Print capitalism

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Print Capitalism

Benedict Anderson takes a Benjaminian perspective when he argues that print capitalism is a primary factor in the rise of the epoch of the nation-state. Anderson argues that through the mechanical reproduction and subsequent commodification of print language, the relation of populations to language fundamentally changed. Print capitalism opened markets for print beyond Latin. This contributed to a “revolutionary vernacularizing” (Anderson, 39) of language, a spread of literacy, and a “change in the character of Latin itself” (ibid.). The rise of printed vernaculars deposed Latin as a sacred language; a language that held the power to access God, and simultaneously was all but monopolized by the Catholic Church.

With the Protestant Reformation and the spread of printed vernacular languages, new communities that operated autonomously and even with no reference to the church became imaginable. As Anderson writes, “nothing served to ‘assemble’ related vernaculars more than capitalism” (44). Capitalism created markets for language and a forum for the dissemination of information and ideas that became the foundation of nationalism. Anderson argues that print capitalism laid the basis for nationalism in three ways. First, print languages “created unified fields of exchange” (44) that allowed dialectically disparate populations to imagine themselves as part of a community through shared print language.

Print capitalism furthermore, “gave a new fixity to language” (44). We are able to access the language of past centuries in a way that was not possible before mechanically reproducible print. Thus language is stabilized and historical continuity from generations centuries past to present becomes more imaginable. Populations may now imagine the national community not only as one of contemporary society but as united to its historical origins.

Finally, print capitalism created new languages of power that were “elevated to a new politico-cultural eminence” (45). Thus hierarchies of linguistic power allowed some regions, communities, and ultimately nations to exercise political dominance over others. The exercise of linguistic power defines the relations of power and sets boundaries that may later be formed into nations and borders.