Michael Warner, "
"The Cultural Mediation of the Print Medium"
â€śThe Cultural Mediation of the Print Medium,â€? Michael Warner
Michael Warner begins his project with a look at John Adams retrospect on political and legal history of West. For Adams, the history of power is a history of knowledge (1). Writing Americaâ€™s history becomes a history of lettersâ€”this helps man achieve reflectionâ€”with its telos one of emanicipation (1). Warner states that these reflections create a history of self-reflection apart from religious hermeneutics and divine truth. It is a history about the accumulation of private libraries fostering self-reflection that eventually led to emancipation. More than a history of religious oppression, Adamsâ€™ history becomes one of a national history of emancipation. Warner claims, â€śBetween Puritansâ€™ and Adamsâ€™ history of Puritanism, the cultural meaning of letters has begun to change, as has their relation to power. No longer a technology of privacy underwritten by divine authority, letters have become a technology of publicity whose meaning in the last analysis is civic and emanicipatoryâ€? (3).
â€śwar of lettersâ€? â€“transnational/globalâ€”supported by capitalization (4) â€śnew forms of print discourse sutured emergent forms of political and social organizationâ€? (4).
Warner claims that the cultural constitution of a medium is a set of political conditions of discourse. Conditions include practices and structured labor we call technology. To understand implications of print, we must always consider how it is a product of and producer of culture.
Printers agentsâ€”â€śparticipants in creation of Westâ€™s self-identification, producing universalizing discourses of the Enlightenment and of the democratic revolutionsâ€? (4).
For Adams, â€śprintingâ€™s purposes, uses, and meaning do not themselves undergo change. The press is a powerful instrument for enlightenment precisely because its nature is not contingentâ€? (4). Warner says when viewing the nature of print as static it becomes difficult to explain how this technology creates and sustains democracy while at the same time supporting despotism. The claim is backed by the specific example of how Chinese and Uighur Turks used print for the latter purpose during the enlightenment; therefore, Warner argues that we must â€śassume that the purposes, uses, and meaning of print do changeâ€? (4). They change as a result of the creation of â€śnewspapers, the rise of empiricism, capitalism, the Enlightenment, the novel, the democratic revolutions, the rise of a bureaucratic stateâ€? (5).
Other literature assessing the value of print comes to us via print historians who view print as a non-symbolic form of reality. They claim it is mere technology, an unmediated medium. The consequences of this claim include: a guarantee that there will be a single object of study; and â€śit allows one to trace the effects of print culture by bracketing cultural history itselfâ€? (5).
Warner says that â€śat the very moment historians draw their conclusions about the historical effects of printing, they bracket the political and symbolic constitution of printâ€? (6). This approach ignores the fact that print is politically and symbolically constituted.
Those who study the â€śhistory of printâ€? grant this technology an ontological status outside of cultural and social formations (Harold Innis, Walter Ong, McLuhan, Elizabeth Eisenstein). These studies only acknowledge â€śreligion, science, capitalism, republicanism, and the like appear insofar as they are affected by printing, not for the way they have entered into the constitution and meaning of print in the first placeâ€? (6). Warner contests the ontological status print on logical grounds by arguing that because various forms of printing exist (ink, printing press, laser printing, zerography, etc.), this prevents us from reducing our understanding of it to a single form (7). Thus, Warner says, the history of printing cannot even define its subject properly without asking about the history of the public and other political conditions of discourse. He is interested in the historical constitution of printing, and this goes far beyond simple questions of the effects of printing that lead one to credit print forms for enlightenment. This is too simple, and it ignores relationships of power in the process.
At one time, printed objects made by hand were no different than type-set objects. Over time, however, documents with impressions made by the hand were no longer considered print objects. Warner uses this history to prove his point about how culture determines the form and status of print. â€śIt is because publication is a political condition of utterance that we meaningfully distinguish between books impressed by types and those impressed by pens, where we do not make the same kind of distinction between those impressed by plates and those sprayed by lasersâ€? (8).
A more serious problematic arises when scholars deem print with an ontological status outside of culture, according to Warner, for when â€śmedia and technologies receive this kind of transcendental status, their social investments and rhetorical meaning disappear from the field of analysis, only to return in mystified form, disguised as the previously latent logic of technologyâ€? (8).
â€śThe assumption that technology is prior to culture results in a kind of retrodetermination whereby the political history of a technology is converted into the unfolding nature of that technology. Everything that has been ascribed to the agency of printingâ€”form formal characteristics such as abstraction, uniformity, and visualization to broad social changes such as rationalization and democratizationâ€”has been retrodetermined in this way. What have historically become the characteristics of printing have been projected backward as its natural, essential logic. Meanwhile, its historical determinations have not been analyzed, for historians have learned to consider the realm of politics and culture only as the secondary field of technologyâ€™s presumed effectsâ€? (9).
After setting up his theoretical argument, Warnerâ€™s project continues with examples of analyses regarding the immanent meanings of writing and print in the culture of republican American and the imperial context of the Enlightenment.
Example of what Ron identified as â€śrecursivityâ€?
â€śJust as the white community would not have been the same community without its opposition to other groups and its constitution through writing and printing, so also written media would not have entailed the same dispositions of character-would not have had the same identity-had participation in them not entailed membership in that communityâ€? (13).