The Printed Word Was Almost Never Subversive

I decided to write this post after reading a few recent articles and blog comments that went something like-

The ongoing diminution in the importance of physical libraries and paper books is a great loss to ‘civilization, since only printed books can impart ‘true’ knowledge and encourage ‘critical’ thinking.

The implication of such views is that information and viewpoints transmitted (or accessed) via the internet are somehow less trustworthy and more superficial than those found in ‘real’ books. While it is possible to partially sympathize with people suffering from nostalgia, these beliefs need to be challenged and exposed for the lies they really are. So let us begin.. One of the popular myths among people from an older generation is that the printed word encouraged critical thinking since it was more subversive than what is readily available on the internet. But is it true? I think not! If anything..

The printed word was almost never subversive.

All written content, and ideas, start with an author who decides to write them up. However his work is also almost certain be ignored and forgotten if others cannot access it. In the pre-internet age, you had only one avenue to get your works read by more than a few other people.

Your work had to be accepted, printed and distributed by people who owned printing presses and the channels of book distribution.

This was necessary because physically printing a large number of books, magazines or even booklets required a costly and specific infrastructure dedicated to the production and distribution of printed materiel. Since the vast majority of authors did not own the means of content reproduction and content distribution, they were pretty much at the mercy of those who owned or were employed by such entities. This particular relationship had an obvious, though rarely discussed, effect on the type of material that was eventually published.

Authors had poor control over what they could write about- if they ever wanted to be published.

There were only so many publishers (big and small) and word of mouth advertising did not help independents like it does in our connected era. Furthermore, repeated letters of rejection from publishing houses did help you pay bills or buy food. Therefore it goes without saying that most writers who have been ever published, let alone promoted, dis so because they wrote about subjects or ideas that were acceptable to those who owned the means of book production and distribution.

While a few iconoclasts and subversives did get published- it was usually due to their wealth or previous fame. Infrequently such work was also published because it supported not yet mainstream but ascendent ideological causes. However the vast majority of people with disruptive or heretical ideas that challenged the status quo never got an audience larger than a few local readers who read their pamphlets. The reality is that most published authors throughout human history have been butt-boys for the established rich and powerful or a rival ascendant faction.

Famous authors and renowned scholars from previous eras were, therefore, the intellectual equivalents of ugly and desperate prostitutes who had to work extra hard for pleasing their clients.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. JamesFun
    July 7, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    On the internet we can as of 2012 (at least in most countries) find and read information about a variety of topics that the majority of people over all the previous years of human history never could have even had access to just through speaking or books. As was mentioned here with books, the same goes for radio and tv, where those who owned the media decided what was put out into the mainstream, and thus they were able to form the thoughts and thus the perception of reality that the masses of people had. It would have been interesting to hear what other people had to say over the years about religions, governments, their societies, and such years ago. With the internet people in open countries can now decide what they want to read or view on the internet. I have learned very much on the internet that I would not have learned through books only. Authors can blog uncensored (in many countries) whatever they want to write about. It is possible on the internet to find information that is “as deep or deeper than most books/more authentic/and even against the status quo.” We’ve all probably read articles (and even just comments) about governments/religions/etc on the internet that in previous eras would have gotten people thrown in jail. There is a lot more information on the internet, plus better porn too.

  2. July 7, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    This is excellent. After Gutenberg there was a time when books were like the internet. Access to printers were not denied to subversive views, because they sold, but this only lasted maybe 100 or more years before the gatekeepers started eking in. Printed books hold a heritage but they are not what they were for Luther or even Milton in their own days.

    • hans
      July 8, 2012 at 2:23 am

      The printing press WAS revolutionary, compared to the then standard way of having a couple of monks slave at “painting” copy after copy of a book. Especially regarding the bible translations from latin.
      People could finally read the actual thing and point out the naked greed in the religious establishment. Like today they aren´t.

      Also the article´s point is generalized too broadly. There very well were small print shops dedicated to the subversive. But yeah, the elites and their minions have tirelessly worked on squashing it.
      Just like they are doing with the internet. Another runaway tool that was supposed to paralyze us with information (& misinformation) overload. But somehow didn´t work like it´s supposed to.

  3. jackal
    July 8, 2012 at 7:00 am

    The gate-keeper tyranny remains alive and well, as ever. I’ve been banned by scores of dictatorial moderators, such as at the Huffington Post, where comments are routinely deleted when they don’t tow the PC line. Outfits like Disqus, for example, allow web sites to delete my comments. IOW, if some moderator does not like what I have to say, via posting from Disqus, s/he can not only delete my comments on his or her page but, also, delete these same comments at Disqus, too. This is a huge violator of First Amendment rights, something that needs addressing at SCOTUS. Just when the Internet has made it possible for free speech to rise from the ashes, along comes subversive assholes — who need to be exterminated from the Internet. Our founding fathers may have given us free speech, however, no one’s had it unless he’s owned a newspaper or magazine. When a narrow circle of people have control over what gets published, the purpose is always to manipulate public opinion to either further their own agenda or silence opposition.

  4. July 8, 2012 at 7:50 am

    The internet is even more subversive than the printing press.

