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The Arts of Contingency

Elena Esposito

If we consider the present situation of the arts of transmission in the broad sense of the phrase as Francis Bacon used it—namely, as the whole of the procedures that circulate, record, and organize knowledge—we have to admit to quite a discouraging condition for theoretical reflection.While there exist many techniques in the sense of technologies, machineries, and instruments, the ancient sense of art, as used by Bacon, has been lost. In this sense, art—the art of carpentry, for instance, or the art of navigation or persuasion—is something governed by rules that can be taught. These rules indicate what to do, how to do it, and for what purpose. 1 On a con- ceptual level, there does not presently seem to be much to teach, in spite of incessant reflection on media and of the multiplication of theories about media. Technological development and media practice proceed quickly but also proceed independently of theoretical reflection. Theory seems rather to be concerned with integrating mostly uninterpreted new developments:

chat rooms rather than virtual reality (which was much theorized but quickly faded from general interest), the internet explosion instead of in- teractive television (which failed because of a lack of interest rather than because of technological difficulties), very intelligent video games rather than (often quite stupid) artificial intelligence. We lack autonomous theo- retical categories that can deal with these developments. Instead of sur- prising and informing the development of technology, theory seems to be continuously surprised by the evolution of technology. Media theory seems to be suffering from a kind of interpretive inade- quacy. In media analysis, for instance, theory tends to presuppose a dubious

1. See Giuseppe Cambiano, Platone e le tecniche (Turin, 1971).

Critical Inquiry 31 (Autumn 2004) 2004 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/04/3101-0005$10.00. All rights reserved.



Elena Esposito / The Arts of Contingency

final causality. One tries to explain the phenomena by starting from the effects, as though a certain innovation had been successful because of its usefulness or because of the advantages it implies. But an innovation, as we well know, would not be new if it were not unknown before; and how can unknown (and hence imperceptible and, strictly speaking, also unintelli- gible) advantages motivate and foster the assertion of a new technique, overcoming the resistance that always opposes the modification of familiar practices? How can one examine the birth and consolidation of the new without slipping into aporias or tautologies? Problems of temporal coordination also emerge in the simple analysis of data. In the study of media, the presumed effects often seem to come before the cause, as exemplified by the age-old disputes over the relationship between the introduction of the printing press and the consequent social transformations of the Renaissance. Many of the innovations allegedly en- abled by the new medium (such as the production of a great number of volumes, which was possible also in scriptoria, and the introduction of punctuation, references, and title pages, with which copyists had already experimented) seem to have actually preceded it, in a curious muddle of causalities. In my essay, I would like to propose a hypothesis: the difficulties of media theory can be connected with the fact that the different approaches— above and beyond their disagreements—tend to employ a concept of me- dium based primarily on transmission. 2 The weakness of studies of the arts of transmission could then be due to an excessive emphasis on transmission itself—to the detriment of the art as such and its other aspects. Certainly, the notion of communication is by now much broader than the mere dif- fusion of information, and also includes emotional, expressive, relational, and other aspects. The medium itself is no longer understood as a neutral

2. A similar approach can be found in Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London, 1974), where he argues that diffusion is a secondary aspect in the sense that it comes later. First there is redefinition of the functions and of the process of communication, leading then to new techniques for diffusion. An example is lithography, which was developed to produce portraits to preserve memories for those who already knew the represented person and was used later to overcome spatial and temporal distances (see in particular § 1.3). I owe this reference to James Chandler.

Elena Esposito is professor of sociology at the University of Modena-Reggio Emilia. She has published several works on the theory of social systems, media theory, and social memory, including Soziales Vergessen: Formen und Medien des Geda¨chtnisses der Gesellschaft (2002) and Die Verbindlichkeit des Voru¨bergehenden:

Paradoxien der Mode (2004).

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diaphragm diffusing denotations and connotations with the least possible interference; the medium intervenes, influences, constructs, or distorts the message (depending on the view of the student). But in general it is thought that the central point is the spreading of communication beyond the im- mediate perceptual context (as in writing) or beyond the personalized sphere of the people and things one knows or could know (as with the print- ing press). This feature of the medium should then explain its cognitive effects, like the ability to abstract or to modalize, with their respective consequences for the general organization of semantics. One starts from transmission and eventually returns to the recording and organization of information. In section 1 I will propose an alternative conception, the one of socio- logical systems theory, which starts not from a concept of the medium as a unity but from the difference between medium and form. 3 As we will see in section 2, this leads to consideration of the familiar technologies of com- munication from the point of view of their capacity to loosen and recom- bine the elements of the consolidated forms. Transmission, that is, the capacity to reach more receivers and in different ways, would then be only one of the aspects of this general reassessment of the relationship of the necessary and the contingent, of the stable and the mutable, of redundancy and variety. In section 3 this approach will be tested in the cases of the media of writing and the printing press. In section 4 I will try to sketch the con- sequences of this approach for the still open field of computers as amedium, specifically with regard to their communicative uses.


