How to Cite

Lukas, S. A. (2005). Nevermoreprint. M/C Journal, 8(2).
Vol. 8 No. 2 (2005): 'print'
Published 2005-06-01

Perhaps the supreme quality of print is one that is lost on us, since it has so casual and obvious an existence (McLuhan 160).

Print Machine (Thad Donovan, 1995)

In the introduction to his book on 9/11, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Slavoj Zizek uses an analogy of letter writing to emphasize the contingency of post-9/11 reality. In the example, Zizek discusses the efforts of writers to escape the eyes of governmental censors and a system that used blue ink to indicate a message was true, red ink to indicate it was false. The story ends with an individual receiving a letter from the censored country stating that the writer could not find any red ink. The ambiguity and the duplicity of writing, suggested in Zizek’s tale of colored inks, is a condition of the contemporary world, even if we are unaware of it. We exist in an age in which print—the economization of writing—has an increasingly significant and precarious role in our lives. We turn to the Internet chat room for textual interventions in our sexual, political and aesthetic lives. We burn satanic Harry Potter books and issue fatwas against writers like Salman Rushdie. We narrate our lives using pictures, fonts of varying typeface and color, and sound on our personalized homepages. We throw out our printed books and buy audio ones so we can listen to our favorite authors in the car. We place trust of our life savings, personal numbers, and digital identity in the hands of unseen individuals behind computer screens. Decisively, we are a print people, but our very nature of being dependent on the technologies of print in our public and private lives leads to our inability to consider the epistemological, social and existential effects of print on us. In this article, I focus on the current manifestations of print—what I call “newprint”—including their relationships to consumerism, identity formation and the politics of the state. I will then consider the democratic possibilities of print, suggested by the personalization of print through the Internet and home publishing, and conclude with the implications of the end of print that include the possibility of a post-print language and the middle voice.

In order to understand the significance of our current print culture, it is important to situate print in the context of the history of communication. In earlier times, writing had magical associations (Harris 10), and commonly these underpinnings led to the stratification of communities. Writing functioned as a type of black box, “the mysterious technology by which any message [could] be concealed from its illiterate bearer” (Harris 16). Plato and Socrates warned against the negative effects of writing on the mind, including the erosion of memory (Ong 81). Though it once supplemented the communicational bases of orality, the written word soon supplanted it and created a dramatic existential shift in people—a separation of “the knower from the known” (Ong 43-44). As writing moved from the inconvenience of illuminated manuscripts and hand-copied texts, it became systemized in Gutenberg print, and writing then took on the signature of the state—messages between people were codified in the technology of print. With the advent of computer technologies in the 1990s, including personal computers, word processing programs, printers, and the Internet, the age of newprint begins. Newprint includes the electronic language of the Internet and other examples of the public alphabet, including billboards, signage and the language of advertising. As much as members of consumer society are led to believe that newprint is the harbinger of positive identity construction and individualism, closer analysis of the mechanisms of newprint leads to a different conclusion.

An important context of new print is found in the space of the home computer. The home computer is the workstation of the contemporary discursive culture—people send and receive emails, do their shopping on the Internet, meet friends and even spouses through dating services, conceal their identity on MUDs and MOOs, and produce state-of-the-art publishing projects, even books. The ubiquity of print in the space of the personal computer leads to the vital illusion that this newprint is emancipatory. Some theorists have argued that the Internet exhibits the spirit of communicative action addressed by Juergen Habermas, but such thinkers have neglected the fact that the foundations of newprint, just like those of Gutenberg print, are the state and the corporation. Recent advertising of Hewlett-Packard and other computer companies illustrates this point. One advertisement suggested that consumers could “invent themselves” through HP computer and printer technology: by using the varied media available to them, consumers can make everything from personalized greeting cards to full-fledged books. As Friedrich Kittler illustrates, we should resist the urge to separate the practices of writing from the technologies of their production, what Jay David Bolter (41) denotes as the “writing space”. For as much as we long for new means of democratic and individualistic expression, we should not succumb to the urge to accept newprint because of its immediacy, novelty or efficiency. Doing so will relegate us to a mechanistic existence, what is referenced metaphorically in Thad Donovan’s “print machine.”

