Framing the debate (I). Historical Discourses: The Struggle for Both the Past and Future of the Book

I haven’t posted extracts of my thesis here for a while, although fragments have made their way through some of the papers, presentations, publications, introductions, reviews and invitations I have posted here over the last year. As I am now reaching the final stages of thesis writing–and I am doing my utmost best to turn the moloch into some sort of structured narrative–I will be posting some more extracts in the next couple of months. Any feedback is of course more than welcome and please take into account that these are just fragments in process which are part of a larger (undefined) ‘whole’.

This is the first part of my 2nd chapter, I will post the second part tomorrow.

bookfight via Rumors

Book history: the communication circuit

The history of the book only came to be regarded as a separate subject or discipline of study during the 1950s and 1960s[1] – a period which, coincidentally, also saw the first experiments with the electronic book and with digital textual transmission.[2] Although it is only a young discipline, the rise of book historical titles over the last few decades has been copious, and can be connected to the increasingly interdisciplinary character of book studies. Initially an amalgam of history, bibliography and literary studies, book history today draws its inspiration from a wide range of disciplines and methods, including media and communication studies and even newer fields such as the digital humanities.[3] However, its wide and ever-expanding scope notwithstanding, I would like in what follows to focus on a few of the most characteristic features that have structured the discourse surrounding the history of the book. Next to that I would like to highlight some of the important oppositions that, as I will argue, continue to dominate the in some occasions highly agonistic debate. The guiding questions that will be used to analyse the debate will be: under what circumstances did the discourse emerge, what has it focused on, what have been its topics of contestation, and which oppositions does it (continue to) embody?

In my description of the plurality of (often agonistic) discourses that surround and structure the way the book is perceived and how its history is narrated, I will focus on those histories that describe the transition from manuscript to print (and to a lesser extent from orality to literacy), and, in doing so, follow the printed book’s further development until the end of the 19th century. Having this ‘cut-off’ is not only a way to bracket this introductory chapter with its historical overview from the remaining chapters of my thesis, where the latter focus more directly on the present shift from print to digital, and on the more recent history and development of the scholarly book. This cut-off is also meant to emphasise the importance of this specific cluster of print culture focused historical studies and discourses—and of the specific theorists and historians it incorporates—for the history of the book as a whole. Furthermore, it is intended to emphasise the continuing influence of these studies on the structure of those discourses that surround the future of the book as well as the recent histories of ebooks and digital textual transmission.

Robert Darnton's Communication Circuit

Robert Darnton’s Communication Circuit

To begin, although the book historical field has been described as ‘scattered in approach’ (Finkelstein and McCleery 2005: 3), and ‘so crowded with ancillary disciplines that one can no longer see its general contours’ (Darnton 1982), there are a few major focal points within the book historical debate that can be discerned. Although it is by now quite dated (especially with respect to the practicalities of digital scholarly communication and book production), Robert Darnton’s highly influential publishing communication chain remains a useful model for capturing the various aspects of the book’s production, dissemination and consumption that the book historical discourse has focused on.[4] First presented in an article for Daedalus in 1982, Darnton’s communication circuit proposes a general model for analysing the way books come into being and spread through society. At the same time, Darnton uses this circuit or chain to make sense of and disentangle the sprawling field of studies in book history. Despite the fact that various attempts at improved versions to Darnton’s circuit have surfaced in the decennia after it was first designed, and even though this model is based on the lifecycle of the printed book, one can argue that it still forms an important element in the discourse on the history of the book as it stretches into the digital domain, if only as a system with which to compare and contrast. Take, for example, those theorists who foreground the disintermediation of functions in the digital production cycle of the book. Often a reference is made to Darnton’s communication circuit—or a more abstracted version of the ‘publishing value chain’—to emphasise which of the traditional publishing or communication functions are now beginning to become obsolete, or have been taken over by one and the same person, company or institution in ‘the digital age’.[5]