In the sociological view the problem of media is not primarily the study of the features of some objects, that is, of particular instrumentswith certain presuppositions and certain consequences. There is also this problem, of course, but prior to it there is the much more radical, self-referential ques-

3. In sociology, systems theory, associated mainly with Niklas Luhmann (for an overview, see Niklas Luhmann, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft [Frankfurt, 1997]) represents the rather controversial and very complex attempt to research society starting from communication rather than from people or the objects of the world. Objects of sociological analysis are then first of all the ways and forms of communication, from which follow not only the configuration and the complexity of the concepts used to consider the world but also what, for a given social formation, is the world: not an independent external datum but the external reference of communication. In this way, science and law, economics and politics, religion, formal organizations, love, and much else have been examined. For such an approach, the study of media is clearly central, even if at the moment there is no finished treatment of this topic. Media, however, cannot appear as external instruments (typewriter, telephone, or television set) but as modalities that configure and organize communication, first of all as its internal articulations, which will then use these instruments.


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tion of reflecting on the presuppositions of the very operation one is bring- ing about. Specifically, sociological research is conveyed through oral or written communication, which is printed or mediated in various ways. To study the required conditions and the ties imposed by media means at the same time to investigate the conditions and ties of the very communication through which one studies them, which remains subject to them even if it allows their functioning. In other words, the study of media becomes a par- adigm for the (typically circular) analysis of the relevance of externalfactors as seen from the inside. That is, the study of media represents an attempt to independently question that which one ultimately depends upon. 4 Seen in this way, the problem of circularity holds evident paradoxical implications. In this form, this problem has been the object of several phil- osophical reflections, which have mostly tried—in very different ways—to neutralize the problem by diversifying the perspective (individuation of metalevels, deconstruction of the discourse, or other solutions). In general, these reflections shift the focus from unity to difference. The sociological perspective, which is much more interested in concrete (situated) practices, comes to a similar end (the exploitation of difference as the basic element of a theory that cannot and does not want to eliminate the shadow of par- adox). However, this perspective is much more concerned with the oper- ationalization of this position. In the case of media—and herewe come back to our initial question—this leads to a theory that replaces the unitary con- cept of medium, which is too concrete and too connected with the idea of a definite object to be studied, with a specific difference: the difference me- dium/form. 5 The object of media theory is, then, not an object but a dif-

4. George Spencer-Brown spoke of a space that can be inferred only when a mark has

distinguished inside it a marked state and an unmarked state, and the initial space can be reconstructed as the unity of both states, a unity that, however, at that point no longer exists; see George Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form (New York, 1972), chap. 2. According to Spencer-Brown, this produces the shadow of paradox accompanying each step of the logical calculus developed

from the initial distinction, like a sort of condition of possibility that must be neutralized at each passage in order to be effectively forgotten (but never eliminated). The problem is quite near to the one in a philosophical perspective from which Derrida’s construction starts (or deconstruction; see in particular Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie [Paris, 1967]). If one investigates the original forms of communication one encounters a language that is from its very beginning writing, that is, a mediated form that breaks the unity with a “violence originaire” (ibid., p. 55). The primary forms are already secondary; they are the result of an exteriorization, and immediacy is only the illusion of an observer looking for a world where he or she does not exist (transcendency). The study of media is then nothing more than the study of this inevitable mediatedness, accompanied also in this case by the aura of a paradox often latent but never eliminable.

5. See Luhmann, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, p. 195 and Die Kunst der Gesellschaft

(Frankfurt, 1995), p. 165. The distinction medium/form has been elaborated by Luhmann starting from the distinction medium/thing presented by Fritz Heider in the frame of the theory of perception; see Fritz Heider, “Ding und Medium,” Symposion 1 (1926): 109–57; translated as “Thing and Medium,” Psychological Issues 1 (1959): 1–34. Here I skip the historical reconstruction

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ference, which oscillates from one side to the other and is never univocally defined because each side depends on the other. Who looks for unity finds only this paradoxical oscillation—and then one should move to difference. This lack of univocality is the most important aspect of the distinction; the medium, which is always evasive, cannot be observed immediately and is apprehended indirectly in the forms through which it exists, but these forms themselves would not exist without the corresponding medium. In Luhmann’s formulation, this can be stated as follows: on both sides of the distinction medium/form there are elements that in the medium are cou- pled loosely and in the form are coupled more tightly—like, for instance, grains of sand in a beach that have no connection to one another and there- fore are fit to receive the form left by a footprint or like light rays making objects visible. More interesting for communications studies is the case of language, which exists as a medium in the sentences (forms) built by using the possibilities it offers. The elements are the single words that in the me- dium have no connection to one another and gain sense only in the context of the sentences coupling them tighter. The medium cannot be observed directly, but this does not imply that it is not subject to any limitations; words can be combined to form different sentences, but the words still have their own meaning and cannot be changed or invented at will. This holds for all media that show different grades of granulosity, which makes the media more or less plastic and more or less receptive to forms. As the presence of little stones in sand hinders the impression of prints, so the concreteness of a word limits its possible uses in forming sentences. The looser the medium, the more abstract the forms impressed in it can be. This abstractness can be amplified by the re- cursivity of the distinction medium/form; the elements constituting the medium can be themselves forms impressed in a different medium, and the forms can act as media for the imposition of other forms. The sentences of spoken language, for instance, can be the elements used in writing (another medium) to produce different combinations (forms). What are the advantages of this construction for media research? Our problem, as we said, is to have available conceptual instruments that allow us to distinguish and at the same time to connect the question of trans- mission (media) with its semantic presuppositions (forms), without giving priority to either aspect. In this view, media only arise together with the corresponding forms in the moment when the elements constituting both (in more rigid or more loose couplings) are available.Media arise onlywhen

and the examination of the differences between both approaches, about which one can read in Luhmann, Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt, 1990), p. 53.


