Ebooks   ➡  Nonfiction  ➡  Reference  ➡  Publishing and books

From the Gutenberg Galaxy to the Googletenberg Universe



The interpretation of Gutenberg’s legacy changes from one historical period to another, depending on the developments through which printed publications themselves are going through. As can be seen, through centuries, the role of Johannes Gutenberg was seen in one way in the first centuries of the print book, then in another way in the historical period of the mass-produced book, and yet differently today, in the virtual reality of the e-book, in a global system in which the invention of printing is not practically defining anymore – in any formal sense – for the book, since the product is not physically manufactured anymore. As an outstanding personality of book culture and the history of the written word, Gutenberg is also ineludible in the cultural and technical context of the e-book. It is understandable, however, that, from an e-book perspective, he is not primarily interesting as an inventor in the technical sense, but as an innovator, or as an influential personality who was able to produce major changes in a traditional system which has been in existence for centuries and even millennia.

Gutenberg: businessman, process manager, and software designer

It is not at all unusual and without precedent to reinterpret Gutenberg’s legacy under the influence of the trends of a historical period. In 1928, but with an almost contemporary twist, Imre Kner highlights the fact Gutenberg wasin fact not an innovator, but – in current IT terminology – a „project manager”. According to the Hungarian Jewish typographer and book artist (1890-1944): „In the public opinion view, the main thing about Gutenberg’s invention is the movability of the letters. However, his enormous merit is to have thought out each and every process of a whole new and complicated craft, and to have solved its every associated problem in a way that punch cutting, letter matrices, typecasting, the technology of typesetting and printing, as well as the type press itself could serve humanity almost without any change for more than three centuries.”^^1^^

Hungarian book historian József Fitz (1888-1964) presents us, in 1940, a yet different image of Gutenberg from that which we have been accustomed to. He not only emphasizes Gutenberg’s merits as a process manager, but also his skills as a businessman, „a man of ideas and an organizer who gives definite orders, but does not participate in manual labour […]. Instead of the broken young inventor who could never pay his debts, he nowappears before our eyes as a widely successful businessman who, after having published and sold the 42-line Bible, has retired with an annuity of several hundred Forints.”^^2^^

And how does the book theoretician of the present view Gutenberg in the context of the 21st century digital book empire? In his essay entitled Gutenberg the Geek, Jeff Jarvis asserts nothing less than that Gutenberg was, in fact, an outstandingly efficient software manager, the first technological entrepreneur. Written works are the hardware, and printing is the software. The content has been ready since millennia, but there was no efficient system that would have made available this knowledge.

Let me remark here, in passing, that a similar parallel has already been proposed at the dawn of the IT age, when PCs have only been around for a short time. In this case, writing itself has been interpreted as an operating system software. The contemporary Hungarian literary historian Zoltán Kulcsár-Szabó writes: „Thus, according to the state of our contemporary media theoretical discourse, we could even state that, in this sense, the alphabet or even manual writing are software. Lyrical language – whether it is ‘generated’ by computers or living machines – also inevitably has to understand or present itself as a kind of software.”^^3^^

Jarvisʼ inference is rather interesting and very original: „Gutenberg did not wish to see the undeserved superiority of Fust and Schöffer’s office become a monopolity for his unloved rivals, and took steps to ensure that the new art could spread in free and open competition. It is as if Gutenberg shifted his corporate culture from Apple to Google, from closed iOS to open Android.”^^4^^ Thus, Jarvis proposes that Johannes Gutenberg should be established as the patron saint of the global centre of IT development, Silicon Valley, to properlyhonour his life’s great achievement.

