“I want to get published,” says the aspiring writer, perhaps self-importantly. The writer isn’t simply speaking about having a work of hers in print, although that is certainly an integral part of the process. But the writer wants much more, as is intimated by the use of the verb “get,” rather “be”: to submit some private writing (like a draft) to the public realm, to a (more or less) critical audience, to gain the authority lent her words by virtue of the publishing process, either because it will be vetted through collective expertise of a system of printers, editors, proofers, social conventions, and more, or because the work will be produced with the full weight of an industrial system, or both. Of course she prefers that to being published online, where words are similarly, perhaps even more public, yet connote something less authoritative; the academic who hears “publish or perish” might not consider publishing online, knowing his tenured position relies on that same process of review and instantiation, though that is starting to change, I think.
At its simplest, the verb ‘publish’ means “to make public,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Deriving from the Anglo-Norman poeplier, meaning to make public, make known, or announce, and related forms, a more specific definition of publish of the term yields this: “To make generally accessible or available for acceptance or use (a work of art, information, etc.); to present to or before the public; spec. to make public (news, research findings, etc.) through the medium of print or the Internet” (“publish”3b, OED). This definition highlights the remediative aspect of the word, from private to public, which I see as providing a key tension: whether and how a private work will be received by the public: printing or disseminating online as a social practice.
The way in which “publishing” connects print media and the public suggests both Elizabeth Eisenstein’s theory of the Unacknowledged Revolution—print media giving rise to public knowledge—as well as Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere; both authors argue persuasively that this practice spurred the growth of the nation-state, which others have expanded upon. But we already run into a problem in the way thinkers privilege print, the technology of disseminating information to the public, and disregard publishing, the practice that grew up around publishing. Marshall McLuhan does the same thing, in a chapter of Understanding Media, “The Printed Word:” “[P]rint presented an image of repeatable precision that inspired totally new forms of extending social energies . . . by breaking the individual out of the group while providing a model of how to add individual to individual in massive agglomeration of power,” (McLuhan, 172), he writes, essentially schematizing the effect print had for individual power that Eisenstein and Habermas draw on. Here McLuhan seems his most technologically deterministic, and in foregrounding the effects of print as a medium, lends credence to the theory that it was printing en masse that created the public sphere.
But technology is always embedded in social practice, and print shouldn’t be seen as divorced from the social context of its rise and propagation. As Williams explains in “From Medium to Social Practice,” both in the eighteenth century and the twentieth, the use of the term ‘medium’ in regards to newspapers implied sociality, in that the newspaper belonged to a person and as a way of presenting advertising. “In either case the ‘medium’ is a form of social organization, something essentially different from the idea of an intermediate communicative substance” (Williams, 159). He also explains that printing is embedded in social practice, showing that after the invention of print, art became idealized while printing became associated with mechanical work. The subsequent alienation experienced by artist and in the labor itself meant “the special senses of ‘medium’ were then exceptionally reinforced: medium as intermediate agency, between an ‘artistic impulse’ and a complete ‘work’; or medium as the objectified properties of the working process itself” (Williams, 161). Furthermore, the social history of art-creation often meant technology was more than just notation but “cooperative material production,” and literature reserved to pen and paper “is then an important historical phase but not, in relation to the many practices which it offers to represent, any kind of absolute definition” (Williams, 163). Therefore, privileging technology over social practice, print over publishing, reinforces a false consciousness that improperly divides technology and social practice. Therefore, publishing seems to be the more apt term to describe a process that changed so much in human history.
This is evident from very early on in printing. Studying the social practices adopted in early book making in Book Use/Book Theory, Bradin Cormack and Carla Mazzio distinguish using a book from reading it, arguing that the form of a book (the medium itself) has always provided a guide for how to use it:
“Using books implies an active and productive engagement with them. Indeed, use per se poses a challenge to the book’s authority and integrity, not only in terms of torn pages, broken spines and missing covers, but also because a reader’s use makes him or her integral to the production of meaning.”
(Cormack, 39) Cormack and Mazzio here convey that interacting with the printed medium was as rich a process for the reader as it was for the writer, that a book’s audience engages with the work as well as with the ideas. (Per the authors’ timeline, this relationship is distinct, if not preceding, the heightening of the collective mind into the public sphere, the process described by Eisenstein, Habermas, and McLuhan). As print works socially, we can see how publishing works.
