In this article, Johns seeks to emphasize that not only do the time and place of a books existence matter, but the methods by which it came in to being, i.e. who produced it, how they produced it, why they produced it, and for whom, matter just as much; all of these factors culminate in a society that is impacted by the existence of the book, if not more so by those factors of creation, just as much as this society influences the aforementioned technology.
Johns makes many important points in this article, but three that struck me include the following:
- Central to the discussion maintained by this article is the idea of the nature of the printed work, why it exists as it does, or rather, in the ways in does in specific social contexts. On page 3, Johns states “[a]ny printed book is, as a matter of fact, both the product of one complex set of social and technological processes and also the starting point for another. In the first place, a large number of people, machines, and materials must converge and act together for it to come into existence at all” (Johns 3). This, I believe is key to the idea of the recursive nature of media that we have been discussing. Johns goes on in this section to explain that these things all work to allow a printed work to cultivate a unique identity, a place in history held by no other entity. The first part of that quotation also serves to explain how media and society evolve in tandem with one another, again stressing that the social context, both in terms of the human and non-human (technological or ideological) elements, that surround the creation of media, cannot and should not be divorced from said media, which in this case, is a printed text such as a novel. This idea is also significant because, as Johns states on page 4, “[s]uch an argument compels us to reappraise where our own concept of print culture comes from, how it developed, when it took hold, and why its sway continues to seem secure” (Johns 4). Reading articles such as this and thinking of print artifacts, as well as the societies and technologies that shape/create them, as these entities that have a kind of life to them, evolving constantly with particular and significant identities, forces us to open our eyes to the work around us and to question it. It shakes us out of the state of passivity that we often entertain when it comes to media like this, or even as a whole and prevents us from falling into that mindset of thinking of media as this “naturalized” thing.
- Taking the idea of how we as humans shape the identity, the very nature of the printed element is the second central idea that I feel Johns discusses quite well in this article: the idea of the sanctity/fixity of the text. He links this to the question of ascertaining true knowledge and a solid scholarly reputation as well, which I thought was particularly interesting. I was quite shocked to find out that “Martin Luther’s German translation of Scripture was actually beaten into print by its first piracy” (Johns 31). What is original wording was could now be called into question, and so, in a way, might his intent be. His reputation as a scholar and a writer could also be questioned if the mood so struck his detractors. Credit might not be given where it was due. All of the former is better applied to the more general scholarly publications and printing of that day, but the example of Luther and later Shakespeare speaks to the magnitude of how this aspect of printing as a technology, as well as how individuals in society reacted to and interacted with these technologies and artifacts, could impact history. In summation, on page 33, Johns states that piracy, as a social consequence and context of the nature of the printed text and the technology that created it “threatened to ‘unauthorize’ authors themselves. Even more importantly, it threatened the credibility to be attributed to their ideas” (Johns 33). Knowledge was made and disseminated through the platform provided by these printed texts, so looking at how and why they were produced, the human and social element of the media question, becomes all the more important. He does state later though that this piracy could be used to achieve social or political ends. This was an offshoot of an idea that I found very affecting. On page 29, Johns notes that piracy could lead to “divergent cultural consequences” (Johns 29). This, I believe, calls back to what he discusses on page 4 when he denotes the story of Salman Rushdie. Piracy, according to a “Penguin representative” might have been made available to the reading public because it would “circumvent the Indian government’s subsequent ban on the book” (Johns 4). The technologies that print these “printed” texts allow certain avenues that work in extremely meaningful ways in within certain social and political contexts that shape understandings, and therefore must be examined and valued at the highest level.
- The final idea that I wish to discus here that I found particularly central to Johns’ argument is that of his notion that the “print culture” discussed by Eisenstein is not wrong essentially, but flawed. On page 19, he states that rather than see “fixity” as a quality “intrinsic to the text,” we should instead view it as a “transitive” quality (Johns 19). This, according to Johns, means that we recognize, understand, and value that
[T]exts, printed or not, cannot compel readers to react in specific ways, but that they must be interpret in cultural spaces the character of which helps to decide what counts as a proper reading. In short, this recasting has the advantage of positioning the cultural and the social where they should be: at the center of our attention. (Johns 20)
Here, Johns responds to what he views in Eisenstein’s argument as something verging on technological determinism. He places value on the human element of the nature of the book, on their influence on how, why, and for whom these artifacts, printed or otherwise, are manufactured. Here, he reiterates the idea that society is important in the consideration of media technologies throughout history, and that these histories continue to influence our actions and understandings. As they evolve, so do our societies and technologies.
While reading the article, there were two issues that I found I would like more clarification on, including the following:
- I know that we have discussed the technologies in terms of their form and now, after reading this article, their method of production and reasoning behind said decisions, and being extremely noteworthy, perhaps even more than the message, but after reading this article and seeing how Johns notes icons such as Shakespeare, Luther, Galileo, and Brahe, people who have had and will continue to have great societal and academic influence, I am finding myself wondering what, in regards to the content of these printed texts, or of any sort of media, is being argued. I know that it is important, because that message is what is ultimately conveyed to an audience, I am just curious about how that works in conjunction with the other factors of “print culture” discussed here.
- Another aspect that I just wanted to know a bit more about was when Johns discusses how piracy could allow for and contribute to social movements, like when he discusses Rushdie. What technologies were particularly impactful? Who used them? Why?
Lastly, and I apologize for the length of this question, thinking about this article and all of the factors that go in to the creation of the book, the printed text, from the creative factors that influence its initial crafting to how, when, and why it is produced and thrust into the hands of the public, I found myself thinking about a conversation I had a little while ago with my roommate about a scandal associated with sites on which writers can publish fan fiction. One site was taking the published work of these writers and were making a profit off of them by publishing them. The works were still attributed to the usernames that published them, but users saw none of the profits. The concept of this writing project, as well as its existence in the modern day and, on the large part, on a digital publication platform, provides a fascinating historical context for examining the social and political aspects of the nature of the book in our society, especially in regards to notions of the sanctity of the text and the credibility of the author. What does the existence of fan fiction mean for the sanctity of ideas? Does it matter when one considers the contexts of creative expression and when one considers legislation in place to prevent copyright infringement or damage to the authorial reputation of the original creator of the text? Why does this digital forum work in the ways that it does for these writers and why does it continue to be attractive despite negative consequences as previously mentioned? Notions of anonymity also impact the society created in this digital publication space. What does all this mean as our “print culture” and the very “nature of the book” continues to evolve with our societies around the globe?