The first textual revolution: the printing press (Exercise 1)

What happens to a story when you take it from its source, make it permanent in print, and disseminate it to a wide audience?

Write a list of implications arising from the printing press. For example, think about who has control/authority over the text, the meaning of the text, and the relationship between the source of the text and its recipient.

I think that in this process – from the supposedly oral recounting of a story to the same story fixed in a printed book – some important aspects are gained and others are lost. I try now to imagine ancient small crowds of people, perhaps seafarers or travellers, listening let’s say to the adventures of Odysseus, possibly with the accompaniment of chants, songs, representation by actors, interruptions of all sorts, and it is not difficult to think that the text changed and evolved from place to place and from time to time. Maybe the audience could also contribute to these performances with local additions and characters and gradually modify the story, this being like a great river that in its flow gathers and drops materials and sediments along the way. It was perhaps a sort of collective story in constant development.

At a certain point somebody (the fabled Homer) assembled all the bits and pieces of that story or multiple stories and gave life to the beautiful epic poems that came down to us through the centuries for a very long time as uncertain unstable manuscripts, still subject to changes in the process of recopying and passing from hand to hand, and since the invention of the printing press as books, relatively unmodifiable and permanent.

In this evolution the author became sure and fixed forever and the participating small groups of listeners became individual and silent readers who could enjoy the poems in several versions and translations. The dissemination of the text to people living in different times and cultures and speaking all sorts of languages is the wonderful result made possible by the printing press.

If the advantages of the circulation of texts and generally of information are obvious, to the point that the development of modern and contemporary societies would be unthinkable without it,  on the negative side there was I think the loss of a direct participation to the performance on the part of crowds who for centuries did not have the cultural tools to read a story on their own.

In this passage from oral to printed also the meaning of texts like the Iliad or the Odyssey changed from popular stories shared by many to literature for selected literate groups of people and thinking back at what I have studied in Part 1, Contemporary art, I now see that the passage from oral to printed was equivalent to a change of medium against the backdrop of the creative arts at large, with all the considerable adjustments and evolutions that a change of medium can have.


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