[…] Typography deals with language duplicated in multiple copies on a material substrate. Here we can add in screen displays, and any other means of multiplying text. And to ‘text’, we can add ‘images’ too: the same point applies. The exact repetition of information is the defining feature of multiplied text, and it is what is missing from writing. The historical elaboration of this perception has been made most thoroughly by William M. Ivins in his “Prints and visual communication” and by Elizabeth Eisenstein in her “The printing press as an agent of change”. If printing was not, as Eisenstein sometimes seems to suggest, the lever of change in the history of fifteenth- and sixteenthcentury Europe, it was certainly a fundamental factor in the changes that took place then. Printing could for the first timeprovide the steady and reliable means for the spreading and sharing of knowledge. Science and technology could be developed, ideas could be disseminated and then questioned. With a stable and common text for discussion, a critical culture could grow. Argument had a firm basis on which to proceed.
The emphasis of historians of print culture, such as Eisenstein, has tended to be on books, partly perhaps for the mundane reason that these are the printed documents that survive most abundantly. It is certainly harder for a historian to investigate newspapers or street posters: harder to locate surviving copies, and to consider their effects. Indeed this branch of history has become known as ‘the history of the book’. A book is, most characteristically, read by one person at a time, and often that person will be alone. One can counter this perception by recalling the practice — now declining — of reading aloud, in churches, in schools and other institutions, and in the home. Texts are also read alone-in-public: on buses, in parks, in libraries. So reading often has a visible and apparent social dimension. But its truer and perhaps more real social dimension lies in the reading that happens when one person picks up a printed sheet and turns its marks into meaning. The page — it could be a screen too — is then the common ground on which people can meet. They may be widely dispersed in space and time, unknown and unavailable to each other. Or they may know each other, and come together later to discuss their reading of the text. Then the social dimension of the text may become a group of people around a table, pointing to the text, quoting from it, arguing, considering. A text is produced by writers, editors and printers. With luck, if they keep their heads down, designers might find a role somewhere here too. The text is composed, proofed, corrected, perhaps read and corrected further. Then it is multiplied and distributed. Finally it is read alone but in common, for shared meanings. […]
The theme of language as the possession of a community was developed by Benedict Anderson in the course of his book “Imagined communities” This book is one of the handful of general works on history and politics that should be dear to typographers, because it takes notice of printing; in fact printing is at the heart of Anderson’s thesis. In one chapter Anderson weaves together the rise of capitalism, the spread of printing, the history of languages, and the ‘origins of national consciousness’. Arbitrariness is acknowledged. He writes about alphabetic languages, as against ideographic: ‘The very arbitrariness of any system of signs for sounds facilitated the assembling process.’ But, unlike the poststructuralists, he does not stop there. ‘Nothing served to “assemble” related vernaculars more than capitalism, which, within the limits imposed by grammars and syntaxes, created mechanicallyreproduced print-languages, capable of dissemination through the market.’ But this is not a reductive account of mere capitalist exploitation. Anderson continues:
These print-languages laid the base for national consciousness…they created unified, fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars. Speakers of the huge variety of Frenches, Englishes, or Spanishes, who might find it difficult or even impossible to understand one another in conversation, became capable of comprehending one another via print and paper. In the process, they gradually became aware of the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people in their particular language-field, and at the same time that only those hundreds of thousands, or millions, so belonged. These fellow-readers, to whom they were connected through print, formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally-imagined community. This ‘imagined community’ may be difficult for some people to grasp: particularly if they live within the community of one of the dominant languages of the world. But even in the English-speaking metropolis where these words are being written, it can be understood and felt. Greek, Italian and Irish newspapers are sold at corner shops in this neighbourhood: serving their readers here as conductors or life-lines out into the larger sphere of their linguistic-cultural community. This may describe the ease for some, probably older readers. For others from those communities, and for us too — the mother-tongue English-speakers — the local weekly newspaper is the place where we come together, where we read the neighbourhood. The activity of reading, as Benedict Anderson puts it, may take place ‘in the lair of the skull’, but it has this social extension. We always read in common, with fellow readers.
Kinross, Robin, “Fellow readers: notes on multiplied language” Hyphen Press, 1994. pps. 10–13
reprinted in Kinross, Robin, “Unjustified texts: perspectives on typography”, Hyphen Press, 2002. pps. 342–346
- William M. Ivins, “Prints and visual communication”, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953; Elizabeth Eisenstein, “The printing press as an agent of change: communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. The social dimension of printing is more evident in the book that opened up this field of history: Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, “The coming of the book: the impact of printing 1450–1800”, New Left Books, 1976 [original French edition, 1958]
- Benedict Anderson, “Imagined communities: reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism”, Verso, 1983. The quotations that follow are from p.47.
- Anderson, “Imagined communities”, p.39.