Posts Tagged ‘change


Eisenstein’s Printing Press as an Agent of Change

Elizabeth Eisenstein

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe

Area: History of Rhetoric and Memory Studies

From Eric Leed’s Review

·               It is impossible to develop a model which explains how this change takes place, a model which does for the history of communication what Thomas Kuhn did for the history of science with The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

·               I do not think Bagdikian is writing science fiction when he proposes that thiscould “be to politics what nuclear fission was to physical weapons, an increase in power so great that it constitutes a new condition for mankind. The new communications will permit the accumulation of a critical mass of humanattention and impulse that up to now has been inconceivable” (Bagdikian 1971, p.45).

·               How do the new means of communication affect an audience’s sense of “truth,” of”authority,” of the very intelligibility of preexisting resources of meaning? Media are treated as instruments of liberation or enslavement which create either an audience that is rational or a mass incapable of independent critical judgment.    

·               This concern with the effects of a medium on an audience neglects the middle term, culture-the symbolic realities which impose meaning on life-which is what an audience receives through the communications medium.

·               a classically “thick” description of how the introduction of a new medium reorients European culture, it also redirects our attention to the issue of how cultural transformations can be produced by changes in the means of communication. From her description of the relationship between print and the intellectual revolution of the Renaissance and Reformation, we can abstract some of the elements of a communications revolution and apply them to a contemporary context, identifying the differences and similarities in the patterns of transformation.

·               The main focus of her book is not on the ways in which print creates a new audience for books but on the ways in which it alters the shape of the “commonwealth of learning” and establishes a new division of labor among its citizens. Her general thesis is that the most significant effects of print lie not in the ways in which it transmits information but in the way in which it “fixes” and secures tradition.

·               Manuscripts have a precarious existence, vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters, dependent on shifting intellectual fashions and the availability of a corps of scribes. Moreover, print physically secures the corpus of the writ- ten tradition by a means the very opposite of that formerly in use. It is not by secrecy but by publicity, not by its limitation to a small band of adepts but by its broadest diffusion, that the security and potency of knowledge are assured.

·               Print did not itself create that classical revival which is identical with the Italian  Renaissance; nor did it produce Italian humanism. All of the elements of humanism-the emphasis on classical Latin style, the elevation of rhetoric above scholastic logic, the desire to emulate the ancients, the interest in language and non-Christian cultures-were present before print.

·               The most important effect of print, however, was that it changed the very conditions of intellection.

·               One can see how scholars, artists, and scientists increasingly take their dignity not from their ability to reproduce the old but from the ways in which they introduce new articulations of meaning within the established forms. The shift of effort from the replication to the codification of cultural patterns is reflected in the reversal of meaning undergone by the term “original.”

·               Eisenstein’s work gives us new insight into the traditional problem of how a shift of cultural function translates into a change in cultural structure.

·               Knowledge was packaged as “mystery,” with access to it controlled by and restricted to those who had been initiated into its secrets. “Many forms of knowledge had to be esoteric during the age of scribes if they were to survive at all.

·               Europeans became collectors of information par excellence, and the “information explosion” which they initiated burst old corporate structures designed more for the preservation than for the augmentation of knowledge. This meant, too, the rapid expansion of what we would now call an intelligentsia to include not just    professional and certified adepts but also learned and leisured gentlemen of scientific, antiquarian, or literary bent.

·               They, too, could acquire some small permanence, a whiff of immortality, if they added something-however small-to the storehouse of knowledge, or corrected a long-held error.

·               The effect of print on the ethos of those charged with the preservation and verification of the symbolic reality was to raise “objectivity” to the status of a new perceptual ideal.

·               It would now be logical to assert that the perceptions of an individual, freed from all his memberships, have a “universality,” an objective truth, not accessible to those enmeshed in the toils of inherited identities. These perceptions could now be integrated back into the corpus of human knowledge as science, philosophy,             “truth”-forms of knowing innately superior to “faith, illusion and childish prepossession.”

·               Print, in the 16th century, constituted a means by which Europeans could reproduce their symbolic reality in “exactly repeatable” pictorial and textual form.

·               The consumer of meaning is subjected to a barrage of advertisements, information, entertainment, sound, and image which makes it difficult to maintain essential cultural distinctions-such as those between violence and justice, love and sex, the “good” and the “best.” To survive this profusion of symbolic resources initiated by new media it is essential to develop new reading, viewing, and listening habits that involve suspending belief, engaging in automatic low- grade skepticism, or developing new techniques of falsifying information and evaluating            fictions.


July 2017
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