Wednesday, May 02, 2018

How Present Technology Changes Our View of Past Technology

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I’ve been thinking more recently about the significance we attach to technological developments. Think, for instance of the shift from scroll to codex or the change from handwritten books to books printed with movable type. Most readers here will be familiar with some of the significance found in these changes. Did the codex form reinforce the canon for instance? Was it a way that early Christians distinguished their sacred from non-sacred writings? Did Christians become more concerned with textual accuracy with the invention of the printing press? Etc.

These are good questions and it is worth reflecting on the ways new technologies affect or, alternatively, reflect Christian beliefs and practice. But I confess that I sometimes feel skeptical about how much significance is ascribed to them. One reason is because of something Alan Jacobs has written about, which he calls the tendency to “fetishize” past technologies. Here he is in 2015 reflecting on this tendency in Books & Culture (sadly defunct now):
Any given technology changes its meaning when alternatives to it arise: candles began to mean something different when gas lighting appeared; gas lighting began to mean something different when electrical light appeared. Associations form in the public mind with particular times, places, social groups—mental links that would have been impossible to forge without the clarifying power of contrast. This is not to say that technologies have no meaning until alternatives turn up: but the more universal they are, the less likely we are to reflect on them. The comment (I have heard it attributed to Huston Smith) that the only thing the world’s religions have in common is that they all use candles is something that no one would have thought of before the advent of other forms of lighting.

Thus when digital technologies of reading and writing arose, soon thereafter people became intensely reflective about what had preceded them: books, paper, pens and pencils. E-readers make the distinctive features, the characteristic conformation, of books stand forth vividly; a world in which everyone types becomes a world in which pens can be fetishized.

The attention vector of any particular technology goes something like this: from ubiquitous and largely unreflective use to the subject of specialized scholarly research to the topic of personal and idiosyncratic reflections. So the history of the book became a serious scholarly subdiscipline starting in the second half of the 20th century, and emerged onto the general public scene near the end of that century: Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (1996) marked, more clearly than any other single book, that emergence... [the rest is pay-walled, sadly.]
I think Jacobs is right and the point is important because we may be tempted to see more in the shifts mentioned above than is deserved. In the case of early Christians and their “bookishness,” for example, I would like to know whether or not they thought of this as distinguishing them from other contemporary groups. If not, then might this be something we are reading into the past because of what Jacobs calls a fetishizing of previous technologies?

Well, I need to keep thinking about it. But it’s something to be aware of at least.

20 comments :

  1. I think it's fair to say that the use of the codex was a unique characteristic of the Christian faith, from an objective standpoint. It may be that they only thought of it as a pragmatic way of keeping their liturgical work together

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    1. Yes. It’s the interpretation of that prevalence, for instance, not the fact of it that I’m thinking out loud about here.

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  2. Interesting! Thanks for this.

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  3. These are great thoughts Peter. I think that from an early Christian point of view that you are on to something here. I am not s sure they were necessarily aware of their own "bookishness." I would need to look at that more. But I do think that the case can be made that outsiders did notice their bookish peculiarities. I will give just one example from the second century. Lucian of Samosata (125-180 CE), in his work "Death of Peregrinus", he caricatures Christians and their worship practices, at one point basically making fun of their "bookishness" (Peregr. 11-12). I write about it on my blog, here (https://thetextualmechanic.blogspot.com/2016/10/lucian-on-christians-and-their-books.html)

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    1. Thanks, Timothy. I assume you mean this line "He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many,..."?

      My only question, and I'm learning here, is by saying this about Peregrinus, is Lucian actually pointing out the uniqueness or standout status of Peregrinus, when compared to the rest of Christians, maybe even Christian teachers? Just a thought. What do you think?

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    2. Thanks John. Also later, when Peregrinus is in prison Christians come and read their sacred writings to him.
      My thought is that Lucian is looking at unique points of Christian distinctives and satirically highlighting them in order to poke fun at the Christian's appetite for sacred books. In other words, because Christians loved sacred literature so much, Peregrinus was able to con them by writing NEW sacred books. Or something to that effect.
      More could be said about comments from Celsus and even Galen hinting at the unique "bookishness" that they observe as outsiders.
      Just my two-cents and definitely worthy of more discusdion than a blogpost comments!

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    3. Ah. I understand. But that would then raise the question: how "bookish" were they, if they were able to be conned so easily by NEW books?

      No doubt, a major focus of this passage is on books. I'm trying to tease out what the exact significance and take away is. You have looked at this stuff far more than me so as long as you will humor me, let's keep the discussion going :-).

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    4. Thanks John. I think that we have to keep in mind the satire will only be effective if Lucian's caricature resonates with his audience. And remember that it is not just NEW books that they are interested in. Again, they bring their sacred books in to prison to read to Peregrinus. Also note other things mentioned by Lucian that most would not take look at as much that would probably strike Lucian's readers as distinctive christian trait. For example, that they visit Peregrinus in prison, bring him food, and worship God with him in prison. Also note that Lucian highlights that Peregrinus is imprisoned for his faith. All these things Lucian's readers would have to recognize as uniquely "Christian" or the caricature fails.

