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April 7, 2010, noon

The Gutenberg Parenthesis: Thomas Pettitt on parallels between the pre-print era and our own Internet age

Could the most reliable futurist of the digital age be…Johannes Gutenberg?

Possibly. Or, definitely, if you subscribe to the theory of the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the idea that the post-Gutenberg era — the period from, roughly, the 15th century to the 20th, an age defined by textuality — was essentially an interruption in the broader arc of human communication. And that we are now, via the discursive architecture of the web, slowly returning to a state in which orality — conversation, gossip, the ephemeral — defines our media culture.

It’s a controversial idea, but a fascinating one. And one whose back-to-the-future sensibility (particularly now, with the introduction of the iPad and other Potential Game-Changers) seems increasingly relevant: When you’re living through a revolution, it’s helpful to know what you may be turning toward.

On hand to discuss the theory further, at an MIT-sponsored colloquium late last week, was Professor Thomas Pettitt of the University of Southern Denmark, who has focused academically on the Gutenberg Parenthesis and its implications. (More on his work, including links to papers he’s presented on the subject, here.)

At the talk, Professor Pettitt discussed, among other things, the implications of the book as an intellectual object — in particular, the idea that truth itself can be contained in text. For the Lab’s purposes, I wanted to hear more about the journalistic implications of that idea — and what it means for our media if we are, indeed, moving into a post-print age.

I spoke with Professor Pettitt and asked him about those implications — and about, in particular, the challenges to a notion of normative truth that they suggest. Here’s what he told me; a transcript of his thoughts is below.

There are things going on that are related changes. The big revolution with Gutenberg changed, or was related to big changes in other aspects — for example, the way we look at the world and the way we categorize things in the world. And if the same thing is happening now, and if we are reversing that revolution in these things as well, then this idea can predict the future. Because we are going forward to the past.

And with regard to things like truth, or the things like the reliability of what you hear in the media, then I think, well, in a way we’re in for a bad time. Because there was a hierarchy. In the parenthesis, people like to categorize — and that includes the things they read. So the idea clearly was that in books, you have the truth. Because it was solid, it looked straight, it looked like someone very clever or someone very intelligent had made this thing, this artifact. Words, printed words — in nice, straight columns, in beautifully bound volumes — you could rely on them. That was the idea.

And then paperback books weren’t quite as reliable, and newspapers and newssheets were even less reliable. And rumors you heard in the street were the least reliable of all. You knew where you were — or you thought you knew where you were. Because the truth was that those bound books were probably no more truthful than the rumors you heard on the street, quite likely.

I often tell my students that they should start their literature work, their work here, by tearing a book to pieces: Take a book, take some second-hand book, that looks impressive — and just rip it to pieces. And you can see that it’s just made, it’s just glued, it’s just stitched. And it’s not invulnerable. It’s just that someone’s made it. It doesn’t have to be true because it looks good.

And that’s what’s happening now. What’s happening now is there’s a breakdown in the categories. Yes. Informal messaging is starting to look like books. And books are being made more and more quickly. Some books seem to be like they are like bound photocopies. You can make a book — you can do desktop publishing. We can no longer assume that what’s in — we’re not distinguishing so much: ‘if it’s in a book, it’s right,’ ‘if it’s in writing, it’s less right,’ and ‘if it’s in speech, it’s less reliable.’ We don’t know where we are.

And I suppose the press, and journalism, and newspapers, will have to find their way. They will have to find some way of distinguishing themselves in this — it’s now a world of overlapping forms of communication. People will no longer assume that if it’s in a newspaper, it’s right. Newspapers are spreading urban legends, some of the time. Or at least now we know that they pass on urban legends. And the formal press will need somehow to find a new place in this chaos of communication where you can’t decide the level, the status, the value of the message by the form of the message. Print is no longer a guarantee of truth. And speech no longer undermines truth. And so newspapers, or the press, will need to find some other signals — it’s got to find a way though this.

And it might do well to take a look at rumors and, sort of, more primitive forms of the press in the 16th century and the 15th century. How did people themselves — when there were no books, how did people sort out the truth? How did they decide what they would rely on and what they wouldn’t rely on? It’ll be a — it’s a new world to find your way around. But that new world is in some ways an old world. It’s the world from before print, and the identifiable newspapers.

POSTED     April 7, 2010, noon
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