History and Future of the Book: Technologies of Writing and Moral Panic

The brief introductory material to our Trithemius text notes the irony that Trithemius chose to have his praise for scribes distributed by means of print (“apparently because he realized he would gain a wider readership”), and in this irony I find it hard not see an earlier incarnation of the contemporary rant against bloggers that we are surely all aware of, a rant that is often distributed electronically, sometimes even in the form of a blog post. Trithemius praises the scribe for his greater ability to preserve the written word, attributing to him such virtues as “enrich[ing] the Church, preserv[ing] faith, destroy[ing] heresy, dispel[ing] vice and promot[ing] morals and virtue” (470), and decries print for what he believes is its relative impermanence brought about by the ease with which it is created when compared to manuscript. While Trithemius asserts that “word written on parchment will last a thousand years,” as opposed to the ephemeral book of paper about which “the most you can expect [it] to survive is two hundred years,” as absurd as it is I have to admit to feeling a weird sort of vindication knowing that I would never have read Trithemius if copying by hand were still the only way to create books (as if somehow, living now, downloading Trithemius from the internet and printing it off, I’m on the side of technological advancement against Trithemius’s conservatism and am noting some kind of victory).

I note this parallel because moral panic about new technology is an attitude I always find interesting, and one I kind of enjoy pooh-poohing—when people express worry that things like textbook and facebook are making our kids stupid I like to inform them that there are plenty of examples of ancient Greeks expressing despair that the new craze for writing will destroy the ability of the young to remember anything. My point, when saying that, is of course that I think it’s kind of absurd to think that these new technologies are making us stupid in some way that people weren’t already stupid—that people will be more or less the same, just with different opportunities available to them for communication, publication, etc.

But even though I stand by that idea, it strikes me now as somewhat at odds with my other main reflection on our reading this week. I have to acknowledge the warning we received that this first week’s reading from Greetham would be rather dry was apt—loads of information, but in trying to figure out where to go with a response I keep looking for the argument. Which isn’t to say I didn’t find information in here to get (a little, at least) excited about. An example of the type of thing that stands out to me: Greetham notes that “the concept of a book…as a complete bibliographical and esthetic unit is a comparatively late one” (69). What I find interesting here is that, for us, the ‘concept of a book’ as a discrete thing is such a basic idea, and such a fundamental form as a novel relies, before any kind of aesthetic or formal ideas, on the basic assumption of a book as a discrete thing. It’s easy enough to understand how the novel can have a history, how the form had to develop into what it is today, but the fact that there first has to be an idea of a book for the novel to fill strikes me as somewhat more difficult, or at least surprising. And that’s where, just beginning this class, I think I expect to find the most value in studying the history of the book—that is, in those places where we see that ideas we assume are purely abstract are actually contingent on material and technological matters that have, in some way, a history entirely of their own. When we imagine a history of the novel, it’s so easy to see it as a meaningful development, but I think seeing how that development takes place within a history of how paper is made forces us to question how accurate is to understand abstract meaning as a driving force in our history. But in celebrating this awareness, I find myself affirming the notion that materiality, our technologies, do in fact assert themselves into our history, affecting—promoting or restricting—the ways communication and aesthetic forms have developed. So I can’t really say, then, in response to the moral panic about blogs and texting and facebook that these technologies are value-free, a background against which humans will continue to fundamentally be exactly the same as they always are. Moral panic is certainly out of the question, but the reaction that these things don’t matter is equally as useless. In fact, it might even be the case that new technologies will destroy certain things that strike us as profoundly meaningful and sacred and important—so maybe the key is just to accept that we are unlikely, no matter what, to be sure of avoiding to appear from the vantage point of some other time as ridiculous as Trithemius appears to us.

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