The communication chain focuses on the roles played by authors, publishers, printers, distributors, booksellers and readers in the production of the printed book. Readers become authors themselves again—hence the circle—something that is even more apparent within scholarly communication. In addition, the communication chain emphasises the social, political and economic influences on these agents within the process of value production. Book historians mostly focus on one part of this system, but for Darnton it is essential that ‘the parts do not take on their full significance unless they are related to the whole.’ Or, as he puts it more clearly: ‘Book history concerns each phase of this process and the process as a whole, in all its variations over space and time and in all its relations with other systems, economic, social, political, and cultural, in the surrounding environment’ (Darnton 1982: 11). One important omission in Darnton’s circuit which will be focused on in the present study however, is of course the book itself, an exclusion already remarked upon by Adams and Barker in their revised communication circuit (Barker and Adams 2001). As Adams and Barker point out, Darnton’s model focuses too much on a social history of communication. The book itself in its material manifestations and its influence on the book historical discourse and hence on society and culture (instead of only the other way around), is not admitted as a form of agency, nor as an agential relation in this model. The importance of including the book as a form of agency within a network of agents is emphasised by book historian Paul Duguid, where he argues: ‘Books are part of a social system that includes authors, readers, publishers, booksellers, libraries, and so forth. Books produce and are reciprocally produced by the system as a whole. They are not, then, simply “dead things” carrying pre-formed information from authors to readers. They are crucial agents in the cycle of production, distribution, and consumption’ (Duguid 1996: 79).


Book history: Topics and Dichotomies

Applying these criticisms and expansions to the model in consideration, we can use this updated communication chain to identify the following book historical topics or ‘subfields’.[6] First of all, we can distinguish studies that focus on the book as an individual, material object. Here the focus lies predominantly on the technical analysis of the materiality of the book; on the importance or influence of format (i.e. bibliography or studies on ‘paratexts’); or on the kind of uses a specific text or artefact triggers or demands. New Bibliographical studies that aim to establish authorative texts and correct textual meaning would fall into this category (Bowers 1949, Gregg 1966, McKerrow 2002), as would works that take the book in a more abstracted form as their starting point by focusing on the agency of the book—and of print and print culture—and its influence on culture and society (Eisenstein 1979, McLuhan 1962, Ong 1982). Secondly, we can distinguish research that focuses on the production of the book and the political economy surrounding the book value chain, which includes, among other things, publishing, distribution, and sales. This subfield covers studies that analyse the whole system (as Darnton proposed) of material book production and culture and the various agents that play a role in this system (i.e. Darnton 1982, Thompson, J. 2005); more materialist traditions such as the Annales school or what has been come to known as the French ‘histoire du livre’ (Chartier 1994, Febvre and Martin 1997); and finally Don McKenzie’s extension and reorientation of bibliography to include the ‘sociology of texts’ by looking at the specific conditions under which books were produced (McKenzie, Donald Francis 2002). Thirdly, we can discern research that focuses on authorship by, for instance: researching authorial intention in an attempt to come closer to the ‘true’ meaning of a text, or by concentrating on the changing role of the author in the value chain—including the changing author function; or on the development of (authorial) ownership or copyright of texts (Barthes 1967, Foucault 1977, Hesse 1992, Rose 1993, Woodmansee and Jaszi 1993). Finally, we can identify research that focuses on readership, including the history of reading and the role of the reader, and on the historical uses and reception of books (i.e. reception history).[7]

Alongside these general topics that can be seen to frame the debate on book history (and let me emphasise that this is not an all-inclusive list), we can detect a variety of dichotomies or binary oppositions that have come to structure it. As already stated above, it is important to analyse and explore these divisions in depth as they continue to influence and structure the book historical debate in the present, as will be shown in the following chapters.[8] A few of the most characteristic oppositions have been put forward by book historians Elisabeth Eisenstein and Adrian Johns as part of their debate in the American Historical Review, which provides a good introduction to the often highly agonistic nature of this debate. We will explore this debate between Eisenstein and Johns in more depth shortly.

The first opposition or discursive struggle that deserves to be highlighted is related to the intrinsic properties of print. Where Eisenstein (along with Ong and McLuhan) focuses on the establishment of fixity and standardisation as effects of print technology, Johns states that they are the outcome of social constructions and practices. Johns points out that fixity is not an inherent property or quality of print but that it is transitive, acted upon and recognized by people, where Eisenstein argues that the circumstances that determined print culture can be attributed to print. For Johns, a book is the material embodiment of a consensus or of a collective consent, and thus he argues that the development of a print culture was not as direct and straightforward as Eisenstein would have it, but was marked by uncertainty and a shaky integration (Johns 1998, Eisenstein 1979).