The e-book and the aspirations of the avant-garde book reformer

At the beginning of the 20th century, in addition to their dynamic and unconventional experiments with established forms, the avant-garde art and literary movements have also set out to renew the textual space of the book as such, which, according to their view, had a much too rigid and fixed cultural architecture. From their many of programs and manifestos the Dimensionist Manifesto^^5^^ of the Hungarian poet Tamkó Sirató Károly (1905-1980), published in Paris and signed by the leading artists of many continents (Wassily Kandinsky, Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Lászó Moholy-Nagy), deserves special notice. As many other avant-garde artists, Tamkó Sirató has also envisioned the “New Book”, in which electronics already appears as an inspiration and a shaping force of the art of the future. Of course, it is not yet to be regarded as a technique of digitalization, since the birth and spread of the computer still lies far in the future, not to mention the Internet. However, they bring to life the so-called “electric poem”, which means the inclusion of the texts of neon signs into the world of poetry.The avant-garde reformers of the book viewed paper publishing as the depressingly unidirectional texture of formless lines. In contrast, they were looking for a space where the disposition of sentences and words can acquire a constructive meaning. They state this explicitly: the “point people” of the present age should look for additional dimensions and learn the “grammar of electrons”. According to them, people are suffering from an “intoxication by the present” and need an electronic debate partner whose grammar is mathematical. In his poem entitled Az Űr-Gilgames [The Space Gilgamesh]^^6^^ (1927), Károly Tamkó Sirató anticipated the mood of e-book use. He characterizes the new reader in the following way: “A fluffy electron-pillow crackles under his head. A series of formulae dance foxtrot in his deep consciousness.” Is the vision expounded in the poem really alive today? Almost a century after the poem’s composition, in the age of electronics, we are reflecting again on the same questions. However, we are now in possession of the necessary technique, and we are living in the actual reality of the e-book.

The poetry of electric posters – the prefiguration of the e-book surface

The avant-garde was interested in the spread of electronics and its effects that reached the human world as a whole not only as poetic content. The artists belonging to this movement were quick to realize that electronic surfaces also offer new possibilities of form. Innovative devices based on electricity have become inspiring themes for new literary aspirations. The avant-gardists expected so much from these fascinating new machines! Today, we are holding in our hands the realization of their wildest dreams. From this perspective, it is especially interesting to reflect upon what has been realized, and in what way, in the literary context of the present,from their visions built upon the promising cultural perspectives of the technology of their time period.

I cannot undertake here an analytical presentation of Hungarian activism and other avant-garde art movements.^^7^^ Thus, I will content myself with highlighting a single aspect. It is the avant-garde view that contradicts the basic cultural idea of the avant-gardists’ contemporaries, according to which the ontological status of the text as such is not necessarily connected to paper. Paper is only one among many possibilities to present writing. Actually, the reorganization of letters and their application to another medium, especially by exploiting the new possibilities offered by electronics, isdownright desirable. This is how Károly Tamkó Sirató describes,in 1928, the desired direction of literary innovation in his creed of “glogoism”: “Hitherto, poems have existed in an absolutely empty paper space and could not breathe optically.” How surprising it is to read these lines today!

This question is also at the centre of our present debates about book theory. Does the literary work lose its original content and sensual-aesthetic effects, if it is converted from a printed format to a digital text product? In other words, does the transfer from the space of the paper into an amorphous and changeable electronic space lessen it in any way? In contrast to present-day sceptics, the poetic creeds of almost a century ago were built precisely upon the conviction that it would benefit the proliferation and understanding of literature if the literary work were to be separated from the paper and transferred to a much more promising format, i.e. electronic projection. The various “isms” of the avant-garde, which preceded the spread of IT, did not contrast printed and digital content production. On the contrary, they explicitly viewed the incipient electronic writing culture as the literary expression of the future. “The form in which glogoism is presented to the masses is the electric poem. Just as technology has provided new means of communication for music through the radio, it has also created the new means of communication for poetry: the neon placard. Glogoism is the new mass art, the special art form of the future. Its technique is the electric neon placard.”^^8^^

While avoiding the pitfall ofanachronistic oversimplifications, one could think here on the electric displays that surround and dominate our present-day environment, such as digital display boards and neon signs, or the glass cases promoting different products, which is what Károly Tamkó Sirató calls “neon placard”. Indeed, the current debate on the subject of the e-book focuses on how the circle of the potential display surfaces could be expanded. Among the media for transmitting texts, one may consider the displays of domestic appliances, smart watches, intelligent eyeglasses, LED display boards(electronic display boards for informing passengers, and digital displays inside vehicles). Literature has left the medium of paper and is currently spreading on electronic surfaces and even in further IT domains which lie at considerable distance from the hitherto accepted fields of cultural communication. The stability of print information is substituted by computer characters and strings of symbols that flicker through the screen for mere seconds. The avant-garde reformers sought to free literature, or at least poetry, from under the dominance of the paper as a medium. Today we are confronting the fact that the paper’ssuccessor, the electronic surface, organizes a large part of literature. One of theavant-gardists’ dreams has come true.

