Monday, January 17, 2011

Upcoming appearances

So I decided a while back to sharply limit the number of conferences I went to, since I dislike travel. Naturally, that means that I suddenly realize I have committed to 5-6 speaking engagements over the next three months. At least most of them are in Austin.

If you're interested and able, please do come see me at one of the following appearances:
I may also be doing something for RISE on March 7. Stay tuned!

Reading :: Before Writing, Volume I

Before Writing: Volume 1: From Counting to Cuneiform
By Denise Schmandt-Besserat

Last month, I reviewed Denise Schmandt-Besserat's How Writing Came About, a popularization of her research on the origins of writing in the Western world. More specifically, that book was a popularization of Before Writing, Volume I, in which Schmandt-Besserat methodically lays out her argument. That argument, in a nutshell, is that writing emerged from a quirky Sumerian accounting system involving clay tokens. See my review of How Writing Came About for a more in-depth discussion of the argument and timeline. Here, I'm going to concentrate on the additional points that Schmandt-Besserat makes in this more elaborated volume.

Tokens, Schmandt-Besserat tells us, were the earliest uses of clay - predating pottery and architecture (p.29). (Occasionally, they were also made of stone, ocher, or plaster; p.30). She notes that when the token system was being developed, it started with simple tokens, then developed additional complex tokens. We know that these tokens comprised the same system because they "were found together in the same sites and the same hoards and were enclosed in the same envelopes"; they became perforated at the same time; and they are "the prototypes of pictographs representing basic commodities in the Sumerian script" (p.29). And whereas in the popular book Schmandt-Besserat described how the token system led to writing, here she also points out that once writing emerged, the token system dwindled, reverting to a few basic shapes (p.29).

Tokens varied in care and manufacturing from site to site. She notes only one possible piece of evidence for a mold; most were clearly made by hand, some even retaining fingerprints (pp.29-30).

Schmandt-Besserat emphasizes that these tokens were found in disturbed contexts: they were used, then discarded. Furthermore, 88.5% of tokens were from sacred precincts (p.62). In fact, tokens were associated with major public buildings decorated with clay cone mosaics (p.70). Complex tokens evolved in tune with the evolution of archaic Eama, she notes (p.73). In comparison, in Susa, "complex tokens do not appear during the fluorescence of the Susa temple but rather after its destruction by fire" (p.84) - a fact that suggests that the complex token system was introduced by conquerors (p.182).

Who were using these tokens? Most were found in storage units and dumps, although a few were found in houses, swept into hearths (p.95). Very occasionally they are found in tombs.

In the early 4th millennium BC, tokens began to be stored using two related methods. One was clay envelopes - basically hollow balls that were baked with the tokens inside. The other was strings that held perforated tokens; these strings were sealed with bullae that closely resembled small clay envelopes, but were solid, with the ends holding the strings (pp.108-109). Generally, envelopes held simple tokens, while strings held more complex ones (p.110). Counters held in envelopes tended to be smaller and more casually made; they crumble more easily and were likely not fired (p.123).

Marked envelopes were quite rare, but fell into at least three types, which I'll list along with the number of examples: sinking counters into the envelope surface (1); impressing counters onto the envelope surface (14); scratching the counter impression after the envelope dried (2); and possibly perforating the envelope to affix a matching string (7) (pp.127-128). The impressions were usually made with the counters themselves, but sometimes with a stick, stylus, or thumbnail. Some of these techniques were dead ends, but direct impressions and stylus markings were the beginning of writing (p.128).

"The first tablets were a decisive step in the invention of writing and amounted to a revolution in communication technology," Schmandt-Besserat argues (p.129), starting a chapter on impressed tablets. Here we start to see many of the tablets, and for me, this was a moving part of the book: actually seeing the markings on one side of a tablet and a cylinder seal on the other (p.132); seeing the impressions, in an emerging hierarchical order likely carried forward from the accountant's table and the string order, with larger units to the right (p.135); seeing the emerging boustophedon order of marks (p.136); and reading the author's speculation about emerging dual-use styluses for creating wedges (p.137). Schmandt-Besserat carefully traces the evolution of tokens to signs here, tracing 17 signs back to their original token prototypes (p.137), then showing the point at which scribes made the leap to creating pictographic representations of tokens rather than simply impressing them (p.139). After all, "the major drawback of the impressed technique was the blurring of the shapes of their token prototypes," meaning that they had to be identified in context (p.142); pictographs helped to address this issue. Schmandt-Besserat offers charts comparing drawings of tokens with later pictographs, making it easy to see how one is represented by the other - but it doesn't have the tremendous impact of the photographs of tablets in which impressions and pictographs are mixed (p.143). (My note on this page reads: "Damn! There they are!")