This illustrates a larger division that is visible in the literature between technological determinism and cultural constructionism, or between gradations of both forms. Here the focus is on the attribution of historical agency (Johns 2002: 116). Does agency lie with impersonal processes (triggered by innovations in communication technology, i.e. media or book agency), or with personal agents and collective practices (i.e. human agency)? In other words, is print a result or a cause of culture?[9] Thirdly, we can identify an opposition relating to the perceived speed of the transition from manuscript to print. Should we talk about a print evolution or a revolution? Should we stress the continuity of the manuscript book and written textual transmission, or the discontinuous revolutionary character of the introduction of print?[10] Fourthly, a distinction can be made between what is called cultural pessimism or dystopian thinking and technological utopianism or futurology concerning the book and the rise of new technologies. This is clearly apparent in the current debate surrounding ebooks, which has been classified and analysed by some theorists as a debate between bookservatists and technofuturists.[11] However, it illustrates a cultural feeling and a depiction of historical change that can already be discerned in the transition from manuscript to print, and even in the introduction of writing.[12] Fifth, we can recognise different viewpoints related to what Eisenstein calls the ‘geography of the book’ (Eisenstein 2002: 90), where some theorists focus mostly on the effects and practices surrounding technology as a local affair, versus research that zooms in on their supposed international—though in most cases highly Western-centric—reach. The most obvious example is that of the localist methodology followed in Johns’ The Nature of the Book, which focuses on England, where Eisenstein’s work follows a more European-centred perspective. Finally, we can distinguish both teleological and anti-teleological strands in the discourse that surrounds the book. Topics here focus on whether technology (and with it human society as a whole) progresses, or whether there is such a thing as technological advancement or a driving force or prime agent behind it. Teleological strands can also been found in book historical debates that focus on the new (i.e. ebooks or print books) and the old (i.e. print books or manuscripts), and that make a clear division or cut between the present and the past and emphasise a progressive linear development, as opposed to describing histories as plural genealogies, non-linear and cyclical.

(“The Battel” artwork by Jonathan Wolstenholme)

Debating the book

When sketching this general framework in an attempt to capture the debate as it has progressed and is still progressing, we need to acknowledge that it takes place on three levels simultaneously and transversally. The discourse occurs on the level of ‘historical reality’ (primary sources), on that of history writing (secondary sources), and on a third, meta-historical level of ‘writing about history-writing’ (what is book history?). Thus, when we analysis the book historical debate, we need to try to take all three levels of description into account, focussing specifically on the reasoning, the politics and struggles, as well as the value systems, that lie behind the choices made for a particular perspective. It is also important to remember, as part of this analysis, that a rethinking of our book historical past has a direct influence on—and is a reflection of how we envision—the future of the book, and perhaps more importantly, of how we want to structure, influence and change this future. In other words, the way the past of the book is perceived by a specific thinker or group of thinkers, not only casts a light on how they perceive what the present and future of the book could or should be (as well as which issues will be most important in determining the future of the book); it also influences directly and materially both the object of the book and the discursive practices accompanying the book (and with that, it will directly influence scholarly communication in the case of the monograph). For example, if we stress that fixity is an inherent property of the (printed) book, and thus something that has partly come to define and stand at the basis of modern science and scholarship, this can have the effect of positioning this property as essential for the future of the book and (digital) scholarship. This state of affairs comes to the fore in efforts directed toward recreating the fixity and stability associated with the print text within the digital book format (i.e. the continued search to stabilise the book and keep its integrity intact online via DOIs, persistent identifiers, DRM and copyright, author IDs etc.).[13]

As I proceed to analyse the book historical debate in what follows, it is important to keep the above in mind. In this chapter I will take a brief look at the main reasoning lying behind the position that is adopted concerning this debate by two of its key players, Elizabeth Eisenstein and Adrian Johns.[14] Both in their separate works, and in their highly agonistic discussion in the American Historical Review, they illustrate very well the main topics discussed within the book historical debate, as well as—and more importantly as far as this study is concerned—the main oppositions that continue to structure it. In the chapters that follow I will be focusing on some of the highly debated concepts that have arisen out of the book historical debate: the role of the author, notions of fixity and standardisation, and the idea of the book as an object, part of a system of commodification. How have these concepts been envisioned within and developed throughout the book historical debate as part of a struggle to define both the past and future of the scholarly book? In what sense are they part of and continuations of the representationalist and humanist tendencies in the debate? The contested concepts mentioned above will play an important structuring role in the remainder of this study and will be used as signposts to follow the discourse and the future development of the scholarly book.

Finally, in the next section, I will propose an alternative vision that endeavours to go beyond some of the oppositions that structure the debate on the book’s history, but which can be seen to function as ‘false divisions’ (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 2). Instead I will focus on the entanglement of plural agencies (i.e. technological and cultural, human and non-human, discursive and material) as part of the processual becoming of the book. As I will proceed to explain, these entanglements get cut-up as part of the discursive position taking that surrounds the history of the book. I will focus on how these oppositions can be seen as forms of ethical position taking, as struggles to try to define (the identity of) the book and with that the future shape of academia. For as I mentioned above, the book historical discourse—and this is especially the case with respect to the scholarly monograph—not only encompasses a fierce debate about how to represent and historicise the past of the (scholarly) book, it can also be seen as a struggle to determine its future.


