Printing Press as an Agent of Change

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* Book: The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Volumes 1 and 2 in One). By Elizabeth L. Eisenstein

Review 1

Clay Spinuzzi:

"Eisenstein is specifically concerned with the printing revolution in early-modern Europe, beginning in the late 15th century. She argues that this revolution is an "unacknowledged revolution," that is, that printing had a far broader paradigmatic impact than has previously been acknowledged. "Far from being integrated into other works," she complains, "studies dealing with the history of printing are isolated and artificially sealed off from the rest of historical literature" (pp.5-6). Yet "neither political, constitutional, ecclesiastical, and economic events nor sociological, philosophical, and literary movements can be fully understood without taking into account the influence the printing press has exerted upon them" (p.7). Printed materials are so common now that we take for granted how much they have impacted and changed our lives:

- Indeed the more abundant [quotidian printed materials] have become, the more frequently they are used, the more profound and widespread their impact. Typography is thus still indispensable to the transmission of the most sophisticated technological skills. It underlies the present knowledge explosion and much of modern art. In my view, at least, it accounts for much that is singled out as peculiarly characteristic of mid-twentieth century culture. But, I repeat, the more printed materials accumulate, the more we are inclined to overlook them in favor of more recent, less familiar media. (p.17).

Part 1

"Eisenstein argues that beyond printing itself, the printing press led a new coordination of intellectual labor, in which the printer became a boundary-crosser who wore many hats (p.56). Printing also allowed easier comparisons and cross-references (p.72). Suddenly, for instance, Montaigne "could see more books [in] a few months ... than earlier scholars had seen after a lifetime of travel," and consequently conflict, diversity, and contradictions became more visible to him than to his predecessors (p.74). But the printing press didn't just enable new enlightenment, it also enabled new mystification: one working thesis was that various ancient philosophical and mystical texts were fragments of an ancient ur-text penned by Adam, encapsulating secrets revealed to him before the Fall (pp.77-78). Similarly, another initial effect was to widely disseminate "seemingly authoritative, actually fraudulent esoteric writings" (p.78). Tools that were useful in one domain, such as astronomical tables, were applied in other domains, resulting in "the fixing of precise dates for the Creation or for the Second Coming" (p.79).

Print culture also generated new genres and components. For instance, there was no equivalent in scribal culture for the new how-to books (p.88). Print leveraged the power of identical copies, so indexes became practical and desirable (p.91). Indexes and cross-references, though based on previous forms, were newly systematized (p.93).

At the same time, the more accessible ancient texts became, the less mystical and less relevant they became: in the case of the Corpus Juris, for example, printing led to access, which led to demystification (pp.103-104). New forms of classification became possible, and publishers established the lasting, seemingly fundamental division between sciences and humanities in order to divide their catalogs more easily (p.107).

The sciences developed under print culture. In particular, data (tables, charts, indexes) had often been garbled by scribes, and ignorant printers tended to garble them more quickly; but strong printers corrected them more quickly, and through sometimes innovative methods: "They created vast networks of correspondents, solicited criticism in each edition, sometimes publicly promising to mention the names of readers who sent in new information or who spotted the errors which would be weeded out" (p.109). Related, print culture resulted in a new ethos for guarding data: Thomas Jefferson exemplifies this new ethos, arguing that valuable data were best preserved by making them public - and printing them frequently (p.116).

Printing affected law in similarly fundamental ways. "Much as M. Jourdain learned that he was speaking prose, monarchs learned from political theorists that they were 'making' laws. But members of parliaments and assemblies also learned from jurists and printers about ancient rights wrongfully usurped. Struggles over the right to establish precedents became more intense, as each precedent became more permanent and hence more difficult to break" (p.119).

