© Elizabeth Eisenstein and Figure/Ground Communication.
Dr. Eisenstein was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on October 12th, 2010.
Elizabeth Eisenstein is an American historian of the French Revolution and early 19th century France. She is well-known for her work on the history of early printing, writing on the transition in media between the era of manuscript culture and that of print culture, as well as the role of the printing press in effecting broad cultural change in Western civilization. Eisenstein was educated at Vassar College where she received her B.A., then went on to Radcliffe College for her M.A. and Ph.D, where she studied under Crane Brinton. She taught at American University from 1959 to 1974, then the University of Michigan, where she was the Alice Freeman Palmer Professor of History. In 1979 she was resident consultant for the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. She has held positions as a fellow at the Humanities Research Center of the Australian National University and at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Palo Alto). Eisenstein was also a visiting professor at Wolfson College, Oxford, and published her lectures from that period as Grub Street Abroad: the Lyell Lectures sponsored by the Bodleian Library and published by Oxford. Her masterpiece is The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, a two-volume, 750-page exploration of the effects of movable type printing on the literate elite of post-Gutenberg Western Europe. In this work she focuses on the printing press’s functions of dissemination, standardization, and preservation and the way these functions aided the progress of the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
As an undergraduate at Vassar, I switched my major from theatre arts to history partly because I was inspired by the excellent history teachers I had. They encouraged me to pursue graduate work at Harvard. Once I got started, I never considered pursuing a different career but, as was true of many other women, I found it very difficult to obtain any kind of teaching job during the 1950s. As a faculty wife at the University of Wisconsin and again at Penn State, I was told there were nepotism rules that barred my employment. After we moved to Washington D.C. in 1957, none of the local universities responded favorably to the resumes I sent, although by then I had my PhD and had published a Harvard Historical Monograph. I was pleased to obtain a part-time job at The American University as an “adjunct lecturer” teaching a captive audience of some 120 students in “Western Civilization” – at the time a required course. Later A.U. gave me a better tenure track appointment, but the department had a heavier teaching load than I could handle with three growing children. Insofar as making a “conscious choice” was entailed, it concerned how I could take advantage of Michigan’s offer of the Alice Freeman Palmer professorship while not abandoning my family in D.C where my husband chaired the Physics department at G.W. University. We worked out a commuting routine between D.C. and Ann Arbor that I followed from 1975 to 1988 when I retired.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student? As a teacher, how did you manage to command attention in the classroom in an “age of information” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
Both questions are predicated on my being younger than I am! When I retired in 1988 computers were just beginning to appear in faculty offices. I myself relied on our excellent staff and didn’t learn to use a word processor until after retiring. The one major change affecting professors during my years on a university faculty was, of course, the growing acceptance of women which went together with an increased interest in gender studies and in the history of women.
Recently, I’ve also observed other changes in what was the standard history curriculum in my student days – perhaps less related to new media than to political and demographic developments. The fields of African, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies have expanded while those related to European history have shrunk. At the same time “grand narratives” relating to “Western Civilization” are out of fashion even while “global history” is attracting more adherents. That I’m unrepentantly Eurocentric – see my interview with the editors of Agent of Change Print Culture Studies after ELE. (U. Mass. 2007) – may be partly attributed to my being over 80 years old.
Perhaps the new vogue for global history may be related to world-wide-webs and McLuhan’s “global village,” but it’s also related to the decline of the European powers and the rise of Asian ones. Before assigning too much weight to new media, it’s worth paying more attention to the coexistence of many diverse media – universities in particular exist in a multi media environment.
What makes a good teacher today? What advice would you give to young and aspiring university professors?
Good teachers love what they teach and are eager to share that with their students. There’s no one style that would fit all. My only advice would be to enjoy what you’re doing or find a different occupation.
Your best-known work is The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, a two-volume, 750-page exploration of the effects of movable type printing on the literate elite of post-Gutenberg Western Europe. It is said that your work brought historical method, rigor, and clarity to the ideas that Marshall McLuhan introduced in the Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). Do you feel indebted to McLuhan?
I am ambivalent about McLuhan. I feel indebted to him for introducing me to a dimension of historical change that I had not considered and that none of my teachers at Vassar or Harvard had brought to my attention. I am also dismayed by his nonchalant handling of historical material and found it annoying to be labeled a “McLuhanatic.”
What are some of the shortcomings of McLuhan’s approach to the study of typography, and how is your own approach different from his?
I’ve already expressed my views on this subject in The Printing Press as Agent of Change (pp. 129; 151). In general, McLuhan considers diverse media without much concern for their historical contexts. “Typographic Man” is a scissors and paste construct and has little to do with the behavior of real human beings. The closest thing to a real “typographic man” would be the early master printer, a versatile entrepreneur who bears little resemblance to McLuhan’s one-dimensional figure. I am less interested in “understanding media” than in trying to understand how the use of a particular new medium interacted with diverse forms of historical change.
In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, you speak of an “Unacknowledged Revolution.” What were some of the characteristics and consequences of this revolution?
In an article in the American Historical Review, I suggested that the term “unacknowledged” may no longer be relevant. Since my big book was first published in 1979, the field of book history has matured and the advent of new media has aroused new interest in old media. The historical significance of the introduction of printing in the West is now giving rise to much dispute – too much to still be described as “unacknowledged.”
With reference to the printing “revolution” I have in mind both the short term and long term meanings of the word. The spread of new workshops throughout Western Europe occurred in so many places in such a short time that it has to be classified as revolutionary change. That the printer could turn out in one day what took many scribes whole years provoked much comment. At the same time this represented only the beginning of a “long revolution” in the production of printed materials. The increase in output in the age of the wooden hand press was sufficiently remarkable that problems of overload seemed overwhelming to librarians and scholars in the seventeenth century (see Ann M. Blair’s Too Much to Know). Increased output speeded up after iron and steam replaced wooden hand presses, accelerated again after photographic processes replaced iron and steam, and is now still speeding up with availability of personal computers and commercial photo copiers. Your question #3 points to information overflow as a byproduct of new electronic media. But whereas our computers are equipped with delete buttons, there’s no easy way of cancelling the never ending output of printed materials.
According to McLuhan, the invention of movable type greatly accelerated, intensified, and ultimately enabled cultural and cognitive changes that had already been taking place since the invention and implementation of the alphabet. Print culture, ushered in by the Gutenberg press in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought about the cultural predominance of the visual over the aural/oral. If this were true, however, how do we explain the fact that public oratory was perfected during the French and American Revolutions by people like Robespierre and others, precisely at a time when the effects of the press were already quite visible?
Wasn’t it Walter Ong rather more than McLuhan who argued that print is biased in favor of the visual over the aural-oral? There’s an intriguing counter suggestion by Lawrence Stone that print encouraged a movement from image culture to word culture. That both positions can be defended and that neither tells the whole story indicates the complexity of changes introduced by print.
I question the comment that public oratory was “perfected” by participants in the Atlantic Revolutions. No doubt elocution was valued and taught in the schools but oratory had been “perfected” much earlier. Together with “eloquence,” oratory was actually devalued by many eighteenth commentators, most notably by Condorcet, who thought that putting arguments in print encouraged a calm and rational appraisal of issues that had previously been inflamed by rabble rousing demagogues. With regard to Robespierre et al, I am less interested in the so-called “Orators of the Revolution” (see Alphonse Aulard’s classic study) than in the less traditional influence exerted via print by numerous revolutionary leaders who were deficient in the speech arts. Camille Desmoulins and Jacques Pierre Brissot are only two of the so-called tribunes of the People who achieved political prominence almost entirely by means of their journals. Volney was an incendiary journalist but was said to “whisper like a woman” and was called a “mute orator” by a colleague.
What do you make of this social media environment we live in? Are we raising a generation of narcissists and exhibitionists that only care about shameless self-promotion?
Self-promotion, shameless or not, has been a characteristic of Western culture at least since the days of Abelard. It became more prominent in the age of Aretino. Once it became possible to take advantage of printed publicity, the drive for fame went into high gear and has never abated. Young people today seem to me to exhibit a vast diversity of traits and are probably no less idealistic and self-centered than was true in the past.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished a book entitled Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of print in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending. It should be published before the end of this year by Penn Press.
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