Print, Chaos, and Complexity: Samuel Johnson and Eighteenth-Century Media Culture

Print, Chaos, and Complexity: Samuel Johnson and Eighteenth-Century Media Culture

Print, Chaos, and Complexity: Samuel Johnson and Eighteenth-Century Media Culture

Print, Chaos, and Complexity: Samuel Johnson and Eighteenth-Century Media Culture

Synopsis

This text describes how 18th-century awareness of the interplay between fixity and instability in printed texts demonstrates the role print played in developing Samuel Johnson's awareness of print culture's impact on human beings ethically, politically, and aesthetically.

Excerpt

I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assis
tance foreign nations and distant ages, gain access to the propa
gators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth …

—Samuel Johnson
Preface to A Dictionary
of the English Language

IN THE CONCLUSION OF HIS EXTRAORDINARILY DETAILED STUDY OF PRINT culture, Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order, 1450–1830, David McKitterick concludes that

it remains that the chasm of understanding between the implications of
how texts are produced, multiplied and changed, and how they are re
ceived and reinterpreted, remains only imperfectly bridged. Much of the
present book impinges directly … on critical theory, on theories of read
ing, and on bibliographical theory and practice. Though in some re
spects criticism and bibliographical understanding have moved closer
together in the past two or three decades, the detailed application of this
book to such theories must remain for another occasion.

McKitterick’s words represent a significant call to action for students of critical theory and print culture, because his work, like his predecessor Adrian Johns’s 1998 The Nature of the Book, is an iconoclastic gesture questioning the conception of print culture in the world before 1800 as something to be associated with fixity and textual stability. This concept was first promoted by Eisenstein’s 1979 The Printing Press as Agent of Change and subsequently promoted by other studies of print culture like Alvin Kernan’s 1987 Printing Technology, Letters, and Samuel Johnson—and both studies are given careful scrutiny by McKitterick. He argues that, “There are many difficulties in the background assumptions of Eisenstein and Kernan” (225), for the history of print reveals that “Books, like the words, images and other signs of which they are partially composed, are endlessly malleable, often transient, and always mutable.” Thus, “in all of this, we may . . .

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