Position Paper

Position paper by The Gutenberg Parenthesis Research Forum
(Institute for Literature, Media and Cultural Studies, University of Southern Denmark)

This statement has evolved over several years as the group has formed and reformed and explored various options for organization and funding, and will continue to do so after this publication on the website as the Forum members (see current list below) become better acquainted with each other’s work and approaches, are joined by new members, and as the Forum negotiates its own position within the local, national and international scholarly landscapes.


It is becoming increasingly likely that from the perspective of a not too distant future the period from the late Renaissance to the beginning of the 21st century will be seen as dominated and even defined by the cultural significance of print – not least in the form of the mass-produced book which is virtually synonymous with Western culture. It accordingly seems appropriate to designate this period, roughly corresponding to the half-millennium from 1500 to 2000, “the Gutenberg Parenthesis”.

With the invention of moveable type and the printing press, the conditions for communication of and access to information and knowledge changed radically. The change affected not merely the material appearance of information and knowledge dissemination but also, in the process, the very nature of cognition. Today, in analogous but inverse manner, the mass-produced book is being absorbed into a digital environment, which both enables reproduction and dissemination surpassing even the longest print runs, but which in terms of the disseminated substance also reduces the book to just another option in a wealth of different media modes and permutations. The closing of the Gutenberg Parenthesis is accordingly the opening up to a completely new and so far only-partially glimpsed - let alone understood - cognitive situation.

The Text, Print and Book project will analyse the processes and explore the material, aesthetic and cognitive implications both of the early-modern shift to a mass-distribution print culture centred iconographically on the printed book, and of the current post-modern move into a digitally-conditioned culture no longer according the book special privilege. The transitional - opening and closing - periods of the Gutenberg Parenthesis will therefore constitute the centre of attention, but understanding of the pre-parenthetical and post-parenthetical periods - their similarities with each other and their continuations and contrasts in relation to the culture within the parenthesis - will also profit from the perspective applied: the Forum will provide an environment both for the direct study of the mass-distributed book, its precursor the holograph, and its successor, the digital screen, and for contrastive studies of other forms - implying other aesthetics and other modes of cognition - of production, transmission and consumption.


From the perspective of cognition it is impossible to separate the manner and matter of mediation. Since they first came into existence on clay tablets, papyrus and leather scrolls, books have been bearers of authority. Religious authority was exerted by the uniquely-produced hand-illuminated Bible or commentary with its restricted ownership, defined as those who could read and write and for whom the book was accessible. The handmade book with unique calligraphies, before Gutenberg, was an authority in itself, but of a numinous nature. During the Middle Ages the Church sought to stabilise all meaning by reference to the Word as revealed in the Bible, at the same time as it saw empirical phenomena as another, complementary revealed truth, considered God’s second book. With its monopoly over education and its development, the Church managed to establish the book, a highly concrete object, as a repository of truth; with yet a third book, the summa, as the ideal unifier and harmonizer of all truth. The book was thereby made both bearer of truth and its guarantor. When the frame of reference later changed from the will of God to scientifically measurable nature - seen as the sole manifestation of God - the road was paved for the Age of Enlightenment with its respect for the book as the generally accepted symbol of scientific cognition. With the Age of Enlightenment we have an already-established book culture, and culture of the book.

Religious authority certainly continued in the printed, mass-distributed Bible after Gutenberg but from the late Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, it was accompanied if not contested by the book as secular authority. The emergence of mass-produced printed books coincided with the general secularization of the late Renaissance, and the book’s slide from numinous to secular authority is a direct result of its being commodified as an “industrial” product, supplied to accessible markets via exchange. So although printed books contributed to the process of secularization through relative accessibility, their authority remained with the written, now printed word. (It is no coincidence that the Bible was the first printed, mass-produced book). The now-standardised ‘natural’ book with its ‘stabilised’ text is characteristic of societies deploying established truths, whether these truths concern the existence of God, shared politico-ideological truths, or an empirical approach to nature and reality. By the late 17th and the 18th century, then, just as the citoyen of civil society became hardly imaginable without pamphlets and a press, so too was the Age of Enlightenment literally and figuratively unimaginable without its great books.

