The Hidden Center of the "Gutenberg Galaxy"

McLuhan and the Gutenberg Galaxy

Technological determinists have always assumed that technology proceeds autonomously, dragging society in its wake, forcing it to adapt. They think that technology arises mostly out of serendipity, and then society eventually finds the appropriate uses for it, and only then do certain social changes follow from that choice. For example, the stirrup, it is thought, did much to create the birth of horseback warfare, and the growing importance of landed knights in feudal society... but what if certain technologies are planned? What if there are forces controlling their creation and introduction into society at large? What if the social changes that result from these technologies are intended , rather than unintended, by certain groups? Such a perspective might turn technological determinism on its head, so to speak.

Marshall McLuhan wrote a good deal about the "Gutenberg Galaxy" - the 'constellation' of changes wrought on European society after the German of that name figured out how to turn a winepress into a holder for movable type - in other words, a printing press - in the 15th century. Certainly, the printing press, besides making books available beyond just a small literate priestly elite, also created a vast number of changes in the political, religious, and social landscape. Certainly, it, and the discovery of the New World, are responsible for a great deal of the changes in European society that we know as the Renaissance - the revival of classical arts and sciences, the new interest in learning and the natural world. Gutenberg's press also made possible the Protestant Reformation - because, as Martin Luther came to realize, the wide translation and printing of the Bible meant "every man be a priest."

It's certainly hard to see how any of the changes which followed - the Scientific revolution, the Industrial revolution, the Enlightenment, the rise of capitalism, and the rise of the nation-state (this last being facilitated by the rise of the newspaper and cartography for the masses, as Benedict Anderson discusses in Imagined Communities )- could have occurred without the widespread literacy and education that the printing press made possible. McLuhan discusses the changes wrought by the "Gutenberg Galaxy" as a sort of prologue, because he is really interested in what is now happening to our society in our second "Gutenberg revolution" - namely, the rise of electronic media: television, radio, video, computers, etc. However, he assumes that these changes, like the ones that preceded them five centuries earlier, are effects from an autonomously developed group of technologies.

But what if there were a hidden center to the "Gutenberg Galaxy?" As we are entering our post-print, post-literate, hyper-textual era, we might do well to reflect on whether there were groups who were interested in introducing the technologies we seem to be abandoning. It might make us consider the additional possibility of whether there are groups interested in fostering our current phase of technological change, and what their motivations and agendas might be. Such a viewpoint leads us to that of cultural determinism of technology - but also to the possibility that culture might be "driven" by certain groups. The ideology of every era is that of its ruling class - but do we always know who our rulers are?

Before we come to the birth of the printing press, and then to our current Age of the Digital Word, it might befit us to stop for a moment and look at an earlier technological revolution - one that occurred perhaps five millenia ago - the birth of writing. We could take an even earlier detour - perhaps to the origins of speech and language itself - but starting with the written word seems appropriate, since for most archaeologists and historians it marks the origins of civilization and recordkeeping, and hence history itself. With much of the talk of a coming "end to history" in the air, it might befit us to remember that if the dawn of the written word brought history into being, perhaps its being "rubbed out" would signify its end...

The Dawn of Writing

In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman discusses the mythic debate over the introduction of writing between Teheuti (Thoth) and Thamus the technological skeptic in Plato's Phaedrus . Teheuti argues for the positive advantages of writing, but Thamus counters that rather than aiding memory or wisdom, writing will lead to decreased memory and a false wisdom - a belief that information is the same thing as knowledge. Plato's own ambivalence about writing is well known - as Derrida points out, he calls it pharmakon , a word that suggests both medicine and poison. Of course, by Plato's time, writing in Greece was fairly widespread, and many oral tales that had long been retold over and over (such as Homer's Iliad ) were finally being put down on the written papyrus.

It's fairly easy to list the obvious changes made possible by writing. Certainly, it allowed the emergence of classes of people in charge of recordkeeping, taxation, and religious liturgy - scribes, bureaucrats, and priests - and thus made possible hierarchical social organization. The first types of writing - hieroglyphs, cuneiform, Chinese idiographic writing - were mostly pictoral, but the creation of alphabets (arbitrary representations of phonetic utterances) made possible larger vocabularies and more complex semantics. Most cultures clearly associated the origins of writing with the birth of their own civilizations, hence the technology of writing was ascribed to some mythic "culture-bringer" - Ogham, Thoth, Quetzelcoatl, etc.