In multiple contexts, newprint extends the corporate state’s propaganda industry by turning the written word into artifice. Even before newprint, the individual was confronted with the hegemony of writing. Writing creates “context-free language” or “autonomous discourse,” which means an individual cannot directly confront the language or speaker as one could in oral cultures (Ong 78). This further division of the individual from the communicational world is emphasized in newprint’s focus on the aesthetics of the typeface. In word processing programs like Microsoft Word, and specialized ones like TwistType, the consumer can take a word or a sentence and transform it into an aesthetic formation. On the word processing program that is producing this text, I can choose from Blinking Background, Las Vegas Lights, Marching Red or Black Ants, Shimmer, and Sparkle Text. On my campus email system I am confronted with pictorial backgrounds, font selection and animation as an intimate aspect of the communicational system of my college. On my cell phone I can receive text messages, and I can choose to use emoticons (iconic characters and messages) on the Internet. As Walter Ong wrote, “print situates words in space more relentlessly than writing ever did … control of position is everything in print” (Ong 121). In the case of the new culture of print, the control over more functions of the printed page, specifically its presentation, leads some consumers to believe that choice and individuality are the outcomes.

Newprint does not free the writer from the constraints imposed by the means of traditional print—the printing press—rather, it furthers them as the individual operates by the logos of a predetermined and programmed electronic print. The capacity to spell and write grammatically correct sentences is abated by the availability of spell- and grammar-checking functions in word processing software. In many ways, the aura of writing is lost in newprint in the same way in which art lost its organic nature as it moved into the age of reproducibility (Benjamin). Just as filters in imaging programs like Photoshop reduce the aesthetic functions of the user to the determinations of the software programmer, the use of automated print technologies—whether spell-checking or fanciful page layout software like QuarkXpress or Page Maker—will further dilute the voice of the writer. Additionally, the new forms of print can lead to a fracturing of community, the opposite intent of Habermas’ communicative action. An example is the recent growth of specialized languages on the Internet. Some of the newer forms of such languages use combinations of alphanumeric characters to create a language that can only be read by those with the code. As Internet print becomes more specialized, a tribal effect may be felt within our communities.

Since email began a few years ago, I have noticed that the nature of the emails I receive has been dramatically altered. Today’s emails tend to be short and commonly include short hands (“LOL” = “laugh out loud”), including the elimination of capitalization and punctuation. In surveying students on the reasons behind such alterations of language in email, I am told that these short hands allow for more efficient forms of communication. In my mind, this is the key issue that is at stake in both print and newprint culture—for as long as we rely on print and other communicational systems as a form of efficiency, we are doomed to send and receive inaccurate and potentially dangerous messages. Benedict Anderson and Hannah Arendt addressed the connections of print to nationalistic and fascist urges (Anderson; Arendt), and such tendencies are seen in the post-9/11 discursive formations within the United States. Bumper stickers and Presidential addresses conveyed the same simplistic printed messages: “Either You are with Us or You are with the Terrorists.” Whether dropping leaflets from airplanes or in scrolling text messages on the bottom of the television news screen, the state is dependent on the efficiency of print to maintain control of the citizen. A feature of this efficiency is that newprint be rhetorically immediate in its results, widely available in different forms of technology, and dominated by the notion of individuality and democracy that is envisioned in HP’s “invent yourself” advertsiements.

As Marshall McLuhan’s epigram suggests, we have an ambiguous relationship to print. We depend on printed language in our daily lives, for education and for the economic transactions that underpin our consumer world, yet we are unable to confront the rhetoric of the state and mass media that are consequences of the immediacy and magic of both print and new print. Print extends the domination of our consciousness by forms of discourse that privilege representation over experience and the subject over the object. As we look to new means of communicating with one another and of expressing our intimate lives, we must consider altering the discursive foundations of our communication, such as looking to the middle voice. The middle voice erases the distinctions between subjects and objects and instead emphasizes the writer being in the midst of things, as a part of the world as opposed to dominating it (Barthes; Tyler). A few months prior to writing this article, I spent the fall quarter teaching in London. One day I received an email that changed my life. My partner of nearly six years announced that she was leaving me. I was gripped with the fact of my being unable to discuss the situation with her as we were thousands of miles apart and I struggled to understand how such a significant and personal circumstance could be communicated with the printed word of email. Welcome to new print!

Author Biography

Scott A. Lukas