*Print Culture

With the spread of printing and literacy, particularly after the great innovations in practical technology in the later part of the 19th century, a widespread anxiety about one's origins and connections to history became prevalent. Textbook histories were only devoted to those historical individuals and ideologies which supported the present political environment. Living memory for the masses had become demeaned as inaccurate, and 'untruthful.' As a sentimental nostalgia by the general public for the past increased, they realized that their previously conceived notions of connection to a well spring of meaning were quickly evaporating. That which was unique or outstanding in a life was forever lost. Having some physical object such as the printed word, which existed outside of memory and time like an elaborate gravestone, became a popular pursuit.

For those who lacked strong social connections to the kinds of political and economic power that would get their names into the history books, vanity biographies became popular in America. For a small fee to a traveling book salesman, one could have a biography which included 'important' genealogical details about the family (connecting them to significant historical events) printed in a book of local history to demonstrate their importance and continuity to the story of the community and the myth of the country at large. Such an individualized biographical and book publishing industry reached its peak in the 1890's when the newly literate masses recognized the power of the printed word to establish one's point of reference within the society as well as its meaning outside of the boundaries of living time.

Elaborate commemorative ceremonies, such as funerals were also held by rich and poor alike. The landscape of the nineteenth century cemetery became arrayed with a hodge podge of symbols of implied significance and importance in the form of grandiose family crypts, large tombstones and ornate funeral statuary. In a similar vein, large wedding anniversaries for almost anyone passing an arbitrary yearly mark were celebrated by large gatherings of family and friends and were written up in the local newspapers as significant and note worthy news for the community at large. Often, the new technology of photography was used to create a memento of the event: the various family members would be positioned strategically around the honored couple according to their rank and power within the family. Tentatively assured of their semiotic reference point within the family continuum and the source of their power, they would frown out into the camera in grim seriousness. This was important business -- they were quite aware that the technology of the photographic process would permanently fix the shadows of their visage amid a space and time that was indicative of their inheritance and immortality.

Memory itself had also become exteriorized during the 19th century and became attached to the politics of place. With the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, it was believed by the scientific minds of the day, that memory was inheritable. This organic memory model was initially accepted by many thinkers of the time. Though it was eventually ridiculed and appeared in its degenerated form in the 20th century to provide a 'scientific' excuse for 'ethnic cleansing' and genocide [1].

The quest for poetic meaning and truth by the turn of the century, inspired several artists to reject the commemorative culture of print and tombstones all together:

Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!... Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discolored and shredded!... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers, and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly! F. T. Marinetti, 'The Founding Manifesto of Futurism,' 1909 [2]

This nihilistic posturing would be repeated like an echo throughout the century. Collage became the most important technological invention and organizing structure. Poetry was first reduced to an onomatopoetic shout by the Italian Futurists, and quickly refined to primeval shamanistic utterances of zaum with the Russian Futurists and the Verse ohne Worte or Lautgedichte phonetic poetry of Dada. Chordal structures of harmony were extended beyond their breaking points by late 19th and early 20th century music composers. Sound culture began its existence in this century as a rebellious subculture to the literate, established, music culture at large and in particular it was a reaction against those music systems that had refined sound beyond the point of eliciting emotion. Noise became a viable artistic source. The boundaries started to dissolve between the various artistic disciplines, and an artistic quest for synesthesia was widely pursued. These pursuits and posturing, would presage and be reiterated on a different level when print culture was replaced by video culture.

References and Notes:

1. Laura Otis, Organic Memory: History & the Body in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).

2. F. T. Marinetti, Let's Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings, translated by R. W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Classics, 1991), p. 51.


Last Modified 23 January 1998