Mass literacy or death to Gutenberg?

8 posts


Somewhat inspired by recent topics of conversation here, I thought I would pose the question of the benefits, if any, of mass literacy. Has this had a positive influence on societal and cultural development in Europe and its (former) colonies?

To go with this, I offer an anecdote regarding the late Telos editor, Paul Piccone, taken from Paul Gottfried’s memoirs, Encounters:

So, do you wish that Gutenberg had died early or are you “a damned liberal idiot”?

It is doubtful that mass democracy would have arisen without widespread literacy. If you despise the phenomenon of mass democracy, you ought to despise Gutenberg.

Beefy Rep

If Gutenberg hadn't invented it some other loser would have. And besides, as the quote make undeniably clear, the question of what the world would have looked like is unanswerable and is just an excuse for self-proclaimed elites (who, as a whole, are more of a rabble than the rabble) to stroke each other on a cold winter's night.

Bob Dylan Roof
I don't see a necessary connection between democracy and literacy because ideas can be conveyed to people through other media. Isn't the Arab Spring spearheaded by illiterate Arab proles?

Comparatively, Gutenberg doesn't seem to be as influential as cinema or the personal computer with internet access, both of which are politically dangerous. Of course it posed a particular problem in the context of Christendom because it made the source of the social myth widely available for (mis)interpretation. From a broader historical perspective, the printing press doesn't seem as harmful as other new media. For various reason, reading seems to require what the masses lack or prefer not to acquire, e.g., education, focus, leisure etc.

Film was initially treated as something qualitatively different than mere print and was later conflated with print (as print was once conflated with public free speech.) Consider Article 118 of the liberal Weimar Constitution:

Article 118
Every German is entitled, within the bounds set by general law, to express his opinion freely in word, writing, print, image or otherwise. No job contract may obstruct him in the exercise of this right; nobody may put him at a disadvantage if he makes use of this right. There is no censorship; in case of the cinema, other regulations may be established by law. Also in order to combat trashy and obscene literature, as well as for the protection of the youth in public exhibitions and performances legal measures are permissible.

The participants in the so-called Arab Spring are overwhelmingly college-age and unemployed; like my generation, they are economic casualties of an educational system which has unprepared them for the realities of the job market. In Egypt, of course, the situation is ten times worse because the average age is much younger, and lots of young, unemployed men is a recipe for violence and unrest. They are mostly literate, and many of them hold degrees in respected fields -- yet cannot find a job.

Careful reading does require a focused disposition, but that doesn't stop bourgeois reformers -- where such dispositions can be found -- from altering or creating social myths and giving them to the masses in a digestible form such as propaganda. You mentioned the Reformation as one such instance, but the revolutions of 1848 could also apply: left-Hegelian ideas slowly trickling down to the masses, etc. Control of social myths thus moves little by little from the elites, to the bourgeois, and finally to the masses. You're right that cinema has largely superceded text as the medium of choice for the masses, but as a matter of genealogy literacy was the more important development.

Bob Dylan Roof

I just checked the literacy rates for Arab Spring countries. Most of them are ranked close to the bottom along with sub-Saharan and west African countries, and not one is in the top 100. I know the data isn't dispositive, but the idea that faggot striver poors are dying in the streets for freedom is a delusion of western liberals.

I understand that literacy makes people more susceptible to ideas merely by rendering them open to a new medium, but I also understand that there have always been slave revolts. If literacy is a real problem, it seems to be a problem exclusive to the classes that have been literate the longest: the middle- and upper-classes. The pre-Marxist revolutions in Europe were bolstered by apathetic, mediocre elites filled with self-contempt and "compassion" for the masses.

As an aside, I wasn't aware that left-Hegelianism catalyzed the 1848 revolutions. France already had its own independent socialist tradition (hence the Marxist synthesis of French socialism and Hegelian historicism).

Team Zissou

Sig worthy: "the idea that faggot striver poors are dying in the streets for freedom is a delusion of western liberals."

IOW, just because young Muslims wear acid-washed jeans doesn't mean they want Pride parades and abortion on demand.

President Camacho

The Classical rhetoric was designed for shepherding the masses, too, though at least the power of a movement was limited to the range and personal reputation of the speaker. Modern media is of course much more pervasive thanks to Western technological developments begining with the printing press.

It is well-known that the New York Times is written at a 6th grade reading level so as to attract maximum interest. Compare the style of a Thomas Friedman to, say, Mencken only 100 years ago, and you will find that the range of vocabulary and common historical reference points—once the possession of the common man—would leave most “educated” readers of Friedman’s claptrap befuddled and disinterested. It’s an oft-repeated complaint by elder college professors that the vocabulary and writing of students even only 40 years ago was far superior to the current classes, and one can compare, say, the Lincoln-Douglas Presidential Debates to the exchange of 30-second soundbytes which currently passes as such in the atrophied minds of the public.

The great irony of mass literacy is that increasing the quantity of the printed word necessarily results in a decrease in quality and range so as to make it accessible to the great majority. As Spengler pointed out, democracy with its newspaper (and now TV and the bevy of digital media, etc) has completely expelled the book from the mental world of the vast majority of people.