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it becomes possible to break the compactness of a unity into a multiplicity of loose elements that can be recombined in different ways, that is, when new possibilities to generate forms arise. Media are only potentialities, and their fundamental function is to make contingent something that was for- merly indispensable.


The distinction medium/form is applied in sociology to several different problems: specifically, to all cases where one wants to show how a specific modality of contingency is produced and how it is controlled through spe- cial forms. Media are then very different-seeming phenomena like love, money, and truth, but also are positions in organizations and pupils in the praxis of education. But media are also—and here we enter the field that concerns us—the languages (which allow us to organize the medium of sounds into discrete unities that combine to form words and sentences) and above all the technologies of communication: 6 from writing and the print- ing press through the mass media and the recent advances in telematics. In what sense are we dealing with media here, and which are the corresponding forms and the elements to combine? Which unities get loosened, and which necessities become contingent? Writing and the printing press allow and impose a much higher aware- ness of communication than is associated with oral communication,which relies on many perceptive presuppositions implicitly taken for granted. Written communication, on the contrary, must create autonomously (through communicative means) all the references it needs and is in this sense a more communicative form of communication. 7 In comparison to orality, writing is on the one hand obviously disadvantaged because it must give up much of the support that comes from the shared context of the interlocutors, but on the other hand it can make use of the advantages that come from the capacity to clearly distinguish communication from its ob- servation. In an oral situation, both moments coincide; both commentsand reflections on the ongoing communication and also the preservation of the

6. Luhmann (Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, pp. 202–315) speaks somewhat misleadingly—in

my opinion—of media of diffusion, which underlie precisely the aspect of transmission that I wish

to relativize. In his analysis, however, this accentuation disappears then completely.

7. See Luhmann, Soziale Systeme: Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie (Frankfurt, 1984), p. 224.

Systems theory, like deconstruction, inverts the trivial chronological priority relation of common sense and of disciplines like linguistics, which assume oral communication to be the most authentic form of communication and consider all others to be derivative forms. This hierarchy can itself be a consequence of the availability and pervasiveness of alphabetic writing, as is shown also by the fact that in cultures without accomplished phonetic writing, like ancient Mesopotamia,

written names were the ones expressing the destiny and the nature of things because they could be analyzed and handled with the typical techniques of a divinatory culture, while orality was


secondary; see Jean Botte´ro, Me´sopotamie: L’E criture, la raison, et les dieux (Paris, 1987), p. 126.

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content of the communication occur only during the course of commu- nication itself. There can be no detachment from the situation. In a hypo- thetical condition of primary orality, there is neither the time nor the detachment necessary to distinguish a communicative textfrom the context of the ongoing communication. 8 In writing, on the contrary, this is possible and this becomes more and more necessary as writers presuppose that read- ers are in the habit of distinguishing the narrated action from the actual situation. What changes with the diffusion of alphabetical writing is first of all the mode of observation. The observer is distinguished from the object of observation, which enables new forms of reflexivity—including the po- tential to observe oneself as an observer and to communicate about com- munication. 9 Communication can then refer directly to communication, to com- menting on other communications, or to citing written texts, even if they are not present. It can, however, acquire much greater autonomy and de- velop its own criteria, which become more and more differentfrom the ones based on perception and on lack of detachment. The things said (orwritten) become more and more autonomous from the person saying (or writing) them and instead gain currency from the strength of the argument, which becomes increasingly important. Oral communication is an event that dis- appears in the moment in which it is produced and thus cannot be modified or manipulated. Writing, on the contrary, remains fixed in the form in which it was produced, but exactly because it does not change and does not flee it can be considered from different points of view. Its invariabilityallows for more possibilities of transformation, that is, for a greater variety of in- terpretations. 10 Writing, one could say, compensates for its fixity with the potential for varying interpretations. One can change the communication because it does not change itself. Oral language is notorious for its use of deictic expressions that neu- tralize the problem of the referent; their references are evident and clear by themselves. With writing, nothing can be taken for granted; deictic expres- sions must be replaced with formulations that remain univocal even when the context changes. One must then face what remains fixed in spite of these changes: the referent, which becomes a theme and a problem. 11 Another

8. Eric Havelock bases his reconstruction of the origins of abstract thinking in ancient Greece

on this thesis; see Eric Alfred Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass., 1963).

9. See Luhmann, “The Form of Writing,” Stanford Literature Review 9, no. 1 (1992): 25–42. There

is a widespread hypothesis that the birth of the critical attitude, together with the praxis of observing and revising the contents of communication, is due to alphabetical writing; see Marcel Detienne, Les Savoirs de l’e´criture en Gre`ce ancienne (Paris, 1988).