The debate between Johns and Eisenstein

Book historian Elizabeth Eisenstein is well-known for her seminal work The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979). She was influenced by, while also critical of, the vision put forward by communication theorist Marshall McLuhan. In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), McLuhan explored an interpretation that sees the technology of the printed book as having a direct influence on our consciousness and with that on society. Eisenstein argues for the importance of re-evaluating what she calls the ‘unacknowledged revolution’ that took place after the invention of print. She does so by exploring the consequences of the fifteenth-century shift in communications, focusing on how printing altered written communications within the Commonwealth of Learning. In this respect she doesn’t look at book history specifically, but at the effects of print culture on modern society. In other words, she studied how changes affecting the transmission of records—altering the way data was collected, stored and retrieved, and how it restructured scholarly communication networks throughout Europe—might have influenced historical consciousness over an extended period of time. In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Eisenstein is interested predominantly in the scholarly exploration of the socio-cultural impact of both print and publishing on the advancement of science, and on the evolution of the thought of humanists and reformation thinkers.

According to Eisenstein—writing in the 1970s—up to then ‘almost no studies were devoted to the consequences that ensued once printers had begun to ply their new trades throughout Europe. Explicit theories as to what these consequences were had not yet been proposed, let alone tested or contested’ (Eisenstein 1979: 4). Her moderate form of technological determinism can thus be seen as a revisionist strategy, where she argues that a neglect of the shift in communications, and a continued focus on the prevailing schemes of multivariable explanations, will only have skewed perspectives further in the future, where the issue should be to explore why ‘many variables, long present, began to interact in new ways’ (Eisenstein 1979: xvi). Although accusations of technological determinism were indeed put forward by her critics and successors, Eisenstein refutes any ‘monocausal, reductionist and technological determinist reading’ of her work, emphasising that print was only one factor that was influential in bringing about change (Eisenstein 1979: xv). Acknowledging the importance of the human element, she believes impersonal transmission and communication processes must also be given due attention, as that is where print did have special effects. Although it did not cause the developments she described (it was merely an agent of change, not the agent of change), Eisenstein states that they were definitely re-orientated by the communications shift (Eisenstein 1979: xvi).

Eisenstein further points out that the shift from script to print involved a European-wide transition, one that occurred in a relatively short time-span. The adoption of print was not a slow revolution but a remarkably rapid and widespread development (Eisenstein 2005: 318). However, she does not so much emphasise a revolutionary view as envision the transition as a line that was continuous and broken, consisting of both continuity and radical change. Nonetheless, Eisenstein’s emphasis within this transition is on aspects of change, rather than on continuity. We shouldn’t underestimate the large cluster of changes that took place, she claims, and the essential role print played in these:

One cannot treat printing as just one among many elements in a complex causal nexus for the communications shift transformed the nature of the causal nexus itself. It is of special historical significance because it produced fundamental alterations in prevailing patterns of continuity and change. On this point one must take strong exception to the views expressed by humanists who carry their hostility to technology so far as to deprecate the very tool, which is most indispensable to the practice of their own crafts (Eisenstein 1979: 703).

Eisenstein is not interested in a simple ‘impact model’ as she calls it; changes brought about by printing are not easy to grasp, and characterise more a change of phase, where the character of the links and relationships—the cluster itself, in other words—underwent change. It is about finding the balance, she states, between saying that print changed everything and that it changed nothing (Eisenstein 1979: 32).

In contrast to Eisenstein, historian Adrian Johns—who has proved to be one of her biggest opponents—stresses that it was human, not medial factors, that were at the basis of the changes that led towards increased standardisation and stability in the early modern period. As Johns states, what are often seen or regarded as essential elements and features of print are in fact more contingent, transitory entities. The self-evident environment created by print culture encourages us to ascribe certain characteristics to print and to a technological order of reality. However, the most common conviction, that of print being fixed, stable, identical and reliable, is false, Johns argues, and stands in the way of a truly historical understanding of print. In The Nature of the Book (1998), Johns clearly illustrates the constructivist nature of the book, how the very identity of print has been created and how print culture has been shaped historically (Johns 1998: 2). According to Johns, it is not printing that possesses certain characteristics, but printing put to use in particular ways. He emphasises that fixity (according to many of us a common sense assumption of print) is not an inherent quality but a transitive one: ‘we may adopt the principle that fixity exists only inasmuch as it is recognized and acted upon by people—and not otherwise’ (Johns 1998: 19–20). Johns is interested in studying the genealogy of print culture: to analyse how the bond to enforce fidelity, reliability and truth in early modern printing was forged; to reappraise where our own concept of print culture has come from; to explore how print differed from place to place, and how it changed over time when it took hold; and to investigate how books came to be made and used.