Most people are not aware, however, what writing had undone. Plato talks about how many rhetoricians used a technique known as the Art of Memory for facilitating their recall - a technique which seems to have involved projecting concepts or ideas into internally visualized architectural spaces, there to be later recalled. He laments how writing has made the once noble Art of Memory largely a forgotten art. Many cultures utilized an entirely oral tradition for maintaining their cultural sagas and mythos - the Druids had to study twenty years of wholly oral instruction. Even today, there are bards which remember and sing national epics and tales which are thousands of lines long. Plato may not have been the first one to notice that writing may have destroyed man's own prodigious mnemonic talents.

Part of the Art of Memory also involved using tools and images - icons, if you will - as metaphors for symbolic, moral instruction. Even today, we see this in chivalric, fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons, who use the tools of the building trade to symbolize their higher precepts. But if there is anything recent religious history has suggested, it is that the various Peoples of the Book (Biblios ) - those whose religious life lies in an intimate connection to a sacred text - have overcome those whose religious life is tied to images or icons ('idolaters'.) Nonetheless, for the various monotheistic religions, it is clear that the Logos or uttered word is prior to and superior to the written or recorded revelations of the Divine. Hence, in Judaism, the importance of prophetic proclamations about the spirit rather than the letter of the Law, and the priority attached to the "oral Torah."

The spoken word is intimate, tied to the very breath and health of the speaker. The written word makes possible the autonomous survival of knowledge - with an oral tradition, it disappears when the oralists have all been killed; but, as people have noted for a long time, writing is impersonal, does not carry emotional intonations as well as speech, and lacks the identifying characteristics (pitch, tone, timbre, rate, etc.) that links speech to a speaker. Certainly, writing displays styles - some people insist they can recognize any particular writer's writing - but it is also not as idiosyncratic as speech. Even on the phone, we immediately know the voices of our loved ones. They are distinctive and unique. Most civilizations recognized that writing had been introduced as a divine gift, perhaps by a group of hieratic initiates - but, like Thamus, they knew that it had costs as well as benefits.

And then, the Renaissance

As most commentators have pointed out, throughout the great breadth of the Dark and Middle Ages, literacy was not very widespread. There was little need for it to be, since monastic copyists often took years to reproduce a text. Literacy was reserved for the elite - the nobility and the priests - who were all too glad to perpetuate the ignorance and lack of learning of their hapless serfs. Copies of the great Greek and Latin thinkers - Cicero, Aristotle, Pliny, Herodotus, etc. - existed; but they were held tightly by Schoolmen in cloistered universities, and not easy for the common man to access. The printing press made these texts more widely available, and for once the common man could study Aristotle or the Bible for himself, and not have to take the scholarly elite's word for it. Hence, the Renaissance - a renewed interest in classical knowledge and learning.

Was the printing press purely serendipitous? It does seem to have arrived at the right place at the right time. We know much about the esoteric traditions surrounding the guilds of the journeyman builders (masons, the compannage ) and coalminers/charcoal burners (Carbonari) of that time, which often operated like secret societies. But few people have been exposed to the equally mysterious traditions of the printers' and papermillers' guilds. Harold Bayley, in his book The Lost Language of Symbolism, finds that the watermarks used by the various printers' guilds were not arbitrary - they were a Hermetic, hieratic "language" in themselves, rich in alchemical and mystical content. Bayley was one of the first people to suggest that it might be worthwhile to historians to take a closer look at the membership and structure of the printers' guilds, but his call for such an examination has been largely ignored.

Bayley felt he had given "a new light on the Renaissance," by suggesting that the heretical content of many of these watermarks or emblems linked the printing guilds to the earlier guilds of papermakers. Bayley advanced the startling thesis that "watermarks denote that papermaking was an art introduced into Europe, and fostered there by the pre-Reformation Protestant sects known in France as the Albigeois (Albigensians) and Vaoudois (Waldenses), and in Italy as the Cathari (Cathars) or Patarini (Popelicans.)" Further, he said, "The nursing mother of the Renaissance, and consequently of the Reformation, was not, as hitherto assumed, Italy, but the Provencal district of France."

Bayley suggests it was Huguenot refugees that brought papermaking and the printing art into England; and he feels that the Huguenots were tied into a tradition stretching back to the Cathars of Provencal and to the even earlier Gnostics. Since Gnostic groups had always stressed knowledge over faith and self-discovery rather than instruction by hierarchical authorities, one might see the "Gutenberg revolution" as quite a Gnostic coup - destroying the literacy monopoly of both the Catholic Church and the feudal state. The watermarks, Bayley suggests, are key symbols of a not yet forgotten oral, iconic, and allegorical tradition. He felt they pointed to some of the earliest and most fundamental concepts of language (i.e. Indo-European tongues) and to allegories of the journey of the soul after death.

Bayley felt that many of the watermarks pointed to key mythic complexes in European legend - today, we might call them archetypes of the collective unconscious - such as the Star of the Sea (Stella Maris ), the Single Eye (of Horus), the "President of the Mountains," and the Shulamite or beloved of the Song of Solomon. One might say that the printers' guilds knew that introducing widespread printing, just as with the introduction of writing, would create winners and losers. But, like Thoth, they might have known who the losers would be beforehand, and possibly planned things that way. In addition, however, in distributing books far and wide, they also may have been propagating a more hidden, subliminal code within the text - the message of the watermarks themselves. This may have been the hidden center of the "Gutenberg Galaxy."

Today, the Arrival of the Electronic Word

And so we come back to our time, as new media become our messages. If we open ourselves to considering the possibility that a group of initiates might have been "behind the scenes" and "stage-managing" the motions of the "Gutenberg Galaxy," we might also consider that possibility for the constellation of technological changes we see which are trying to send that galaxy spinning away. Many people are openly saying it: print is dead, the era of the printed word and the book is fading, and thus a new kind of literacy - "teleliteracy," ("the grammatology of video,") the reading of the moving image and multimedia barrage before us - is being propagated. The sort of linear, logical, sequential thinking encouraged by print is being assaulted by the jumpcut, hypermoving, kinetic style of the new media. Attendant with such changes are other assaults on the textual canon - deconstruction, poststructuralism, new theories of literary criticism.

To modern classicists, terrified by MTV, and its attendant phenomena - hypertext and hypermedia, electronic 'augmented' books, e-zines, home video, etc. - this is the death of civilization itself, since in their eyes we seem to be leaving the printed text behind and returning to the moving image or fetish. Some English teachers welcome the coming of the electronic word; others react with horror. For some, the electronic media restore that feeling of immediacy, presence, and participation lost through writing and print. No one knows for sure what the new electronic media will bring, or whether it will really be the death of the book/text/word/print/linearity, or what social changes they may create - we're simply too early on the curve to tell. But it is worthwhile to ask ourselves as to whether some of the changes electronic media will bring were not intended, perhaps by wizards or 'initiates' of their own sort...

If one reads the works of some of the earliest pioneers in personal computing, such as Douglas Engelbart or Ted Nelson (or perhaps even Vannevar Bush with his Memex machine), who pioneered some of the first applications in word processing and hypertext, it was clear that they had a social and political agenda. As Michael Heim suggests in The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, they had a plan. For Engelbart, the computer would be an "Augmentation Machine." It would not think for you, but would help you think better and function as a "Knowledge (gnosis? ) Machine." Digital text searching meant rapid and easy access to information databases by the masses, and word processing and electronic mail meant people could quickly and easily share that information. And hypertext meant that the world's knowledge could be seamlessly woven together, much like the integrated unified system of knowledge imagined by the mystic Ramon Lull.

For the "hardware hackers" of the 70s, the California computer hobbyists who made personal computing a reality, it was clear that the technology was driven by a vision. Computing would no longer be a tool of gray-suited faceless technocratic elites and big, powerful, impersonal corporations, governments, and "think tanks." The PC would put the power of computing in the little guy's hands - just as the printing press meant that they could get their hands on what the priests and Schoolmen had already been reading in the 15th century. For the members of the People's Computer Company (PCC), the computer (as symbolized by the 'hulking giants' of IBM) would no longer simply be a tool of oppression and control - instead it could be used to facilitate "Community memory" and community activism. It meant access to information and power for the masses. Modern gnosis.

The icon-windows-and-mouse interface pioneered by the West Coast hackers at Xerox PARC was an assault on the traditional ways people related to computers. Originally, they submitted punched cards to the faceless "operators"; later, they came to use basically "user-unfriendly" systems which required linear, textual, "computerese" input. What the new style of operating system made possible was transparency, a way for the ordinary guy to understand and control the processes in the computer. The "point-and-click" interface enables anyone to use the computer to be an artist, a writer, perhaps a priest. These new initiates have left new traces of their handiwork. Rather than using watermarks, their secret story has been left in our electronic media, and as always it has been left in the icons.

Steve Mizrach (aka Seeker1)

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