The Revolution May Not Be Computerized

The Revolution May Not Be Computerized

Daniel Reiss
Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer
Roger Chartier
University of Pennsylvania Press.

Daniel Riess on Roger Chartier’s media history.

A colleague recently remarked to me, “I don’t want to write essays on paper any more. It’s so much easier to manipulate a document in hypertext. I mean, if it’s on paper, it may as well be engraved in stone.” Though I quickly pointed out the limits to this line of thinking, shuddering to imagine my graduate school thesis about comparative mimesis in eighteenth-century narratives placed on par with the acclaimed ten-part essay dictated to Moses, I began to ponder the implications of these new malleable texts in this “late age of print.” The quotation is from J. David Bolter, Writing Space : the Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hillsdale: L. Erlbaum, 1991): 1. See “Notes toward An Unwritten Non-Linear Electronic Text: `The Ends of Print Culture,’” an essay in Postmodern Culture by Michael Joyce, which discusses some implications of Bolter’s writings. For one, their emergence alters previous mental conceptions of what constitutes a text, although in the last ten years critics have suggested that the boundaries separating textual materials from other forms of information are not as impermeable as many have assumed. D. F. McKenzie pointed out in 1985 that “what constitutes a text is not the presence of linguistic elements but the act of construction,” and argued that even maps can be considered as operating under textual parameters:

Traditionally, a map has rarely shown what anyone can see: its relation to reality is like that of words to the world - almost entirely arbitrary, not mimetic. Just as we see a landscape because we have already named its parts and look for what we know - for ‘valley, rock, and hill’ - so maps take on meaning by virtue of the conventional understanding given to signs and their structure in a particular text. The most primitive expression of spatial relationships in a map is more symbolic than representational, since it must involve scale and the omission of detail…Different maps tell very different stories, and assume…very different forms, according to their function, or their point of view. Donald F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (London: The British Library, 1986): 35.

But how do we begin to tell the story of the newest textual form, hypermedia, which threatens to supplant the dominant textual medium of the codex, and the reading and interpretive practices associated with it? A new work by Roger Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer represents an effort to come to terms with the emergence of electronic media by asking us to gaze at it Janus-eyed, to consider past revolutions in media while exploring the potential changes implicit in this new form of representation.

The title is somewhat misleading, since only the first of the four essays in the book, “Representations of the Written Word,” deals with the shift “from codex to computer.” The other three are historicist investigations of how social and political systems affect the form of the codex/book, in which Chartier examines sixteenth- and seventeenth-century book dedications, a Moliere play, and modern conceptions of popular culture. “Representations of the Written Word” begins with a backward glance at three eighteenth-century authors - Giambattista Vico, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Chretien Guillaume de Malesherbes - each of whom argue that the coming of the printing press signals a new democratization of society. Chartier quotes Condorcet’s argument that the printing revolution represents the dawn of a new age of political justice:

A public opinion is formed, powerful by the number of those who share it, energetic, because the motives that determine it act upon all minds at once, though at considerable distances from each other. A tribunal is erected in favor of reason and justice, independent of all human power, from the penetration of which it is difficult to conceal any thing, from whose verdict there is no escape. (10)

Such revolutionary statements have their counterpart in contemporary rhetoric about the democratizing power of hypertext and other electronic media. Chartier qualifies such assertions by pointing out how recent scholarship has shifted our perception of the “revolution” caused by the invention of the printing press:

It is now clear that Gutenberg’s invention did not alter the essential structures of the book. Until at least the beginning of the sixteenth century, the printed book remained very much dependent on the manuscript. It imitated its predecessor’s layout, scripts, and appearance, and, above all, it was completed by hand: More fundamentally, after Gutenberg as before, the book continued to be an object composed of folded sheets, gathered between covers and bound together. The Western book achieved the form it would retain in print culture twelve to thirteen centuries before the introduction of the new technology. (14)

Chartier’s assessment is supported by the work of Walter Ong, who suggests that even in the sixteenth century, long after the shift from orality to literacy, reading was still considered more a verbal than a visual process. For evidence, he reproduces the title page of Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Gouernour (1534), with its erratic word-divisions and wildly incongruent typefaces, which invite the reader to treat the printed word as a representative of its verbal sound, not as the sound made incarnate. Such a practice, Ong argues, is quite congruent with the manuscript practice of running words together or minimizing the spaces between words. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Routledge, 1982): 120-21. And indeed, it is instructive to note how many hypermedia documents continue to organize their materials hierarchically in systems which reveal a dependence upon the codex form: the English Poetry Full-Text Database, for example, continues to organize its materials by page number. Even in this so-called “late age of print,” the dominance of the codex form continues to restrict our conception of the forms of textual materials.

