? It might convey that the inquiry was for the identity of the scribe not of the author. And this would often be a much easier question to answer, for in any abbey the characteristic hand of a brother who wrote many fine books did remain traditionally familiar for generations.

*               *               *

With Gutenberg Europe enters the technological phase of progress, when change itself becomes the archetypal norm of social life.

In an age which discovered this technique of translation as the means of applied knowledge, it is to be expected that it will be found everywhere as a consciously experienced novelty. Sir Philip Sidney, in his Defence of Poetry, felt he had hit upon a quite necessary principle. Whereas the philosopher teaches and the historian gives examples of philosophical principle, only the poet applies the whole matter to the correction of the human will and the erection of the human spirit:
Now doth the peerless poet perform both: for whatsoever the philosopher saith should be done, he giveth a perfect picture of it in some one by whom he presupposeth it was done; so as he coupleth the general notion with the particular example. A perfect picture I say, for he yieldeth to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description: which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul so much as that other doth.
A more unexpected translation into the new mode appears in a letter of Descartes prefacing his Principles of Philosophy: “ may first of all be run through in its entirety like a novel, without forcing the attention unduly upon it....It is only necessary to mark with a pen the places where difficulty is found, and continue to read without interruption to the end.”

The instruction of Descartes to his readers is one of the more explicit recognitions of the change in language and thought resulting from print. Namely, that there is no more need, as there had been in oral philosophy, to probe and check each term. The context will now do. The situation is not unlike the meeting of two scholars today. When one asks, “How do you use the term ‘tribal’ in that connection?”, the other can say, “Read my article on it in the current issue of...” Paradoxically, a close attention to precise nuance of word use is an oral and not a written trait. For large, general visual contexts always accompany the printed word. But if print discourages minute verbal play, it strongly works for uniformity of spelling and uniformity of meaning, since both of these are immediate practical concerns of the printer and his public.

In the same way, a written philosophy, and especially a printed one, will naturally make “certitude” the primary object of knowledge, just as the scholar in a print culture can have acceptance for his accuracy even though he have nothing to say. But the paradox of the passion for certitude in print culture is that it must proceed by the method of doubt. We shall find abundance of such paradoxes in the new technology that made each book reader the centre of the universe and also enabled Copernicus to toss man to the periphery of the heavens, dislodging him from the centre of the physical world.

Equally paradoxical is the power of print to install the reader in a subjective universe of limitless freedom and spontaneity:
My mind to me a Kingdom is;
Such perfect joy therein I find
That it excels all other bliss
Which God or Nature hath assigned.
But by the same token print induces the reader to order his external life and actions with visual propriety and rigour, until the appearance of virtue and stability usurp all inner motive and
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.
The celebrated “To be or not to be” of Hamlet is the scholastic sic et non of Abelard translated into the new visual culture where it has a reverse significance. Under oral scholastic conditions the sic et non is a mode of experiencing the very sinuosities of the dialectical movements of the inquiring mind. It corresponds to the verbal sensing of the poetic process in Dante and the dolce stil nuovo. But in Montaigne and Descartes it is not the process but the product that is sought. And the method of arresting the mind by snapshot, which Montaigne calls la peinture de la pensée, is itself the method of doubt. Hamlet presents two pictures, two views of life. His soliloquy is an indispensable point of reorientation between the old oral and new visual cultures. He concludes with an explicit recognition of the contrast between the old and the new, putting “conscience” against “resolution”:
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. (III, i)
This is the identical division we have already seen in Thomas More’s contrast: “Your scholastic philosophy is not unpleasant among friends in familiar communication, but in the councils of Kings where great matters be debated and reasoned with great authority these things have no place.”

