Dimensions of Print

How to Cite

Roe, P. (2005). Dimensions of Print. M/C Journal, 8(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2343
Vol. 8 No. 2 (2005): 'print'
Published 2005-06-01

Print culture, as the call for this issue suggests, has dominated the world for 500 years, but also suggests that print’s hegemony may now be under threat from new communications technologies. There are a number of perspectives from which to view the ‘threats’ to which print culture is subject, the longer term effects this will have and, particularly, on what it will mean to be human in the future of print culture.

I’d like to address this issue by turning my attention to one dimension of this question that seems essentially absent from the discourses which surround it. I’d like to step back and put this question in the context of the structural relations of print as a cultural technology. My questions concern what these structural relations and their effects are, the limits of this print model of textuality, and what would constitute an ‘outside’ to the print system of texts. The point of this is to expose the ‘naturalised’ elements of this cultural formation, to show that there is as yet no radical break from print culture, and to consider the nature of the current pressures on print culture.

The primary infrastructure of the print system concerns the structure of its texts, the structure of its modes of subject formation, and the structural relations between them. We should note how deeply embedded these structural relations are in terms of the idea of the human, of the idea of being human. Walter Ong (117-38), for example, has shown us how the print form is deeply embedded within culture and affects us at deeper levels than just the external manifestations of the medium. The conventions of print greatly influence and structure the ways in which it is possible to think – for Ong, the dominant communicational culture affects and determines the possibilities of thought and expression, and the relationships between individuals and texts structures the ways in which we view the world. This is what Ong calls “a psychological breakthrough of the first order”. For Ong, the achievement of alphabetic letterpress printing was that it “embedded the word itself deeply in the manufacturing process and made it a kind of commodity”. It was, he says, the first assembly line, and from this we have the mass distribution of texts, mass literacy through mass schooling, religion, etc. (Extended examinations of the function of religion in the construction of a print model can be pursued in both Aries and Luke.)

Firstly, we must note that a model of textuality is not a natural thing; it is a technology. A textual model provides an infrastructure which determines and articulates the possibilities of relationships between those elements of the textual infrastructure – texts, subjects, and their relationships. As a consequence, the model also largely determines the possibilities for reading and writing within the textual system.

The print-based system of texts has always presented an infrastructure that consists of a two-dimensional surface to which it sutures a subject in a face-to-face relationship – the requirement is for a certain kind of text, a certain kind of subject, and a certain kind of relationship between them in a highly prescribed and circumscribed textual infrastructure. This model of textuality is assumed as the natural mode of textuality, and consequently the referent for all textuality. What is obscured in the naturalisation of the print model of textuality are the technological dimensions of textuality: that all textual models are technologies. This print model has become so naturalised that it disappears.

These structural relations of print do not change with the advent of the desktop personal computer, nor screen culture generally, as these are already cast within the infrastructure of the print model. Even three-dimensionality on the two-dimensional screen is always-already simulacra, constituted by continual changes on a surface which give only the appearance of three-dimensionality. The screen and keyboard therefore mark a continuity with the pre-existing social relations of print-based technology and its system of texts, and inscribe these textual relations in the model of the desktop personal computer.

The essential “face-to-face” relation, where the subject is always placed “in front of”, also largely determines this subject. This mode of positionality is the condition of this subject. Its possibilities for “knowing” and “understanding”, if not wholly determined, are strongly influenced by this positionality. When Heidegger says that the meaning of the term understanding is intended to go back to its usage in ordinary language, he is referring to understanding (verstehen) in these terms:

In German we say that someone can vorstehen something – literally stand in front or ahead of it, that is, stand at its head, administer, manage, preside over it. This is equivalent to saying that he versteht sich darauf, understands in the sense of being skilled or expert at it, has the know how of it. (Heidegger, “Age” 129-30)

Such a subject, in that she or he is always placed “in front of” the text, surface, screen, page, is always the subject of the print age. This is the sense in which the desktop personal computer is still a Book. Accounts of computing per se initiating a radically new textuality, then, should proceed with caution. There is a new textual environment, to be sure, yet assertions of its radicality would seem firstly to refer to changes in degree rather than changes in kind.