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    5. Sorry for this garbled sentence,
      "Also note other things mentioned by Lucian that most would not take look at as much that would probably strike Lucian's readers as distinctive christian trait."
      What I meant to say was, "Also note other things mentioned by Lucian that most today looking back would not take as much of an issue with, though would probably strike Lucian's readers as a distinctive christian trait."

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    6. Thanks, Timothy. Very helpful as I continue to process these ideas. I don't have anything more to add at this point.

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    7. Thanks, Tim. What is peculiar here though? Is the surprising thing for Lucian that Christians read/wrote books or that they were so easily conned by people who did? Is it surprising that they read their sacred books aloud or that they were so gullible that they even read them in prison to someone conning them? I guess I am not seeing unusual “bookishness” here.

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    8. Thanks Peter. I think the fact that Lucian highlights these aspects at all means that they must have been distinctive. Otherwise, why mention it at all? He doesn't talk about what they wore, or how they style their hair. In some of his other works, he highlights the manner in which a character reads aloud and pronounces his words.
      All I am saying is that because he takes time to mention these things he is painting a caricature of second century Christians in Syria.

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    9. Also, this is just one out of a few examples that I thought of on the fly. Though too much can be read into them, dismissing what they have to say isn't a good idea either.

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    10. Just look at Lucian's "Adversus Indoctum" for a comparable non-christian example

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  4. Larry Hurtado, in posting about how we think about the "material culture" of the early Christians pointed out that some historians under-read the importance of the manuscripts themselves, and try to read too much into other aspects of manuscripts. I would advise reading this May 2 blog post to get his ideas more specifically. Your post made me think about his post, in how it truly depends upon one's reason for looking at a codex, a fragment, a parchment, etc., to see the value of that codex, fragment, parchment, etc.

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    1. I saw that, thanks. What I am suggesting here is that there is a risk of over-interpreting the material evidence. But ignoring it altogether is certainly a problem too.

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  5. I'm really enjoying this discussion. It would seem that both ancient Judaism and Christianity self-consciously placed a great deal of significance on the technology of the written text. The covenant-ratifying and covenant-renewing ceremonies of ancient Israel certainly set the pattern for Jewish identity based on what could be called "covenant textuality" (Exod 24:4-8; Deut 31:1-10; Josh 8; 2 Kgs 23; Neh 8; etc.). Charles Hill ("God's Speech in these Last Days: the New Testament as an Eschatological Phenomenon") and Michael Kruger (The Question of Canon, 79-118; Christianity at the Crossroads, 167-201), argue that this text-centered identity continued in the formation of early Christian identity. I'm not sure that a solid theological significance can be attributed to the choice of codex over roll in early Christianity, but at least the basic technology of writing seems to be given massive theological significance among early Christians in an emic fashion. Chris Keith's work deals precisely with this phenomenon (e.g. "Early Christian Book Culture and the Emergence of the First Written Gospel," and "Prolegomena on the Textualization of Mark's Gospel: Manuscript Culture, the Extended Situation, and the Emergence of the First Written Gospel").

    In short, building off of Hill's, Kruger's, and Keith's work, I'm inclined to think that locating the technology of Scripture qua written text as a sociological and theological fulcrum for early Christian identity is not fetishization but a recognition of what early Christians themselves were saying (I'm also reminded of John Kloppenborg's article, "Literate Media in Early Christ Groups: The Creation of a Christian Book Culture," which argued that Christians regularly portrayed themselves as literate for the sake of constructing a self-aware social identity). Perhaps we cannot say the same about the type of written technology (e.g. codex vs. roll, or vellum vs. papyri), but the presence of written technology itself remains largely significant.

    This is closely related to what I hope to begin researching properly in my upcoming doctoral studies, so I'll definitely stay tuned to these stimulating conversations on ETC! Thanks, Peter and all, for keep this going.

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    1. Thanks, Jacob. We’ll look forward to your work! For what it’s worth, I am not here talking about literacy or writing per se; I’m talking only about the writing technology itself, i.e., it’s material form. I am not at all questioning that Christians were text-focused just as Jews were before them. What I am asking about is whether or not the shift in writing technology (either scroll to codex or handwritten to print) was viewed as significantly by them as it sometimes is by us in hindsight.

      As for why the Gospels were written down in the first place, I wrote about that here.

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    2. Thanks, Peter. Your blogpost back in 2016 is brilliant. It looks like we're on the same page (metaphorical and artefactual!) on a lot of this. I'll certainly add the Vandendorpe source to my reading list. Also, your incisive questions that move beyond the phenomenon of textuality to the type of writing technology are very insightful, and they are an appropriate caution for a neophyte like me, prone to read to much into the evidence - many thanks!

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