Reflections on Adobe Corporation, Bill Viola, and Peter Ramus while Printing Lecture Notes

How to Cite

Maras, S. (2005). Reflections on Adobe Corporation, Bill Viola, and Peter Ramus while Printing Lecture Notes. M/C Journal, 8(2).
Vol. 8 No. 2 (2005): 'print'
Published 2005-06-01

In March 2002, I was visiting the University of Southern California. One night, as sometimes happens on a vibrant campus, two interesting but very different public lectures were scheduled against one another. The first was by the co-chairman and co-founder of Adobe Systems Inc., Dr. John E. Warnock, talking about books. The second was a lecture by acclaimed video artist Bill Viola.

The first event was clearly designed as a networking forum for faculty and entrepreneurs. The general student population was conspicuously absent. Warnock spoke of the future of Adobe, shared stories of his love of books, and in an embodiment of the democratising potential of Adobe software (and no doubt to the horror of archivists in the room) he invited the audience to handle extremely rare copies of early printed works from his personal library.

In the lecture theatre where Viola was to speak the atmosphere was different. Students were everywhere; even at the price of ten dollars a head. Viola spoke of time and memory in the information age, of consciousness and existence, to an enraptured audience—and showed his latest work. The juxtaposition of these two events says something about our cultural moment, caught between a paradigm modelled on reverence toward the page, and a still emergent sense of medium, intensity and experimentation.

But, the juxtaposition yields more. At one point in Warnock’s speech, in a demonstration of the ultra-high resolution possible in the next generation of Adobe products, he presented a scan of a manuscript, two pages, two columns per page, overflowing with detail.

Fig. 1. Dr John E. Warnock at the Annenberg Symposium. Photo courtesy of

Later, in Viola’s presentation, a fragment of a video work, Silent Mountain (2001) splits the screen in two columns, matching Warnock’s text: inside each a human figure struggles with intense emotion, and the challenges of bridging the relational gap.

Fig. 2. Images from Bill Viola, Silent Mountain (2001). From Bill Viola, THE PASSIONS. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles in Association with The National Gallery, London. Ed. John Walsh. p. 44.

Both events are, of course, lectures. And although they are different in style and content, a ‘columnular’ scheme informs and underpins both, as a way of presenting and illustrating the lecture. Here, it is worth thinking about Pierre de la Ramée or Petrus (Peter) Ramus (1515-1572), the 16th century educational reformer who in the words of Frances Yates ‘abolished memory as a part of rhetoric’ (229). Ramus was famous for transforming rhetoric through the introduction of his method or dialectic. For Walter J. Ong, whose discussion of Ramism we are indebted to here, Ramus produced the paradigm of the textbook genre. But it is his method that is more noteworthy for us here, organised through definitions and divisions, the distribution of parts, ‘presented in dichotomized outlines or charts that showed exactly how the material was organised spatially in itself and in the mind’ (Ong, Orality 134-135).

Fig. 3. Ramus inspired study of Medicine. Ong, Ramus 301.

Ong discusses Ramus in more detail in his book Ramus: Method, and the Decay of Dialogue. Elsewhere, Sutton, Benjamin, and I have tried to capture the sense of Ong’s argument, which goes something like the following.

In Ramus, Ong traces the origins of our modern, diagrammatic understanding of argument and structure to the 16th century, and especially the work of Ramus. Ong’s interest in Ramus is not as a great philosopher, nor a great scholar—indeed Ong sees Ramus’s work as a triumph of mediocrity of sorts. Rather, his was a ‘reformation’ in method and pedagogy. The Ramist dialectic ‘represented a drive toward thinking not only of the universe but of thought itself in terms of spatial models apprehended by sight’ (Ong, Ramus 9). The world becomes thought of ‘as an assemblage of the sort of things which vision apprehends—objects or surfaces’. Ramus’s teachings and doctrines regarding ‘discoursing’ are distinctive for the way they draw on geometrical figures, diagrams or lecture outlines, and the organization of categories through dichotomies. This sets learning up on a visual paradigm of ‘study’ (Ong, Orality 8-9).