All of this is not to say that electronic media do not present the potential for radical changes such as those which occurred as a result of the shift from orality to writing, or from writing to print. Perhaps the greatest insight afforded by Ong’s scholarship is that altering the forms by which thought is expressed and disseminated alters the process of thought itself. Reminding us that writing is a craft rather than a natural process, Ong demonstrates that the fruits of this technology include no less than the emergence of analytical thought itself. And while it is true that, as Chartier and Ong each argue, the coming of printing did not fundamentally alter the dominant form of transmitted information - the codex form - it nonetheless introduced sweeping historical changes. Elizabeth Eisenstein argues that both the Italian Renaissance and the Lutheran Reformation were less the result of the emergence of new systems of thinking than of the new technology of printing, which made it possible for the “localized transitory effects” of radical shifts in thought to be supplanted by more enduring changes affecting a populace previously unreachable. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (New York : Cambridge UP, 1983): 151. Yet, as Eisenstein points out, printing had less of an effect on the content of books than on their audiences: the invention of the printing press resulted in an increase in both the life-expectancy of books and their potential for dissemination (78).

A perceptive historian of the book such as Roger Chartier understands that shifts in the physical forms of information offer the potential of radical change; he also knows that such “revolutionary” changes actually occur over extensive periods of time. Thus, apparently grandiose statements like the following are situated quickly within a proper historical context:

The revolution of the electronic text will also be a revolution in reading. To read on a screen is not to read in a codex. The electronic representation of texts completely changes the text’s status; for the materiality of the book, it substitutes the immateriality of texts without a unique location; against the relations of contiguity established in the print objects, it opposes the free composition of infinitely manipulable fragments; in place of the immediate apprehension of the whole work, made visible by the object that embodies it, it introduces a lengthy navigation in textual archipelagos that have neither shores nor borders…. While earlier revolutions in reading took place without changing the fundamental structure of the book, such will not be the case in our own world. The revolution that has begun is, above all, a revolution in the media and forms that transmit the written word. (18)

This bold optimism is qualified by Chartier’s assertion that the potential for radical change can go unrealized for centuries. The shift from parchment roll to codex form, for example, did not result immediately in the production of large codexes containing a large number of diverse texts; rather, “[d]uring the first centuries of existence, the codex remained of modest size, composed of fewer than one hundred fifty sheets.” In addition, among non-Christians, “mastery and use of the possibilities gained ground only slowly. It appears to have been adopted by readers who were not part of the educated elite…and initially it was texts outside the literary canon (such as scholarly texts, technical works, and novels) that were put in codex form.” (19)

It is quite disturbing, then, to see Chartier fail to qualify his assertion that the coming of electronic media signals the collapse of the distinction between author and reader:

The distinction that is highly visible in the printed book between writing and reading, between the author of the text and the reader of the book, will disappear in the face of an altogether different reality: one in which the reader becomes an actor of multivocal composition or, at the very least, is in a position to create new texts from fragments that have been freely spliced and reassembled…But, more important, one can intervene in those texts at any moment, modifying them, rewriting them, making them one’s own… The idea of copyright…is ill-suited to the means of composition afforded by electronic databases (20-1).

Ill-suited, yes, but not at all outdated, in theory or in practice. In fact, the possibility of “modifying” and “rewriting” many documents in an electronic medium belongs at present only to a small group of users per document, and their exclusive privileges are easily maintained through write protection programs. Even read-only access to many electronic databases is restricted through licensing agreements: if your server refuses to connect to the English Poetry Full-Text Database link, you’ve experienced an example of site restriction. While hypermedia conveniently invisibilizes the social relations that regulate the circulation of electronic texts, it does not eliminate them, a fact most recently illustrated in the United States by the passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Electronic texts possess the capability to invisibilize another significant feature of their existence, namely, their materiality. In part, the illusion of the immateriality of the electronic text gains its power because of the persistent illusion of the immateriality of written texts, an illusion powerfully reinforced through the assumption of linguistic transparency, as Johanna Drucker points out:

The notion of linguistic transparency implies immateriality, that which is insignificant in its materiality, to which nothing of linguistic value is contributed by the form of the written inscription which serves merely to offer up the “words” in as pure and unmediated a form as possible. The act of repression on which this notion depends is monumental, really, since it requires a continual negation of the very evident fact of the existence of what is immediately before the eyes in the name of its signified value. Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word : Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923 (Chicago : University of Chicago P, 1994): 14. Cited hereafter in the text.

