Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#2/3 Geert Lovink 1 Jan 1995


Martin Giesecke, Der Buchdruck in der frühen Neuzeit, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt 1991

The emergence of the 'new media' quite naturally makes one think of the invention of typography. Books and new media are currently seen as natural enemies, each out for the blood of the other. Until recently the book ruled as a monarch over its subjects, all other media.


Cover of " Der Buchdruck in der frühen Neuzeit" -

Its 500-year dominion became a constant so taken for granted that it took effort to consider this hegemonic system of knowledge storage and distribution as a distinct medium. This changed with the appearance of McLuhan's 1962 study The Gutenberg Galaxy (his breakthrough). This mountain of quotations, however, a hypertext structure avant la lettre, has been difficult for historians to take seriously. The same holds true for Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy and Vilem Flusser's philosophical reflections in Die Schrift. It is time that the gap was closed between dry library science, where the history of the book is recorded, and speculative contemporary theory. In his ponderous study Der Buchdruck in der frühen Neuzeit, Martin Giesecke succeeds in doing this only in part. Giesecke is a literary scholar and linguist, not an historian. He is not gifted in telling a captivating story or writing to the point. What Giesecke can do is build systems, draw diagrams and construct paper hypertexts out of hundreds of pages of notes, name and keyword indexes, and reproductions of documents on Renaissance media politics. Starting from Luhmann's systems theory, he constructs models of the step-by-step development of book production into a complex process of composition, layout, printing, distribution and sale, ending in the connection of the reader to another text. There is a lot here for those who have been in contact with contemporary book production to recognise. This sociological approach to media archaeology differs from the Lacanian psychoanalytic method employed by Kittler et al. While Kittler and co. wish to penetrate as far as possible into the interior of the machine and expose its mathematical logic, Giesecke endeavours to bring in the greatest context possible around Gutenberg's invention of cast letters and the hand-press in 1444. In so doing he limits himself to Germany, and leaves for what it is the hypothesis that it was not Gutenberg but the Dutchman Laurens Janszoon Coster who invented typography (something a Dutchman cannot resist mentioning).

The goal of Giesecke's study is to describe, in terms of information and communications systems, the social community which was created in part of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries by the key technology of printing. What has been lacking until now, according to him, is a theoretical model of the phenomenon of printing. Giesecke thereby chooses a media-political approach, emphasising desires and utopian fantasies on the one hand and the social acceptance of the new medium on the other:// People rally round new totems and establish new taboos.// Although he refers now and then to the present, this is not a comparative study. In fact, Giesecke's project may have come out 10 or even 50 years too soon. Though he has unearthed plenty of material from the period around 1500 and has made it accessible in a unique manner, his knowledge of contemporary communications technology is extremely sparse. Yet he does note a parallel between the utopian expectations people had for the communicative powers of the book and those they have now with the computer. It is a joy to read this study with hypertext, cd-roms and the Net in the back of one's mind. A surprising conclusion for me was the necessary entanglement of new media with social utopias revealed by Giesecke. Castles in the air inspire experimentation and action and ensure that technical knowledge spreads rapidly. Utopias (from Gutenberg to Rheingold) may be idealistic and naive, but we cannot do without them. Without belief in communicative Valhallas, knowledge stays locked within a small, closed circle of technocrats.

Giesecke's research was completed in 1989 and breathes an 80s' air of German-oriented academics and their social critique of technology. Thus he argues for minority protection for the traditional media from the medial monoculture, as printing in its day was called upon to protect storytellers. Since Giesecke holds an ecological worldview (another system which seeks to encompass the totality), he wants to draw up a profit and loss account for the new media on the basis of a sort of report on their effects. While as a conservative leftist Giesecke opposes rectilinear rationalisation, at the same time he believes passionately in a rational social debate which could encompass a critique of the new media's destabilising effects via a feedback mechanism and arrive at a deliberate decision. He wishes to compensate for the deadening, narcotic effects of new media observed by McLuhan simply by talking enough about it, in the hope that an alternative media politics will come out of it.

What makes this extensive study so interesting is its unravelling of the first phase of book manufacture, which remained unchanged until well into the 19th century. Giesecke's method resembles Gutenberg's. He isolates all the steps in the process from each other so that, through a better understanding of the separate elements, a new (discourse) machine is created. Gutenberg's first and most important invention was the type-foundry. After the mechanisation of the production of lead letters, the rest of the setting and printing process followed naturally, although Gutenberg worked on them for years with a large team of artisans and even went bankrupt in the process. From then on precision was the chief concern: the fonts had to have exactly the same shape and size, otherwise the letters would dance and the text become illegible. Conventions were also established, such as those of word division, the length of lines and the placement of pages in a section. Only gradually did it become possible to correct a setting.

