- The Myth of Print Culture: Essays on Evidence, Textuality, and Bibliographical Method
Nominalism is alive and well in The Myth of Print Culture: Essays on Evidence, Textuality, and Bibliographical Method, by Joseph Dane. In fact, so insistent is Dane that we can’t know anything beyond specific physical facts about individual books, and sometimes not even those, that he skates lithely from nominalism to solipsism, with an occasional segue to deconstruction. When Boswell and Johnson were discussing Bishop Berkeley’s argument that one cannot logically prove the existence of anything except oneself, Dr. Johnson famously kicked a large stone and said, “I refute it thus”. Reading Dane’s more solipsistic passages denying the existence of a print culture or of collated images or even of the Erasmus edition of Terence, one is tempted to find a nice big stone library or a pile of books and kick it, shouting, “I refute it thus”. But, of course, with that kick, Johnson proved only that he missed the point, and we would be doing the same. This is a book that demands and, for the most part, rewards close attention to the particulars.
If there is a failing in the book, it is that the title and the opening chapters are misleading about Dane’s purpose. In his introduction and first two chapters, Dane gives the impression that his main goal is to argue that there is no such thing as a print culture, as distinct from a scribal culture or oral culture or some other modern sociological category. This is an ironic purpose (if there is such a thing as irony, which Dane also denies), since this volume is part of the University of Toronto Press series, Studies in Book and Print Culture. However, Dane does not really try to prove that print culture is an illusion. Instead, he argues convincingly that the case is unproved, which is not the same thing. He starts out by making a very strong case that the evidence scholars have given for a distinctive print culture is, at worse, specious, and at best, ill considered. He is at his best deflating grand assertions, debunking unsupported statistics, and unraveling circular reasoning. It is an attack not so much on the existence of print culture as on much of the uncritical scholarship that has conceived it. [End Page 93]
Yet, as the book progresses, Dane loses sight of even that overall purpose. As he turns his attention more and more to particulars, the goal seems to shift from an attack on the notion of a print culture to an attack on the confusion between the methods of bibliography and those of textual editing, without always showing the relevance of this confusion to the issue of whether print culture is real or is even a useful concept. Eventually the chapters and even sections of the chapters seem to go their separate ways, investigating disparate problems that finally seem to be united only as examples of what Dane eventually calls “the insecurities of book history” (188). This problem is reflected in the book’s subtitle, which calls the contents “essays”. After referring in his Introduction to the “essays” in the book, Dane himself consistently calls the sections chapters, and they certainly look at first as if they are making a sustained argument. But the chapters become increasingly self-contained and disconnected, and it is only in his Conclusion that he once again calls them essays. While this is a flaw in the editing and conception of the book, it also fits Dane’s own admitted predilection for dealing with the specific rather than the general and with the material properties of books and their history, and if taken piecemeal as separate essays on separate but related issues, the arguments can be intriguing and persuasive.
The introduction and first two essays identify and analyze the methodological problems behind claims that a unique print culture arose in the late fifteenth century. In the first essay, “The Myth of Print Culture”, Dane...