With the coming of the electronic text, however, the “act of repression” required to perceive the text as immaterial is no longer “monumental.” In fact, it requires very little effort on the part of the reader, even though electronic texts are, in fact, material productions. For the representation of words by ink-blots on bound gatherings of paper is substituted colored pixels produced upon a cathode ray tube. Chartier is astute enough to recognize that computerized texts only ” modify…the materiality of the object that communicates the text to readers,” rather than eliminate the materiality of their existence (15; emphasis added). The importance of the physical medium embodying the texts is not lost on Chartier, who warns of the considerable risk inherent in the widespread use of electronic media:

[E]ach form, each medium, each structure for the transmission and reception of the written word profoundly affects its possible uses and interpretations…the transfer of a written heritage from one medium to another, from the codex to the screen, would create immeasurable possiblities, but it would also do violence to the texts by separating them from the original physical forms in which they appeared and which helped to constitute their historical significance.” (21-22)

But the danger is not only the potential misrepresentation of the “historical significance” of textual materials, but also the destruction of a significant element of textual meaning. Recent critics such as Drucker and Jerome McGann have cited examples from a wide variety of literary texts whose meanings are a function of those physical properties of texts too often regarded as insignificant: their bibliographical “codes” such as typeface and layout, as well as marketing factors such as “prices, advertising mechanisms, and distribution venues.” Jerome J. McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991): 12. See also Black Riders: the Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993). And though, with one hand, hypermedia supplies us with the ability to display the power and importance of these physical qualities of literary texts, with the other hand it tempts us to see those physical qualities as (in all senses of the word) immaterial. See McGann’s essay ” The Rationale of Hypertext,” for a more detailed assessment of the capabilities of hypermedia to display the physical and bibliographical carriers of literary meaning. The example of the English Poetry Full-Text Database may serve as a taste of the future. The dual satans of time and cost led the creators of the database to omit vital “paratextual” material - including front and back matter and, in many cases, explanatory footnotes - from the editions used as the sources of the poems from the database. The result is a scholarly research guide which, though remarkable in many respects, perpetuates the notion that the linguistic text serves as an adequate representation of the poetical work.

One potent preventative measure that can be taken against similar occurrences is the development of a sociological and historical understanding of hypermedia as a medium. Such an effort depends on the continuance of work by scholars such as Chartier to situate electronic media within a useful historical context. It may necessitate the development of a “bibliography” of hypermedia: a study of the physical forms which transmit the data constituting an electronic document, and the social factors which control the production, dissemination, and reception of electronic texts. Such a discipline would require an understanding of how the physical form of the hypertextual medium contributes to the meaning of the text it embodies. It should take into account that electronic media, though possessing the potential for radical change, may yet fail to realize its full “revolutionary” potential. Like print, it is “only a phase in the history of textual transmission” whose importance is easily “over-stated”:

The relatively recent introduction of printing into non-literate societies has seldom endorsed our traditional view of its efficacy as an agent of change. Even in our own society, oral text and visual medium have not only enjoyed a continuity..but they have now resumed their status as among the principal modes of discourse with an even greater power of projection. The origins of that revival are much older than we might care to recall: the telegraph and photograph, telephone and phonograph, and even the motion picture itself, are all Nineteenth-Century inventions.” (52)

Indeed. Does the development of electronic media signal a true revolution? If so, we should note that if history teaches us anything about the nature of revolutions, we should realize how presumptuous it is to predict the course a given revolution may take. The computer revolution has affected all parts of our life, but we cannot be certain that the new forms of electronic media will have a similar impact. They might - but from our vantage we cannot determine whether the noise of this particular revolution will be a whimper or a bang.