How Silent Reading Gave Birth to the Modern Subject
Throughout history, different grounding metaphors have been used to express the world-view of a culture. Within the Christian tradition, one such classical metaphor has been the world as a book, in which God has inscribed his eternal reason and judgement. Such an idea became central for Scholasticism: By reading the text that was written into the ‘world-book’, one could, in some way or another, get a direct or indirect insight into the thoughts and reason of God himself. The full implication of this metaphor depends on the grounding metaphor that is used for the book itself; in other words which analogy is used for the book-analogy. And it is concerning exactly this point that a crucial change happens around the 12th and 13th century.
An account of how the book was perceived in western Europe in the beginning of the 12th century is discussed in Ivan Illich’s book In the Vineyard of the Text, a commentary on the art of reading by the medieval scholar Hugh of St. Victor (1097–1141).1placeholder According to Illich, the metaphor Hugh uses for the page of the book is the one of soil, a soil in which the written words are rooted and thus bound. The words thus belong to the page ‘into’ which they are written, and they do so in connection with one another as a text(ure) that offers its meaning to the reader. When Hugh of St. Victor reads — as Illich describes it — he thus experiences it as wandering in a vineyard, tasting the fruits offered by the words. The walk itself is understood by Hugh as a pilgrimage, where the tastes along the road are a foretaste of the eternal sweetness that awaits in the presence of God. Hugh therefore regarded the text of the book as a threshold or invitation for the reader to begin a contemplative journey towards the origin of one’s soul. In Illich’s understanding, therefore, in addition to being the soil of the text’s vineyard, Hugh views the page of the book as a window: towards the eternally divine.
In a well-known anecdote, St. Augustine describes his astonishment as he witnesses his teacher Ambrose reading silently.2placeholder Of course, nowadays we’re rather astonished by Augustine’s astonishment, since silent reading is our common practice. It is often claimed that a general transition from loud to silent reading took place around the turn of the 13th century.3placeholder A great contribution of Ivan Illich’s is to show to what degree this transition to silent reading is connected to several technical changes that have happened regarding the way text was displayed in books in the 12th century. Among these, probably the most important is the use of space between the words, a phenomenon that Paul Saenger — after Illich’s discovery — has examined in great detail.4placeholder Previously, the words were written without space-separation, which required the reader to read aloud in order to hear where one word ended and another began. To read was for Hugh of St. Victor — as it was for classical rhetoricians — not only an intellectual activity for the eye alone, but rather an engagement of the mouth, the ear, and ideally the whole body, which was moved in the attempt to understand the sense of the written words. In addition to the introduction of space between words, Illich points out how several other technical inventions in book-making occurred in western Europe during the 12th century, such as an index of the most important words, a list of contents, as well as a new layout for the page, all of which would make it easier for the reader to navigate along the written words.5placeholder
All these novelties facilitated reading in silence, which means reading inside oneself. This leads to another aspect that, according to Illich, is important to point out among these changes, namely how this changed the very understanding of the relation between the ‘book’ and the ‘text’. Not only do the spaces between the words lead to an individualization of the words, but the text itself is thereby slowly emerging as an object of its own; an object that is increasingly considered to be something that can be detached from its relation to the page of the book. In Illich’s view, the text — which for Hugh of St. Victor was to be regarded as intimately connected to the page as the vine stock to the soil in which it is rooted — slowly, mainly due to the aforementioned technical changes, gains an existence on its own, independent from its relation to the book. The text is thus uprooted from the soil of the book, abstracted from the page, and instead begins to be increasingly experienced as something connected to the human subject. The text on the page can apparently look the same, but it is not the book, but rather the human subject that is slowly being regarded as the primary dwelling place for the text — and thereby of thoughts and meaning as such.
What thereby changes is, according to Illich, the very analogy for understanding the relation between the book and the text. Rather than being a vineyard in soil, the book turns into a smooth and polished surface, on which the words and the text lie ‘loosely’ upon as a figment. Rather than being a window towards the world, God and the eternal, the page of the book is instead flipped around 180 degrees, and is thus understood as a mirroring of the human subject, in which the text is thought to have its proper origin.6placeholder This abstraction of the text into an object of its own, which in turn makes the human subject — rather than the book —its dwelling place, is the main change Illich sees occurring in the West-European culture of reading from the 12th to the 13th century.
The historical consequences of this change can be seen within various fields and at different levels. First, the very attitude of reading and studying is thereby moved from the contemplation of a book towards the argumentation of a text, which according to Illich is to be understood as an essential precondition for the rise of the university milieus in the 13th century, centering around the argumentative text in a very different way than it had been done in the life of the monasteries that was centered around contemplation. The medieval universities were institutions made to house this new kind of text. Closely related to this, the great scholastic Summae are to be understood as buildings of thought in a human subject, which in turn is reflected (i.e. mirrored) in a book by being written down, such as Thomas’s Summa Theologica.7placeholder
Next, Illich claims that this understanding of the text as being able to exist as an object on its own, detached from the book, is the fundamental way of thinking which is presupposed in the revolution that Gutenberg was to conduct some hundred years later. Without a text that has first individualized the word by spacing, and thereafter disentangled its roots from the page of the book, the text editing which is required in the printing press would not have been possible to imagine. Gutenberg’s printing revolution is, in other words, based on this much deeper change in the relation between the text and the book.
More generally — and the main reason why this change is usually overlooked and so difficult to notice —this understanding of the text as having its proper origin in the human subject has fundamentally shaped our way of thinking about this relation until today.8placeholder We therefore usually take it for granted, and do not recognize it, unless we visit other metaphors — like the one of Hugh of St. Victor — in order to get a contrast to our own way of perceiving. This change within the grounding metaphor of the book shines a new light on our understanding of the radically new conceptions of the subject that came out of Scholasticism, like the ones put forward by Thomas Aquinas. It makes sense in that regard to claim that he expressed an increasing self-perception of the subject, of being the actual origin of the text, and thus also the thoughts and meaning connected to it. Rather than being rooted in the soil of the book, and thereby being a window towards the eternal, the new, uprooted, independent text has instead the human subject and its thoughts as its primary dwelling place. And from there, the text throws its anchor onto the blank page of the book, which now has changed its metaphor and is to be looked upon as a mirror; a mirror of what is created and dwells in the human subject.
Augustin: Confessiones. Stuttgart, 2009.
Illich, I.: In the Vineyard of the Text. Chicago, 1993.
Saenger, P.: Space Between Words. The Origin of Silent Reading. Stanford, 1997.
— Silent Reading, in ‘Viator 113, (1982), p. 367–414’
Illich, Ivan: In the vineyard of the text. A commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. Chicago, 1993.
Saint Augustine: Confessiones, book IV, 3.
See for example ‘Paul Saenger (1982): Silent Reading’.
Saenger: Space between words. The origins of silent reading. Stanford, 1997.
Illich: In the vineyard of the text, especially p. 94.
Ibid. p. 119 f.
For both of these points see ‘In the Vineyard of the Text’ especially p. 118.
A main interest of Illich is actually to show how the last decades has initiated a new epoch in this relation, but for our purpose here, the main historical lines we’ve pointed out are the relevant ones.