The methods of modern science and scholarship depend on a broad respect for the book. What reaches print and ensuing mass distribution in a book or anthology reciprocally shapes through convention further material anticipating publication. To most scientists and scholars this is an accepted a priori fact. And it is not only in science and scholarship that the book is cognitively formative, but in entertainments, too. Since the beginning of the eighteenth century until the modern domination of entertainment by film and TV, single- and multiple-volume book formats have enjoyed uniquely privileged positions. Books were far from the most widely-distributed entertainment items among the alternatives available in print culture, but taking leisure-time reading in the nineteenth century as one instance, book formats such as the sumptuous triple decker were granted prime position in hierarchies of social value. Indeed, the narrative conventions explored and consolidated at the time of the rise of the novel cannot be imagined without recourse to the conventions of print, but it is the format, scope and extended invitation to linear cognition proffered by the book that developed those conventions most. Even the isolated poem, short by comparison to its prosaic cousin, is often anthologised into a longer collection, challenging the poet to think in accordance with greater stretches of linearity. Put briefly, there is a very close interaction between our cognition of the world and the role played in it by the book.


In a cognitive context the mass-produced and mass-distributed book has been of greatest significance for the way we approach the world. In its many possible variant manifestations the book invites individuality. But individuality necessarily emerges in terms of paper and printer’s ink. It is in this circumstance that the new IT-conditioned “textuality” is so very different from the “textuality” of the book. IT-textuality is infinitely changeable and flexible. Here the text is not a product, but essentially a process. Arguably, a new appreciation of manuscripts, variants, and writing processes is developing along with and in contrast to the triumph of print culture, first and foremost in literary aesthetics. The standard conviction about the stability of texts suggested by print technology or by the book as a product of an individual author or editor is increasingly being questioned. It is being replaced by concepts of textuality that take genetic and genealogical findings into account, including changeable patterns of authorship and similar discursive practices. Today, IT-conditioned textuality invites comparison with the textuality not only of the book but also of the manuscript. Recognising a text not as the final product in an edition of a mass-produced printed book, but as a never-stopping ongoing process - blog, wiki, etc. - owing its existence not to a specially privileged author but to the contributions of very many proximate but unseen hands, will have the greatest consequence for cognition generally. From the finished product of the book we are on the way to the never-finished, multi-originated, and multi-media shifting work in eternal progress.


From the vantage point of the early 21st century it seems likely that conventional notions of the text, which since Gutenberg have often been conflated with the book, will be radically transformed. The emerging notion of the text is, on the one hand, a both qualitative and quantitative expansion of the particular form of virtuality which is generated by the mass-produced book, and, on the other hand, despite the apparent variety, a new uniformity of the virtual, caused, not least, by a shift from a publishing-house culture to a diffuse internet culture determined by technological standards which are no more “natural” than those of the book. In this IT version of textuality, visual and auditive, elite culture and mass culture, old and new, text and commentary, sacral and secular, are placed on an equal footing. It is a development with significant consequences for our approach to the world. It is a development which, by changing the material conditions for cognition, changes the form and content of cognition.

In the transition from the printed book to digitalised textuality the very mode of cognition is moved from a metaphorics of linearity and reflection to a-linearity and co-production of “reality.” This means moving from the rationality accompanied by the printed book to an altogether different way of processing, characterized by interactivity and much faster pace. The book as privileged mode of cognition is marginalised and transformed. One the one hand our experience of being in the world - which for cognition within the Gutenberg Parenthesis is very much determined by the book - is now determined by cognitive parameters originating as often as not in multi-medial manifestations as an endlessly varied and variable result. On the other hand, there is a new global effort to keep up with the digitalised media, a pursuit of uniformity and standardization in an ongoing climate of change.

Whereas authority during the Gutenberg Parenthesis rested on the mastery of the accumulated canon of wisdom lodged in books (in Bacon’s words, books were ‘ships of time’ bearing precious cargo through the ages), beyond the closing of the parenthesis authority will lie with those mastering the permutations of iconography under the aegis of the permanence of change. Experience - ‘wisdom’ - is no longer in demand, because experience is always already and simultaneously accessible. This currently takes the guise of a generational conflict and a validation of new, social and cultural groupings interfacing with and breaking down barriers between “serious” and “entertainment” cultures. An important aspect of the book-dominant cognition of the Gutenberg Parenthesis has been the privileging of the diachronic dimension as the ordering principle of experience: chronicle, history (books). Even though digitalised media offer facilities for continuing the diachronic dimension - and to a large extent still do so by imitating the familiar book medium - it is in the nature of IT to apply a synchronic perspective in a pattern of simultaneity. What this will do to book-related cognition in terms of the linear and diachronic, and even to the notion of causality, is as yet only partially explored, but very likely the idea of the diachronic will yield to an idea of spatiality. It is worth noting that by this re-orientation we are effectively reverting to medieval and Renaissance thought from before Gutenberg, a pre-parenthetical phase which saw creativity as a re-forming, by memory and imagination, of what was available. The post-Gutenberg memory is the digital storage unit, which offers accessibility and combination more in line with the dynamics of memory than the memory virtually printed, and kept outside personal experience – in books.

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