Mapping the Graphosphere: Cultures of Writing in Early 19th-Century Russia (and Before)
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Mapping the Graphosphere
Cultures of Writing in Early 19th-Century Russia (and Before)

The “graphosphere” here denotes the totality of graphic devices used to record, store, display, and disseminate messages and information, and the social and cultural spaces in which they figure. All forms of depiction are part of the graphosphere.1 This study deals mainly with the technologies of depicting signs which are perceived to relate to language: that is, with writing and printing. In principle, however, the graphosphere can extend in time and media from cave daubing to ideograms to alphabetic script to movable type to plasma display screens.

The graphosphere has two types of boundary, external and internal. It can be characterized both by its relations to what lies outside it and by the interrelations of the constituent components within it. Studies of the early history of the graphosphere focus on its outer boundaries: on its expansion of graphic technologies of information into new social and cultural spaces, on their relations with traditional nongraphic communication (i.e., speech). In the modern world, by contrast, the graphosphere has become, in effect, ubiquitous. It has virtually no outer boundaries. In more recent history, therefore—gradually, over the past four or five centuries—interest shifts onto the graphosphere’s inner boundaries, onto the changing functions and configurations and dynamic reconfigurations of its various constituent technologies. [End Page 531]

Information technologies emerge in sequence, and the pioneers of information history tended to represent that sequence as a fairly straightforward succession or progression, in an enticing vision of technologically driven cultural and social change.2 Subsequent studies have rightly emphasized that the new technologies do not simply replace the old.3 Gesture does not become redundant with the emergence of human speech, nor speech with the spread of writing, nor writing with the spread of printing, nor—much to the relief of paper manufacturers—has printing disappeared with the spread of digital media. This is partly because the newer technologies are not straightforward functional equivalents for the older technologies, not just better ways of doing the same things. On the one hand, they facilitate the doing of new things, and their assimilation may thus involve complex shifts in the functionalities of and interactions among technologies (the analogy with ecosystems, while imperfect, can be felicitous).4 On the other hand, the technologies relate not just to one another in a closed system but to their specific producers and consumers in real (hence different) societies. Thus, although in very broad terms one can trace processes associated with technological change across history, any assumption of technology-driven determinism stumbles against the sheer variety of specific sociocultural dynamics in real contexts. This tension between general process and culture-specific divergence is what makes the study of graphospheric boundaries—both external and internal—continually challenging.

Although the complexity of the subject does seem to be generally acknowledged, studies of that complexity have been rare, at any rate with regard to Russia. In the first place, historians tend to focus on one or other technology more than on interrelationships, and on the newer more than on the older in any given period. Thus, for example, we have extensive studies of the manuscript [End Page 532] cultures of early Rus´,5 or of Russian print culture, from the early 18th century to the post-Soviet period,6 plus an abundance of self-contained surveys of “niche” uses of particular technologies and a fast-growing literature on digital technologies and the blogosphere; but few attempts at holistic study even as a synchronic snapshot, let alone with any chronological depth. The rise of the new is an important story, but one that can also misrepresent the social and cultural dynamics of the graphosphere as a whole, whether at a given moment or in its transformations over time.7 Second, besides the tendency to be mono-technological, such studies also tend—by linguistic habit if not by intellectual conviction—to refer to each technology as, in a sense, monocultural, or at any rate as an integral phenomenon and field of inquiry, through the singular (“print culture,” “manuscript culture,” “digital culture,” etc.). In practice this may or may not...