Back to top

Why Printing precedes Manuscript

Miræus lectures, Wednesday 6 March 2013
Peter Stallybrass (University of Pennsylvania)

Wittgenstein wrote that we cannot see what is familiar, because it is always before our eyes. Printed forms are both familiar and invisible in this way. So invisible that we don’t usually notice how strikingly innovative they are. When we talk of “manuscript” and “print,” however much we resist any simple opposition, it’s hard not to imagine manuscript as the technology of the Middle Ages and printing as the technology of the early modern and the modern. Yet blank forms reverse this before/after model. Printing records what is already known: in a bank check, for instance, your name and address; the name of the bank; the bank’s routing number and your account number. The fact that we "fill in" or "complete" blank forms registers the pastness of what has been printed and their manuscript future. The blank spaces are there because we do not know in advance who we will make the check out to, what the sum of money will be, or what the date will be. Blank forms transform "manuscript" into the technology of the future. In this lecture, I will look at the crucial significance of blank forms to the inter-related histories of writing and printing from Gutenberg to John Kennedy's assassination.



Peter Stallybrass is Annenberg Professor in the Humanities and Professor of English and of Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been Director of the History of Material Texts since 1993. He is also a member of the American Philosophical Society and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary College, University of London. Peter began his career as a mortician, but he has been teaching since 1973, first in England at the University of Sussex, and, since 1988, at Penn. He has also taught at the University of London, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and the Collège de France.

Among his awards are the Andrew Lang Gold Medal from the University of St. Andrew’s, the James Russell Lowell Prize from the Modern Languages Association, and four teaching awards from Penn. He has been the Samuel Wannamaker Fellow at the Globe Theatre in London and the Moses Aaron Dropsie Fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies in Philadelphia.

His books include The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986) with Allon White, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (2000) with Ann Rosalind Jones, and Benjamin Franklin, Writer and Printer (2006) with Jim Green. He has also collaborated with Jim Green in curating exhibitions on "Material Texts" and on Benjamin Franklin at the Library Company and the Grolier Club and with Heather Wolfe on "Technologies of Writing in the Renaissance" at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Peter's A. S. W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography on 'Printing for Manuscript' will be published next year by the University of Pennsylvania Press. He is at present working with Roger Chartier on a history of the book from wax tablets to e-books.


Free entrance
Venue: Nottebohm Hall of the Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience
Hendrik Conscienceplein 4
B-2000 Antwerpen


The Miræus Lectures are an initiative of the Flanders Book Historical Society and are supported by the Antwerp Bibliophile Society and the Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience.