Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending

Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending

Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending

Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending


There is a longstanding confusion of Johann Fust, Gutenberg's one-time business partner, with the notorious Doctor Faustus. The association is not surprising to Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, for from its very early days the printing press was viewed by some as black magic. For the most part, however, it was welcomed as a "divine art" by Western churchmen and statesmen. Sixteenth-century Lutherans hailed it for emancipating Germans from papal rule, and seventeenth-century English radicals viewed it as a weapon against bishops and kings. While an early colonial governor of Virginia thanked God for the absence of printing in his colony, a century later, revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic paid tribute to Gutenberg for setting in motion an irreversible movement that undermined the rule of priests and kings. Yet scholars continued to praise printing as a peaceful art. They celebrated the advancement of learning while expressing concern about information overload.

In Divine Art, Infernal Machine, Eisenstein, author of the hugely influential The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, has written a magisterial and highly readable account of five centuries of ambivalent attitudes toward printing and printers. Once again, she makes a compelling case for the ways in which technological developments and cultural shifts are intimately related. Always keeping an eye on the present, she recalls how, in the nineteenth century, the steam press was seen both as a giant engine of progress and as signaling the end of a golden age. Predictions that the newspaper would supersede the book proved to be false, and Eisenstein is equally skeptical of pronouncements of the supersession of print by the digital.

The use of print has always entailed ambivalence about serving the muses as opposed to profiting from the marketing of commodities. Somewhat newer is the tension between the perceived need to preserve an ever-increasing mass of texts against the very real space and resource constraints of bricks-and-mortar libraries. Whatever the multimedia future may hold, Eisenstein notes, our attitudes toward print will never be monolithic. For now, however, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.


This book deals with attitudes toward printing and printers expressed by observers in the Western world during the past five centuries. As far as I know, no one has yet explored this topic. The field is much too large to be covered in a single book. Its chronological range extends too far, some might say, to be covered even in a multivolume collaborative work. Surveying developments over the course of many centuries, however, does make it possible to observe continuities and ruptures that are hidden from view by special studies of a more limited scope. A case in point is offered by Michael Warner, who has called for a “history of the way we think about and perceive print.” In keeping with this project, Warner provides a fascinating close-up view of the role played by print in shaping an Anglo-American republican ethos. But his sharply focused treatment of an eighteenth-century political ideology is accompanied by a blurred and distorted presentation of previous developments. The views of early printers are wrongly characterized (see below). Puritan attitudes are lumped together as reflections of a vaguely defined “traditional culture of print.” The untraditional aspects of early print culture are ignored, along with significant links between seventeenth-century Puritans and eighteenth-century republicans.

By extending coverage to encompass many centuries, I hope to bring out neglected continuities as well as to indicate significant ruptures. What follows is intended merely as a suggestive sketch. It is highly selective, drawing material from only a few regions and social sectors, and is loosely organized along chronological lines.

Anyone who attempts to trace views of printing over the course of centuries has to confront one problem at the outset, namely, the transformation of printing processes themselves. A sixteenth-century commentator who referred to the art of artificial writing had in mind a wooden handpress and the inking of carefully aligned pieces of metal. By the nineteenth century, printing meant steam-driven rotary presses and linotype machines. Thereafter, the . . .

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