But why should we even concern ourselves with the manifesto, labelled in its own time period as an eccentric phantasmagoria, of an almost forgotten Hungarian poet – or onewho is remembered primarily for his other accomplishments, especially his poems for children? The great Hungarian literary journals of the era, such as the Nyugat, and even the avant-garde journals run by Lajos Kassák did not greet with undivided enthusiasm the early works of Károly Tamkó Sirató. So why is it worth it torecall his ideas just now, and what is more, in the context of the e-book? In my opinion, the essential importance of the avant-garde’s legacy to the present, including the “dimensionism” and “glogoism” of Károly Tamkó Sirató, and subsequently of postmodernism’sexperiments with the forms of textual presentations, is that these works and manifestos attest to the fact that, from a literary perspective, the e-book and its morphology is not an IT, but a bibliographical development. The precursor of the e-book is neither the computer nor the application for word processing, but textuality itself, which manages to change from one millennium to the next, one century to the next, and nowadays even in each decade. The “dimensionism” of the avant-garde, the essence of which consists, according to the manifesto, in “the plus one dimension (N+1)”, foreshadows the idea of printed communication’s changeability. Hardware manufacturers and software programmers are merely the manufacturers, not the inventors of electronic literature.

Digitalized and adequately formatted texts can follow the reader along on any screen or electronic display, whether its purpose is industrial or of an advertising nature. Instead of typographical innovations, e-texts experiment with optical reordering, just as Károly Tamkó Sirató has once described it. Interestingly, he first termed the mechanical display of texts “visualism” and then, apprehensive of the visual arts connotations, he chose the term “glogoism”^^9^^ after all, in order to emphasize the linguistic character of the communication.

The visuality of the text has become an important literary and scientific question again, since the digital text is not a form of communication determined by a fixed methodology or by the possibilities of typography, but a mediatized publication, which is shifting in its character and hides within itself many forms and dimensions, each building on the other.

The avant-garde, including Tamkó Sirató’s work as a prefiguration of computer art, has come to occupy an increasingly importnt place in contemporary literary theory. “It seems that Tamkó Sirató’s dreams of the open work and of cosmic art – albeit not quite in the way he dreamt them up – have already come true. We could even include here the hologram, and the infinite variability of computerized visual creation also points in this direction” – notes Emőke G. Komoróczy in her study about the revitalization of the avant-garde at the millennial turn.^^10^^  

Looking back upon the utopias advanced by the avant-gardists, and in possession of their futuristic machines, the following question arises: does the computerized textual culture really offer any essential change in composition, the understanding of ideas, and knowledge management – as it was once imagined, at the dawn of the age of electronics? Formally, the answer is surely yes, but what about the content? Do we use these palm wide life machines, our tablets and e-books, for the purpose dreamt up by the great reformers of literature at the beginning of the century, as “devices for measuring reasons and degrees”? Lajos Kassák, the leading figure of the Hungarian avant-garde, still widely read until today, almost touches upon the subject in a manifesto published in 1926: “We do not wish for reification, but for the usefulness of things.”^^11^^ Today’s debates on the e-book move around in the same circle of ideas. Which direction should the e-book reader take? Should it turn into a computerlike tablet (“reification”), or should it remain a reading device in the Kindle category, i.e. “a useful thing” (in a philological sense)?

Hypertext preliminaries and avant-garde prefigurations

Another aspect of the relationship between the e-book and the avant-garde is highlighted by the analysis of the digital formations of textual display. The e-book confronts its reader with communication techniques different from those of the print book – that much is clear. The most striking difference lies in the burdening – or, from a different perspective, in the enrichment – of the text with links which introduce ramifications. The reader can even deviate from the thought pattern prescribed by the author. Writing is no longer bound to a single track. This is due not only to the links that lead to further elements of text – dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and related texts –, but also to the referenced videos andaudio material, infographics, and game elements. Thus, the hypertext is born: an electronic textual material which does not direct the reader along the given path, but orients her dynamically.

