Article MT301

The Gutenberg Parenthesis

I am grateful to Thomas Pettitt, Affiliate Research Professor, Centre for Medieval Literature and Cultural Sciences Institute at the University of Southern Denmark, for much of what follows.
The digital + internet revolution is in significant ways reversing the print revolution, so we are picking up where we left off c.1600 - just like a sentence resumes it's original line of thought when an inserted parenthesis closes.
All living things communicate with each other through one or another of a great variety of methods.  Humans appear to have done so via the medium of sound, in the form of music - wordless songs - for countless centuries, before song developed into speech and language, allowing far more detailed communication, for countless more centuries.  That was one of the great turning points for communication.

The next was the development of written language, which didn't so much develop it as allow some aspects of it to remain relatively permanent into the future.  Manuscripts were written, and copied, which were then gathered into collections which became what we now know as books.  Neither manuscripts nor books impinged greatly upon the consciousness of most of the human race, since they were generally kept hidden away in libraries and frequented only by those who were literate - an ability of little use to the ordinary people.

This situation changed with the European development, by Johannes Gutenberg, around 1440, of an earlier Korean development of a Chinese invention, of printing with movable type, which gradually made books far more widely available, and encouraged literacy in a greater proportion of the population.  This was the next of the great turning points for communication.  In the 19th century, the replacement of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press by steam-powered rotary presses allowed printing on an industrial scale, and Western-style printing was adopted all over the world, becoming practically the sole medium for modern bulk printing.  However, it had consequences which were almost certainly unforeseen at the time.

Look at a printed work and you will see strict regimentation.  Words are forced into lines and paragraphs, surrounded by margins, placed on pages that are sewn into a binding, enclosed in a jacket and placed on a shelf where they can be contained and controlled.  The words have been 'imprisoned' and have lost much of their oral fluidity.  This is what they did to Shakespeare's plays - originally fragmented, fluid, living things - now imprisoned in a book ... resulting in the fetishization of Shakespeare.  This confinement of cultural production has obviously not been limited to the written work: plays move to stages and music to concert halls.

We see a similar containment in the realm of cultural production.  This is demonstrated by the rise of the individual work and the assumption that a work will have a beginning, middle and end.  That a work will be a complete thing and not merely fragments; and that once it is complete it will become isolated and static - moving through time with little if any change.

The final containment concerns how we view the world and organize information.  During the past 500 years the world has come to be viewed in terms of categories.  Taxonomies are created to organize things.  Everything is contained and described and put into its appropriate category.  That wasn't always the case - before Gutenberg, change and interference of communication were normal.  Just as information wasn't distributed between this book and that, so things weren't put in this category or that - male/female, white/black, human/animal, man/machine - and as print declines, there are signs those ways of thinking are returning.

This brief period of around 500 years was but a moment in the great history of communication, and has been termed 'The Gutenberg Parenthesis'.  Any intelligent person - if s/he thinks about it - knows that the information we acquire through our reationships with others may, or may not, be entirely factually accurate.  It has been shown that around 10% of the 'facts' we believe to be 'true' today will be shown to be fase within a decade.  Pre Gutenberg, this was known and accepted - but the ordering and containment inherent in printed media has meant that print is now commonly held to be 'true' while oral communications are 'rumour and gossip'.  Yet, today, Wikipedia is more accurate than the Encyclopaedia Britannica!

'The Gutenberg Parenthesis' was a period when the printed word changed so much of our oral culture, yet is, itself, now being challenged and superceded by the digital revolution.  The users of the new media are super literate - they are all writing.  During the 'parenthesis' there were few writers and many readers.  In the new age, you can't really tell the difference between a reader and a writer.  We are reproducing the fluidity of orality in text today.  With regard to a parenthesis - it insists on a return to the original thought.  We're not going backwards, but are resuming where we left off.

Many scholars are looking forward and seeing the past; that we are on the brink of a second orality based on a return of fluidity in communication.  We are seeing the emergence of social media (e.g. Facebook), blogging and microblogging (i.e.Twitter) which are re-tribalizing our cultures.  Conversations in these social spaces are written, but are more conversational in tone than written communications; they are rapid communication with large groups of people in a speed that would resemble oral storytelling.

The technology is undermining other aspects of print such as permanence and stability.  It isn't just a question of pre-print orality coming back.  Text will remain but it is being set free.  Text may well become more mobile but less stable as it becomes freer.

So what - if anything - may be the effect on our interest in and participation in song?