Perhaps as importantly, the pair argues that writing a book has always required thinking about the audience. They say that, in thinking of structural elements like prefaces, indices, and diagrams, authors were “commonplacing, a method of making books one’s own by breaking them down into, and digesting, their most significant (i.e. useable) parts” (Cormack, 61), constructing the reading experience for the user of the book. Moreover, these parts were highly conventional, acting as a code that helped readers understand the form the work would take. For example, “Titles often guided readers by laying out the content and parts of the book and by indicating the book’s value for a particular audience, field of knowledge or market sector” (Cormack, 49), its formal features putting it in a market where its theoretical value could be appreciated by others. And we can imagine the conversations between author and printer to determine the best way to convey that value. Rather than the book itself being the medium through which man created the public sphere, it was the practices of reading the book that raised his consciousness to that level, requiring an interaction both with the text and through the text to produce value and meaning. Recalling Williams, this is evidence of a great deal of social interaction that went on before printing took place and indeed through the medium itself, and there is no doubt more that could be said on the matter; publishing houses have only gotten more complex since this time, and the formal conventions of print more complex.
By the way, this should not in any way undermine the importance of the printing press in establishing the public, it just updates our understanding of that process, acknowledging the role the social practice of publishing, the sociality around the printed word, had in rethinking print media as remediating and giving value to the private work in what became a public sphere. Publishing means a social practice of creating and reading print, where reading and writing are more than simply extensions of the self; they are gestures set up by economic, social, and sometimes political structures. But is it different, then, from other forms of speech or communication in the era? We can see this in the different reactions to the printed and the spoken word by a religious movement in Southern France in the early 18th century, which is about 50 years before the time Habermas says the public sphere begins. Moreover, these reactions will illuminate what I see as publishing’s other important feature: conveying authority.
The Camisards were a group of Protestants living in the south of France, some of the last remaining Protestants in the nation after many years of religious violence, according to Daniel Thorburn. In his essay, “Prophetic Peasants and Bourgeois Pamphleteers,” he discusses the interaction between contemporary oral and printed forms of discourse and the Camisards, who resisted an increasingly oppressive Catholic monarchy, first through spoken religious practices and political pamphlets, then violence, and finally a discourse by literate outsiders appropriating the authority of the participants with the public sphere.
Writing about the form of resistance provided by ecstatic prophets in the early resistance to Catholic dominance, Thorburn says, “the very fact that their message was expressed orally implied an unadulterated sincerity” (Thorburn, 167), identifying a conscious, political decision in the use of form; that is, the Camisards juxtaposed print and oral media, privileging the latter. It also suggests political association through the medium itself, that a document published by the French could stand for their power and thereby impose itself on the Camisards to the point that using a different form of expression was a politically tinged move. Thus, political groups came to be represented by the documents they published. (Note that this is one way of entering the public sphere.)
But within about 15 years of the rise of the prophets, Camisard sympathizers began representing the Camisard cause in writing, arguing the legal side of the conflict through pamphlets that are disseminated through London and France. These Camisard sympathizers and émigrés were “concerned with demonstrating that the Camisards cannot be called ‘rebels,’ a term obviously reserved for unlawful insurrections” (Thorburn, 170), and in appealing to the public through its writing, found an audience in English Protestants, of whom there were many, who used the public image of the Camisards to further a foreign policy goal: war with France. And though the Camisard cause was by no means the only cause of the War of Spanish Succession, it helped push England into war. Thus,
“in using the Camisards for their own political purposes, the literate opponents of the French king changed the terms of debate and transformed the image of the Camisards. Whereas the Camisards saw their struggle as a local one…their literate defenders from Holland and England saw place the Camisard cause within the larger context of the Huguenot struggle in France.”
(Thorburn, 174). Publishing co-opted authority, advancing a political agenda through print driven by the need to redefine social relations in a way that could move beyond borders (the spoken did not have the same range) and in a way that both sides could represent themselves through print. This suggests that publishing, a social practice, coalesced support for and against the Camisard side; people associated with each other in order to print a message, and they organized against those messages as much for their form, in some cases, as for their content. We can read this not as cooperative material production, qua Willaims, but cooptive material and social production.
