MIT Communications Forum: The Gutenberg Parenthesis — Oral Tradition and Digital Technologies
James Paradis, Robert M. Metcalfe Professor of Writing, Program Head, Writing and Humanistic Studies; Thomas Pettitt, Associate Professor of English, University of Southern Denmark; Peter Donaldson, Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Humanities and Head of the Literature Faculty, MIT. Director, Shakespeare Interactive Archive
Description: Should we view the last 500 years or so of Western culture as a strange interlude, defined by printed page and other artifacts that once dominated the landscape but are now fading in relevance? In this forum, Thomas Pettitt makes the deliberately provocative case for a Gutenberg "Parenthesis" -- a period marked by the reign of the printing press and isolated from the largely oral culture that came before, and the digitally shaped culture emerging today. Pettitt, who finds an upside in society's return to "something that resembles the past," encounters some resistance among his listeners.
The age of Twitter and YouTube, to Pettitt's eye, seems like a throwback to medieval times (or earlier). "Mailing and tweeting are a reversion to the limited communicative capacities of stone tables; the future is taking us back to the past," he says. He finds "fundamental similarities between human kind's oldest and pervasive media condition" (that of oral tradition), and the post-Gutenberg phenomenon of digital texts (not to mention sound and image). The entire history of media, Pettitt suggests, has been merely "interrupted by the age of print."
The Gutenberg Parenthesis, which Pettitt hastens to assure wasn't a "waste of time," can be characterized by a single word: "containment." Media of all kinds were contained: pictures framed; bodies confined and restricted; music performances limited to halls and houses; navigation distilled to charts; and people divided into races, species and genders. Of particular concern to Pettitt is the "imprisonment" of words during the Parenthesis. They were pressed onto pages, stitched up, bound, with stories circumscribed by beginning, middle and end -- so unlike story telling and other kinds of cultural production in previous times, when oral traditions meant dynamically changing texts and performances.
This transition from uncontained to contained culture is clearly demonstrable, from Pettitt's perspective, in "what they did to Shakespeare." From plays "subject to enormous intervention by actors, taken around place to place, performed not always accurately, those living plays were imprisoned" by supposedly authoritative print copies. By this "fetishistic approach," Shakespeare was "turned into a thing," he says.
There "may be some healthy aspects," he concludes, if the rise of the Internet breaks down some of these artificial barriers, "makes us less categorical in the way we perceive the world, less panicky, less worried about distinctions."
Respondent Peter Donaldson takes issue with Pettitt's frame around Shakespeare, noting the "fact of variation of texts" and of performances based on those different versions of plays. Donaldson acknowledges efforts to confine Shakespeare in his time and after, but demands "recognition that there's no way confinement will work," whether in attempts to pin down Shakespeare's words, his historical reality, image, or the meanings of his plays. Moderator James Paradis confesses that "the idea of moving to a post-literate society is hard for me to understand," given that the technological framework underlying media and popular culture involves a population with a "level of understanding of words probably beyond anything that's ever been." Perhaps we're not reverting to a preliterate society so much as "merging into a secondary orality, supported massively by super literacy."
About the Speaker(s): Thomas Pettitt teaches English literary and cultural history in the late-medieval and early modern periods. He received his Ph.D. from Odense University in 1996. His research focuses on tradition-borne texts and performances such as ballads, folksongs, legends, customs and folk drama.
He has published in such academic journals as Folklore, Journal of American Folklore, Renaissance Drama, and European Medieval Theatre. Peter Donaldson is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He received a B.A. from Columbia University in 1964, a B.A. from Cambridge University (Clare College)in 1966, an M.A. from Cambridge University in 1970, and his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1974.
Since the late 1980s he has focused on two major research areas: Shakespeare on Film (Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors and a series of articles now being revised for a book on Shakespeare and Media Allegory), and electronic projects involving Shakespeare across media, including the Shakespeare Electronic Archive, which uses computers to develop new ways of studying the text, image and film records of Shakespearean publication and production.
Donaldson has held research fellowships from the NEH and ACLS, and was the first Lloyd Davis Visiting Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Queensland (2006). James Paradis is a noted scholar of literary and cultural perspectives on scientific rhetoric in the 19th century. His main fields of interest are Victorian Cultural Studies and Science and Technical Communication. This critical scholarship is highlighted by his books T.H. Huxley: Man's Place in Nature (1978), and Samuel Butler: Victorian against the Grain _ A Critical Overview (2007).
Paradis has also made significant contributions to the field of technical writing and communication. Together with Muriel Zimmerman he co-authored The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication (1997) in order to strengthen the communication skills of MIT undergraduates.
Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum (From the MIT World collection)
MIT Communications Forum