Print as Media, Conspiracy as Individualism
The other spectre haunting Europe..
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, where we try and quarry useful ideas from the poorly mapped mines of peripheral culture.
For a variety of reasons this week, I’ve been focused on the deeper origins of antisemitism. Behind The Bastards’ Robert Evans’ did a recent episode pair on “The Conspiracy To Begin All Conspiracies”, arguing that the root of modern antisemitism isn’t in the Christian Church Father Justin Martyr who began our current style of conspiratorial belief, but the French Revolution in 17989.
Or, rather, the speculations of privileged classes on the secret nature of the plot. The first speculation was that secretly a plot of freemasons or other clubs and secret societies, but European antisemitism soon took effect and the notion that a secret conspiracy of Masons and Jews was popularized over the next century.
First in Abbé Barruel’s 1799 Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism through various political pamphlets culminating in the plagiarized and forged Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which illustrated a huge conspiracy to destroy European monarchy and Christianity to make way for “total Jewish world domination.”
There are few modern conspiracies that don’t have a ton of roots in the protocols, and Abbé’s Memoirs forms a foundation of post-enlightenment reactionary anti-leftism.
It’s wild stuff, frankly, and BTB does a more thorough job than we’ll be doing here. This, after all, is a McLuhan newsletter today. And while we’ll be coming back to Barruel, we’ve got more pressing business today.
What’s the connection?
Conspiracy and Print
“Printing, a ditto device confirmed and extended the new visual stress. It provided the first uniformly repeatable “commodity,” the first assembly line- mass production
It created the portable book, which men could read in privacy and in isolation from others. Man could now Inspire - and conspire.
Like easel painting, the printed book added much to the cult of individualism. The private, fixed point of view became possible and literacy conferred the power of detachment, non-involvement.”
Here we have McLuhan arguing a couple of related points.
Pre-Print, books were extremely rare and handwritten. A huge amount of the middle age Catholic Church’s political power was built into their ability to generate scribes at scale to propagate knowledge.
This meant that many of them wouldn’t be read by individuals, but would be read out loud to groups of people. There’s a whole debate about if people in antiquity could even read silently based in part on this one thing Augustine wrote. Point is, it wasn’t nearly as common as today.
Print eventually made both invididual copies affordable to many more people and easy enough to produce that they could just have multiple copies.
Prior to this, it was much harder to generate a private reality because you’d be subjecting partial thoughts to group discussion. Obviously, this is exaggerated somewhat. You could always go off by yourself and learn. But print made it much easier to learn and understand whole piles of information those near you didn’t access.
It’s widely understood that printing created the notion of a public, a large scale group of people in the same media ecosystem. But, as McLuhan points out here, it also created the notion of the private at scale. Everyone an Island of cognitive freedom.
But knowing you' have private thoughts leads to recognizing others do as well. And once you’re wondering that, it’s common to start wondering if maybe they’re thinking about harming you.
And now we’re into Paranoid Ideation. Fun. Let’s jump back a bit.
There’s a connection here between McLuhan’s ideas and Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a provacative book that in part claimed that humans as recently as Homer didn’t experience mind the way we currently do, mistaking the interior monologue for the voice of the gods in the same way many ancients didn’t have a word for the color blue. Some have speculated that meant they couldn’t see blue as a distinct color (This is a whole fascinating debate, btw).
And like McLuhan, I’m kinda skeptical one can extrapolate so much from so such scarce evidence. Even a basic understanding of neurodivergence suggests we should be sketptical of anyone judging an entire population from the way a few authors described things.
Ultimately, I think McLuhan’s perspective in time and work as a classicist blinded him to Eurocentric assumptions and he wasn’t alive long enough to really dig into the growing ethnography that might have widened his perspective.
So I don’t really know or understand what the inner lives of anyone other than myself are like even now. And so I’m very wary about assuming too much about those living in distant times and cultures.
Was printed type the first commodity? Not really. Books aren’t freely transferrable with each other. But it’s undoubtedly true that Print methods were among the earliest wave of mechanization in European culture.
But the existence of print did seem to create much about the enlightened rationalist. Contrast the dialogues of Plato with the book-length arguments between different enlightenment thinkers. It’s much harder to see a person you’re talking with as a detached object to criticize and deconstruct than it is to see a book that way.
And once you get in the habit of it, it’s easy enough to follow the allure of DESTROYING opponents with FACTS and LOGIC while what you’re mainly doing is stage managing some mic drops and not giving the other person adequate time to respond.
Leonard Susskind’s book The Black Hole War, one of my favorites of pop science, details and argument Suskind had with Steven Hawking about information loss in black holes that took 30 years and several whole reseaech programs for Susskind’s intuition that Hawking had guessed wrong to be proven right.
So it goes with actual intellectuals.
None of that would be possible without Print though. The stability it gives arguments is itself easily mistaken for truth compared to oral media, but it’s often just as unreliable.
What does all this have to do with Conspiracy?
Well, first, lots of people are as affected by the cognitive distortions of technology like Print as Susskind, but less rigorous and intellectually honest. Susskind didn’t claim he was some greater genius for knowing Hawking was wrong this one time and he gave all the credit to the researchers who did the work. He recognized he’d mainly gotten lucky.
But those same forces work on people less sincere and more motivated to have any kind of right answer to claim instead of a problem to work on.
And if you mix all of that with prejudice and suspicion… throw in a dash of material conflict, you can easily get a conspiracy stew.
And so it goes.
Laptop’s almost out of juice this morning (someone didn’t plug it in), so i think we’re done for the day. We’ll talk with you more on Monday.