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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.

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • Howard Weaver

    “… if we are reversing that revolution in these things as well, then this idea can predict the future.”

    This is admittedly a beguiling idea, but that’s a mighty big “if” to build a whole thesis around. IS there any evidence, really, that it’s true?

    It seems self-evident that the old order is being revised, but what leads us to believe it’s being reversed? That’s just too orderly to be reasonable, isn’t it?

    The nature of revolutions is that they are *not* predictable. Thus the notion that “When you’re living through a revolution, it’s helpful to know what you may be turning toward” is intriguing, I see little here to suggest it’s possible.

  • Kendall G.

    “Here’s what he TOLD me; a TRANSCRIPT of his thoughts is below.”


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  • Megan Garber

    You make a good point, Howard; thanks for writing. I’d say that the evidence you’re looking for does exist — and that it is, in fact, all around us. Look at Facebook. Look at Twitter. Look at (some/many/most) blogs. Look at (many of) the maxims of the future-of-news: news is a conversation; journalism is a process, not a product; etc. Those all suggest an approach to information that’s discursive more than declarative; taken together — as data points, but also as a collective trajectory — they suggest fluidity rather than solidity, flux rather than firmness. They suggest orality rather than textuality.

    There’s a lot of countervailing evidence, as well — books, for example, aren’t going away anytime soon — but the point, I think, is that oral culture is playing an increasingly definitive role in our intellectual life. Even when, superficially, that culture is expressed in text.

    So I guess I’d say, to your broader point: Whether or not the terms of the Gutenberg thesis are airtight — and in my reading of it, the idea of the parenthesis as a structural agent is less tidy, and so more valid, than you suggest — the theory still offers a useful frame for our conversations about where we’ve been and where we’re going. Can information ever be fully contained, by journalists or, indeed, by anyone? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then what mediums and mechanisms will enable that containment in the digital age? If the answer is ‘no,’ then what does that suggest about journalism as an arbiter of truth? How can news-as-conversation and news-as-information coexist in any meaningful way? To me, those are questions worth considering — and ones begged by the theory of the parenthesis.

  • Michael

    Social media = Pre-Gutenberg.
    I think this is a great thesis. It hits the point, if you try to predict how internet is going change our societies.
    Personally I’m not especially keen on a regime based on “1to1 dialogues”, offering only rumours and individual experiences as a benchmark for truth or reality. Social media support nothing than the return of a regime of clans, of non-representative, non-legitimated and non-transparent authorities.
    But sadly this is exactly where technology-driven internet ideology, being affirmative and uncritical to every digital innovation (mistaken as “progress”) is taking us.

    In fact: prepare to wake up in the 15th
    century – with all these Schmidts and Jobs and Zuckerbergs being privatized Popes. Want to understand more? Read Marshall MacLuhan!

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  • Trevor Butterworth

    The Gutenberg Parenthesis is a thesis that is both conceptually confused and lacking in historical context.

    First, the key transition in human culture is from orality to writing and from writing to abstract thought, not orality to books. If you look at the argument between Plato and the poets, it’s, in part, about the superiority of writing to oral poetry as a mode of thinking (Plato was among the earliest writers in the history of literacy). And it is.

    Consider the work of the Soviet psychologist Alexander Luria (one of the founders and progenitors of the field of neuropsychology) who conducted experiments on illiterate peasants in Uzbekistan and Kirghizia in the 1930s.

    To the villagers interviewed by Luria, language was transparent. A tree was that tree over there, singular, known; the category ‘tree’ or the quality of ‘treeness’ were concepts that did not exist. The logic of their thought was purely functional – the only patterns or inferences that existed were those that existed or could be extracted from their experience. Even more astonishing, Luria discovered that these people did not see themselves as “selves” – there was no interior narrative of self-reflection; instead, the villagers could only talk about themselves or other villagers in terms of work or habit.

    Reading and writing did not merely alter perception of the external world, they gave birth to an entirely new dimension: abstraction, a place where logic and imagination could rise and flourish, and from which people found the words to render themselves as self-reflecting individuals.

    The publishing revolution was an efficient way of disseminating the fruits of abstraction, but mass literacy is only a recent phenomenon in the West. The idea of the authority of print has long been contested because, from the 16th century onward, writing was about reasoning and not revealed truth already established by a canon of sacred texts.

    It’s useful to remember that the very first daily newspaper in America devoted its longest article to discussing the errors of the press. In fact, the distinction between literacy and publishing is highlighted by the most ubiquitous kind of error attributed to the press – compositional. The “potatoes” of Europe instead of the Potentates of Europe, to pick one example.