In a debate in the American Historical Review, Johns and Eisenstein detailed their respective book historical visions (Eisenstein 2002, Johns 2002). Eisenstein provided a detailed overview of their main theoretical differences which, as I argued above, can be seen as a good example of the main theoretical differences or oppositions that structure the book historical debate as a whole. According to Eisenstein, Johns denies that technology or the press has any intrinsic powers or agency, whereas for her the press affected significant historical developments. Johns downplays the difference between script and print, where she sees a big difference and a transition taking place between the two. Divergences in their viewpoints are also apparent with respect to the geography of the book: Johns’ position is local, restricted to England, where Eisenstein’s is cosmopolitan in character. Eisenstein believes the establishment of printing shops inaugurated the communications revolution, where Johns—according to Eisenstein, at least—believes the ‘printing revolution’ was a retrospective discursive construct that emerged in the 18th or 19th century (Eisenstein 2002: 90). However, in his reply, Johns stresses that he does not see his view as being opposed to that of Eisenstein. He regards his position as a supplement in terms of approach, where he basically wants to acknowledge the importance of print in a different way: ‘the deepest difference between us lies in the questions we ask. Where Eisenstein asks what print culture itself is, I ask how printing’s historic role came to be shaped. Where she ascribes power to a culture, I assign it to communities of people. Most generally, where she is interested in qualities, I want to know about processes’. In other words, Johns does not want to focus on a history of print culture but on a cultural history of print. As he points out, a cultural history of print should be broadly constructivist about its subject, where he sees this as an essentially empiricist undertaking, arguing for the ‘inseparability of social reality and cultural understanding’ (Johns 2002: 123). Johns is thus not saying that print determines history, but that print is conditioned by history as well as conditioning it. As he stresses, the effects or implications of technology are not monolithic or homogenic. They are both appropriated by users as well as imposed on them. The book is therefore the product of one complex set of social and technological processes and also the starting point for another. For Johns, addressing the dichotomy directly, The Nature of the Book is not simply the negative component of a dialectic. It is not solely a critique of print culture and Eisenstein. Rather, it questions claims about print and examines how they came into being, and why it is that we find them so appealing and plausible (Johns 1998: 628).

As Johns makes clear, the cultural and the social should be at the centre of our attention. In this sense, the French historian Roger Chartier and the Annales school have been very important in the development of his argument. Chartier recognises ways of reading as social and cultural practices with an historical character. An authorative text, however fixed, cannot compel uniformity in the cultures of its reception. Johns argues that both print and science are thus not universal and absolute but constructions that need to be maintained. Johns claims that Eisenstein sets printing outside of history in her definition of print culture: in her account it becomes placeless and timeless and does not pay sufficient attention to how these essential properties of print and print culture as a whole emerged. The Nature of the Book, by contrast, is concerned with the relation between print and knowledge, and its focus is on the history of science. By exploring the history of the book and print in the making we get a better understanding of the conditions of knowledge, Johns claims, and of the ways in which knowledge has been made and utilized. The Nature of the Book is therefore concerned with how early modern Europeans put printing to use to create and maintain knowledge about the natural world. Print culture is, as Johns states, the result of manifold representations, practices and conflicts, it is thus not a cause in itself. In that respect there existed a variety of different (local) print cultures (Johns 1998: 19–20).

The interest of Johns lies with the people and the places that make print possible, the agents of the book trade. As he argues, it is the appearance of print that has veiled real conflict in history. The principles that seem to us most essential to print have in fact been heavily disputed for centuries. Part of the importance of The Nature of the Book lies in Johns’ reconstruction of how, in the 17th and 18th centuries, what print was and ought to be was decided and constructed by looking at its historical origins or by a reconstruction (in the way of a struggle) of the historical origins of the press.[15] What is important here, as Johns argues, is that print culture is based on practices and conventions, where he is interested in how practices came to be shared. Print culture knows specific sites of cultural production, distinct cultural settings or domains. These dynamic localities were constituted by representations, practices and skills. Johns shows that the uniformity exhibited by printed materials was as much a project of social actions and struggles as it was of the inherent properties of the press:

In knowledge of the past they sought understanding of their present and future. The result was not a consensus. Such writers produced radically different accounts of the history and impact of printing, using different conventions of evidence to arrive at radically opposed conclusions. From those divergent verdicts they went on to generate violently conflicting recommendations for action. So intense was their disagreement that their work was forced to address the most profound historiographical problems. Most of all, it raised questions about the very credibility of textual evidence. An issue fundamental to the status of historical knowledge now confronted early modern writers, arising from a debate over the very craft that, one might suppose, negated the importance of the topic by rendering records trustworthy (Johns 1998: 324).