For Heidegger, the very essence of ‘man’ changes in the representationalist paradigm in that ‘man becomes subject’. He points out that the word sub-iectum names ‘that-which-lies-before’, and which ‘as ground, gathers everything onto itself’ (Heidegger, “Age” 128). When man becomes primary, then ‘man becomes that being upon which all that is is grounded as regards the manner of its Being and its truth’. It is only possible for man to become this relational centre when ‘the comprehension of what is as a whole changes’ (Heidegger, “Age” 128). In terms of this change, Heidegger says, we are asking after the ‘essence of the modern age’ which concerns the ‘modern world picture (Weltbild)’.

World picture … does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as picture. … Whenever we have the world picture, an essential decision takes place regarding what is, in its entirety. The Being of whatever is, is sought and found in the representedness of the latter.

He further points out that

The world picture does not change from an earlier medieval one into a modern one, but rather the fact that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age. (Heidegger, “Age” 129-30)

It is the positionality largely determined through these structural relations that enables the identity of the modernist subject, and the possibility of its representation (as an object for another subject). Representationalism therefore requires positionality in order to represent. The print subject is sutured to the page or screen and this always provides it with a representable position. The subject of representationalism therefore comes to appear as naturally given, just as, in this view, technology is also a given. Positionality concerns fixation, or what can be held to be true. Positionality is what Deleuze and Guattari oppose to nomadism which concerns constant movement and circulation.

Representationalism requires this stable formation, and infusions of ‘noise’ into the system are rendered as pathologies. “Virtual reality” then, in that it disrupts or introduces something that is apparently new into the system, tends to become a pathologisation of the subject. It is on this basis that claims are made of crises in modes of subjectivity within virtual reality or cyberculture, where the problematic is mis-construed in terms of the subject rather than in terms of this model of interpretation. In this sense, it clings to the illusion of the subject as ground, that everything that is, is an object for a subject. In this model, it becomes a question of repositioning the subject such that the subject may be accommodated in an expanded representational regime, a practice that is widespread. Bukatman (8-9), for example, has argued a representationalist position which can be seen in the following passage.

It is the purpose of much recent science fiction to construct a new subject position to interface with the global realms of data circulation, a subject that can occupy or intersect the cyberscapes of contemporary existence.

For Bukatman, it is about a new position for the subject: that is, it is a question of how to represent the subject such that it can be accommodated to or within a representationalist paradigm. This subject is reduced to the notion of positionality which is representable as the subject labelled “I”. It concerns differences in degree rather than in kind.

The establishing of the human subject as ground for “that which is” positions the human in an entirely different way from the subject of earlier times. For the first time, Heidegger says, there became such a thing as a “position” of the human. Humanity is subiectum, and must stand in front of, or “take his stand in relation to whatever is as the objective”. What is decisive, he says

is that man himself expressly takes up this position as one constituted by himself, that he intentionally maintains it as that taken up by himself, and that he makes it secure as the solid footing for a possible development of humanity. (Heidegger, “Age” 132)

This decisive event, for Heidegger, is what begins a new way of being human that gives rise to the world as picture. Heidegger’s “age of the world picture” corresponds with the arrival of the mass textual system or model (the printing press of the fifteenth century) which serves to instantiate this model of “man”. This is an actualisation of the technology of the subiectum, the age of the world picture, that is henceforth demanded in order to produce and to represent this “man”, and to represent him to himself.

There has been no radical break with the structures underlying the social formation of print culture, yet this formation is subject to increasing pressures. What is most under pressure in this late age of print, however, is not the particular formation of texts, but, crucially, this mode of being human that has been ever more deeply embedded in the human psyche for more than 500 years. This will not disappear overnight; however, its structural conditions of existence do appear to be beginning to overflow their limit, producing an excess that is not, or not easily, assimilated back to itself.

This excess is constituted by those contemporary elements that do not fit the structural model of the print system of texts. There are several aspects to this which can only be gestured towards in this space. In particular, one aspect will concern the complex network of relations in the changing nature of information in a digital, networked era, the commodification of information in global capitalism, and the distortions of space and time these produce. It gestures towards the possibility of a post-representationalism – a new subject that, rather than being fixed and positional, sutured to a screen/page, is set in motion – a structure which would alter all relations as well as the constitution of the subject. Immersive virtual reality texts already begin the necessity of thinking these relations and the possibility of a subject in motion within fields of information flow. These immersive virtual realities gesture towards the possibility of the subject becoming a post-print.

A post-print will not emerge fully formed or all at once, or even very soon, but reflections on what such a system of texts and subjects might be or become poses the relations of print or our reflections on them in a different way. In any event, it points towards a difficult time ahead for the print subject and for the formation and meaning of print culture.

Author Biography

Phillip Roe