Remarkably, by the time they began using pictographs, our early scribes had made the leap of abstracting numbers. Whereas counters were repeated in 1:1 correspondence, pictographs never were (p.153).

Now we get to the analysis. Since much of this was covered in my review of her other book, I'll just hit the highlights.

One, Schmandt-Besserat firmly associates developments in writing with developments in civilization. Before agriculture, we have sparse evidence of writing-like activity, mostly notched bones, which carried quantitative data about which we can only speculate (p.160). Agriculture began "a new economy based on sedentariness, new settlement patterns in open air villages, new technologies such as ground and polished stone, and the use of new raw materials such as clay" - and also "generated new symbols," which "were different in form and content from anything used previously": the entirely manmade clay tokens (p.161). Schmandt-Besserat speculates that these tokens were themselves the evolution of a previous system using natural materials (twigs, sticks, grains); but the token system comprised unique shapes "for the unique purpose of record keeping" (p.161). The greatest novelty was that these comprised a system, one that could be expanded (p.161) and that represented both quantitative and qualitative information (ex: three sheep tokens) (p.162).

Intriguingly, this new reckoning technology did not seem to have anything to do with the exchange of goods, but rather for administration in the newly hierarchical context of agriculture (pp.167-168). Indeed, social organization determined the function of writing: egalitarian (tribal) societies only needed to tally, while rank (institutional) societies had to develop accounting to support "an elite overseeing a redistributionist economy" (p.170). (Compare this to David Ronfeldt's thesis about forms of organization.) Evidence suggests that counting developed as a status symbol: "writing, therefore, bestowed on the ruler the full control over the input, as well as the output, of the community properties" (p.172). With the rise of the State, complex tokens emerged (along with temples, "monumental architecture, the monopoly of force, and bureaucracy, which point to new strategies in pooling communal resources," p.178). In this context, envelopes and bullae were used to represent unpaid taxes (p.181). In this reading, complex tokens in distant countries represented tribute; recall that in Susa, "complex tokens, envelopes, and impressed tablets appear after the destruction of the temple, when the monumental buildings were replaced by modest structures" (p.182).

Schmandt-Besserat then discusses counting and the emergence of writing. Counting, she points out, is not innate but learned (p.184); in some groups, in fact, counting does not involve "finding out how many items there were in a set" so much as "comparing or verifying a collection" (p.185). If you represent five sheep with five tokens, and you verify your collection by matching each sheep with a token, that's comparing, not counting as we might think of it. The token system, then, didn't initially provide for abstract counting: it didn't separate the item from the count. Bear in mind that "the human brain has not evolved since the appearance of Homo sapiens-sapiens about seventy thousand years ago"; they had the same capacity we do, but the hunting-and-gathering way of life did not challenge them to develop abstract counting (p.189). That changed with tokens, which introduced cardinality tied to object specificity (pp.189-190). Tokens did not express abstract numbers; they were the numbers. But at some point, the increasing complexity of the system led to abstract numbers, which appear on the first pictographic tablets (p.191). Abstract numbers, she speculates, were invented by one nameless individual (p.192), but spread rapidly.

The first abstract numerals were impressed signs, formerly representing quantities of commodities, but now abstracted. They retained a dual meaning for a while, until the concrete meaning was replaced with other symbols (p.193). True pictography, Schmandt-Besserat argues, resulted from abstract counting. Eventually, pictographs began to be used phonetically - a change that, Schmandt-Besserat says, was not socioeconomically triggered as the others were (p.194).

Like her other book, this one really impressed me (pun intended) with the scope of history, the pressures that led to the invention of writing, and the fact that it could have gone so much differently (and in other parts of the world, did, of course).

This book is a bit longer and more technical than How Writing Came About, but it's still very readable and gripping. If you're thinking about picking up one of these books, I'd suggest this one just because it's more complete. But definitely pick one of them up - the story they tell is absolutely fascinating.

Reading :: The Printing Press as an Agent of Change

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Volumes 1 and 2 in One)
By Elizabeth L. Eisenstein

I've been putting off writing this review for a while because I knew it would take time to write. Eisenstein's book is a classic, and is widely cited, particularly among scholars who want to draw a parallel between the printing revolution and our current explosion of digital texts and genres. It's also a very large book: 708pp, excluding bibliography and back matter. The size is daunting, but the material is interesting and often gripping. And although I'm not a historian, Eisenstein seems to be careful about the claims she makes, taking time to answer critics of her earlier publications.

At least one critic wasn't convinced: the anonymous critic who wrote notes in the margins of this library book. According to this critic, "she spends too much time proving that all of her predecessors are wrong, & too little time saying anything." But without impugning the anonymous critic, I found much that was worthwhile in this book.

