Divine Art, Infernal Machine – Review

Book Review: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein Divine Art, Infernal Machine: the Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2011)

If Elizabeth Eisenstein had published nothing after The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe her reputation as an historian based on her ground breaking work on the impact of a new information technology would have been assured.  However she didn’t stop there.  The 1972 publication of  The Printing Press as an Agent of Change  was followed in 1983 by The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe which was a condensed version of the greater work.

Eisenstein’s views are controversial.  Apart from her work being a departure from the traditional  “History of the Book” line, some of her methods, including a tendency to make sweeping generalisations at times, came in for stringent criticism.   Adrian Johns in his The Nature of the Book  published in 1998 was particularly critical of Eisenstein’s “Properties of Print” approach. “Where she is interested in qualities”, he said “I want to know about processes”  suggesting, for example, that a conclusion about the credit worthiness of a book may involve an awareness about its conditions of production.  Johns does not negate the historical importance of printing, but suggests that the development and consequences of print should be explained in terms of how communities involved with the book in various roles put the printing press and its products to work.  Eisenstein’s rejoinder to Johns view was his was that of a retrospective historian, his construct being a modern one and not one of the 18th century.

David McKitterick in Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order 1450-1830 held that print did not engender the quality of fixity that Eisenstein claimed, but the texts were unstable and error ridden thus reflecting a lack of credit on the part of readers.  Joseph Moxon’s book on the Art of Printing suggested that in fact there was orderliness and responsibility within the trade but McKitterick’s opinion was that early printed books revealed compromise, inconsistency, changes of mind, botched work, errors and incomplete publications.  McKitterick claimed that it took much longer than suggested by Eisenstein for print to gain credibility and the element of fixity as a determinant of textual accuracy and truth as being the subject of challenge by others apart from Johns and McKitterick along with the significance of dissemination.

Other criticism of Eisenstein’s work encompassed her methodology and utilisation of secondary sources rather than archival material.  In addition, the nature of her discursive analysis and interpretation of evidence, the tentative nature of the outcome, the overstatement of her conclusions, the lack of empirical evidence, the counter blast that the printing press caused nothing and the ethnocentric European focus of the study are all indicative of a significant academic reluctance to unreservedly accept her bold hypothesis.  Even so, Eisenstein’s book has not been despatched to oblivion.  Quite the contrary.  In 2007 the book Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L Eisenstein and the essays contained in it reflect significantly upon Eisenstein’s hypothesis and, whilst not necessarily agreeing with it entirely, indicate its importance and the contribution that she had made.

Late last year, and quite by accident, I came across a clip on YouTube in which Elizabeth Eisenstein gave a lecture at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.  It was gratifying to see that she is still with us.  It is even more gratifying to see and hear that the mind is as sharp as ever and the subject matter of her discussion was her new book Divine Art, Infernal Machine: the Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending.  It is another magisterial work and in many respects is similar to The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.  A significant portion of the book covers  the same ground – up until the end of the 18th century – but has a different point of focus.  However it would be fair to say that many of the examples to which she refers in Divine art, Infernal machine are present in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.

What Eisenstein attempts to do in her latest work is to assess how readers responded to the new technology and consider the  attitudes towards printing and printers by observers in the Western World.  Eisenstein herself acknowledges that the field is too large to be covered in a single book.  Its chronological range, she says, extends to far even to be covered in a multi volume collaborative work.  However, once again, she takes the broad view and at the same time answers some of her critics.

Yet she recognises at the same time the paradigmatic nature of the change engendered by the printing press and refers on occasion to new media suggesting that current reactions to the digital paradigm may lead to a more sympathetic understanding of previous reactions to older ones.

But she makes the point that notwithstanding enthusiastic response to the introduction of print – a theme repeated over the centuries – it did have its opponents.  She makes reference to the often citedcomment of 1671 by William Berkeley, Colonial Governor of Virginia, who said

“I thank God there are no free schools nor printing and I hope we shall never have these for a 100 years; learning has bought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world and print has divulged them….God keep us from both.” 

Eleven years later in 1682 after an abortive attempt to set up a press in Jamestown, a new Governor enforced the Royal Order that “No person be permitted to use any press for printing upon any occasion whatsoever.”  Within that background, which perhaps reflects Restoration attitudes towards the printing press as reflected in the Licensing Act in 1662 in England, an early context for the  First Amendment to the Constitution on the United States just over a century later is set in sharp focus.

From a structural point of view Eisenstein’s chronological approach is satisfactory.  It is difficult to imagine a better way of approaching a developing subject and although the trend in history writing may tend towards a thematic approach, Eisenstein develops her themes within her time periods.  She commences with the beginning of printing and examines some of the myths that surrounded the invention of the press and those associated with it,   followed by her view of what she describes as initial reactions.