  5. JamesFun
    July 8, 2012 at 8:23 am

    Jackal is right that there is still many sites such as, major news sites and a bunch of regular blogs, that will either not post some comments or quickly delete some comments if the site/blog moderator does not like the comment. Some blogs don’t even allow comments on their blog (they uncheck that feature) when the blogger is just writing his thoughts and that’s fine. However, it’s odd when there is a blog that gets a ton of comments and we type a comment and then the blogger decides not to post the comment because he doesn’t like it for whatever reason or he sees it and deletes it, and this does happen often on many blogs. If bloggers on blogs ever do not post a comment (that was just intended as a respectful part of the online conversation or just intended to expand on the topic or just some thoughts about the topic) or deletes a comment, then I do not ever go back to their blog as it shows the bloggers mindset of not being open minded enough to “allow” for open communication. People can start their own blog and allow comments and blog about whatever topic they want.

    • jackal
      July 8, 2012 at 9:37 am

      Like you, I avoid censored sites, too, but not because they don’t like my comments, but rather because, if they’re censoring my comments, then they’re also censoring yours. With such an insane stacked scheme, there’s no way to gauge true public opinion, perhaps explaining why the masses no longer rely on common sense but, instead, on dumbed-down acculturation infesting every facet of society. I’m constantly looking for raw truth, not fairy-tale myth concocted by assholes. You have protection based on race, gender, religion and age but where the hell is your free-speech protection? Where’s the ACLU? Or would raw free-speech threaten the foundation of every person and institution behind PC? For example, SCOTUS recently ruled that lying about military service is protected by the First Amendment. That’s one small step by one small foot, but bigger feet are needed to squash and exterminate all the assholes who always champion their own civil rights but never yours!!!

  6. InT
    July 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    The maintenance of digital information requires a large, stable electrical infrastructure. CDs, Hard drives, and other digital storage media have proven to be pretty poor when it comes to longevity. Hopefully we can move away from centralized electricity generation and/or make media more robust, but until then, I’ll wager that printed works are far more able to withstand the test of time.

  7. jhbowden
    July 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Famous authors and renowned scholars from previous eras were, therefore, the intellectual equivalents of ugly and desperate prostitutes who had to work extra hard for pleasing their clients.

    What do you think? Comments?This old, cheesy, and still popular idea has its source in Marx, who believed the cultural “superstructure” of a society reflects the power relations expressed in its economic “base,” that is, its mode of production. Those who benefit from such relations supposedly create self-serving ideologies that brainwash those without power.

    But even Marx had enough historical imagination to know that commerce in history almost never coincides with power; the ancient world was powered by conquest and slavery; the medieval world was powered by agriculture through landed serfs. Merchants generally were regarded as scum and treated as such. Religious authorities often wielded power through huge landed estates and could make life difficult for dissenting ideas well into the modern period. David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, for example, was a defense of a secular worldview; yet he had to defend it subtly as an “attempt to introduce the experimental method into moral subjects,” since attacking Christianity directly in print could get a man hanged. And this during the Age of Enlightenment!

    There is truth in the idea that almost all culture, and scientific achievement for that matter, comes from the restless, curious, commercial classes, those who have some advantages but not all. Slaves, peasants, and proles don’t give a damn about anything more than sleeping, eating, and fucking, and never will. The established rich busy themselves jockeying for prestige by fighting for great causes. There are a few exceptions — Lord Byron, Goethe, Bertrand Russell — but they are so few they prove the rule.

    • hoipolloi
      July 8, 2012 at 5:42 pm

      “There is truth in the idea that almost all culture, and scientific achievement for that matter, comes from the restless, curious, commercial classes, those who have some advantages but not all.”

      I read somewhere that many advances in the internet are spearheaded by porn industry.

      • P Ray
        July 13, 2012 at 10:10 am

        The porn industry wants to give people what they want discreetly.
        Until romance novels become taboo, I see what they are doing as liberating to men.
        Simply because the biggest reason why women oppose porn is that it allows many men to accurately gauge that “the fucking you get is not worth the fucking you get”, for many women.
        And keeps their standards high for the kind of looks they are after.

  8. Mr deadly
    July 8, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    I have disagree.

    Book are far more (and continue to be) subversive than blogs and internet articles.

    The reason being because:

    1. Books are backed up with sources – How many casual blog posts have sources at the end to check? Books provide stronger rhetorical arguments than blogs, which cheapen and dilute the facts.

    2. Books cost money – Blog posts and internet articles are free. Most books are not. Things that cost money are perceived as more valuable than than things that don’t.

    It’s easier to be a crappy blogger than as a crappy author.

    It’s called credibility. You need a credible argument to influence people or to sell your ideas.

  9. P Ray
    April 17, 2017 at 1:20 am

    To further press home the point:

    … in America most of us – not readers alone but even writers – are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues. To be not only a best seller in America but to be really beloved, a novelist must assert that all American men are tall, handsome, rich, honest, and powerful at golf; that all country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day save go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers; and that, geographically, America is composed solely of New York, which is inhabited entirely by millionaires; of the West, which keeps unchanged all the boisterous heroism of 1870; and of the South, where everyone lives on a plantation perpetually glossy with moonlight and scented with magnolias.

    Source: Lewis, Sinclair. 1930. The American Fear of Literature. Nobel Lectures, Literature

    LOL.. very accurate description of the american self-delusion.

  1. July 7, 2012 at 8:20 pm

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