Publishing practices are changing rapidly with the onset of the digital age, but the issues publishing raises—conveying the private into the public—are still the same. One change is that publishing online requires no specialized infrastructure, like printing presses, editors, or a marketing strategy; in that way, it can be disseminated much more immediately and widely than traditional media. That dissemination is complicated by a loss of authority, or a lack of evident valorizing structures, like publishing houses, that indicate the published work is worth consuming. Another big difference is that the content of the private is often stripped down to quotidian life, whether in the form of a diary/blog, a Facebook, or rampant speculation that gains the power of an audience more immediately and at lower cost than ever before. In that way, the issues of internet publication are more urgent than ever. (This conversation does not touch on XML, the code that mimics typesetting for digital word processors, mostly because it seems to replicate traditional print in many ways.)
I think it’s only appropriate to start a conversation on digital expression with a Google Search. The first three results of a search for “blog hit publish” (Google, October 29, 2010) reveal an interesting array of anxieties on publishing. The first result is entitled, “Blog Post Editing: 5 Steps to Take Before You Hit Publish,” and represents an urge to carefully review the content of a draft before publishing it; since Google keeps all published pages in a cache, the contents can never be taken out of the public realm. The next result, “Sometimes you just have to hit PUBLISH,” represents the opposite urge, a Romantic, almost transcendental desire to put self-expression before censorship. The next, “What Do You Do When You Accidentally Hit Publish on a Blog Post,” explains how to mitigate the effect of projecting the private into the public.
These different but similar preoccupations with the consequences of publishing on the Web dramatize a problem of authority the Internet has, in comparison with print. All self-published—they didn’t go through an evident editing structure, nor are they branded with a stamp of editorial and industrial authority—these posts and many others proliferate, with unintended consequences. The Internet has engendered “‘a culture of allegation and assertion at the expense of an older culture of verification’” (Briggs, 270), as David Halberstam put it, a place with a lack of authority on the part of writers who are nonetheless engaging in public discourse through their writing. Without threatening the legitimacy of a publishing structure that has invested in the print product, a blogger can make a false or questionable claim online that may disappear or spread rapidly, memetically [sic]. This brings the private much closer to the public, removing much of the mediation printing and its attendant social structures present between the two terms.
The bloggers also illustrate Alexander Galloway’s argument on the control networks can have over their users: “Like the web of ruin, networks ensnare in the very act of connection. Yet like the chain of triumph, networks are exceedingly efficient at articulating and conveying messages bidirectionally” (Galloway, 291). Hoping to connect without making some error, or enmeshed in a debate or game they may not have intended to become a part of, people can be trapped in “total participation, universal capture” (Ibid.), as the death of Korean infant Kim Sa-Rang attests to, when she was neglected by her online game-addicted parents, according to a May 2010 New York Times article. Enabled by the immediacy of the free, self-publishing Web, the bloggers become extremely conscious of the form they are using, and struggle under its influence. If not analogous, this is reminiscent of the Camisards, who hoped to say their piece and escape the system they found themselves in. Instead, they were ensnared in a discourse that reappropriated their cause as it remediated over and over again, fighting a discourse they wanted no part in with that discourse itself, their private beliefs exploded over the public domain of two nations until it led to war.
Briggs, Asa; and Burke, Peter. A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet, third ed. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.
Choe Sang-Hun. (May 28, 2010) “South Korea Expands Aid for Internet Addiction,” The New York Times. http//www.nytimes.com/2010/05/29/world/asia/29game.html, 11/12/10.
Cormack, Bradin; and Mazzio, Carla. Book Use/Book Theory: 1500–1700. Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 2005.
Galloway, Alexander R. “Networks.” Critical Terms for Media Studies. Ed. Mitchell, W. J. T.; and Hansen, Mark B. N.. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Habermas, Jürgen. “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article.” New German Critique, no. 3 (Autumn 1974), pp. 49-55.
McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994.
Thorburn, Daniel. “Prophetic Peasants and Bourgeois Pamphleteers: The Camisards Represented in Print, 1685—1710.” Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Ed. Thorburn, David; and Jenkins, Harry. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003. pp. 163-189.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, Authors, Writers, and Editors, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos320.htm, 11/10/10
Williams, Raymond. “From Medium to Social Practice.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.