Notes from The Printing Revolution

I’ve been reading The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by Elizabeth Eisenstein on the transition of Europe from a scribal culture to a printing culture. In referencing Michael Clapham:

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 eight million books had been printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in A.D. 330.

The printing press had an immense and hard to correlate impact on the past 600 years. How will we build the tools and discover the norms that will shape the next 600 years? Here are some quotes that jumped out at me from the third chapter on the “features of print culture”.

“Increased output and altered intake”

To consult different books it was no longer so essential to be a wandering scholar. Successive generations of sedentary scholars were less apt to be engrossed by a single text and expend their energies in elaborating on it. The era of the glossator and commentator came to an end, and a new “era of intense cross referencing between one book and another” began.

Merely by making more scrambled data available, by increasing the output of Aristotelian, Alexandrian, and Arabic texts, printers encouraged efforts to unscramble these data. Some medieval coastal maps had long been more accurate than many ancient ones, but few eyes had seen either.

Contradictions became more visible, divergent traditions more difficult to reconcile.

Printing encouraged forms of combinatory activity which were social as well as intellectual. It changed relationships between men of learning as well as between systems of ideas.

The new wide-angled, unfocused scholarship went together with a new single-minded, narrowly focused piety. At the same time, practical guidebooks and manuals also became more abundant, making it easier to lay plans for getting ahead in this world – possibly diverting attention from uncertain futures in the next one.

“Considering some effects produced by standardization”

The very act of publishing errata demonstrated a new capacity to locate textual errors with precision and to transmit this information simultaneously to scattered readers.

Sixteenth-century publications not only spread identical fashions but also encouraged the collection of diverse ones.

Concepts pertaining to uniformity and to diversity – to the typical and to the unique – are interdependent. They represent two sides of the same coin. In this regard one might consider the emergence of a new sense of individualism as a by-product of the new forms of standardization.

It’s interesting to think of printing and the uniformity it spread as the birth of individualism. Does the internet, by connecting highly dispersed but like minded people into tight niches bring about a reduction of individualism? Bubbles of conformity within your tribe?

no precedent existed for addressing a large crowd of people who were not gathered together in one place but were scattered in separate dwellings and who, as solitary individuals with divergent interests, were more receptive to intimate interchanges than to broad-gauged rhetorical effects.

There is simply no equivalent in scribal culture for the “avalanche” of “how-to” books which poured off the new presses

“Reorganizing texts and reference guides: rationalizing, codifying, and cataloguing data”

printers with regard to layout and presentation probably helped to reorganize the thinking of readers.

Basic changes in book format might well lead to changes in thought patterns… For example, printed reference works encouraged a repeated recourse to alphabetical order.

Alphabetical ordering. The simplest of sorting algorithms. Today it seems that has been taken by reverse chronological sorting. Only the most recent thing is important.

“From the corrupted copy to the improved edition”

A sequence of printed herbals beginning in the 1480s and going to 1526 reveals a “steady increase in the amount of distortion,” with the final product – an English herbal of 1526 – providing a “remarkably sad example of what happens to visual information as it passed from copyist to copyist.” … data tended to get garbled at an ever more rapid pace. But under the guidance of technically proficient masters, the new technology also provided a way of transcending the limits which scribal procedures had imposed upon technically proficient masters in the past.

fresh observations could at long last be duplicated without being blurred or blotted out over the course of time.

“Considering the preservative powers of print: fixity and cumulative change”

Of all the new features introduced by the duplicative powers of print, preservation is possibly the most important.

as edicts became more visible, they also became more irrevocable. Magna Carta, for example, was ostensibly “published”

Copying, memorizing, and transmitting absorbed fewer energies.

“Amplification and reinforcement: the persistence of stereotypes and of sociolinguistic divisions”

Both “stereotype” and “cliché” are terms deriving from typographical processes developed three and a half centuries after Gutenberg.

an unwitting collaboration between countless authors of new books and articles. For five hundred years, authors have jointly transmitted certain old messages with augmented frequency even while separately reporting on new events or spinning out new ideas.

 

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. (2012-03-29). The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Canto Classics). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

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