One aspect that she considers is what was referred to by J W Saunders as the Stigma of Print – an attitude of which she is somewhat dismissive.  Indeed she reduces it to “the stigma of verse” and even then such attitude was not realistic.  Nevertheless she does recognise the tendencies that some poets had – John Donne among them – for coterie publication in manuscript form rather than in print.  Coterie publications were intended for a small group and did not justify the cost of putting the particular work into print.  Coterie publication was a specialised and limited form of publication by  some of the Tudor and early Stuart poets and was an aspect of information sharing by Early modern English lawyers in the Inns of Court who would share their case notes among themselves, only having them published in print in extreme circumstances.  The publication of Plowden’s Commentaries in 1571 provides an example. However, the poet and playwright Ben Jonson was an exception, and was a keen publicist of his “works” resulting in the following exchange:

To Mr. Ben. Jonson demanding the reason why he call’d his playes works.

 Pray tell me Ben, where doth the mystery lurke,

What others call a play you call a worke,

 Thus answer’d by a friend in Mr. Jonsons defence.

 The authors friend thus for the author sayes,

Ben’s plays are works, when others works are plaies.

(Epigrams 269 and 270, Wits Recreations, 1640. Quoted in Herford & Simpsons, Ben Jonson, IX, p.13)

Any examination of print and its development cannot by-pass the impact of the printing press upon religious discourse but Eisenstein makes the interesting observation that print was not only used by Protestants during the Reformation but in pre-Reformation times was eagerly seized upon by the Catholic Church.  She also considers the shift from using print as a means as a religious advocacy to pamphlet and broadsheet printing as a political tool in the 1640s.

In the third chapter she takes up the theme of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution which she explored in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change but on this occasion the perspective is viewed from that of the user.  The chapter is entitled “After  Erasmus: Propelling the Knowledge Industry” and deals first with the advancement of learning.  Erasmus, of course, must feature in such an examination although, as was the case in  The Winter King by Thomas Penn, Erasmus is displayed with all of his foibles rather than the grand leader of European humanism which seems to have been present in earlier portrayals.  The second part of the chapter on the knowledge industry addresses a problem currently faced in the digital paradigm – information overload arising from the vast number of books that were being printed and the difficulty that readers had in keeping up with the constant flow of publications.

Eisenstein then turns to the Eighteenth century and adopts a transatlantic approach in part, examining the Wilkes affair and printers of political works along with  attitudes to the printing trade and the debateable output of Grub Street.

The fifth chapter is entitled “the Zenith of Print Culture”  and considers the Nineteenth century, industrialisation and the importance of technical advances in print with mechanised printing press whilst at the same time considering the portable press developed by Stanhope.

In the “Newspaper Press” she contemplates whether or not newspapers would mean an end of books and then brings the book to a close in the final chapter covering fin de siecle through to the present.

Again the book is sweeping and little has changed in Eisenstein’s style since The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.  Nor has the use of secondary material diminished.  Thomas Jefferson’s oft quoted preference for papers without a government is referenced not to a collection of Jefferson’s letters but to a secondary source in which the quote is contained.  This is the case of many of the quotations from contemporary authors and from my perspective it would have been preferable of the original source to have been cited if it had been in print, or at worst a collection of the works by an editor.  Eisenstein’s preference for citation of sources is not fatal but for those of us who have been bought up in the school of primary sources it is a little disconcerting.

An interesting observation was made in an early stage in the book to the way in which printing made works that had been available in manuscript more available to a wider audience.  The following passage appears:

“Jealous collectors are chided for selfishly worrying that their own rare manuscripts would be devalued by the increased output of texts.  This same theme would be sounded later in Elizabethan England by the first publisher of a vernacular poetry anthology.  Robert Tottel argued against “the ungentle hoarders up of such treasure” that publication was benefit to the “studious of English eloquence”.

It is cited in the footnote as “Richard Tottel “the printer to the reader” Tottel’s Miscellany 1557 to 1587 Ed Hyder  E Rollins Cambridge 1928 lines 14-15.”  The footnote demonstrates the error and the printer Tottel’s name is properly recorded in the footnote. I can only conclude that the reference to Robert Tottel is a proofing error. I cannot quibble at the use of an edited collection but to be complete the reference came from Tottel’s address “To the reader” from Songs and Sonnets written by the Right Honourable Lord Henry Howard late Earl of Surrey and others printed by Tottel in 1557.

Anything by Eisenstein on print history commands attention,  this book no less.  Nevertheless I had the uncomfortable feeling that in much of what I was reading I was considering a reflection The Printing Press as an Agent of Change  but once one got past the Eighteenth century and well away from the Early modern period the work took on a new life.  I wonder if in some respects attempting to deal with Adrian Johns’  critique, she was concerned about people’s reactions to print and in some respects this would seem to be the case.  On occasion, she makes reference to her properties of print she developed in Chapter 2 of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change having greater context to demonstrate the validity of her argument expounded in the earlier work.  On the other hand she does not ignore the negative and that the reception of print was not universally acclaimed.   In some cases it was but in many cases what was at issue was not the medium but the message.  However, there are some occasions when the two become conflated.

Nevertheless the work is a useful addition to the scholarship and within the compass of 245 pages a considerable amount of ground is covered, subject however to Eisenstein’s own warning about the complexity of the subject.  I have no doubt, as was the case with the The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Eisenstein’s latest work will provide a spring board for further writings in the print scholarship field.