Representationalist discourse

If we look at this debate between Johns and Eisenstein in more depth, we can see that, although I have outlined and emphasised the main differences between the two thinkers, both are anxious not to be accused of any form of technicist or humanist determinism or oppositional thinking. Eisenstein, for instance, is very careful to argue that print was only an agent of change, not the agent of change, and that the transition to print was not a revolutionary one, but a rapid, widespread development, both continuous and broken. Nonetheless, Eisenstein’s emphasis is clearly on the ‘unacknowledged revolution’, on change rather than on continuity, and on how print was incremental in bringing about this change. And as stated before, Johns emphasises that his view is not opposed to that of Eisenstein, but that he just asks different questions.[16]The Nature of the Book is not simply the negative component of a dialectic, he states: he is not opposed to print agency but wants to acknowledge print in a different way, where ‘print is conditioning history as well as conditioning it’. Nonetheless, Johns does clearly emphasise the constructivist nature of the book, and that it doesn’t have inherent qualities but only transitive ones. To this end he argues that the ‘cultural and the social should thus be at the centre of our attention.’

 If we take the debate between Johns and Eisenstein and their various position takings as representative of the larger book historical discourse, we can make the claim that this discourse for the most part adheres to forms of representationalism in its depiction of the medium of the book. This becomes clear from, among other things, the technicist (McLuhan, Eisenstein etc.) and humanist (Johns, Darnton etc.) assumptions that continue to underlie the debate. Representationalism, as Barad defines it, is ‘the belief in the ontological distinction between representations and that which they purport to represent; in particular, that which is represented is held to be independent of all practices of representing’ (Barad 2007: 28). In representationalism separations (between words and things, discourse and matter) are thus foundational. On the level of history writing or historiography, both Johns and Eisenstein, for example, do not take into account how their own representations might be (materially) influencing the things they represent (i.e. how their descriptions of the past of the book both shape that past as well as the current and future material becoming of the book). More importantly, they fail to acknowledge their own entangled becoming with the book through their discursive practices and the exclusions they create by cutting these apart in a certain way. In this respect Eisenstein’s technicist-inclined account is based on the presumption that books are real objects in the world—separate from ourselves, society, and culture—that can have certain effects on the world. As Kember and Zylinska make clear, however, from a performative viewpoint, ‘media cannot have effects on society if they are considered to be always already social’ (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 31). Similarly, Jay David Bolter argues that ‘writing is always a part of culture’. For him, ‘technologies do not determine the course of culture or society, because they are not separate agents that can act on culture from the outside’ (Bolter, Jay David 2001: 19). Johns, on the other hand, argues from a more constructivist-inclined view that the book has been constructed or represented by the ‘agents of the book trade’, showing a view in which culture is inscribed on the book, making it into a more or less passive entity, limiting the possibilities for the material agency of the book. Where Eisenstein and Johns do give credit to humanist and machinic agency respectively (as a form of limited constructivism or weak determinism), it is important to emphasise that they see both as complementary, as part of a ‘set’ of influences (in which one set is always emphasised as being more influential). As a result they maintain the ontological (and ethical) difference between discursive and media agency instead of seeing them as co-constitutive and entangled relational and agentic phenomena, as I want to do.

In a non-representationalist performative view there is no simple causality between media on the one hand and culture/society on the other, as these are already entangled from the start. As Dolphijn and Van der Tuin explicate in their book, New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, in a dichotomy the opposition is already implied in its negation, which implies that both sides of a dialectic are in a relation, where they are part of the same ‘intimate’ framework of thought (Dolphijn and Van der Tuin, 2012: 97–98). If we want to reframe the debate we should thus focus on their relationship and co-constitution. Along with bringing forward this performative view of book history, what I want to do here is examine how the representations that are put forward by both Johns and Eisenstein and the larger book historical debate, have come to emerge (from what context etc.), and what kind of cuts or dividing discursive practices they have come to promote or exclude through their materialising representations. Cuts or representations, following Barad, have to be made, but it is the acknowledgement of our own responsibility and contextual entanglements herein that can make a start in cutting differently, and perhaps more ethically. As Haraway has made clear, ‘worlds are built’ from our articulations and from the distinctions we make as part of our entanglements (Haraway 2004: 127). Here it is our responsibility to enable transformative instead of merely iterative effects to come out of our performative processes. Here we have to insist on a ‘better account of the world’ (Haraway 1988: 579).