The significance of the Gutenberg Parenthesis for the study of folk traditions - and I mean performance arts like song and storytelling.  We need to stand back first and look at the general picture.

The following applies principally to England, but also to much of Europe (and its new world excrescences).  We say there was a Gutenberg Parenthesis from c.1600 - 2000, and it's a parenthesis, not just a period or chapter, because devlopments after 2000 are reconnecting with the period before 1600.  But the timing varies between sub-cultures, certainly at the beginning.  1600 is about right for middle and upper class men in cities, but not for women, or the working classes, or country folks; they entered the parenthesis later - say by 1900 after universal obligatory schooling).  African Americans didn't enter the Gutenberg Parenthesis until the 1960s.

So between c.1600 and c.1900/1960, while the educated were in the Gutenberg Parenthesis, many others were still enjoying a culture which was traditional and oral, just as they had in the Middle Ages.  This doesn't mean they just kept singing the same old songs and telling the same old stories - there were new songs and stories, but they experienced them and treated them in the same old way: by memory and performance, which altered the songs and the stories (quite often making them better).

And at some point in the 19th century some middle class people looked up from their books and opened the window (of their library) and heard these weird sounds: people telling stories and singing songs they'd never heard before: a totally alien culture.  Eventually they called it Folklore, and it was the continuation of the way things were before the opening of the Gutenberg Parenthesis.  Now we're moving out of the Parenthesis ... and doubtless the speed will vary between sub-cultures - are poor kids more adventurous with digital technology than nice Cheltenham girls who are told that books are better?  One might imagine the glorious vision of groups of computer-savvy young people cycling around Somerset taking videos of old middle class people reading books and newspapers, to register the last remnants of a dying civilization.

During the 'Gutenberg Parenthesis' we may remember that a song was 'what was collected' ... and printed in numerous song books.  Few early revivalists accepted the idea of changing even a word or a note.  In more recent times - with the advent of the use of sound recording (a non-print medium!) amongst collectors - it became apparent that the traditional singers themselves did, indeed, change things - often quite extensively.  Bolder revivalists began doing the same.  I would suggest that changing songs from exactly how they were collected is becoming relatively commonplace in the 21st century.  My own Singers' Songbook project was intended to foster this movement.  It received praise from many - but little in the way of further contributions.  I wonder if this was from a wish to keep ones own methods a 'trade secret', or a hang-on from the taboos of the past?

It seems that information will again travel through networks of people in contact with each other, and in all networks some nodes become 'hubs' with many more connections than the average.  In a given community there are always some people who emerge as those you tend to believe when they pass on news, and to whom you want to tell your news - presumably on the basis of their track record, but it could also be that they filter news and offer people what they want to hear! (Fox News, Daily Mail ...)

For many of us, the Mudcat Cafe might be seen as such a 'hub' - although my extremely limited experience of it is that, after about 6 posts, the comments seem to drift off-topic, or descend into arguments between a few 'known-for-it' protagonists.  I had hoped that MT's Letters Page might have fulfilled this niche, but after some 40 letters in 2000 (when we had comparatively few readers), it has dwindled to 10 in 2014 and just 6 this year.  Maybe because 'letters' are no longer what people will write in the post-Gutenberg era?

Tom Pettitt writes:

That's a good point about the ambition to be an information hub but not quite making it in relation to the reverse flow. Yes: calling it 'letters' was doomed.  You already have multiple connections in the way you post essays by others: there must be some way of encouraging responses (to them and to your stuff) more constructive than the usual concatentation of increasignly irrelevant comments.  Perhaps encourage people not so much to comment, as to provide links (the name of the game) to other sources?  I think that's probably the most useful function of academic sites: who's doing what and where can I get at it?
Post-parenthesis, digital culture will start to resemble pre-parenthetical culture more than book culture: speech rather than letters; or fluid texts rather than fixed ones; performance rather than books; people who pass the stuff on and can change it (as opposed to lending someone a book). etc. etc.

Some implications:

Firstly: the digitally literate will be more likely to enjoy, and understand, the chaotic textuality of folksong and storytelling - because that's how they operate.  They'll stop looking at it as something people do when they can't afford to go to the opera.

Secondly: digital technology is vastly superior to print as a medium for researching folksong etc. and communicating the results - remember my Singer's Songbook project?

Where do we go from here?  Any suggestions will be most welcome.

Rod Stradling - 25.10.15

Article MT301

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