Hamlet is repeating a commonplace conflict of his century, that between the old oral “field” approach to problems and the new visual approach of applied or “resolute” knowledge. And “resolution” is the cant or conventional term used by the Machiavellians. So the conflict is between “conscience” and “resolution,” not in our sense at all, but between an over-all awareness and a merely private point of view. Thus, today the conflict goes the other way. The highly literate and individualist liberal mind is tormented by the pressure to become collectively oriented. The literate liberal is convinced that all real values are private, personal, individual. Such is the message of mere literacy. Yet the new electric technology pressures him towards the need for total human interdependence. Hamlet, on the other hand, saw the advantages of corporate responsibility and awareness (“ conscience”) with each man in a role, not at his private peephole or “point of view.” Is it not obvious that there are always enough moral problems without also taking a moral stand on technological grounds?
Having asked myself this question some time ago, the following feature emerged: the printed word is an arrested moment of mental movement. To read print is to act both as movie projector and audience for a mental movie. The reader attains a strong feeling of participation in the total motions of a mind in the process of thinking. But is it not basically the printed word’s “still shot” that fosters a habit of mind which tackles all problems of movement and change in terms of the unmoved segment or section? Has not print inspired a hundred different mathematical and analytical procedures for explaining and controlling change in terms of the unchanging? Have we not tended to apply this very static feature to print itself and talked only of its quantitative effects? Do we not speak more of the power of print to increase knowledge and to extend literacy than the most obvious features of song, dance, painting, perception, poetry, architecture, and town planning? (49) 
Print is the extreme phase of alphabet culture that detribalizes or decollectivizes man in the first instance. Print raises the visual features of alphabet to highest intensity of definition. Thus print carries the individuating power of the phonetic alphabet much further than manuscript culture could ever do. Print is the technology of individualism. If men decided to modify this visual technology by an electric technology, individualism will also be modified. To raise a moral complaint about this is like cussing a buzz-saw for lopping off fingers. “But,” someone says, “we didn’t know it would happen.” Yet even witlessness is not a moral issue. It is a problem, but not a moral problem; and it would be nice to clear away some of the moral fogs that surround our technologies. It would be good for morality.

As for the technique of doubt in Montaigne and Descartes, it is inseparable, technologically, as we shall see from the criterion of repeatability in science. The print reader is subjected to a black and white flicker that is regular and even. Print presents arrested moments of mental posture. This alternating flicker is also the very mode of projection of subjective doubt and peripheral groping.


  1. Hey, man, it's been awhile since i last checked your blog, i'm glad you're still posting on it. It may not come as a surprise to you at this point, but i got to really enjoy reading the stuff you put out, whether it is about literature, video games or something else (although i'm not really an avid reader, specially considering i'm taking course on electrical engineering, so i mostly read about calculus and physics), mainly after reading about your Final Fantasy essay. It reminded me of the good old days where i would spend an entire day talking with my bud about JRPGs, usually he would beat one and convince me to play it, and when i finally got into it, he would tell me the tips in order to grind more easily and get everything all of the missables and stuff. We still catch up today, but i haven't been playing JRPGs as much as i used to back then (although last year i got to beat FF7 yet again and do some hard materia grinding). I also really really loved your short fighting game story. Funnily enough i kept more in touch with fighting games ever since i got into college thanks to my roommate (dude's a huge SF4 enthusiast).

    Anyway, enough with my rambling.

    Last time i checked you were living in an island (i can't remember the name, it doesn't help that i'm not from the US), are you still there? And how are you doing my man? I hope you're great. Now i'll keep up with your posts like a huge creepy stalker and shit. Take care!

    1. Calculus and physics count. I wish I knew more about them. I often tell myself that someday, SOMEDAY, I will.

      And I'm back on the mainland now. Philadelphia. Things are...well, I don't have a job. And the nights are getting cold, and I no longer have any actual shoes with actual toes. But I'm OFF that fucking island, and two out of the three coffee shops I go to suck down roasty stimulants and use the wifi have been playing Bauhaus. So things could be worse!


  2. I hope you have an electric screwdriver or you will get an RSI.

    1. Fortunately my roommate is one of those people who likes to hang out in the basement and make things out of wood with power tools. It's always sensible to have someone in the house who's good for something.