This is how Hungarian researcher Zoltán Szűts defines the hypertext: “The hypertext is usually established digitally and contains links, rejects linearity and ramifies itself, providing the reader with the opportunity of choice through its hyper-references and expecting interactivity in return.”^^12^^

The concept of the hypertext can also be defined in connection with its printed precursors (medial extension): “In the case of printed publications, the lines preserve and carry the contents, but do not organize them. The e-book also manages the text. This innovation carries with itself infinite resources. The chain of letters is interrupted by images, videos, and even gaming applications. The traditional bookish vision can be substituted by the content concentration, data focusing, and dynamic surface control, which helps to explore the context of the subject. Web links, cross references, pictorial, musical, and video inserts fragment the usual text blocks. The experience of research also appears alongside the mere factuality of knowledge acquisition.”^^13^^ In other words, the hypertext offers the possibility for advancing in the text in a creative way, dissolving the hierarchical content system offered by the author.

Of course, the above statements are only true on a case-by-case basis, and cannot be viewed as the general, conscious practice with hypertexts. Nonetheless, they adequately describe a general trend and a very promising innovation. Another indisputable fact is that the e-text, or the mechanism of action of the book applications, which incorporates considerably varied communicative elements, is based progressively on the triad of text, discourse, and culture,^^14^^ instead of the traditional system composed of the author, the work, and tradition. But it would be a bias in favour of the e-book if we would associate the genesis of polyphonic content representation to the development and rapid spread of IT. The hypertext had its prefigurations in the print era in the form of footnotes, quote systems, insertions, indexes, bibliographies, or, to put in succinctly, intertextual elements. A new development in this research field is that the prefigurations of hypertext culture are found increasingly often in avant-garde ideas about text management. According to co-authors David Bolter and Michael Joyce: [_ “At the same time, by disrupting the stability of the text, interactive fiction belongs in the tradition of experimental literature (if I may use this oxymoron) that has marked the twentieth century -- the era of modernism, futurism, Dada, surrealism, letterism, the nouveau roman, concrete poetry, and other movements of greater or lesser influence.” _]

They articulate their thesis in the following way: “Indeed, much important twentieth century literature may be, and has been, accused of subversion. The avant-garde movements like Dada were never so radical as they claimed to be; they were instead extensions or perhaps caricatures of the mainstream. Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Pound, Eliot, and others all participated in the breakdown of traditions of narrative prose and poetry; breaking with such traditions was the definition of being modem. Pound and Eliot set about to replace the narrative element in poetry with fragmented anecdotes or mythical paradigms. Joyce and Woolf called into question the strategy of the novel as a linear and objective narrative. They devised new ways of structuring their works based upon stream of consciousness (Woolf) or upon multiple layers of topical and mythical organization (Joyce). All of these writers were trying to set up new relationships between the moment-by-moment experience of reading a text and our perception of the organizing and controlling structures of the text. In this sense, hypertextual fiction is a natural extension of their work, redefining the tradition of modernism for a new medium.”^^15^^

Bolter hereinafter referred more specifically expresses the relationship between avant-garde and hypertext: “The electronic literary form constitute perhaps the most important and visible avant-garde in our contemporary, and otherwise conservative, literary culture.”^16^

The avant-garde has even gone beyond hypertext-based content control, just as the neo-avant-garde did after more than half a century after. This is how Bálint Szombathy characterizes the process: “The re-evaluation process of book culture has begun in the first decade of the 20th century in Russia. Discussing the pictorial character of words, the Russians invoked the example of old manuscript volumes, in which verbal signs acquired an ideogrammatical function through their materiality, as well by way of their formal and chromatic characteristics. Asthe Buryuk brothers stressed it in 1914, ‘… we need to give the word its third dimension and make it into a statue’. In 1910, Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov and his colleagues have already elaborated the theory of ‘alogical language’, a language devoid of sentimental and denotative features, and only equipped with visual and phoniccharacteristics. With the decomposition of words into their elements, i.e. letters, and the concretist application of the visuality of letters, syllables, and words, the representatives of the Russian avant-garde have set out to develope a technique of ‘dazzlement’, that would transform, through the direct visual and acoustic force of words, the usual into something exceptional and the real into the poetically surreal. Lissitzky calls attention to the fact that, while Gutenberg’s Bible has been printed exclusively with words, it will not be possible to prepare the Bible of the new age with the same methods. The book of the future will be based on the dual expansion of the letter: on its sounds, which manifest themselves in the chronological function, and on its form, which become apparent in the spatial function. Thus, it will be both simultaneously, transcending the automatism of the Gutenbergian book ideal.”^^17^^

