I gave a talk for local librarians on Wednesday, which ended up being about the idea that the age of print was but a short blip in the history of human culture, the Gutenberg Parenthesis, as Tom Pettitt and others have called it (see this PDF for Pettitt’s paper on the topic at MIT5), and that we’re now in the post-parenthetical period. I love the Gutenberg Parenthesis concept – it seems such a great way of explaining the changes we’re going through. But the librarians did point out some problems – for instance, why did copyright appear so late in the age of print if it’s one of the defining features of the Gutenberg Parenthesis? Ibsen didn’t actually own copyright to his own works at the end of the nineteenth century – his publisher did, though. And did I realise that early printers used to travel around from village to village and set up their portable printers and publish small runs of whatever people wanted? Well, no, I hadn’t. Well, the librarian continued, the “authority” and mass-media quality of print wasn’t an issue until Richelieu decided that the state needed more information about its citizens and suddenly required all printed material to be sent to the government – and this idea that print should be controlled by the government quickly spread to other countries. Isn’t that a great example, by the way, of how technology and culture/society are interdependent?

I think these objections merely show that the transitional periods are extremely long, and that norms and expectations based on a previous technology carry over far past the extinction of that technology. That’s why copyright extends and even increases in today’s world, despite its being largely unsuitable for today’s technology and communication.

Having thought about this all Wednesday, Thursday’s lecture to my web design students ended up circling around the same issues – and all the links and so on are summarised in the class blog [Update Sept ’09 – Oops – a teaching assistent deleted THE WHOLE BLOG for that class so that link won’t work and all my notes are lost. GRRR!]

9 thoughts on “heading out of the gutenberg parenthesis

  1. Gro

    I have been teaching renaissance as an epoque just recently, at the brand new subject
    “history and philsophy” at katedralskolen. And this short epoque (1400 -1600)
    is filled with extraordinary discoveries and inventions, done by individuals,
    which we still benefit from. I love the renaissance belief in mankind as
    nearly half-goods, capabale of almost everything! Before Gutenberg came along,
    reading was so exchausting that they recommended it as physical training,
    instead of run or swim you simply read. They did’nt have space between
    words, and they merely wrote what they heard, so no books were similar.

  2. Mark Bernstein

    I’m not sure I follow your point about Ibsen here. Though one may have copyrights, surely they are not inalienable rights: that would make literary contracts immoral. So, if Ibsen sold his copyrights to a publisher, that seems entirely conventional.

  3. whitney trettien

    Hi Jill, I’ve been following your blog on and off, and have always found something to provoke thought. Although I used to love the Gutenberg parentheses idea, too, I don’t find it so compelling anymore — partly because, as the librarians rightly pointed out, print became what it is through social and very human processes (not because of something inherent in the technology), but more so because it encourages thinking in terms of segmented media epochs, with print being something wholly separate from anything else. I think this goes beyond the duration of transitional periods. “The Book” is a strange and versatile form, with many more continuities to new media than we realize; I worry that ideas like the “Gutenberg parentheses” will only further encourage us to separate the “new” from the “old,” always defining one against the other and, in the process, finding only what we seek or expect.

    (Not to mention: letterpress printing is not obsolete!)

  4. William Patrick Wend

    Jill, thanks for the link to the Pettitt article. I’ve been trying to explain this “blip” (great word) in my own work and I am sure it will be helpful for me.

  5. Hypertext 3.0 | William Patrick Wend

    […] For my own work, the chapter of how hypertext changes education is probably the most important. My own views differ a bit from Landow, whose conclusions I think are still too rooted in print culture aesthetics and theory. Nevertheless, I understand that in order to communicate with the humanities that might be a required constraint. One part of Landow’s argument I strongly agree with is that any changes that come in this period, recently coined excellently via Jill Walker-Rettberg by Tom Pettitt and others as the Gutenberg Parenthesis (more on this in the future), will take a long time. […]

  6. […] (And some of her current posts develop further what we’ve been discussing in class: heading out of the gutenberg parentheses, for instance, is worth a read – not only for class but to see how scholars blogs and how they connect and interact on blogs.) […]

  7. Gisele H.

    The age of print was a short blip in the history of human culture, the Gutenberg Parenthesis> http://jilltxt.net/?p=2317

  8. Gisele

    Great insights! Thanks!

  9. […] And for a little more, you could see my presentation discussing the concept with librarians, which emphasises the meaning of silent reading and such – and the post includes some interesting objections from the librarians. […]

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