Ramus introduces a new organization for discourse. Prior to Ramus, the rhetorical tradition maintained and privileged an auditory understanding of the production of content in speech. Central to this practice was deployment of the ‘seats’, ‘images’ and ‘common places’ (loci communes), stock arguments and structures that had accumulated through centuries of use (Ong, Orality 111). These common places were supported by a complex art of memory: techniques that nourished the practice of rhetoric. By contrast, Ramism sought to map the flow and structure of arguments in tables and diagrams. Localised memory, based on dividing and composing, became crucial (Yates 230). For Ramus, content was structured in a set of visible or sight-oriented relations on the page. Ramism transformed the conditions of visualisation.

In our present age, where ‘content’ is supposedly ‘king’, an archaeology of content bears thinking about. In it, Ramism would have a prominent place. With Ramus, content could be mapped within a diagrammatic page-based understanding of meaning. A container understanding of content arises. ‘In the post-Gutenberg age where Ramism flourished, the term “content”, as applied to what is “in” literary productions, acquires a status which it had never known before’ (Ong, Ramus 313). ‘In lieu of merely telling the truth, books would now in common estimation “contain” the truth, like boxes’ (313). For Ramus, ‘analysis opened ideas like boxes’ (315).

The Ramist move was, as Ong points out, about privileging the visual over the audible. Alongside the rise of the printing press and page-based approaches to the word, the Ramist revolution sought to re-work rhetoric according to a new scheme. Although spatial metaphors had always had a ‘place’ in the arts of memory—other systems were, however, phonetically based—the notion of place changed. Specific figures such as ‘scheme’, ‘plan’, and ‘table’, rose to prominence in the now-textualised imagination. ‘Structure’ became an abstract diagram on the page disconnected from the total performance of the rhetor.

This brings us to another key aspect of the Ramist reformation: that alongside a spatialised organisation of thought Ramus re-works style as presentation and embellishment (Brummett 449). A kind of separation of conception and execution is introduced in relation to performance. In Ramus’ separation of reason and rhetoric, arrangement and memory are distinct from style and delivery (Brummett 464). While both dialectic and rhetoric are re-worked by Ramus in light of divisions and definitions (see Ong, Ramus Chs. XI-XII), and dialectic remains a ‘rhetorical instrument’ (Ramus 290), rhetoric becomes a unique site for simplification in the name of classroom practicality. Dialectic circumscribes the space of learning of rhetoric; invention and arrangement (positioning) occur in advance (289).

Ong’s work on the technologisation of the word is strongly focused on identifying the impact of literacy on consciousness. What Ong’s work on Ramus shows is that alongside the so-called printing revolution the Ramist reformation enacts an equally if not more powerful transformation of pedagogic space. Any serious consideration of print must not only look at the technologisation of the word, and the shifting patterns of literacy produced alongside it, but also a particular tying together of pedagogy and method that Ong traces back to Ramus.

If, as is canvassed in the call for papers of this issue of M/C Journal, ‘the transitions in print culture are uneven and incomplete at this point’, then could it be in part due to the way Ramism endures and is extended in electronic and hypermedia contexts? Powerpoint presentations, outlining tools (Heim 139-141), and the scourge of bullet points, are the most obvious evidence of greater institutionalization of Ramist knowledge architecture. Communication, and the teaching of communication, is now embedded in a Ramist logic of opening up content like a box. Theories of communication draw on so-called ‘models’ that draw on the representation of the communication process through boxes that divide and define. Perhaps in a less obvious way, ‘spatialized processes of thought and communication’ (Ong, Ramus 314) are essential to the logic of flowcharting and tracking new information structures, and even teaching hypertext (see the diagram in Nielsen 7): a link puts the popular notion that hypertext is close to the way we truly think into an interesting perspective.

The notion that we are embedded in print culture is not in itself new, even if the forms of our continual reintegration into print culture can be surprising. In the experience of printing, of the act of pressing the ‘Print’ button, we find ourselves re-integrated into page space. A mini-preview of the page re-assures me of an actuality behind the actualizations on the screen, of ink on paper. As I write in my word processing software, the removal of writing from the ‘element of inscription’ (Heim 136) —the frictionless ‘immediacy’ of the flow of text (152) — is conditioned by a representation called the ‘Page Layout’, the dark borders around the page signalling a kind of structures abyss, a no-go zone, a place, beyond ‘Normal’, from which where there is no ‘Return’.

At the same time, however, never before has the technological manipulation of the document been so complex, a part of a docuverse that exists in three dimensions. It is a world that is increasingly virtualised by photocopiers that ‘scan to file’ or ‘scan to email’ rather than good old ‘xeroxing’ style copying. Printing gives way to scanning. In a perverse extension of printing (but also residually film and photography), some video software has a function called ‘Print to Video’.