10. See Luhmann, Soziale Systeme, p. 128.

11. This is also a very controversial argument of Havelock: in the moment when the alphabet

enables a reproduction of communication that is really independent of the context (while even

syllabic writings presupposed that the reader already possessed the information necessary to


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aspect is especially interesting for our topic: orality, which relies on context and its univocality, can accommodate a lack of coherence that to our eyes often looks contradictory because coherence was afforded by the situation and did not have to be established through communicative means. 12 Oral culture, based on repetition and on constant reproduction of the same models, can then allow remarkable variety, which results from the variety of situations and contexts. Written communication, on the contrary, can not feed on environmental variety because it is definitely detached from the context and bound to a much more rigid self-discipline. Writing must be coherent, in the sense that all its parts must support each other without contrasts and contradictions because there is no external context to resolve any inconsistencies. 13 Written communication is much less able to endure incoherence, but exactly because of that it curiously enables more variety then oral communication does. Orality, as we saw, depends on repetition and can put up with ever- changing situations; differences and lacks of coordination can be tolerated because they are reabsorbed in the unity of the sense of communication. Writing, on the contrary, must be coherent in order to be understandable in different and unpredictable situations, but it can admit the unpredicta- bility and diversity of reading situations. Writing must be coherent in order to be independent from context, and when writing is coherent the context can then be left indeterminate. One does not know by whom, how, andwith which agendas written communication will be read. 14 The emphasis, pre- viously on redundancy, is now on variety. Formerly, one admitted variety in order to confirm stability, and now the fixedness of writing is only a means of achieving variety. And variety now means the capability to spread communication through space and time without having to foresee differ- ences of context; that is, variety can be defined as a greater capacity for transmission.

eliminate the ambiguity of reading), the context itself becomes independent and can become the object of an autonomous analysis, from which philosophy originates; see Havelock, Preface to Plato, p. 148; Botte´ro and Marie-Joseph Ste`ve, La Mesopotamia: Dalla scrittura all’archeologia

(Turin, 1994), p. 42; Botte´ro, Me´sopotamie, p. 103; and Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Geda¨chtnis:

Schrift, Erinnerung, und politische Identita¨t in fru¨hen Hochkulturen (Munich, 1979), p. 220.

12. See Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), p. 99, and Detienne, Les

Maıˆtres de ve´rite´ dans la Gre`ce archaı¨que (Paris, 1967), pp. 46, 56. This apparent ambiguity is often presented as one of the characteristics of mythical thinking.

13. The originary deixis is replaced by a system of references to other elements of

communication, which in linguistics is called Diskursdeixis; see Ru¨diger Weingarten, Die Verkabelung der Sprache: Grenzen der Technisierung von Kommunikation (Frankfurt, 1989), p. 19.

14. Here also originates the problem of interpretation, to which we will return later. Even

Gadamer, however, insists finally on the “unity of the text” (Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und

Methode [Tu¨bingen, 1960], p. 375).

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Returning to our distinction medium/form, what has it to do with this analysis of the features of written communication? In our terms, it is a dem- onstration of the functioning of communication technologies and of the reasons it is convenient to use the distinction between media and forms. Writing (and then printing) is a medium because by separating commu- nication and observation it loosens the unity of the communicative act into separate elements that can be recombined in different ways (in specific forms). Writing allows distance from the context, and consequently iden- tification of the referent is no longer immediately supplied by the situation, but must be constituted by the communication, combining the available elements in a new (and coherent) way. For this reason, because they gen- erate new forms from their own decomposition into elements, writing and printing are media adding new potentialities to linguistic communication. These new forms are the ones that can be communicated at a distance from context and make communication successful even when it must give up the supports on which it formerly relied. In other words, themedium becomes an instrument of transmission primarily because it can produce its own forms, but transmission is only an aspect, almost a consequence, of a gen- eral transformation that modifies the asset of communication. Distant transmission then feeds back on this decomposition into elements and (particularly with printing) fosters recomposition in more complex and unpredictable forms. However, it is not by starting from transmission that one can understand the scope of the transformation and the role of the medium.


I will try now to verify this still quite abstract hypothesis by analyzing more concretely the mediative features of writing and of the printing press. Much historical research adopts an approach that assigns priority to theway information is handled, preserved, and combined, and infers from this the possibilities of transmission that are available in a given social formation. 15 With due prudence, one can also refer to the research on the psychicimpact of communication technologies. Lev Vygotsky’s and Alexander Luria’s now-classic studies subordinate the ability to participate in communication

15. See, as exemplary instances of research on the social relevance of media, Havelock, Preface to Plato, p. 109, and Elizabeth Eisenstein, preface to The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1983). Many accuse Havelock and Eisenstein of considering respectively the alphabet and the printing press as the cause of social and semantic transformations. The data they present actually contradict this claim, showing that the transformationsin question did not follow the diffusion of the new technologies but accompanied them—thereby making the causal constellation much more complex.


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at a distance (for example, the ability to learn only by linguistic means) to acquisition of logical instruments and the achievement of the necessary de- tachment from the visual-practical situation. 16 In order to be able to read in a proper sense, one must be able to think in a written way—without the ability to loosen the elements of media, there can be no transmission. 17 Of course, a certain capacity for abstraction exists even without writing. One foresees, remembers, classifies, and groups, but apparently in all these activities the separation of words and things is not acute. The things and not the words are of interest, or the words are of interest only as things among the others. 18 Alphabet-basedwriting,which enables communication without sound, is the medium that definitely underscores the difference between sound and sense—and consequently between linguistic sounds and referents—by shifting attention to the restrictions and conditions that words must satisfy in order to refer to the corresponding objects. Attention can then be turned to readers, with their abilities and their limitations, be- cause knowledge is no longer governed by the distinction between the known and unknown, the familiar and unfamiliar. The unknown, which previously referred to deeper (and by their nature unattainable) truths, be- comes the simple counterpart of what is known, is written somewhere, and can be read. 19 Nobody can know everything that has been written; therefore, one can be concerned with the diffusion of knowledge. Transmission be- comes a lay question and can as such be technicalized. The text as such attracts attention; it is fixed, controlled, and observed, and becomes the object of several interpretations. And it is exactly in the difference text/interpretation that the distinction medium/form finds ex- pression in the case of writing; as a written text, communication as a me- dium offers the space for a multiplicity of different interpretations. 20 It

16. See Alexander R. Luria, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations

(Cambridge, Mass., 1976).

