Media as Modernizing Force in European History

The media, from the beginnings of written language, have been constitutive forces in the modernization of European, and contributed in a profound way to the development of the Modern society outlined above. Many of the fundamental social shifts tied up in the move from Premodern to Modern living are powerfully linked to mediation, processes of signification, and the acts of textual production and dissemination. Many claim that one of the instigating factors in the Modernization of the west was the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press to Europe in the late 1400s. While the technological origins of the press itself are widely considered to be adopted (and adapted) from earlier presses developed in East Asia, the particular configuration of Gutenberg’s machine, when combined with the Western Phonetic alphabet, gradually gave rise to a culture in which communication was shifted from the oral to the written and visual registers, fundamentally transforming notions of space, community, knowledge, proof, and authority.

Siva Vaidhyanthan, lecturer at the University of Virgina, briefly explores how print as a medium transformed a number of the communicative practices of Premodern life:

Some topics addressed by Professor Vaidhyanthan worth highlighting include:

  • The ability of the printed book to create a non-culturally situated form of communication. As Elizabeth Eisenstein has noted, the printed book allowed a single person to consume the knowledge of the whole known world, and the whole known world to consume and collectively debate the ideas of a single person (ie. Martin Luther, John Calvin, other religious and political reformers)
  • The democratization of communication allowed for by the printing press (while a long struggle that was not unchallenged) created an expanding critical consciousness in European society by multiplying the diversity of voices within the culture.
  • Efforts to control communication, both by the state and church, following the introduction of the press, indicate that 1) open communication systems are deeply politicized and represent (and undermine) systems of power, control, and ideological negotiation within a culture, and 2) that “free press” and “free speech” would become fundamental points of contention throughout the Modern period, and are often seen as the crux around which modern democratic societies are thought to pivot.

In what will seem a very different kind of discussion, Lisa Maruca, professor of English at Wayne State University delivers a talk on what she terms “cyborg language,” relating the introduction of the printed word to radical shifts in notions of learning, ideas of the student, and exploring how print “disembodies” the act of education by moving it from the oral to the visual register.

Maruca’s talk, while oriented specifically toward a sociotechnological analysis of Early Modern English print culture nonetheless draws our attention to the cultural influence of media production on Modern life.

  • The Mediated culture of the Early Modern and Modern periods was also part and parcel of a new consumer and market culture that rose in complement to print. As knowledge spread across borders, so did the commodification of ideas and the trade in information. Books did not simply liberate knowledge, but through the actual process of production and exchange, privatized and codified ownership of this knowledge.
  • The book changes physical relations between people, spaces, and texts by disembodying communication. Where almost all knowledge in the pre-modern period was communicated orally, requiring face-to-face engagement with an authority figure, the appearance of the book is simultaneous with the gradual (but theoretical) disappearance of embodied education.

While it is easy to slip into deterministic surveys of the “effects” of print on the formation of Modern society, it is essential to see it as highly influential, but still “constitutive,” and as Maruca points out, tangled up with a number of concomitant social, religious, and economic shifts that were both influenced by, and influencers of the print revolution. Following print, mediated images and messages continued to expand and evolve through the period. Cinema, radio, and later television would refigure how we thought about the world, our bodies, and the way we relate to the world. Marshall McLuhan, canonical Canadian media scholar, in his often-challenged theories of mediated culture provides an emphatic, but still useful assessment of these transformations. Broken into five parts, McLuhan speaks on how the media change our bodies, cultures, and minds at John Hopkins University:

For the remainder of this lecture, click here

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