Adrian Johns, Ch. 1

In this chapter, Johns introduces the idea of print culture and explains how he will explore what it is and how it came to be. Johns focuses on printed works having an epistemic nature, where the texts themselves produce knowledge by way of those who created, published, and distributed them. He forecasts his emphasis on the historical context of printed works, and argues that this context is at least as equally as important as the work itself.

First, Johns entertains the concept that a book has a life instead of a mere moment of creation. Someone creates it in a certain circumstance, and it is disseminated and used for particular purposes. Each of these stages is equally important and furthermore, they are complex and vary greatly depending on the context. Johns writes, “the story of a book evidently does not end with its creation. How it is then put to use, by whom, in what circumstances, and to what effect are all equally complex issues” (3). He goes on to explain how one book symbolizes the intersection of all of this complexity. Analyzing it is vital to understanding print culture both in history and modern times.

Additionally, Johns shifts from previous views of technological determinism to a focus on the author or creator of the printed works. He argues that one is mistaken to believe that the technology itself (i.e. the book) has a power all its own. Rather, the technological creator has done the hard work creating the knowledge and thus deserves the epistemic credit. When discussing the astronomer Tycho Brahe’s observations, Johns explains the difficulty of “attributing to printed books themselves attributes of credibility and persuasion that actually took much work to maintain” (18). Oftentimes the author becomes obscured, and the technology is viewed as the piece that changes the culture. But Johns points to an important idea to consider in today’s society, too—that books, authors, cultures, and contexts are all related. Each are influenced by the other.

Not only is a printed work symbolic, but it is contextual in local and global forms. Johns writes of the paradox of books/printed works: they both tell of specific communities and unite many communities. He says, “Does the importance of print not lie precisely in its ability to transcend such local contexts and enable communication across wide distances?” (40). The spreading of printed works and making them globally available (and moreso, the spreading of knowledge that the technological production enabled) was due at least in part to what Elizabeth Einstein calls “fixity,” or the condition where printed works could be reproduced anywhere, and one could rely on the consistency of the work because each one was printed exactly the same. Contrastingly, earlier handwritten works were subject to scribal errors and damaging environmental effects, like fire. Johns dichotomizes fixity with the way printed works were first copied by hand. In this way, he reinforces what he says about printed works being complex—on the one hand, they have their handwritten, local, malleable roots. On the other, they have permanence and epistemic capabilities.

Regarding Einstein’s work, I question how Einstein can be accused of technological determinism, as Johns asks, “the accusations of technological determinism sometimes leveled against Eisenstein may even be wide of the mark, since she consistently declines to specify any position on the question of how print culture might emerge from print” (19). However, Einstein’s opening question of Some Features of Print Culture seems nonessentialist—that print technology is used within a certain context, and this context needs to be considered. How can she be accused of technological determinism?

Also, Johns spends a lot of time discussing Tycho Brahe. Why? The Brahe discussion relates to one overarching theme of credit (who is author/what does he or she believe, and should we as readers believe it?) and fixity. Johns’s work helps us return to a focus on those who created this print technology—the author, publishers, and booksellers.