 It must be granted that Johns does acknowledge that a re-appraisal of a social history of print culture in the making is consequential and can contribute to our historical understanding of the present conditions of knowledge. But Johns does not seem to acknowledge his own involvement in print culture in the making in this respect—the specific cuts that he makes, for instance, by abiding to the publication practices of scholarly publishing by presenting his ideas in a fixed, objectified, printed scholarly monograph, although he is from a ‘historical’ viewpoint very attuned towards the construction of these specific forms of fixity. It was McLuhan who was more attentive to this, as he actively experimented with the form of his own representations, taking into account the entangled nature of his words and the medium in which they were represented.[17]

Both Eisenstein and Johns, as part of their representationalist accounts, are thus not able to evade oppositional thinking, and can in fact even been seen to enforce it. Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska provide further detail on this continued use of binary oppositions in media studies. They argue that ‘even where these false divisions have been identified as such—and of course many writers are aware of their limited currency—it has been difficult to avoid them.’ This is partly due to the ‘residual effects of disciplinarity’ and its embracing of sets of essential key concepts, but also to the predominance in media studies of social sciences perspectives, bringing along with them what can be classified as an inherently positivist and humanist outlook (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 2). To explore what might be behind the continued emphasis in the book historical debate on (different forms of) oppositional binary thinking, it is important to take a closer look at its disciplinary history, and the specific developments literary studies and historiography went through during the rise of book history as a specific disciplinary niche.

Swift-Battle of the books

[1] The 19th century saw the rise of the study of books as a material object as part of the development of the study of analytical biography, but book history as a discipline which involves the study of ‘print culture’ draws heavily on the methodology of the French Annales school, established in the 1960s. For an overview of the development and of book history and its different strands see: Darnton, R. (1982) ‘What Is the History of Books?’. Daedalus, and the introductions to Baron, S.A., Lindquist, E.N., and Shevlin, E.F. (2007) Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies After Elizabeth L. Eisenstein. Univ of Massachusetts Press; Finkelstein, D. (2006) The book history reader. New York: Routledge; Hall, D.D. (1996) Cultures of Print: Essays in the History of the Book. Univ of Massachusetts Press; Howsam, L. (2006) Old Books And New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book And Print Culture. University of Toronto Press (Darnton 1982, Baron et al. 2007, Finkelstein 2006, Hall, D. D. 1996, Howsam 2006).

[2] Michael Hart, the founder of project Gutenberg (an online ebook database), is often credited for ‘inventing’ the ebook in 1971. See: However, experiments with ebooks and hypertexts were already taking place in the 1960s (with Alan Kay’s Dynabook, for instance), and some even place its invention in the 1930s or 40s. For more information on the history of the ebook, see:

[3] Although book historians or theorists increasingly draw on media theory and history, the relationship up to now has not exactly been mutual. Whitney Trettien argues that this might be due to the continuing digital divide between English and Literary Studies on the one hand and Media and Communication studies on the other. She states that, although ‘the two disciplines operate along parallel axes, studying similar phenomena but rarely intersecting’, much can be gained by integrating the disciplines’ methodologies and theories, by drawing on their similarities (Trettien 2009). Katherine Hayles has can be seen as a theorist who has actively investigated textual media from a ‘media standpoint’, most recently in the edition she co-edited with Jessica Pressman, Comparative Textual Media. Transforming the humanities in the postprint era (Hayles, N. K. and Pressman 2013).

[4] Darnton’s model was based on the specificities of an 18th Century European printing and publishing system.

[5] See, for instance: Esposito 2011, Purcell 2011, and Thompson, J. 2005: 309–310.

[6] Although the book as a material object is added to this model to make it more inclusive, it is still only a construction which aides us in getting a clearer overview of the debate. Much valuable research is excluded from this model—something that was already remarked upon by Darnton himself in a revision of his communication circuit in 2007, where he emphasises the omission of some crucial agents and functions from the communication chain, from literary agents to piracy—and hence it does not aim to cover the debate in its entirety, but tries to focus on some of its main focal points.