    The only sense of books being revealed truth in human culture are if you have the overarching and ruling concept of Deism and its manifestation in sacred texts. Otherwise, doubt, skepticism, and argument have always attended the written word.

    People, communities, may fall back into predominantly oral modes of communication (many poor communities in the West already have), but that is not to say they are returning to orality. That requires illiteracy. By contrast, the exercise of reasoning will require writing that is transmissible in some form; there is, for example, simply no way to do scientific research in a purely oral framework.

  • Alex Bowles

    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?

    In short, they didn’t. Instead, they relied – largely – on the Church. And to preserve the obvious source of power this entailed, the Church went so far as to outlaw vernacular Bibles, and even direct interpretation by the laity.

    The whole notion of mass, individual literacy, and the development of evidence-based reasoning to help readers establish their own degree of trust was both new, and intrinsic to the scientific revolution. It was also deeply upsetting to the established order, and the cause (in part) of schism, revolution, and protracted warfare.

    While it’s reasonable to think that digital media, ubiquitous computing, global peer-to-peer networks, and explosive development in geo-location can have an effect as significant as the introduction of movable type, it’s not remotely clear that all of this will return us to a state where a single theocratic authority claiming absolute dominion over our very souls will be appointed to determine truth from fiction, trusted to do so using only metaphysics and revelation, and spared from supporting any of its conclusions with evidence, while being permitted to violently suppress any evidence that contradicts its teaching.

    It’s one thing to think of Google as a closing bracket on a now distinct period. It’s another to believe that past is prologue in the sense that humanity is swinging back, pendulum like, to a state of affairs that defined medieval life. Far better to look at the changes that did take place in the wake of a sudden, epoch-defining advance in communication technology, and realize that the scope of the change that followed is what we should be using (at minimum) to evaluate what may unfold from the position we’re in today.

    Evidence, incidentally, is unlikely to decline in importance, meaning a return to pre-scientific norms is dubious. Rather, the range of subjects open to scientific inquiry is likely to expand – especially with regard to social life and the economy (the latter remaining entirely too theoretical to be considered a proper science). What we learn, in combination with our ability to collaborate outside the formal structures of school, state, and company, is likely to be the truly transformative thing. And the result is likely to be as distinct from Modernity as the Medieval was from Antiquity.

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  • Avelar from Brazil

    In my opinion the teacher has not said that he was going back to oral, but the era of thought, statement, printing, statement, indoctrination, the defense and association in real time, as an oral dialogue.

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  • Douglas Perret Starr

    Most newspapers are produced by a group whose decisions on what is news are based upon education, training, experience, and investigation. Few newspapers, few newspaper stories are fabricated or misreported. Errors are made, of course, but they are corrected.

    Blogs are written by people — whom the Constitution is interpreted to label reporters — people who have no education, training, or experience in news gathering and reporting. What they “report” is no more than their own interpretation of events.

    Freedom of Speech, of the Press, of course, but skepticism reigns or we are all in trouble.

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  • Les Howles

    Much of the discussion related to the “Gutenberg Parenthesis” has already been examined in great depth by Marshall McLuhan during the early 60′s and 70′s. I’m baffled that many of these scholars are not referencing McLuhan. I’d suggest people take a look at “Understanding Media,” “The Gutenberg Galaxy” and “The Medium is the Massage.” Although McLuhan did not have knowledge of the Internet he certainly perceived its coming. His entire thesis emphasized that our electrically configured “Global Village” returns us to oral patterns of communication characteristic of a pre-Gutenberg era.

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  • testuser12

    Solipsists like me will be either laughing or disappointed by this whole conversation, depending on our mood.

    The professor speaks of the “truth” as if it is knowable. Ridiculous. There is the possibility that his definition of “truth” is not the standard accepted English definition, in which case he insults the language. Either way, his puke of discourse on the subject of the evolution of human communication is entirely dismissible, and should not-in any way-be regarded as insightful.

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  • Donnfaber

    As a point of reference for getting public attention to a 500 year media event I have made a presentation, “A Renaissance Computer?”  that serves this purpose.  No this is not a sales job.  The collection of early printed leaves needs to have a public purpose in an era that probably should be measured in the many future decades or perhaps, “How to avoid another 30 years war.”  The URL is as follows:  Your comments are welcome.
    Donn Downing

  • Malcolm Petal

    Bunk has always been widely purveyed. You may be prejudiced by th fact that much bunk rarely survives centuries, But remember most of the post-Guttenberg era energy was spent selling the same, unsubstantiated premise that a magic man in the sky promised people we could live forever.