According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of “print” is “The impression or imprint made by the impact of a stamp, seal, die, or the like on a surface; a distinctive stamped or printed mark or design,” as a noun, and “to press (something hard) into or upon a softer substance or surface, so as to leave an indentation or imprint” as a verb. More specifically, it is used to describe the mechanical reproduction of something written down or inscribed – texts and photographs being two of the most prominent of the reproducible mediums. Its etymology lies in Anglo-Norman prente, and along with its forms (imprint, footprint, fingerprint, et cetera), it shares its root with “ paint,” “press,” “impress,” and even “pregnant.” It is the relationship to “pregnant” that can most accurately describe how the term print is used in media theory – that print resides in and defines itself as an amalgamation of different mediums; since its conception, it has perpetually and exponentially proliferated itself in various forms of art and other media; and, most importantly, print itself has left lasting effects on every society, every art form and every piece of technology, to the point that it is a characteristic of modern man and his progression.
In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Friedrich A. Kittler writes “[A]n omnipresent metaphor equated women with the white sheet of nature or virginity onto which a very male stylus could then inscribe the glory of its authorship,” (Kittler 186). Here, Kittler points out the sexuality of print and, in doing so, highlights the Oxford English Dictionary’s connection of print to pregnancy. Kittler recognizes that the final product of type print – ink on paper – is a masculine author staining or imprinting a white sheet with his authorial ink. This is an effective context for the proliferation of print, and an example of why print is necessarily bound up in reproducibility. In fact, in Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes “[P]rint presented an image of repeatable precision that inspired totally new forms of extending social energies,” (McLuhan 172). In this, McLuhan illustrates the way that social energies, even entire societies, are inspired by and even mirror the way in which print is able to reproduce itself in innumerable identical copies, calling in to question the idea of the individual in a group. Since print is so defined by its reproducibility, Walter Benjamin would say that it “substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence,” (Benjamin 221). To Benjamin, the individual disappears in favor of the group; there is no original of any print because, by definition, when something is printed, it is reproduced identically numerous times over.
Print’s proliferation and ability to be reproduced identically is one such way that the practice has left an impression upon societies; another is print’s longstanding history as a remediation of other forms of communication. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes “Perhaps the supreme quality of print […] is simply that it is a pictorial statement that can be repeated precisely and indefinitely,” (McLuhan 160). It is key, in this passage, that McLuhan describes print as a “ pictorial statement” because that is precisely where print holds its roots – as a visual, pictorial form of handwriting and spoken language. McLuhan claims that print took the place not only of writing, but of the human memory as well, when he states “[P]rint ended the scholastic regime of oral disputation very quickly. Print provided a vast new memory for past writings that made a personal memory inadequate,” (McLuhan 174). McLuhan points out that before printing, manuscripts were to be read out loud and individually, and since the manuscript was not reproduced for each student, a listener’s (or student’s) memory was her only means of recalling the text, which led to “oral disputations” regarding the correct versions of texts. However, the invention of print provided a “new memory,” an accurate, identical copy of the manuscript for each reader that rendered the listener’s memory obsolete. In this case, the invention of print became a remediation – a reconfiguring of one media into another – of writing (because of its reproducibility), and also the human memory (because of its accuracy).
McLuhan also mentions the way in which print changed handiwork by mechanizing the process of printing. Print affected the way poetry was sung by insisting on words being written rather than memorized and intoned, and it even inserted itself into the art of drawing – that flowery lettering in illuminated manuscripts was exalted to such a high degree (McLuhan 159, 170). In this way, print was defined by, and also defined, every other medium and art form with which it was in contact. Walter Benjamin points out, however, that even before text began to be printed, woodcut graphic art became mechanically reproducible, and while script to print was a major innovation, woodcut art gave way to lithography, which gave way to photography. Benjamin asserts that “Since the eye perceives more quickly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was accelerated so enormously that it could keep pace with speech,” (Benjamin 218-19). In this way, photography, and the fast-paced reproduction of photo prints, quickly caught up with textual printing in popularity.
