The Gutenberg Parenthesis: storytelling in a modern era


At the end of last week I came across a theory called the Gutenberg Parenthesis. This basically deals with the evolution of myths and legends in today’s world, when communities are structured very differently – i.e. over the internet, rather than based on geographical proximity. The theory was developed by Professor Thomas Pettitt, Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern Denmark, and the title of it is actually a bit misleading. Gutenberg was the man who developed movable type printing and started the printing revolution in Europe (c. 1440), introducing a culture of written knowledge. Prior to that, knowledge and stories were generally shared through oral tradition. After Gutenberg there was a five hundred year break (or ‘parenthesis’) and now, so Pettitt posits, oral tradition is back.

Sort of.

When there were no books, how did people sort out the truth? How did they decide what they would rely on and what they wouldn’t rely on? It’s a new world to find your way around. But that new world is in some ways an old world. It’s the world from before print.   ~ Professor Thomas Pettitt

Pettitt draws a distinction between written knowledge and online chat, calling the latter ‘secondary orality’ which seems to work in a very similar way to oral tradition. He says that this developed, at least in part, because people stopped trusting the truth of the printed word. As newspapers became less reliable, secondary orality stepped in to fill the gaps in shared knowledge. The raptor pointed out that this makes quite an assumption about causation, but it does seem to be the case that we’re coming back to a time of ‘orally’ developed and shared myths.

Found on a wall in the abandoned Cane Hill Asylum, Coulsdon, London

Found on a wall in the abandoned Cane Hill Asylum, Coulsdon, London

One of the strongest examples is the evolution of the Slender Man myth, which began as an internet meme in 2009 before taking on an apparent life of its own. The tall, thin, featureless character represents one of the prevalent concerns of the current time – the abduction or traumatising of children. The figure went viral, resulting in art, stories, videos, cosplay and even video games (not just Enderman in Minecraft – he got his own). Aleks Krotoski, a commentator for BBC Radio 4, called the Slender Man “the first great myth of the web”.

Incidentally, compare the appearance of the Slender Man to that of the Doctor Who bad guys, the Silence. First mention of the Silence was made on the programme in June 2010, and they didn’t come on-screen until early 2011. I can’t find any mention of Moffat linking the Silence with the Slender Man, but the similarity of appearance is very striking. A modern myth grown large enough to achieve screen-time?

Urban legends have been around for a long time. I’m not entirely sure, in fact, how Professor Pettitt distinguishes urban legends from ‘secondary orality’. The original distinguishing factor is that urban legends are held to be possibly true, whereas stories like the Slender Man are patently fiction. But does anyone really believe the urban legends? And, regardless of fact or fiction, don’t they disprove the basic idea of the Gutenberg Parenthesis – that oral tradition took a 500 year break? I’m not sure we ever really stopped talking to each other. We just changed how.

Nonetheless, it’s a very interesting theory. If you want to hear more from Professor Pettitt’s own mouth, you’re in luck. Click here for a four minute video of him outlining the theory. Then come back and tell me what you think.

One response »

  1. Like the Raptor, I’m a bit cynical about that theory, though it’s an interesting one. And certainly the level of faith we give to the printed word is, quite rightly, changing.

    For an earlier precursor to the Slenderman, how about the episode of Buffy where no-one could speak? Pretty sure that featured similar looking creepy figures about a decade ago.

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