If we were to define the concept of the e-book, or even the essence of the book application, we could not come up even today with a better definition than Lissitzky’s book utopia. The formal instrumental system of the e-book is based on nothing else than the double extension of letters: sound (i.e. mechanical means of reading aloud), respectively letters, which change in the spatial function, according to the character size and form specified by the reader. In the case of the e-book, letters do not exclusively exist in two dimensions, but extend to the pictorial and acoustic dimension. With computerized book publishing, the textual horizon even extends to elements unknown in the age of the avant-garde, such as animations, dynamic figures, interactive visual games, thereby making the presence of the text ever more spectacular. It is important to note that all these components do not undermine the foundations of book culture, but necessarily alter them – and it may well be that according to the original purposes of the avant-garde.

Andrew Piper, professor of German and European literature at the University of Chicago, has published his essay on the parallels between the e-book and printed content with the title Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times.^^18^^ He discusses the print book not as an antiquity destined for the museum, but emphasizes the point that the history of books shows us many parallels to our present-day medium change and to the problems of digital transformation. We do not need to venture anywhere else in order to understand electronic reading than to the turning-points in the history of printed books. What is happening right now with books, in our age of digitalization, seems to have happened before in the history of the written word. We only need to look for these events in the periods of change in the way in which writing presents itself. Thus, I believe that the study of the avant-garde’s book experiments may help us to better understand innovations in form and content of the e-book.

Further reading:

Dragon, Zoltán (2014).“Az írás algoritmikus foka”. Irodalomismeret, No. 1. p. 64-72.

Gács, Anna (2006). Hipertext, hipermédia. In: Szabadbölcsészet. ELTE Művészetelméleti és Médiakutatási Intézet. http://mmi.elte.hu/szabadbolcseszet/index.php?option=com_tananyag&task=showElements&id_tananyag=39

Kerekes, Pál (2015). “Jersze elektronikusan is: könyvtendenciák, e-book dimenziók.” Korunk, Vol. 26, No. 1. pp. 98-106.

Kerekes, Pál – Kiszl, Péter (2014).“E-book krónika: fejezetek az elektronikus könyv történetéből.”Korunk, Vol. 26, No. 10. 15-26. old.

Kerekes, Pál – Kiszl, Péter – Takács, Dániel (2013). E-könyvészet. A digitális könyvkultúra alapvonásai. Budapest, ELTE BTK Könyvtár- és Információtudományi Intézet. p.310.

Kulcsár Szabó, Ernő (2000). A „befejezett” műalkotás – a befogadás illuziója és az olvasás retorikája között. In: Irodalom és hermeneutika. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest. pp.224-233.

Kulcsár Szabó, Ernő (2004). Az elidegenített nyelv beszéde. Az avantgarde hagyomány kérdéséhez In: Szöveg – médialitás – filológia. Költészettörténet és kulturalitás a modernségben. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest. pp.179-196.

Kulcsár-Szabó, Zoltán (2008).“Filológia az irodalom előtt? ” Irodalomtörténet, Vol.39. (89.), No. 3. pp. 323-346.

Papp, Tibor (2004). Avantgárd szemmel költészetről, irodalomról. Magyar Műhely, Budapest.

Papp, Tibor (2008). Avantgárd szemmel az irodalmi világról. Magyar Műhely, Budapest.

Sz. Molnár, Szilvia (2001).“Vizuális költészet vagy képvers?” Iskolakultúra, Vol. 11, No. 10. pp. 26-38.

Szűts, Zoltán (2015). Szellem a gépben. Hálózati irodalomtudomány. Kossuth Kiadó, Budapest.