While print photography has gained popularity very quickly, the invention of textual print has been a major topic of theory because of its effects on societies, both psychologically and socially. McLuhan states “Psychically the printed book, an extension of the visual faculty, intensified perspective and the fixed point of view […]. The linearity precision and uniformity of the arrangement of moveable types are inseparable from these great cultural forms and innovations of Renaissance experience,” (McLuhan 172). Here, McLuhan equates print with the coming of the Renaissance; print’s linearity and logical precision was directly in line with the new attitude of the Renaissance, which allowed print to flourish. In addition, since it caters directly to the reader’s visual faculties, it provides a continuous focal point for the reader which effectively grasps her attention. In this way, the reader is not only focused on the type on a page, but bound to the uniformity and and precision of the “innovations of Renaissance experience.” Martin Heidegger agrees with McLuhan that the invention of print emerged simultaneously with modernity. Heidegger writes that “When writing was withdrawn from the origin of its essence, i.e., from the hand, and was transferred to the machine, a transformation occurred in the relation of Being to man […]. It is no accident that the invention of the printing press coincides with the inception of the modern period,” (Heidegger). Indeed, in the first year of the French Revolution alone, over one hundred new presses were established and over one hundred and forty new periodicals were being printed (Eisenstein 21). Heidegger, here, argues that with the invention of the printing press, the invention of a new type of man emerged as well. While writing began to be reproduced mechanically rather than by hand, man’s primary relationship to writing developed through the printing press machine rather than the pen, by typesetting and pressing. Man’s new relationship to the printing press marked this transformation Being – that man had entered the modern age in his ability to mechanically reproduce type.
Print also had a great effect on people socially. Reproducible print and the printing press were not only bound up with the Renaissance and man’s modernity, but also had a part in widespread information flow. McLuhan claims that “In bringing the ancient and medieval worlds into fusion – or, as some would say, confusion – the printed book created a third world, the modern world […]. The alphabet (and its extension into typography) made possible the spread of the power that is knowledge, and shattered the bonds of tribal man,” (McLuhan 171). Here, McLuhan is describing print’s effect on globalizing literacy and community. With the reproducibility of print, knowledge and information spread to all facets of the world’s societies and suddenly, many unrelated people were reading identical texts. In this way, people were forced to move outside of their tribal bonds and join a global community of readers which McLuhan ascribes as characteristic of the modern world. A side effect of this globalization and widespread access to knowledge is what McLuhan calls “detachment and noninvolvement,” or that people now have the luxury of knowing something completely unrelated to themselves and not having to act upon it. McLuhan writes that “[I]t was precisely the power to separate thought and feeling, to be able to act without reacting, that split literate man out of the tribal world of close family bonds in private and social life,” (McLuhan 173). To McLuhan, print gave people the opportunity to both know about something and not care about it, and to care about things outside of their tribal bonds; while print expanded peoples’ interest horizons, it also detached them from their small social groups.
However, the most prominent social effect of print was, McLuhan claims, nationalism. This effect materialized through a “gradual homogenization of diverse regions with the resulting amplification of power, energy, and aggression that we associate with new nationalisms,” (McLuhan 175). With the global spread of printed material, previously diverse regions began to be homogenized into large-scale reading societies. They began to associate themselves with each other and, eventually, be defined by the print to which they had access and which their society was reading. While this brought on a sense of nationalism, it is difficult to construe this power as nationalism to a specific nation, but rather nationalism to the reading community. This bringing together of society mirrors the uniformity that the printing press demands, and is closely related to the process of bringing individual letter blocks together to be pressed on one, white page. This understanding of homogenization – both at the print level and the global community level – McLuhan argues is the key to understanding Western power (McLuhan 174).
It is clear that in its history, print has served as man’s introduction into modernity, man’s psychological and social relation to himself and others, each society’s foundation upon which to build its national identity, and even ushered in the age of the machine. In Critical Terms for Media Studies, Lydia Liu puts it succinctly by saying “The colossal amount of written and printed record and electronic information stored in data banks, libraries, museums, archival centers, and global communication networks further indicates how much the technologies of writing and print have evolved to shape modern life and the future of humanity,” (Mitchell and Hansen 310). Print, in this way, becomes inseparable from modern man and modern man, in turn, relies on print to push him forward, and also expand his knowledge horizon. The use of the term “print” in media recalls this powerful history and, more importantly, acknowledges print’s reproducibility and global takeover as intimidating characteristics. What is the future of print, then? Hubertus Streicher claims that “fundamentally, the typewriter is nothing but a miniature printing press,” (Streicher 7). Expanded to include the personal computer and printer, it is true that each person now has access to their own personal printing press, and can develop her own way of stamping and impressing white pages with her authorship, and even distributing them. Plus, with the recent emergence of electronic books, the internet and the idea of the paperless office, it is even possible that printing (or even the personal print-out) may be doomed for obsolescence. While it is yet unclear in which direction textual or photographic print will go, what remains clear is the influence and effect it will continue to have upon society and modernity.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations. New York: Shocken Books.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. “Gods, Devils, and Gutenberg: The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Printing Press.” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 27 (1998): 1-24.
Heidegger, Martin. Parmenides. Trans. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1992.
Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Liu, Lydia. “Writing,” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen, 310-326. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1994.
Streicher, Hubertus. Die kriminologische Verwertung der Maschinenschrift. 1919.