Sauerberg: We are restoring the problem of authority. That is what we’re restoring. Medieval people had God in their minds all the time as kind of a guarantee, what they were told by the priests. Now what corresponds to it is the urge to authority.
DS: But isn’t that a little too clever? Before the parenthesis, society was defined by hierarchy.
Pettitt: It was defined by connections.
DS: But in the end the political structure was feudal. Now if you listen to people who don’t believe in the parenthesis but who believe in technological progress, they will tell you that the Internet revolution is about flattening hierarchy and the decomposition of authority. And yet the pre-parenthesis period was almost the opposite—it was all about hierarchy. What are we looking at from your perspective on what happens now that the parenthesis is closed
Sauerberg: New hierarchies will emerge. We’re looking for the urge for authority, the need for points of orientation.
Pettitt: And the authority of the book, the authority of the medium. In the parenthesis, the medium itself guaranteed authority because of its nature and solidness. This flattening out means that books are not more important than other forms of communication.
DS: So this is not necessarily a hopeful vision for the future. One thing about the book is that you can say that while it was an authoritative object, at least you can argue that was democratizing. Anyone, theoretically, could write a book. Martin Luther could, for instance.
Pettitt: He became a new authority.
Sauerberg: What Luther wrote was that whenever two or three people gather together, the Church was there. They could read about it. They could read about themselves. That was thanks to the book, to the spread of print.
DS: What Luther was saying sounds like what Internet advocates are saying today. The book there was a liberating thing.
Sauerberg: It was not as neat as all that. You cannot think of going back to something that was there. It’s rather kind of a structural thing. Are you familiar with the phenomenon of fan fiction? I invented a term some years back called the “unintended sequel”—that’s a new phenomenon in literature that people write on to establish canonical works. They write it in their own fashion, the way they want things to end up. So they add something. That is a new phenomenon that coincides with the closing of the parenthesis. Fan fiction is the phenomenon that people write on in large numbers of well-known books and do it in cyberspace alone. They never “publish.” They’re not intended for publication. It’s a ‘net thing and the one who leads that at the moment is Rowling and Harry Potter. There are, I think, at the last count more than 600,000 fan fiction contributions to the Harry Potter saga. And this is something that completely put out without any boundaries. It grows by its own energy, and people tell stories.
Pettitt: Which sounds pretty medieval to me because in the medieval period, the simple business of embroidering further on existing stories was their default mode. The existence of a story didn’t mean it was finished or completed. Anyone with a talent or the ability to contribute could rewrite bits or add material. What were they doing in between this event and that event or what were they doing before? There were prequels. What happened to them afterwards? There were sequels. It’s the norm of medieval storytelling that you take a story and you elaborate on it.
DS: And so the idea of authorship is now completely up for grabs. I was trying to assert the importance of authorship in the journalism field, but what you’re saying now is…
Pettitt: Well, of course, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody wasn’t written by everybody. That’s a challenging thought.
Sauerberg: We are under considerable pressure to produce a book about Gutenberg’s Parenthesis.
Pettitt: So how do we report on the end of the book, in a book?
DS: So before the parenthesis, authorship was not really necessary?
Pettitt: No, and it was mostly anonymous. And sometimes, if there was a name, there’s often no information about the name. There are those who say that the first known author, Homer, isn’t the name of an author, it’s the name of a process because in very Ancient Greek “homer” meant “the joiner of pieces.” It specified a function, rather than an identity.
DS: And you were even talking about Shakespeare and the question of his authorship.
Pettitt: That’s right on the edge. That’s why I find being a Shakespeare scholar has also become very interesting.