1 Imre, Kner (1972). A könyv művészete. Szépirodalmi Kiadó, Budapest. p. 154.

2 Fitz, József (1940). Gutenberg. Hungária, Budapest. p. 92.

3 Kulcsár-Szabó, Zoltán (2006). “Író gépek”. Irodalomtörténet, Vol. 37, No. 2. pp. 143-161.

4 Jarvis, Jeff (2012). Gutenberg the Geek. History’s First Technology Entrepreneur and Silicon Valley’s Patron Saint. Kindle Editions.

5 Tamkó Sirató, Károly (1969). A Vízöntő-kor hajnalán. Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, Budapest, 1969. pp. 209-211.

6 Ibid. p. 205.

7For such details, see Petőcz, András (2010). Dimenzionista művészet. Tamkó Sirató Károly költészeti törekvései a két világháború között, illetve annak hazai és nemzetközi megfelelői. Magyar Műhely Kiadó, Budapest.

8Tamkó Sirató, Károly (1993). A glogoizmus. In: Tamkó Sirató Károly összegyűjtött versei I. Alfa, Budapest. pp. 96-97.

9Károly Tamkó Sirató on his choice of terms: “I did not consider the term ‘visualism’ sufficiently categorical and expressive. I also did not want to use ‘planar poetry’ because of the synonymy of ‘plain’ and ‘trite’ in Hungarian. I wanted an altogether eccentric name for my new movement. This was a period in which I studied Slavic philology a lot. ‘To talk’ is ‘glogao’ in Old Slavonic. And my new poems are also new modes of expression. It is a new language I have compe up with. I cannot put my finger on it today why, but I have termed my new movement ‘glogoism’, from ‘glogao’, which is ‘to talk’. It also sounded eccentrically enough.”

10G. Komoróczy, Emőke (2012). Az avantgárd ezredvégi kivirágzása: expanzió. http://mek.oszk.hu/10300/10390/#

11 Kassák Lajos (1926).Az új művészet él. Korunk, Kolozsvár – Cluj. p. 18.

12Szűts Zoltán (2013).A világháló metaforái. Bevezetés az új média művészetébe. Osiris,Budapest. p.66.

13 Kerekes Pál (2015). “Jersze elektronikusan is: könyvtendenciák, e-book dimenziók.”Korunk, Vol. 26, No. 1. pp. 98-106.

14 Kulcsár-Szabó Zoltán (1995).“Intertextualitás: létmód vagy funkció?” It, Vol. 26, (76), No. 4. pp. 495-541.

15Bolter, David – Joyce, Michael (1987). Hypertext and Creative Writing. In: HYPERTEXT ’87. Proceedings of the ACM conference on Hypertext. pp. 41-50. http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=317431

16 Bolter, David: Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Routledge, New York – London, 2010. 122 p.


17Szombathy Bálint (2005).A konkrét költészet útjai. Artpool, 2005.http://www.artpool.hu/Poetry/konkret/vizualis.html#0

18Piper, Andrew (2013).Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times. University of Chicago Press. p. 208.

From the Gutenberg Galaxy to the Googletenberg Universe

We do not need to venture anywhere else in order to understand electronic reading than to the turning-points in the history of printed books. What is happening right now with books, in our age of digitalization, seems to have happened before in the history of the written word. We only need to look for these events in the periods of change in the way in which writing presents itself. As can be seen, through centuries, the role of Johannes Gutenberg was seen in one way in the first centuries of the print book, then in another way in the historical period of the mass-produced book, and yet differently today, in the virtual reality of the e-book, in a global system in which the invention of printing is not practically defining anymore – in any formal sense – for the book, since the product is not physically manufactured anymore. As an outstanding personality of book culture and the history of the written word, Gutenberg is also ineludible in the cultural and technical context of the e-book. It is understandable, however, that, from an e-book perspective, he is not primarily interesting as an inventor in the technical sense, but as an innovator, or as an influential personality who was able to produce major changes in a traditional system which has been in existence for centuries and even millennia.

  • Author: Pál Kerekes
  • Published: 2016-03-14 00:40:06
  • Words: 4338
From the Gutenberg Galaxy to the Googletenberg Universe From the Gutenberg Galaxy to the Googletenberg Universe