Books had been printed for centuries in China and Korea with the help of block-printing and stamps. But unlike books in Europe, these brought about no social changes; rather, their effect was one of stabilisation. These books circulated in Asia on a small scale within the ruling class, and the religious elite despised the vulgar new medium. The German reform movements in the 15th and 16th centuries took a different view. Another difference lay in the early-capitalist relations within which Gutenberg and his successors worked. As private citizens they had to attract venture-capital in order to make large investments, and to recover it. But Giesecke considers type's most significant departure from Asian printing methods and calligraphy to be the pursuit of precision through mechanisation, which gave rise to artistic proportioning. This intention of Gutenberg's can be seen in the colophon of the 1460 Catholicon, which mentions the concordia, the proporcione and the modul which could be achieved with the new types and conventions. The ars impressoria had an aesthetic program from birth.

People praised the new medium for its speed of reproduction, its cost-efficiency as compared to the ars artificialiter scribendi, and its standardisation of text production. Printing was seen by all as a gift from God, although the Catholics had their objections. For the Protestants, and Luther most of all, God's word could flow freely and no longer needed a channelling authority. Until Gutenberg, God had released the water only drop by drop. But through his `last gift' humanity was finally independent. With the source in the people's hands wisdom could bubble up of its own accord, without the requisite personnel tending the sluices and dams. The Catholic church saw printing solely as a means, and denied the printed book's claim to totality. For the reformists, one merely needed to learn to read, so as to make the word of God one's own. All necessary information could be called up from that machine. Biblical memory space was sufficiently filled to last until Judgement Day, and no other books needed be printed or read. Controversy soon arose around which books should or should not be printed, and how access to the new technology should be regulated.

One could already see the mountain of books looming. In a 1539 translation by F. Petrarch headed Von vberflussz/menge und vile der buecher we find the rhyme:// Wenig kunst vnd buecher vil/Das ist der narren frewden spil.// In the accompanying illustration we see a man, hands in hair, surrounded by thick, stately tomes. The classes which controlled writing came under pressure, and complained about 'ink-slinging'. Early book censorship, however, did not target the medium itself, and was according to Giesecke of a defensive nature. The prohibitions which were issued applied only to translations, not to new writings. We see the same arguments recurring in the discussion around whether or not the Bible may be translated. But the advance of the printed vernacular could no longer be stopped, going hand-in-hand with the emergence of a national consciousness (which subsided again a short time later).

In the first decades of typography, besides the famous Gutenberg Bible, there appeared mainly writings which had been previously produced by hand, such as letters of indulgence, textbooks, blood-letting calendars and public proclamations; for instance, the Türkenkalender warns Christianity of the consequences of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Partly what we see here is merely the continuation of mediaeval practices. Yet through a number of examples Giesecke shows that ruptures were becoming visible and a publicity was being formed which broke with the clandestine, informal transmission of information based not on reason but on faith. Sects and secret societies have no interest in new technologies; the texts remain in the hands of the elect. Printing ensures that people get texts into their own hands and read them. Only in this way are public organisations possible.

Giesecke describes the dissemination of information in the 15th and 16th centuries. After the secret of how to build the printing press had moved from city to city, there arose a trade in manuscripts which were locally reprinted many times over. In the beginning printers were publishers as well as booksellers, and the distribution area of a title was extremely limited (and in essence this has changed little since). For example, the Plague Book (Ulm, 1473) contained important information about the epidemic and was reprinted everywhere, including additions. Only after 60 years did conventions now taken for granted, like the title page with author's name, year and place of publication plus the name of the printer, develop. Prior to this, authorship had been seen as blasphemous. Furnishing an anonymous public with new information meant that an author betrayed himself as a creator of ideas which no one had yet thought or read. In the era of handwritten copying all attention had focused on the oldest edition, and not on the formulation of new thoughts. Only when authorship was recognised did it become possible to quote other authors. The conventions of citations, footnotes and indexing took shape and thus the accumulation of new knowledge could begin. The title page also makes not the printer but the author punishable for potentially heretical content.

Wild reprinting was curbed. Around 1500 printers were awarded copyrights, for a maximum of ten years, and pirate printing became a punishable offence. Albrecht Dürer used his famous monogram, Luther his 'ml', and their logos became recognised by the authorities, a custom which goes back to the mediaeval privilege of stamp-duty. After the medium had consolidated itself specialist literature began to appear, on such topics as mine-building, herbs, gardening and the famous illustrated Distillation Book (Strasbourg, 1505); practical knowledge the buyer could use. And it was already being claimed by this time that learning from books made travelling superfluous. Personal experience on location is expensive and subjective. At the end of the book Giesecke's thematic blurs into perception theory. He maintains that the further development of typographic software is being determined more and more by the search for a relation between text and image, perspective and the dominance of the eye (Leonardo da Vinci). Giesecke's study makes clear that the introduction of 'new media' is igniting a struggle between politics and the relations of production (cf. the Clipper Chip and the data highway) and new standards of aesthetics are being introduced, which clear a path for the explosion of knowledge (see www home pages)

translation laura martz