Kenny Goldsmith writes that
but really, writing “met its photography” 500 years ago; it was called print. Virtually everything that photography did to painting – to the entire field of visual culture – print did to writing. After print, writing was reproducible, mechanized, lost/regained its aura, chirographic/manuscript writing was displaced as a storage and reproduction technology*, etc….
(*partially at first, more completely after the emergence of the typewriter, but of course manuscript never goes away, as any trip to a doctor’s office will show you)
So it would in fact be fairer to say not that “writing met its photography” with any technology, but rather that in photography, painting met its print.
Now, I love that Goldsmith tees up Peter Bürger on this score, because I would like to do the same. This is Goldsmith quoting Bürger:
In 1974, Peter Bürger was still able to make the claim that “[B]ecause the advent of photography makes possible the precise mechanical reproduction of reality, the mimetic function of the fine arts withers. But the limits of this explanatory model become clear when one calls to mind that it cannot be transferred to literature. For in literature, there is no technical innovation that could have produced an effect comparable to that of photography in the fine arts.” Now there is.
Absolutely. But — again — two things. First, and this may be obvious, but print DID produce an effect on literature and literary production comparable to that of photography in the fine arts. The relevant books here are Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and hundreds if not thousands of others. I hope this doesn’t need to be shown.
But neither Bürger nor Goldsmith are really interested (alas!) in the late Renaissance. They’re primarily interested in the emergence of the avant-garde in the twentieth. Photography spun off Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Abstract Expressonism, Pop Art — where did avant-garde writing come from? Obviously writers were reacting to photography and film, too, but it didn’t affect them (so the argument goes) in the direct way it did visual artists. So whence the avant-garde? For Bürger and Goldsmith both, there is no explanation – for Goldsmith, this means (in part) that the real avant-garde, the final clearing away of all the traditionalist residue in literature, can finally begin.
I want to offer an alternate solution by pointing to the following: the newspaper, wood-pulp paper, the fast/continuous press, the telegraph, the typewriter, carbon paper, half-tone photographic reproductions, lithography and offset printing, the mimeograph, the file cabinet.
For Bürger and Goldsmith, having traversed this history, all of these writing technologies seem totally natural. But they are not. This was an honest-to-goodness information revolution, which — we ought not to be surprised by this — coincides with both the industrial revolution and the broader media revolution that includes photography and cinema. (I’m not proposing anything radically new here either – see Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Bernhard Siegert’s Relays, Avital Ronell’s The Telephone, and especially Harold Innis’s Empire and Communications, Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” among many others.)
The important point is that the Dada cut-up, Pound’s and Eliot’s use of fragments/quotations, Joyce’s and Apollinaire’s riffing with typography, Mallarmé’s reimagining of the book, and Kerouac’s continuous scroll don’t come out of nowhere. Nor are they somehow just rehashings of the Gutenberg moment, no matter what Hugh Kenner says in The Stoic Comedians — not least because he argues against himself in The Mechanic Muse.
We can have a new avant-garde without pretending that the old one happened for no reason, or that it never happened at all.
(I’m not nearly done yet! Part 3 is coming! I’ll actually talk about “content distribution”! Dematerialization! Video games! Waaahhh!)