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.
DS: Shakespeare, the iconic author.
Pettitt: Well, he is now. The bracket goes right through his career. I put that bracket at about 1600, and Shakespeare is a very good example of someone who recycled material.
Sauerberg: It’s a Gutenberg-parenthesis symptom to hunt for the real Shakespeare.
Pettitt: He didn’t care. He didn’t care. Half of his works appeared without his name on them.
DS: They were published in quartos [big sheets folded into quarters]?
Pettitt: Quartos. Their equivalent of our paperbacks. They were published as paperbacks, and let’s say, half of them didn’t have his name on them. Shakespeare did not invent any of his plots. Shakespeare rewrote dramatized existing narratives, and in many cases, wrote new versions of existing plays. There’s an awful lot in Shakespeare, which is not Shakespeare. And he also used standardized techniques. He used verbal formulas and traditional dramatic structures, standard units—a bit like Lego bricks fitted together.
DS: Okay, not to keep us going all day, but there’s a couple things I wanted to work with and one of them is the limits of the idea of restoration and return. This idea of poets, storytellers and people who deliver news verbally—all that resonates as being restored today. But there seems to be a real fundamental difference between that kind of cultural production and the digital age, and that is this idea of a record. Sometimes I feel like the Internet is the ultimate container.
Pettitt: Well how long is it since you tried to link to a place, and it said, “no longer exists?” What is the average lifespan of an Internet site? I think I read it’s two years.
Sauerberg: You’re forced to change platforms every 10 years.
DS: Do you really have faith—in a serious way—that something you upload today will not be available later to come back to haunt you? Now we’re talking about authority. Now we’re talking about a thing in which all of your musings, and your poems, and your songs are now open to scrutiny, and I want to say permanently, and I think you should concede there’s a problem here, right?
Pettitt: In my experience and my thinking, the Internet, digital technology are as ephemeral as speech in the sense that I cannot easily now access documents I wrote in 2003. I will ask for special help to do it. And a lot will survive. I’m sure anything wicked I’ve written will turn up somewhere, but an awful lot of other things will disappear.
DS: But you see the issue about someone in Medieval times telling a story that was outside the bounds of authoritative sanction, afterward it was gone. Now, for journalists, this is not a small deal. But also as just people living in this new environment, the fluidity is, to me, within a giant container.