Eisenstein is specifically concerned with the printing revolution in early-modern Europe, beginning in the late 15th century. She argues that this revolution is an "unacknowledged revolution," that is, that printing had a far broader paradigmatic impact than has previously been acknowledged. "Far from being integrated into other works," she complains, "studies dealing with the history of printing are isolated and artificially sealed off from the rest of historical literature" (pp.5-6). Yet "neither political, constitutional, ecclesiastical, and economic events nor sociological, philosophical, and literary movements can be fully understood without taking into account the influence the printing press has exerted upon them" (p.7). Printed materials are so common now that we take for granted how much they have impacted and changed our lives:
Indeed the more abundant [quotidian printed materials] have become, the more frequently they are used, the more profound and widespread their impact. Typography is thus still indispensable to the transmission of the most sophisticated technological skills. It underlies the present knowledge explosion and much of modern art. In my view, at least, it accounts for much that is singled out as peculiarly characteristic of mid-twentieth century culture. But, I repeat, the more printed materials accumulate, the more we are inclined to overlook them in favor of more recent, less familiar media. (p.17).
If you're familiar with my work, you can imagine how compelling this thesis would be to me. You may also see a parallel to Denise Schmandt-Besserat's argument on how writing came about, which attributes similarly sweeping changes to that earlier revolution.

Eisenstein argues that beyond printing itself, the printing press led a new coordination of intellectual labor, in which the printer became a boundary-crosser who wore many hats (p.56). Printing also allowed easier comparisons and cross-references (p.72). Suddenly, for instance, Montaigne "could see more books [in] a few months ... than earlier scholars had seen after a lifetime of travel," and consequently conflict, diversity, and contradictions became more visible to him than to his predecessors (p.74). But the printing press didn't just enable new enlightenment, it also enabled new mystification: one working thesis was that various ancient philosophical and mystical texts were fragments of an ancient ur-text penned by Adam, encapsulating secrets revealed to him before the Fall (pp.77-78). Similarly, another initial effect was to widely disseminate "seemingly authoritative, actually fraudulent esoteric writings" (p.78). Tools that were useful in one domain, such as astronomical tables, were applied in other domains, resulting in "the fixing of precise dates for the Creation or for the Second Coming" (p.79).

Print culture also generated new genres and components. For instance, there was no equivalent in scribal culture for the new how-to books (p.88). Print leveraged the power of identical copies, so indexes became practical and desirable (p.91). Indexes and cross-references, though based on previous forms, were newly systematized (p.93).

At the same time, the more accessible ancient texts became, the less mystical and less relevant they became: in the case of the Corpus Juris, for example, printing led to access, which led to demystification (pp.103-104). New forms of classification became possible, and publishers established the lasting, seemingly fundamental division between sciences and humanities in order to divide their catalogs more easily (p.107).

The sciences developed under print culture. In particular, data (tables, charts, indexes) had often been garbled by scribes, and ignorant printers tended to garble them more quickly; but strong printers corrected them more quickly, and through sometimes innovative methods: "They created vast networks of correspondents, solicited criticism in each edition, sometimes publicly promising to mention the names of readers who sent in new information or who spotted the errors which would be weeded out" (p.109). Related, print culture resulted in a new ethos for guarding data: Thomas Jefferson exemplifies this new ethos, arguing that valuable data were best preserved by making them public - and printing them frequently (p.116).

Printing affected law in similarly fundamental ways. "Much as M. Jourdain learned that he was speaking prose, monarchs learned from political theorists that they were 'making' laws. But members of parliaments and assemblies also learned from jurists and printers about ancient rights wrongfully usurped. Struggles over the right to establish precedents became more intense, as each precedent became more permanent and hence more difficult to break" (p.119).

Printing also affected public life, particularly through journals, gazettes, and newsletters. By the 18th century, "Increasingly the well-informed man of affairs had to spend part of each day in temporary isolation from his fellow men"; by the 19th, "gossiping churchgoers could often learn about local affairs by scanning columns of newsprint in silence as well." Eisenstein forwards print as an explanation for the weakening of community ties during that time (p.131). "To read a printed report encourages individuals to draw apart," she argues, and "the shift in communications may have changed the sense of what it meant to participate in public affairs. The wide distribution of identical bits of information provided an impersonal link between people who were unknown to each other" (p.132). Communal solidarity was diminished, but "vicarious participation in more distant events was also enhanced" and "new forms of group identity began to compete with an older, more localized nexus of loyalties" (p.132). Similarly, private life began to change, with progressively differentiated groups of readers (men, women, children); age-grades in schools; peer groups; and an emerging youth culture (p.134; cf. Hernandez). Eisenstein also hints at the impact of printing on the emergence of the modern State (pp.134-135; cf. Bobbitt).

