Get to Know: The Gutenberg Parenthesis

Have you ever thought about the digital world we live in? What are we like today in comparison to others who have come before us? We almost seem like a different


species of humans compared to, say, Ancient Phoenicians from the Mediterranean. When we think about our people–who text on smartphones,  binge on Netflix,  post on Instagram, and watch YouTube–there may seem to be little or no resemblance to the lives of our forefathers.

However, Professor Thomas Pettitt¹, from the Southern University of Denmark, suggests otherwise in his theory The Gutenberg Parenthesis, published around 2010. In a nutshell, Pettitt’s theory acts as a literal parenthesis around the print era of media, which is proceeded by an oral period, and followed by the digital form (picture Ancient Greece, the Printing Press in parenthesis,  then the present). In other words, Pettitt says that the way media lives in the present is just a continuation of how it behaved in ancient times. Like a parenthesis placed in the middle of a sentence, media characteristics during printing times is an exception, a side comment, rather than a continuation of an ancient conversation.

For example, media today comes in the form of memes, photoshop collages, music remixes, and works which are borrowed and modified to create new content. It is an era of recontextualizing and reshaping others ideas, like the picture above featuring today’s common “mug shot”  digitally borrowing Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  The user who uploaded the image commented: “I love this pin because it seems so simple, but when you look in the cup, it’s very complex. I think this is something I’d like to try in photoshop with a simple image because it really brings the photo to life.”

Google Images

Likewise, the stories of ancient cultures were created as a compilation of a series of experiences. They had an oral tradition where stories were sung, acted, and told–but never written. The classical epics we recognize today, like Homer’s infamous works, were verbally passed on through many people. Even with good memorizing strategies like poetic meter, stories were something borrowed and something slightly changed–they were edited!

But in between the two, the period of print communication behaved differently. It was individual–written once and copied exactly over and over. Books were a solid and stable form of media that presented the same message every time. The conversation was no longer about performance and spontaneity, but concerned canonical composition. If Pettitt’s model continues, we may see yet another “parenthesis” of communication in our future. What will follow the digital era?

           – S. W. L. 

¹view Dr. Thomas Pettitt’s school profile here.


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