Printing also affected public life, particularly through journals, gazettes, and newsletters. By the 18th century, "Increasingly the well-informed man of affairs had to spend part of each day in temporary isolation from his fellow men"; by the 19th, "gossiping churchgoers could often learn about local affairs by scanning columns of newsprint in silence as well." Eisenstein forwards print as an explanation for the weakening of community ties during that time (p.131). "To read a printed report encourages individuals to draw apart," she argues, and "the shift in communications may have changed the sense of what it meant to participate in public affairs. The wide distribution of identical bits of information provided an impersonal link between people who were unknown to each other" (p.132). Communal solidarity was diminished, but "vicarious participation in more distant events was also enhanced" and "new forms of group identity began to compete with an older, more localized nexus of loyalties" (p.132). Similarly, private life began to change, with progressively differentiated groups of readers (men, women, children); age-grades in schools; peer groups; and an emerging youth culture (p.134; cf. Hernandez). Eisenstein also hints at the impact of printing on the emergence of the modern State (pp.134-135; cf. Bobbitt). "

Part 2

"The above summary, I'm afraid, is only of Part I of the book. In subsequent chapters, Eisenstein examines a number of topics in greater detail. First, she examines the Renaissance and the Reformation. In particular, she argues that in Italy, the advent of printing helps to explain "a shift in human consciousness and a concurrent revolution in communications" (p.226). Print enabled greater border-crossing (p.249). It enabled a classical revival, initially involving a flood of mysticism, but giving way to less mysterious, more systematic study (p.279).

During the Reformation, Eisenstein argues, Protestantism was the first movement to exploit print's potential as mass medium and for propaganda (p.304). Luther believed that printing was "'God's highest and extremist act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward'" - and also as "'the last flame before the extinction of the world'" (p.304). (It's worth noting that last semester, as I was reading this book, someone at the edge of campus handed me a tract that made a similar claim based on the penetration of digital media.) Luther was nevertheless take aback when his 95 Theses, which he had expected to circulate locally among academics, were reprinted and disseminated widely (p.306). "If we stay at the Wittenberg church with Luther we will miss seeing the historical significance of the event," Eisenstein states, sounding like Latour (p.310). Part of that significance was that Bible printing had changed the church. Eisenstein quotes Eugene Rice as arguing that the medieval church was more ecumenical and compromising, with more room for doctrinal disagreements; during the Reformation, doctrinal disagreements polarized into Protestantism and Catholicism (p.325). Eisenstein suggests that print precipitated this change (p.325). Indeed, when the Catholic church began to ban books, it created what publishers considered to be an irresistable untapped niche with built-in appeal (p.416).

Print also allowed people to compare religious texts, to examine them in different languages, and to study them independently. Calvin, for instance, represented "a new kind of theologian, one who had taken no degree in theology and had never been ordained priest" (p.402). "On the desirability of lay literacy, doctrinaire Calvinists and more tolerant Erasmians, ambitious men of letters, and profit-seeking printers were all in accord" while Anglicans "objected, in 1543, to Bible-reading among 'women, apprentices, husbandmen'" (p.421). For Puritans, Bible-reading was "the most vital principle of [their] creed" (p.421). Protestantism, Eisenstein argues, was a "book religion," and she outlines the cycle that encouraged and established this culture (p.422). This print culture resulted in books of coded behavior, "internalized by silent and solitary readers" and manifesting in a "voice of individual conscience"; but it also created a collective morality - including "a 'middle class' morality which harked back to Xenophon and the Bible [and] was fixed in a seemingly permanent mold" (p.429).

Print's effects on religion were sometimes much darker: Eisenstein attributes the witch craze as a byproduct of printing - as well as literal fundamentalism, which became more widely possible as more people became conversant with the literal Bible (p.439). "The many changes introduced by the new technology, far from synchronizing smoothly or pointing in one direction, contributed to disjunctions, worked at cross-purposes and operated out of phase with each other" (p.440).

In science, "the shift from script to print preceded a transformation of world views" (p.459). Before print, knowledge degraded with copies. For instance, Ptolemaic world maps were copied by hand, degrading rather than evolving, with no established process of feedback (p.479). Printing, on the other hand, expanded the number of possible contributors, contributors who were not "educated"and so could make original contributions rather than recapitulating the contributions of the past (p.486).

Science was also directly impacted by religion. For instance, Christians had a challenge in locating Easter both on a repeating calendar and in proximity with the season. This complex problem spurred developments in calendars, astronomy, and chronology (p.610); "By a seeming paradox, their most sacred festival kept Christians bent toward puzzle-solving of a purely scientific kind" (p.611). Similarly, "The Koran did not provide the same incentive that the Vulgate did to master strange tongues or dig up ancient scrolls" (p.612). Print enabled the expansion of techniques that resulted from these religiously grounded complex puzzles.


