The Printing Press: A Vehicle for Modernity

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1 The Printing Press: A Vehicle for Modernity November 3, 2010 Ailsa Lapp COMM345 Assignment #1 Professor: Virginia McKendry

2 Throughout the history of civilization, the invention of printing has been argued to have had one of the most critical contributions for revolutionary change. Introduced into Western society in the medieval era of the 15 th Century (1455), Johannes Gutenberg s printing press was the vehicle for change from an oral culture to a written one. This change included a series of losses, but as historian Lewis Mumford argued, the advent of print literacy and its revolutionary effects more than made up for the other human qualities that were forfeited though the invention of the printing press (Mumford, p. 94). The printing press, in a variety of contexts, facilitated the advent of literacy precipitated social change and liberal ideology that lead to modernity, the concept of democracy, and Western life as we know it today. In order to argue the claim that the beneficial effects brought about by the printing press greatly outweigh the losses endured by the disappearance of oral culture, it is necessary to know the history preceding its arrival. Although written communication had existed since 3500BCE, medieval European society what Mumford described as the eotechnic phase ( ) was an illiterate, oral culture. The public was under religious and aristocratic rule and possession of written work that did exist was a privilege reserved for the religious elite. Written word was used mainly for religious manuscript which, with its beautiful calligraphy and graphics, was more of an elaborate work of art. The aesthetics and style also much lot about the author, and was considered to be his signature or way of expressing himself. To one that might argue that the printing press destroyed the aesthetic quality of the illuminated manuscript, it is important to know that, before its arrival, this aspect of written text had already started to fall out of favour. In an attempt to standardize works and make them more legible and neutral to the reader, as well as the desire to speed up the circulation of materials which were slowed by the esthetic excellence of the illuminators and illustrators, the occupation of the copyist was established and eventually followed by the invention of moveable type (Mumford, p. 93). So the replacement of aesthetics by function and efficiency had already been set in motion by the time the printing press evolved in 1455, and became a means to standardize in a more rigorous fashion a product already standardized (Mumford, p. 94). Following its introduction, the value of the printing press was seen merely as a way to speed up the production of the printed manuscript, or Gutenberg bible, for those that could afford it. It was not until much later into the industrial era - Mumford s paleotechnic phase ( CE) - that the cultural effects with which we associate the printing press today became evident. It was at this time that Mumford s idea of technoculture, or culture as influenced by technology emerged (Black: 2010, September 28). as the printing press became a vehicle for change in a series of historical revolutions in

3 combination with, as Mumford theorized, a new social medium...that was ready to equalize advantages and get rid of the ruling cast (Mumford, p. 92). The first movement of this new social medium in which the printing press played a significant role was the Protestant Reformation of the 16 th century, said to be one of the greatest positive forces toward literacy and schooling (Graff, p. 104). Initiated in 1518 by Martin Luther, the Reformation was defined by a series of social movements motivated by the increasing dissatisfaction with the papacy as well as other economic, political, cultural and social issues of that time. According to historian Harvey Graff, two of the most significant developments of the Reformation were the contribution of the printing press and the use of the vernacular [bible] (Graff, p. 104). Its first application was through the use of widely circulated printed material that facilitated the first ever propaganda campaign, spreading the reformers ideas and uniting the different social movements that shaped the Reformation. Secondly, the ideology behind the Luther s movement was a return to more active piety, free of the strict papacy. In order to return religion to a more personal experience, the Holy Word needed to be within everyone s reach. Literacy was therefore necessary for indoctrination and religious and moral improvement (Graff, p. 107). Thus the printing press also allowed for the increased printing and circulation of the bible and other religious materials in the Vernacular languages which then served as a basis for schooling and literacy instruction (Graff, p. 107). While the printing press didn t itself determine the social change that permanently split the world of Western Christendom and firmly ended the Middle Ages, it played a very significant role (Graff, p. 105). The effect of the printing press continued into the 17 th century with a series of sociocultural advancements. With the advent of an increasingly literate society, networks of communication changed quickly from oral to print. Messages in the form of print leaflets and posters started to be transmitted, followed by the periodical publication of news in the form of newsbooks as a means to deliver foreign news. This was a major development because for the first time, people had a sense of a world of events which lay beyond the individual s immediate milieu (Thompson, p.114). By the second half of the 17 th century, print communication had developed into the early versions of today s newspaper, covering domestic news of political, economic, and social nature which had previously been forbidden by the strict rule of the state. In this era, print not only increased the scope of the world through print communication and the early newspaper, but also facilitated a new way of looking at it, as defined by the Scientific Revolution. With the reality of nature being questioned, and scientific reasoning beginning to replace religious faith and superstition, printed works aided the spread of these rational, secular ideas. As Mumford suggested when he claimed, without print, we live on a low level of abstraction,

4 print opened up a world of facts and suggested that it could be rendered in a universal, stable, and provable form (Black: 2010, September 28). This opening up of the world through print, as Mumford suggested, removed people from their chains to the world of here and now that were fatal to human development, and set the stage for the Enlightenment of the 18 th Century (Mumford, p.94). It was during Enlightenment that print became the true carrier of modernity by which we arrived at society as we know it today (Black: 2010, September 28). The concept of modernity - defined as the social, economic and political systems, of Western culture from the 18 th century onwards - and the Enlightenment were shaped by the French and American Revolutions of the late 1700 s (Black: 2010, September 28). A key driving force behind this era of political and social upheaval was what Jurgen Habermas referred to as the public sphere: a figurative space where people began to express their opinions, discuss secular and rational ideas, and question aristocratic and religious rule. With the means to mass produce and circulate this public opinion, print played a significant role in the public sphere becoming a powerful force in society, and newspapers began to provide a vehicle for challenging the affairs of state and matters of public concern. In attempts to maintain control over the public, governments tried to implement censorship and control over newspapers. The idea of the free press and democratic ideals emerged as advocates saw the free expression of opinion through...an independent press as a vital safeguard against despotic use of state power. (Thompson, p. 116). It was during the time leading up to the French and American Revolutions of the Enlightenment when the struggle for an independent press with a minimum of state interference and control, played a key role in the development of the modern constitutional state (Thompson, p. 116). By the 19 th century and the emergency the penny press, the free press inherent to democratic society had been achieved, and the traditional rule succumbed to liberal ideals and rights of society as we know it today. As Lewis Mumford said, printing broke the class monopoly of the written word, and it provided the common man with a means of gaining access to the culture of the world (Mumford, p. 94). In retracing the history of Western society, it is clear that in communication with the cultural condition of each era, print was a key factor in the rise of free cities, urban democracy and an increasingly literate group of citizens ; it facilitated social change and provided a medium for modern ideologies that shaped life as we know it today (Mumford, p. 92). So, it is without a doubt that the invention of the printing press over five hundred years ago had a revolutionary effect on human culture that was well worth any loss of the oral culture of that time.

5 References: Heyer, P & Crowley, D. Communication in history. Technology, culture, society. Boston: Pearson Education Inc., 2007:

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