[7] In Book Was There, Andrew Piper gives a good overview of book historical studies that focus on readership, to which I would like to add Adrian Johns’ The Nature of the Book and Rolf Engelsing’s work on the 19th century ‘reading revolution’(Engelsing 1973, Johns 1998, Piper 2012: 159).

[8] Kember and Zylinska offer a good reading on how these dichotomies or ‘binary oppositions’ that structure debates on new media are actually ‘false divisions’. Although often identified as false, new media debates tend to perpetuate these divisions anyway, for a number of reasons, as we will show in what follows (Kember and Zylinska 2012: 2–3).

[9] Evgeny Morozov is someone who, following Adrian Johns and Mark Warner, argues that Eisenstein privileges print over culture: ‘Eisenstein’s account holds only if one accepts a sharp separation between technology on the one hand and society and culture on the other—and then assumes that the former shapes the latter, never the other way around’ (Morozov 2013).

[10] Theorists who emphasise the continuation of the manuscript tradition after the invention of print are detailed in Finkelstein’s Book History Reader (Finkelstein 2006: 18) and include Harold Love and David McKitterick. The discussion on the speed and nature of media change is one that comes to the fore again in the debate on printed books and ebooks, culminating in continuing forecasts of ‘the ebook revolution’ and ‘the death of the printed book in the digital age’.

[11] Bookfuturism is a term invented by Joanne McNeill—an American science and technology writer—for a Twitter list ( following book aficionados. The term also shows similarities with the blog Bookfutures, written by Chris Meade, director of if:book London, a think tank for the future of the book. The term Bookfuturism was picked up and given theoretical grounding by Tim Carmody, self-proclaimed bookfuturist, and writer for various blogs on book technology and digital media. Carmody started a group blog called Bookfuturism (, and wrote “A Bookfuturist Manifesto” for The Atlantic. As he explains, Bookfuturism plays with two dialectial oppositions: bookservatism and technofuturism:

Now, even bookservatives acknowledge that things are changing. But they fear that these changes will result in catastrophe, for some part or whole of the culture they love. Because of that, they would prefer that book tech and book culture stop, slow down, or go back. … On the other side of the aisle are technofuturists. They’re winning most of the arguments these days when it comes to e-books, so their rhetoric isn’t as wild. Technofuturists are technological triumphalists, or at least quasi-utopian optimists. These are the folks who believe that technology can solve our political, educational, and cultural problems. At an extreme, they don’t care about books at all: they’re just relics of a happily closing age of paper, and we should embrace the future in the form of multimedia and the networked web (Carmody, 2010).

Bookfuturists, in Carmody’s vision, refuse both positions. He sees it as a way of thinking about the book that is critical to both positions.

[12] Famously Plato has Socrates argue in the Phaedrus that writing is unresponsive, and it is bad for one’s memory, as it will make one forgetful. Similarly, in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, a scholar states, ‘The printed book will destroy the building’, where the cathedral as a physical, pictorial embodiment of the ‘fortress of the mind’ is seen as becoming obsolete with the coming of the printed book (Hugo 1978, Plato 2005).

[13] See also the remark Borgman made concerning the stabilisation of the book on page 18.

[14] The importance of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s thought for the book historical discourse and scholarly inquiry more in general has been called ‘undeniably enormous’, and her seminal work The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, has been seen as ‘more than any other work … responsible for the rise of … print culture studies’ (Baron et al. 2007: 1). Although the various book historical discourses overlapped and interacted, Eisenstein’s work can be seen as representing the materialist inspired Anglo-American stream of book studies, whereas Adrian Johns work draws heavily on the history of the European continental tradition of social-economic and cultural historical research in the wake of the French Annales school.

[15]This struggle to control the past will be discussed in more depth in the next section. Johns’ account of this struggle can be seen as an historical example of something I described earlier: namely, how a reinterpretation of the past directly influences the way we perceive the present and the future, and with that how we shape and structure that future. The representations of print’s history were founded on the differing accounts of contemporaries of what printing was and should be. Debate, dispute and struggle thus constructed and constituted print culture. As Johns puts it, ‘Societies therefore structure and legitimate themselves through knowledge of the past, creating present and future order out of an ordered representation of history’ (Johns 1998: 325).

[16] Although his book has been classified by some–unfairly in my opinion–as a ‘book length attack on Eisenstein’ (Van der Weel 2012: 81).

[17] See, for instance, The Medium is the Message, the book McLuhan co-wrote with graphic designer Quentin Fiore (McLuhan and Fiore 1967).



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