17. Actually, the communicative competence proceeds at the same pace as the acquisition of the

individual competences in the use of writing: annotation and modeling.

18. See Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, 1977), and Walter Ong,

The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven, Conn., 1967), p. 43. This deep solidarity between words and things is not affected by the availability of nonalphabetical forms of writing exactly because these do not allow for the contextual autonomy I discussed above. Chinese culture developed very complex and refined

ways of manipulating words, but apparently never questioned the reciprocal dependency and interpenetration of words and things; see among many David Palumbo-Liu, “Schrift und kulturelles Potential in China,” in Schrift, ed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Karl Ludwig Pfeiffer (Munich, 1993), pp. 151–68.

19. See Luhmann, “Die Lebenswelt—nach Ru¨cksprache mit Pha¨nomenologen,” Archiv fu¨r

Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie 72 (1986): 187.

20. And then also for oral texts that exist as texts only once the form of the text has been

established in writing.

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makes available the loose elements in which the more rigid forms of dif- ferent interpretations can be impressed. Communication consequently be- comes much more varied and much more complex 21 because the rigidities connected with the concreteness of the references and with the sacrality of the approach are loosened. Just as a medium exposes itself to the imposition of forms and is a medium only through the forms impressed in it, so the text exposes itself to the game of interpretations and exists as a text only through its constant interpretation. 22 And it is in its new medial guise, as a text, that communication can be transmitted at a distance and can make sense in unpredictably different situations—but an always different sense, as different as the possible interpretations of a text. In this process, the printing press exemplifies a deep continuity with the medium of writing. Gutenberg’s discovery itself fits in a situation (in the course of the fifteenth century) in which many others searched for the way to produce “artificial script.” 23 Initially they were interested only in pro- ducing another kind of writing—an artificialiter scribere that could make better what had been made before, not a kind of writing designed to spread communication to unknown and unpredictable readers. Once introduced, however, the printing press greatly increased the mediality of written com- munication. The printing press achieved this through a process in which transmission is again only one aspect, aside from the methods of collec- tion, systematization, and retrieval of data on which most contemporary thinkers actually concentrated their attention. David Hume declared ex- plicitly that the fundamental advantage of the printing press seemed to be the potential to continuously improve and amend books in various edi- tions (in other words, the potential to impress in the medium of the text always different forms). 24 The first revolution of printing was a deep trans- formation in the way that texts were produced andmanipulated,combining an apparent continuity with a radical change. It is only with printing that books really become texts—artifacts open to interpretation. This is not, however, as is sometimes believed, because concerns about the manipulation, systematization, and pagination of the text began with the printing press. To a certain extent, these concerns have always existed, even if they related to other problems—and here lies the not marginal dif- ference. Up to the eleventh century, writing aimed primarily at reproducing the flux of oral language in order to mimic a correct oral reading. The ex-

21. I here understand complexity in the technical sense of the availability of more and different


22. See Luhmann, Das Recht der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt, 1995), p. 255.

23. Saul H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing (London, 1959), p. 21.

24. See Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, p. 83.


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isting punctuation marks were prosodic ones, meant to indicate to the reader if, and when, the voice had to go up or down. 25 There were no signs indicating the separation of the words or of the unities of discourse. The texts were transcribed in the so-called scriptio continua, uniformly filling up the lines of the manuscript without any visible articulations in the flux of writing. But, once more, this was not because punctuation was unknown. The ancient grammarians had devised techniques on the matter, and the Romans had used them. In Ireland the separation of words, which greatly increased the legibility of manuscripts, had been widespread since the sixth century. 26 On the continent, however, these techniques had not been used for a long time because they did not capture general interest. There was no interest in facilitating reading because reading was still a practice that pre- supposed experience and familiarity with the text, which was taken as an object of meditation and memorization before the performance of the oral reading. The task of individuating the syllables and combining them into words was part of the art of reading and not to be performed by the scriba. One must not think, however, that the manuscript text lacked any in- ternal organization. On the contrary, books had a complex hierarchical ar- ticulation with the aim of making perceptible the underlying logical (and finally cosmic) order. Images, for instance, did not have a merely decorative purpose. They were undoubtedly useful as mnemonic clues, in accordance with the old precepts of mnemotechny, but they also had afunctionalmean- ing, helping to transform the text into a complex symbolic object. Illustra- tions were useful to orient the attention of the reader, with tables that exposed or summarized the content of the chapters, but they were also use- ful (in the decoration of the initial letters) in helping readers scan and mark the rhythm of discourse. The ornate letters pointed out the different unities of the text and allowed readers to distinguish its components; for instance, the initials of the text were more developed than the ones of the commen- tary. On all of these levels it is interesting to note that the turning point is not the introduction of the printing press but much earlier, in the eleventh cen- tury, when the use of images became more complex and when the sepa- ration of words and efficient forms of punctuation became common. Research instruments like verbal concordances (word indexes) andmaterial

25. See Jean Vezin, “Poe`mes figure´s,” in Mise en page et mise en texte du livre manuscrit, ed.

Henri-Jean Martin and Vezin (Paris, 1990), p. 439, and Martin, conclusion to Mise en page et mise en texte du livre manuscrit, p. 462. This volume offers much interesting material on the techniques

of organization of the pages in manuscripts.