That these super-functions of scanning to file or email are disabled on my department photocopier says something about budgets, but also the comfort with which academics inhabit Ramist space. As I stand here printing my lecture plan, the printer stands defiantly separate from the photocopier, resisting its colonizing convergence even though it is dwarfed in size. Meanwhile, the printer demurely dispenses pages, one at a time, face down, in a gesture of discretion or perhaps embarrassment. For in the focus on the pristine page there is a Puritanism surrounding printing: a morality of blemishes, smudges, and stains; of structure, format and order; and a failure to match that immaculate, perfect argument or totality. (Ong suggests that ‘the term “method” was appropriated from the Ramist coffers and used to form the term “methodists” to designate first enthusiastic preachers who made an issue of their adherence to “logic”’ (Ramus 304).)

But perhaps this avoidance of multi-functionality is less of a Ludditism than an understanding that the technological assemblage of printing today exists peripherally to the ideality of the Ramist scheme. A change in technological means does not necessarily challenge the visile language that informs our very understanding of our respective ‘fields’, or the ideals of competency embodied in academic performance and expression, or the notions of content we adopt. This is why I would argue some consideration of Ramism and print culture is crucial. Any ‘true’ breaking out of print involves, as I suggest, a challenge to some fundamental principles of pedagogy and method, and the link between the two. And of course, the very prospect of breaking out of print raises the issue of its desirability at a time when these forms of academic performance are culturally valued.

On the surface, academic culture has been a strange inheritor of the Ramist legacy, radically furthering its ambitions, but also it would seem strongly tempering it with an investment in orality, and other ideas of performance, that resist submission to the Ramist ideal. Ong is pessimistic here, however. Ramism was after all born as a pedagogic movement, central to the purveying ‘knowledge as a commodity’ (Ong, Ramus 306). Academic discourse remains an odd mixture of ‘dialogue in the give-and-take Socratic form’ and the scheduled lecture (151). The scholastic dispute is at best a ‘manifestation of concern with real dialogue’ (154). As Ong notes, the ideals of dialogue have been difficult to sustain, and the dominant practice leans towards ‘the visile pole with its typical ideals of “clarity”, “precision”, “distinctness”, and “explanation” itself—all best conceivable in terms of some analogy with vision and a spatial field’ (151).

Assessing the importance and after-effects of the Ramist reformation today is difficult. Ong describes it an ‘elusive study’ (Ramus 296). Perhaps Viola’s video, with its figures struggling in a column-like organization of space, structured in a kind of dichotomy, can be read as a glimpse of our existence in or under a Ramist scheme (interestingly, from memory, these figures emote in silence, deprived of auditory expression). My own view is that while it is possible to explore learning environments in a range of ways, and thus move beyond the enclosed mode of study of Ramism, Ramism nevertheless comprises an important default architecture of pedagogy that also informs some higher level assumptions about assessment and knowledge of the field. Software training, based on a process of working through or mimicking a linked series of screenshots and commands is a direct inheritor of what Ong calls Ramism’s ‘corpuscular epistemology’, a ‘one to one correspondence between concept, word and referent’ (Ong, Orality 168). My lecture plan, providing an at a glance view of my presentation, is another. The default architecture of the Ramist scheme impacts on our organisation of knowledge, and the place of performance with in it.

Perhaps this is another area where Ong’s fascinating account of secondary orality—that orality that comes into being with television and radio—becomes important (Orality 136). Not only does secondary orality enable group-mindedness and communal exchange, it also provides a way to resist the closure of print and the Ramist scheme, adapting knowledge to new environments and story frameworks. Ong’s work in Orality and Literacy could thus usefully be taken up to discuss Ramism. But this raises another issue, which has to do with the relationship between Ong’s two books. In Orality and Literacy, Ong is careful to trace distinctions between oral, chirographic, manuscript, and print culture. In Ramus this progression is not as prominent— partly because Ong is tracking Ramus’ numerous influences in detail —and we find a more clear-cut distinction between the visile and audile worlds. Yates seems to support this observation, suggesting contra Ong that it is not the connection between Ramus and print that is important, but between Ramus and manuscript culture (230). The interconnections but also lack of fit between the two books suggests a range of fascinating questions about the impact of Ramism across different media/technological contexts, beyond print, but also the status of visualisation in both rhetorical and print cultures.

Author Biography

Steven Maras