In her conclusion, Eisenstein links the print revolution to the emergent digital texts she saw (in 1979, when the book was published). She points out that "the process that began in the mid-fifteenth century has not ceased to gather momentum in the age of the computer print-out and the television guide. Indeed the later phases of an on-going communications revolution seem altogether relevant to what is happening within our homes, universities, or cities at present. In particular, they are relevant to apocalyptic pronouncements about contemporary Western culture delivered by modern intellectuals and literati" (p.704)."

Overall, this book was fascinating, and it provides a good starting point for examining and theorizing the enormous changes that the print revolution abetted. I particularly appreciated the focus on more quotidian texts in addition to great texts such as the Bible, law, and scientific treatises: it's often in the quotidian texts that fundamental changes develop and spread. The book also provides a model for examining contemporary changes in digital texts - changes that surely won't be parallel, but may result in similarly fundamental cultural and paradigmatic changes." (

Review 2

cr shalizi:

"This is and deserves to be a modern classic, and I wish I'd read it long ago. Eisenstein's fundamental point, which I think is entirely sound, is that you cannot understand anything about the transition from ancient or medieval intellectual life to the modern life of the mind without grasping the importance of being able to quickly, cheaply make large numbers of very accurate copies of a text, and distribute them widely.

To give just one point: one reason ancient and medieval scientists thought that older books were ipso facto better books, was that it was literally true. Scribes are awful at reproducing technical material. This meant that either scientists had to waste immense efforts, e.g., correcting astronomical tables or re-doing mathematical calculations, or cluster around rare centers where rulers were willing to put vast efforts into maintaining highly accurate manuscript collections, or live with knowledge that degenerated from copy to copy and generation to generation. Printing made it possible to change all that. Printing made it possible to reproduce, e.g., a table of sines or logarithms or latitudes which could be trusted. Printing made it possible for scholars across the European subcontinent, and eventually beyond, to access the same texts. Printing made possible the second edition --- the expanded and corrected second edition.

Again: with manuscripts, copying texts is extremely expensive. This tends to make scholarly attention to one field of inquiry come at the expense of others --- more scribes copying ancient philosophy or histories means fewer copying mathematics or books of mechanical devices. The constraint of sheer book-reproduction is vastly weakened by introducing printing: a society which is interested in Cicero and Archimedes and Augustine and political pr0n can have them all [1]. Not having to make such choices was itself transformative. If the arrival of printing coincides with a revival of interest in classical literature, it can propel the latter from a passing incident (as had happened several times before) into a permanent intellectual and spiritual revolution. It can make possible the scientific and industrial revolutions, and all that have followed from them.

Eisenstein also has very interesting things to say about the religious impact of printing, including how the multi-lingual origins of the Christian Bible first stimulated scholarship and then led to skepticism, and the feedback loop between Protestant Bibliolatry, wide-spread literacy, and the viability of printing as a trade and a profit-making business. Again, there is fascinating material in here on the impact of printing on the rise and then decline of magic and occultism. And on and on.

There are drawbacks to the book. Eisenstein's implied reader isn't just familiar with at least the outlines of the political and intellectual history of western Europe from say 1400 to 1700, they know a lot about it, including the origins and spread of movable-type printing. The reader doesn't just know who Gutenberg was, or Erasmus, or Francis Bacon, but Ramus and Scaliger and Plantin and Bruno. (I admit I had to look up a lot of the printers and not a few of the scholars.)

Even with this knowledge, it seems to me to be insufficiently comparative. There are gestures at why Christendom was more apt to be transformed by printing than the Islamic lands, but some of these seem to rest on mis-understandings [2] or even mere failure of imagination. More importantly, Eisenstein pays almost no attention paid to East (and Central) Asia. This is where printing began, and became ubiquitous, centuries before Gutenberg. So why did it not have the effects there that Eisenstein claims for it in western Europe? Something clearly led to very different effects, but it's hard, on her account, to see why [4]. Of course, this is asking for a great deal of a single historian!

The anthropologist Dan Sperber once wrote that "culture is the precipitate of cognition and communication in a human population". Even with my quibbles, this is the best examination I've ever seen about how changing the means of communication changed the culture of a human population. That transformation is still reshaping the world, and I think this book is essential reading for coming to grips with it." (