26. See Paul Saenger, “La Naissance de la coupure et de la se´paration des mots,” in Mise en page

et mise en texte du livre manuscrit, p. 448.

Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2004


concordances (subject indexes) were developed, overcoming even the mis- trust for conventional cataloguing systems like alphabetical order, which bore no relation to the ultimate order of the world. The printing press was introduced into a foment of active experimentation with the forms of pre- sentation and the organization of manuscripts, which were innovations connected with mostly autonomous developments like the increase and consequent standardization of available books. Collectively, these devel- opments created a favorable environmentfor the consolidation and the suc- cess of the typographical innovation. Must we say, then, that the printing press did not make any difference? Rather, in this situation of flexibility and ferment, the new technological possibilities introduced transformations that marked the final separation from the ancient and medieval approach. In preceding centuries images associated with texts—images that were as elaborate and complex as ever— still created a situation where the picture remained subordinate to writing. It illustrated the text and not the world. The miniaturist could go on copying the images of the manuscripts reproduced by an amanuensis that under- went a progressive transformation but remained recognizable. Or he could draw his motives from a collection of available models or from repertories of scenes and motives accumulated in memory, without any direct con- frontation with the external world. 27 Since the sixteenth century the ten- dency has been reversed: the image illustrates the referent and changes its relationship with the written text. The reference to reality resides now in the image more than in the text, which in some cases is now used (contrary to the former habit) to explain and to interpret the image. The text is in service of the image and not vice versa. Even more acutely, the change in- volves systems of information finding. As we saw, indexes and repertories were already available before, but they did not refer to contingent criteria. There were specific indexes, referring to the exact sheet and to the column of the book, that held for only one manuscript, and there were independent indexes, referring to chapters and paragraphs, that were valid for each spec- imen of the work. There were, however, no instruments that were inde- pendent and general at the same time—references such as page numbers, which do not depend on the specificity of the single volume or on the in- ternal organization of the text. References to the page number of a particular edition remain contingent (in another edition the page can of course be different), but are nevertheless univocal on strictly formal grounds, making no reference to the content of the text.

27. See He´le`ne Toubert, “Fabrication d’un manuscrit: L’Intervention de l’enlumineur,” in Mise en page et mise en texte du livre manuscrit, p. 417.

20 Elena Esposito / The Arts of Contingency

From our point of view, this is a further arena for the decomposition of communication into loose elements that can be recombined in new, more varied, and more effective forms. The novelties in paging and in the typo- graphical aspect are not only exterior questions but indicate the move to- wards a different idea of order; in the Middle Ages the sense of order still resided in an Aristotelian idea of putting things in the right place, where rightness depended on a necessarily cosmic (and in its essence, inscrutable) organization. Even if the organization of the manuscripts used complex and refined solutions, it still remained bound to this reference. The order typographers tried to give to texts was, on the contrary, a rationalization based on use and practice, a contingent organization that could bemodified and was driven by the possibilities for making use of the books. The aban- donment of fidelity to the original also meant abandonment of the necessity of order and the opening of a new space of contingency. Communication thus becomes more and more autonomous, and this implies correspondent autonomy of the referent. The books of men, once separated from the Book of God, are separate also from the book of nature, which is not the illustration of an already given truth but an inexhaustible search horizon. In the search for knowledge one can move on both levels; one can investigate nature with a previously unknown freedom, but one can also consult, confront, and combine books. It is not only the single text that is decomposed and combined in different forms; the relations among texts, or the general horizon of communication, also become possible ob- jects of decomposition and recombination. The medial landscape of the culture of the press is constituted precisely in this loosening in elements, which is accompanied by new possibilities of distribution and of diffusion (of transmission). Even in distribution, of course, innovations are introduced. A primary example is the orientation towards the market, making the distribution of books much more effective and above all much less controllable than in the traditional restricted channels of manuscripts. 28 However, the ability to read remained restricted for a long time, 29 which leads one to think that the enormous importance of the larger availability of books lies not only in a quantitative factor (more readers) but also in the qualitative change in the practice of reading. Terence Cave speaks of a discovery of the reader in the sixteenth century based on a circular and indeterminate relationship between the writer and the reader; 30 the writer writes so as to compel the

28. Particularly for consideration of the effects of the move to the market on the constitution of


a critical public sphere, see Ju¨rgen Habermas, Strukturwandel der O ffentlichkeit (Neuwied, 1962),

chap. 1.

29. See Rolf Engelsing, Analphabetentum und Lektu¨re: Zur Sozialgeschichte des Lesens in

Deutschland zwischen feudaler und industrieller Gesellschaft (Stuttgart, 1973).

