There is a longstanding confusion of Johann Fust, Gutenberg's
one-time business partner, with the notorious Doctor Faustus. The
association is not surprising to Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, for from
its very early days the printing press was viewed by some as black
magic. For the most part, however, it was welcomed as a "divine
art" by Western churchmen and statesmen. Sixteenth-century
Lutherans hailed it for emancipating Germans from papal rule, and
seventeenth-century English radicals viewed it as a weapon against
bishops and kings. While an early colonial governor of Virginia
thanked God for the absence of printing in his colony, a century
later, revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic paid tribute
to Gutenberg for setting in motion an irreversible movement that
undermined the rule of priests and kings. Yet scholars continued to
praise printing as a peaceful art. They celebrated the advancement
of learning while expressing concern about information
In Divine Art, Infernal Machine, Eisenstein, author of the
hugely influential The Printing Press as an Agent of
Change, has written a magisterial and highly readable account
of five centuries of ambivalent attitudes toward printing and
printers. Once again, she makes a compelling case for the ways in
which technological developments and cultural shifts are intimately
related. Always keeping an eye on the present, she recalls how, in
the nineteenth century, the steam press was seen both as a giant
engine of progress and as signaling the end of a golden age.
Predictions that the newspaper would supersede the book proved to
be false, and Eisenstein is equally skeptical of pronouncements of
the supersession of print by the digital.
The use of print has always entailed ambivalence about serving the
muses as opposed to profiting from the marketing of commodities.
Somewhat newer is the tension between the perceived need to
preserve an ever-increasing mass of texts against the very real
space and resource constraints of bricks-and-mortar libraries.
Whatever the multimedia future may hold, Eisenstein notes, our
attitudes toward print will never be monolithic. For now, however,
reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.
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