Fixating Works

Fixating Works

Advancement in society – and ingenuity in developing appropriate technologies – created written works. If one takes the remaining samples of old written works, it is easy to imagine that they just record the textual parts of very complex events where different “media” were involved: recitations, musics, songs, dances, choruses, sacrifies etc. The magic formulae Chinese priests wrote 8,500 years ago on tortoise shells are just the textual component of what was probably a very elaborate ritual that must have comprised hymns, dances, burning of incense, special dress worn by priests, sacrificial offerings to the Gods, etc. We are left with the words, because they were “easy” (so to speak, because it took millennia to develop writing) to “fixate” on a physical carrier and send to us across the millennia. 

Unfortunately we have completely lost the other components that would probably interest today’s ethnographers more than the words, and they would be better off to try and explain in which way we – modern humans – are more (or less) than we were millennia ago. Some Egyptian papyri provide something more than written words, because they are supplemented by drawings depicting the power of the Pharaoh or the life of the farmer. Glimpses of another component – dance – can be obtained from Greek amphorae and temple bas-reliefs and similar remains from other civilisations. Extant Greek tragedies are composed of parts recited by actors and parts sung by the chorus, with the accompaniment of music, but the remaining textual components let us just guess the tensions that the Athenian society felt between a mythological past driven by the sense of the divine and a progressively lay society – in substance if not in form – while it would probably be easier to understand them if we could know how the chorus expressed its sharing of the actors’ sufferings. 

In the European Middle Age a method to represent music information was invented, but this was originally mostly used for the music that “mattered” at that time, i.e. religious hymns. So we have largely lost how troubadours sang and played violas, even though we are able to read and play the music of later centuries. We are lucky to be able to read Kalevala – the Finnish epic poem – thanks to the efforts of Axel Gallén, the doctor who scoured the Finnish countryside in search of the scattered pieces of that epic poem, but we can only imagine how the two persons recited it sitting on a wood trunk and holding each other while moving in a rhythmic fashion. 

Still, preserving the written parts of those “multimedia” works was not a minor accomplishment. In antiquity, the facts of a life incomparably harsher than today’s did not really offer those inclined to writing many opportunities to exercise their art. Unless these people had considerable personal wealth, or they could find a patron who found pleasure in offering those individuals the possibility to manifest their talents (and being rewarded by the content of their writing), or some authority would hire them to support their plans of preservation, promotion, expansion or uprooting of a social order, it was impossible for most of them to engage in writing in a continuous fashion. Therefore the motivations of those ancient writers were regularly personal satisfaction in the work produced and the fame generated from it or a means to have a leisurely life. 

Under these conditions no one making a copy of a manuscript felt like he had to remunerate the author – probably the author would have taken such idea as an insult. Remuneration was for not for the authors but for the amanuenses hired for that purpose. More likely the person making a copy thought that he was doing a favour to the author, because his work could reach farther, and a service generally to society, because he was propagating culture. And this was really needed, if one considers that in all of pre-Gutenberg Europe there were just a few tens of thousand books. 

This does not mean that in those early times some forms of commercial interest behind books did not exist. In Egypt a copy of the Book of the Dead was required at each funeral. Some surviving Babylonian tablets bear directions for getting a “book” from the library. In Rome Titus Pomponius Atticus employed a number of trained slaves to copy and produce books with retail branches of his business in the provinces of the empire. In 12th century China a publisher’s account for a book of 1,300 pages indicated a 3 to 1 ratio of selling price to production costs. All this shows that some business around “book copying” existed, but was limited to periods of well developed and stable social order, because otherwise it was hard to put in place and operate the value chain that would guarantee an economic return to an organisation that would look for and select manuscripts, produce copies, create and manage a distribution channel and collect the proceeds of the sales. 

From very old times public authorities saw it as useful and dutiful to collect books. The royal libraries of the Assyrian kings were probably for the exclusive use of the sovereigns, but Ptolemy II Soter meant to help learned men find old works when he established the Great Library of Alexandria, because the great body of knowledge on which the Hellenistic world rested was scattered – literally in pieces – in hundreds of different places across the Mediterranean and the Near East. 

Qin Shi Huang-Ti, who ordered the burning of all works by Chinese philosophers in 213 BC, the Spaniards, who burnt all Aztec books in Mexico in 1520 and Hitler, who ordered the burning of books in 1933 all had a similar understanding of the importance of collecting books and applied the same ideas as Ptolomy II Soter, but in the negative, because their goal was the annihilation of a culture that was alien to them or considered as hostile. Keeping track of books published in a country is still a role played by many public authorities as in many countries one or more copies of each printed book must be deposited with the National Library. France has been innovative in 1975 when they created the “Institut National de l’Audiovisuel” (NA) with a similar mission for media content.

The invention of printing in the mid-15th century forced a radical change to the economic basis of written words because it provided the missing link that had often made the creation of a value chain impractical until that time. A new form of entrepreneur was born whose job was to select and edit manuscripts, design the material, arrange its production and distribution, and bear the financial risk or the responsibility for the whole operation. That this new entrepreneur played a useful role can be seen from the fact that, in barely 50 years after the invention of printing and with the low manufacturing capabilities of those times, the number of printed books in Europe amounted to 9 million. 

Printing, by offering books at a price that was orders of magnitude less than the equivalent for a manuscript, enabled broader layers of population to have access to culture and favoured the adoption of vernacular languages in Europe. Latin was the language of choice until that time also because it was one thing to find an amanuensis who could copy a manuscript, and another to find a translator. The market in books, therefore, from the very beginning became largely national and, until recently, national markets have been rather impervious to one another, save for those books that scored highly and qualified for translation into another language. This excludes science and humanities, where the market has been largely global since the very beginning of printing, moving from Latin to French, to German and, today, to English. 

Therefore, even though billions of books have been printed over the centuries, until quite recently it was still possible to keep oneself abreast of everything “new” through the use of catalogues published by individual publishers. Public libraries, often set up even in small communities, or their bigger equivalent in the larger cities, gave everybody access to the broad spectrum of culture.

Before movable type, manuscripts carried combinations of text and images. With the introduction of movable type, mass distribution of text became feasible, but at the expense of forfeiting the images of illuminated manuscripts. It was not until the integration of text and engravings came into practice that the expressiveness that illuminated manuscripts had achieved centuries before was approached. A similar phenomenon happened with the invention of phonography where the visual experience of the presenters was lost but the monomedia information – music – could be mass distributed. The invention of cinematography enabled the fixation of moving pictures, but for several decades the audio component could not be provided, until the technology supporting the missing medium was invented. 

With all the excitement caused by these new inventions that enable people to listen to music from a record or to watch a theatrical performance in a movie theatre, the hard economic facts were that fewer people would go to a concert, because they could buy a record and listen to it as many times as they wanted. This is just one example of how a new technology destabilises the status quo.