The above summary, I'm afraid, is only of Part I of the book. In subsequent chapters, Eisenstein examines a number of topics in greater detail. First, she examines the Renaissance and the Reformation. In particular, she argues that in Italy, the advent of printing helps to explain "a shift in human consciousness and a concurrent revolution in communications" (p.226). Print enabled greater border-crossing (p.249). It enabled a classical revival, initially involving a flood of mysticism, but giving way to less mysterious, more systematic study (p.279).

During the Reformation, Eisenstein argues, Protestantism was the first movement to exploit print's potential as mass medium and for propaganda (p.304). Luther believed that printing was "'God's highest and extremist act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward'" - and also as "'the last flame before the extinction of the world'" (p.304). (It's worth noting that last semester, as I was reading this book, someone at the edge of campus handed me a tract that made a similar claim based on the penetration of digital media.) Luther was nevertheless take aback when his 95 Theses, which he had expected to circulate locally among academics, were reprinted and disseminated widely (p.306). "If we stay at the Wittenberg church with Luther we will miss seeing the historical significance of the event," Eisenstein states, sounding like Latour (p.310). Part of that significance was that Bible printing had changed the church. Eisenstein quotes Eugene Rice as arguing that the medieval church was more ecumenical and compromising, with more room for doctrinal disagreements; during the Reformation, doctrinal disagreements polarized into Protestantism and Catholicism (p.325). Eisenstein suggests that print precipitated this change (p.325). Indeed, when the Catholic church began to ban books, it created what publishers considered to be an irresistable untapped niche with built-in appeal (p.416).

Print also allowed people to compare religious texts, to examine them in different languages, and to study them independently. Calvin, for instance, represented "a new kind of theologian, one who had taken no degree in theology and had never been ordained priest" (p.402). "On the desirability of lay literacy, doctrinaire Calvinists and more tolerant Erasmians, ambitious men of letters, and profit-seeking printers were all in accord" while Anglicans "objected, in 1543, to Bible-reading among 'women, apprentices, husbandmen'" (p.421). For Puritans, Bible-reading was "the most vital principle of [their] creed" (p.421). Protestantism, Eisenstein argues, was a "book religion," and she outlines the cycle that encouraged and established this culture (p.422). This print culture resulted in books of coded behavior, "internalized by silent and solitary readers" and manifesting in a "voice of individual conscience"; but it also created a collective morality - including "a 'middle class' morality which harked back to Xenophon and the Bible [and] was fixed in a seemingly permanent mold" (p.429).

Print's effects on religion were sometimes much darker: Eisenstein attributes the witch craze as a byproduct of printing - as well as literal fundamentalism, which became more widely possible as more people became conversant with the literal Bible (p.439). "The many changes introduced by the new technology, far from synchronizing smoothly or pointing in one direction, contributed to disjunctions, worked at cross-purposes and operated out of phase with each other" (p.440).

In science, "the shift from script to print preceded a transformation of world views" (p.459). Before print, knowledge degraded with copies. For instance, Ptolemaic world maps were copied by hand, degrading rather than evolving, with no established process of feedback (p.479). Printing, on the other hand, expanded the number of possible contributors, contributors who were not "educated"and so could make original contributions rather than recapitulating the contributions of the past (p.486).

Science was also directly impacted by religion. For instance, Christians had a challenge in locating Easter both on a repeating calendar and in proximity with the season. This complex problem spurred developments in calendars, astronomy, and chronology (p.610); "By a seeming paradox, their most sacred festival kept Christians bent toward puzzle-solving of a purely scientific kind" (p.611). Similarly, "The Koran did not provide the same incentive that the Vulgate did to master strange tongues or dig up ancient scrolls" (p.612). Print enabled the expansion of techniques that resulted from these religiously grounded complex puzzles.

In her conclusion, Eisenstein links the print revolution to the emergent digital texts she saw (in 1979, when the book was published). She points out that "the process that began in the mid-fifteenth century has not ceased to gather momentum in the age of the computer print-out and the television guide. Indeed the later phases of an on-going communications revolution seem altogether relevant to what is happening within our homes, universities, or cities at present. In particular, they are relevant to apocalyptic pronouncements about contemporary Western culture delivered by modern intellectuals and literati" (p.704).

Overall, this book was fascinating, and it provides a good starting point for examining and theorizing the enormous changes that the print revolution abetted. I particularly appreciated the focus on more quotidian texts in addition to great texts such as the Bible, law, and scientific treatises: it's often in the quotidian texts that fundamental changes develop and spread. The book also provides a model for examining contemporary changes in digital texts - changes that surely won't be parallel, but may result in similarly fundamental cultural and paradigmatic changes. If you're interested in writing, and you have a solid chunk of time to devote to reading a book, try this one out.