30. See Terence Cave, “The Mimesis of Reading in the Renaissance,” in Mimesis: From Mirror to

Method, Augustine to Descartes, ed. John D. Lyons and Stephen G. Nichols, Jr. (Hanover, N.H.,

Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2004

reader to elaborate his or her own autonomous perspective, that is, to pre- suppose his or her active role. A practice of generative reading is thus sta- bilized, where the text is used as material to be interpreted according to criteria and interests completely foreign to the one writing. 31 Compared with the previous practices, this is a deep transformation just on the level of the difference of medium and forms; the medieval allegorical reading aimed at identification with, and not at detachment from, the perspective presented in the text (which was not that of the writer, but on a noncon- tingent and nonsubjective level). From that point of view, writing and read- ing were virtually identical. The text was read in light of its transcription from another text, and interpretation coincided with imitation—in other words, the transposition of the first text onto a second text meant to re- produce it. 32 The reader was not presented with loose elements to recom- bine but with a compact perspective with which to identify; he or she was not presented with a medium but with a portion of the world. The medium arises with the pretense of interpretation, when the text appears as an in- complete entity subject to the interpretations of readers. Even the long- persisting use of topoi or the citations of the ancient authors lose their mnemonic value and function as clues to be reorganized in an autonomous way. 33 The new autonomy of readers has remarkable practical consequences. The spread of reading is significant not only because of the fact that one learns to read but also because by reading one can learn. With books avail- able, one can learn without teachers (without support from the interaction, that is, by orality) and eventually even against theindications of the teachers, interpreting books in one’s own way. Besides the diffusion of alphabetiza- tion, a no less relevant change takes place in the way books are used by the alphabetized individuals. The old treatises of rhetoric and memorization are reproduced, but so is an ever-growing number of guides and practical handbooks, meant to function as dumb teachers with the aim of transmis- sion of knowledge that is first of all an autonomous act by the reader. The world of communication holds by itself and no longer needs contextual


1982), pp. 149–65. In the same period, the humanists lamented that the multiplication of printed texts brought their contemporaries to unlearn the art of reading as it was practiced up to then; see Martin, conclusion to Mise en page et mise en texte du livre manuscrit, p. 467.

31. See Cave, “The Mimesis of Reading in the Renaissance,” p. 163, who speaks explicitly of an

“unforeseen mental horizon.”


See Cave, The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford,



Given this circularity of utterance and interpretation, it cannot come as a surprise that the

reader has been discovered together with the complementary role of the author, which also did not exist before the diffusion of the printing press and on which much literature is available. Inevitable in this account is the reference to Montaigne.

22 Elena Esposito / The Arts of Contingency

support; on the contrary; it is now communication in absentia that deter- mines the ways and the practices in presentia of objects and persons. Me- diation is not subordinated to immediacy any more. Transmission can now appear as an autonomous question.


Since the diffusion of the printing press, our medial landscape has un- dergone deep changes. In the present situation, many students assume an autonomous relevance of the media as a specific system or as a complex of internal criteria for the selection and production of communication. 34 It would be interesting to examine the functioning of the mass media on the basis of the distinction medium/form, especially in view of the involvement of perceptual components, which are dissolved and recombine themselves in specifically communicative forms. Owing to a lack of space, I would like to focus on the potential usefulness of the distinction medium/form for describing another aspect of the media in contemporary society: the impact and consequences of the spread of the communicative use of computers. The aim of this paper is to propose and comment on the advantages of this distinction as regards the overemphasis on transmission in the analysis of media; in the case of telematics and related phenomena this overemphasis seems particularly evident. Think only of some sensational failures of the last decades: the project of broadband in- teractive television, which dramatically demonstrated (for the financers) the public’s lack of interest in a potentially infinite transmission capability. Apparently users are not particularly interested in choosing from a near- infinite selection of programs.What interests them is not somuch the quan- tity of transmission but rather the quality of selections, the possibility of decomposing and recombining information in new ways, with supports and instruments available to help them in this recombination. This capacity is what they seem to be finding in the internet. The difficulty in dealing with this topic lies first in the fact that we cannot presume to foresee the evolution of a medium in the course of its defini- tion—not only because the situation is still very fluid, but especially because of the fundamental elusiveness of novelty. What can be predicted in the present as a new development cannot be really new, if novelty means rup-

34. The case of the news is particularly studied, about which one speaks of criteria of newsmaking that have little to do with truth, morality, or objectivity; see, for example, David L. Altheide, Creating Reality: How TV News Distorts Events (Beverly Hills, Calif., 1976), and Altheide and Robert P. Snow, Media Logic (Beverly Hills, Calif., 1979). Luhmann, Die Realita¨t der Massenmedien (Opladen, 1995) presents the mass media as an autonomous functional system of contemporary society.

Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2004

ture and surprise. A predictable surprise is as paradoxical as an already pres- ent future, a concept that, not by chance, is cited in almost all scenarios of the alleged effects of technology. But, then, what can be analyzed? Where can we turn our attention? We can consider the medial features of the new technologies, which arefarfrom unproblematic. Does it make sense to speak of a medium in the case of an instrument that seems to subvert all the familiar characteristics of mass me- dia? Where there was anonymity there is now personalization, where there was unilaterality there is interactivity, where there was the mass there is in- dividual configuration, and, above all, where there was an instrument ex- pected to be as “not noisy” as possible, not to interfere with the message, there is now a machine used precisely to process information. Startingfrom transmission and its features, the introduction of the communicative use of computers seems to mark a rupture rather than a continuity, and the available analytical categories do not seem adequate. Before stating defi- nitely that the computer is not a medium, however, it can be useful to try to modify the concept of medium—for instance, by applying the distinction medium/form and seeing if we get any useful clues. The starting question would not be how telematics facilitate the spread of information but rather if and how they permit a new decomposition into elements and a subse- quent recombination in different forms. It is well known that computers are quite a special kind of purposeless machine, 35 radically not trivial machines, because, paradoxically, they are not used to produce any specific object predictable from the beginning but rather to produce previously unknown information— 36 that is, to produce surprises. The curious aspect is that this production of surprisesis entrusted to a technique that can to some extent be programmed and controlled. The forms impressed in the medium are then pieces of information; but what are the loosely coupled elements that will be coupled in a more rigid way? Again, these are pieces of information, but this information is not dealtwith as information; computers process data that were initially information for someone and will possibly produce information as the result of the pro- cessing but are actually handled with no reference to their meaning. This loosening is much more radical than the one that led, some centuries before, to the dissolution of the unity of written communication in the multiplicity of interpretations. Here even the sense of the interpretation is irrelevantand is completely subject to the interests of the user.


35. See Heinz von Foerster and Paul E. Weston, “Artificial Intelligence and Machines That

Understand,” Annual Review of Physical Chemistry 24 (1973): 353–78.

36. Not simply to diffuse.

24 Elena Esposito / The Arts of Contingency

The mass of loosely coupled elements, the substrate of this medium, is constituted by the data put into the machine. These data represent a set of elements whose bonds are loosened in order to be available for new recom- binations. This is the unprecedented ability of computers: to deal with communications as simple discontinuities without any reference to the in- tention of the transmitter or to the situation in which communications are produced. Computers and only computers are able to radically loosen the unity of communication in the search for new forms that mostly had not been considered by the one who produced the information. For example, when processed by computers, a text can show structures, regularities, and repetitions completely unknown to its author. These features can never- theless serve as clues for the creation of forms of other kinds, which can themselves become informative. Features that are perfectly casual from the point of view of the one drafting them, such as recurrent constructions and the redundancy present in lists or directories, are used by the computer in order to achieve effective ways of processing, with unpredictable results (think of compression techniques or the work of search engines). Even the search for information through computers relies on simple data; the work of computers has nothing to do with meanings, and this is its great advan- tage and its great disadvantage. It is an advantage because it enables the decomposition of communication into elements specific to the medium with no regard for the previous bonds. But it is also a disadvantage in all cases where information rather than simple data is the desired output; for example, computers are not able to plausibly translate a text from one lan- guage into another. A first consequence of these transformations, as has already become clear, is the need to rethink the concept of information—a typicalmodern notion conceived as a unity with its own identity. According to this par- adigm, information can be exchanged, gathered, stored, and transmitted like the (printed) books containing it. In this sense information as such is a value and its accumulation is wealth because information is understood as something scarce, and from the perspective of economics scarcity is the presupposition for value. If, on the contrary—as seems to follow from our analysis—information becomes relative to the specific perspective of each observer, 37 there is no information by itself, and its intersubjective value

37. See von Foerster, “Notes on an Epistemology for Living Things,” Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition (New York, 2003), p. 252: “The environment contains no information; the environment is as it is”—coherently outlining the consequences of the first developments of cybernetics and of circular causality introduced by Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, Mass.,


Critical Inquiry / Autumn 2004

narrows to selection. In this case, information is valuable not because of what it conveys by itself (everyone builds their own information from their own perspective) but because it selects possibilities—a place from which one can start, like a computer does, to create more and more complex forms. Information then has value only as a precondition for a further de- composition into elements, which leads to recombination into forms. Let’s return in closing to the question of transmission. Does this medial decomposition have consequences for the diffusion of communication, as happened with writing and the printing press? If so, what are these conse- quences? Our mass media society has a need and a problem that are perfectly complementary. On the one hand, there is a growing need for new infor- mation to replace that which is published every day in the papers and disseminated by television, which by the very fact of having been com- municated is no longer new or news. 38 On the other hand, society suffers from a constant information overload and is constantly searching for cri- teria that enable selection and effective use of information. In this situation, the computer as a medium offers, with its processing capabilities, a new potential to produce and select information out of already available in- formation (by handling it as data). With the use of computers, commu- nication enormously amplifies the ability to draw information from information— 39 not hidden or impossible-to-find information, but infor- mation that did not exist before and is produced simply in order to increase the available differences. This information, however, is produced on de- mand and is combined and selected in such a way as to permit the user to forget everything he or she does not need—that is, to neutralize the problem of information overload. It is possible that the effects of the medium on the transmission of forms depend on this aspect. That the informatic programs rather than the structures of language and of communication decide which forms are impressed in the medium of the available data is a novelty on which we can only now begin to reflect.


38. On this double relationship of mass media to time, due to which the communication

of the new is always at the same time production of the old, see Luhmann, Die Realita¨t der

Massenmedien, chap. 3.

39. We find here again, in an ironic version, the reflexivity of sociological research, investigating

a category of object—communication—towhich the research itself belongs and that takes as an

object distinctions that depend on communication itself.