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From Print to Digital: A Revolution in the Order of Speeches

An Interview with Roger Chartier
De l’imprimé au numérique : une révolution de l’ordre des discours. Entretien avec Roger Chartier
De lo impreso a lo digital : una revolución del orden del discurso. Entrevista con Roger Chartier
Cécile Rabot et Roger Chartier
Traduction de Katharine Throssell
Cet article est une traduction de :
De l’imprimé au numérique : une révolution de l’ordre des discours [fr]


Dans cet entretien, Roger Chartier revient sur certains des principaux concepts ou analyses qu’il a développés dans le cadre de ses travaux en histoire du livre en les confrontant aux questions posées par le développement de la lecture numérique. La rupture que représente le développement des supports de lecture numérique est réinscrite dans la série des grandes transformations qui ont affecté l’histoire du livre sur la longue durée. Tout en soulignant la matérialité des supports de lecture numérique, Roger Chartier analyse ensuite en quoi celle-ci modifie les dispositifs de lecture existants, les formes de textualité et d’intertextualité, et révolutionne ainsi plus largement les structures économiques du marché du livre, les conditions du travail intellectuel, et ses modalités de transmission.

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Roger Chartier

Roger Chartier

Roger Chartier at Centre français de recherche en sciences sociales (CEFRES), Prague, 2011.

Source : Wikipédia, picture by Michael Wögerbauer

Cécile Rabot: – Your work has emphasized the connections between forms and meanings. Could you give us a few examples of these connections? What is the extent to which the materiality of texts determines how they are perceived and read?

Roger Chartier: – The concept of the “materiality of the text” aims to move beyond the classic but misleading opposition between the work and the book or printed object. That very clear-cut distinction appears to define very different tasks: those of historians of literature or philosophy, pertaining to the study of the genesis and meanings of works, and those of historians of books and publishing, focused on elucidating the conditions of publication and circulation of texts. However, the above distinction has been challenged by the “sociology of texts” proposed by Donald Francis McKenzie (1986), which takes the study of the conditions of publication, dissemination, and appropriation of texts as a starting point. Drawing on the bibliographical tradition, it emphasizes the materiality of the text and the historicity of the reader in order to identify the effects of the transformation of the material form of works on their status, categorization, and perception.

At odds with the abstraction of discourse reduced to its literality and literarity, the study of the materiality of the text, understood in the sense of Peter Stallybrass and Margreta de Grazia (1993), reminds us that the production, not only of books but also of texts themselves, is a process that encompasses different stages, techniques, and different interventions beyond the act of writing itself. Indeed, the transactions between the works and the social world do not only consist in the aesthetic and symbolic appropriation of ordinary objects, multiple languages, or ritual or everyday practices, which are all elements (rightly) emphasized by New Historicism. They are more fundamentally about the multiple, shifting, and instable relationships between a work and its different texts. The publication process, regardless of its form, never separates the materiality of the text from the textuality of the book.

This materiality is not only the materiality examined by New Bibliography, which called for a formalized description of printed objects to retrace their printing process and sought to identify habits reflecting the preferences or printing equipment of the typesetters who composed the pages of a book, and their alterations to the work. The “materiality of the text” also refers to the “expressive function” of the forms of inscription of the text in the book: format; layout; spelling and orthographic choices; and punctuation. Regardless of who takes them, such decisions “make the text”—at least for the readers of the edition in question. In that way, as D. F. McKenzie puts it, “forms affect meaning.”

There are many examples of mobility of texts resulting from the transformation of their material forms of printing, publication, and circulation. Among those I have studied, I could for instance mention texts originally published as printed books to be sold by booksellers, which then entered the repertoire of peddler literature, sold by itinerant salesmen (for example, Bibliothèque bleue, chapbooks, “pliegos sueltos), or theatrical plays printed together in collections of works (Shakespeare’s folio of 1623, Molière’s Œuvres) after circulating separately in quarto or octavo format. There is also the spectacular example of nineteenth century novels and their multiple forms of publication: as serials, fascicles, anthologies, separate works, complete works, etc. In each case, the status of the work, the forms of its publication and the conditions of its reception are all simultaneously altered.

As a historian of the written word, you have taken particular interest in the watersheds of that history. Could you list them for us? How does the digital shift break from the order of discourse that characterizes the printed word?

Before the advent of the digital era, the main, always disjointed revolutions in written culture were the rise of the codex—a book made up of leaves and quires bound together, which replaced Greek and Roman scrolls between the second and the fourth century—the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, and the successive revolutions in reading (the conquest of visual and silent reading from the Early Middle Ages; “extensive” reading—a fast, critical form of reading that supplemented “intensive” reading in the eighteenth century; and access to reading in and outside school for lower-class children and women in the nineteenth century). The major original aspect of the digital revolution is that it has brought transformations simultaneously in the morphological, technical, and cultural realms.

The second new aspect is that it calls into question the order of discourses constructed by previous revolutions. We are the inheritors of that order. This pertains first to the definition of the book, which to us is an object that differs from the other objects of written culture and an intellectual or aesthetic work whose author gives it an identity and consistency, or, to quote Kant, an opus mechanicum and a discourse addressed to an audience of readers. Second, more broadly speaking, we have inherited a perception of written culture that is based on the immediate, material distinctions between objects that support different textual genres and entail different uses. This order of discourse is challenged by digital textuality. Now, indeed, the same device—the computer screen—brings the reader a variety of texts that in the worlds of handwritten culture, and evidently of print culture, were distributed between distinct objects. All texts, regardless of their nature, are produced and received on the same object and in very similar forms, generally picked by readers themselves. This creates a textual continuum wherein genres are no longer distinguished on the basis of their material inscription. This in turn makes the perception of works as works more difficult. Screen reading is generally discontinuous, using keywords or thematic searches to locate fragments: an article in a digital journal, a passage in a book, a news item on a website, with no necessary awareness of the textual totality from which the fragment is extracted. The digital world thus doubly ignores the “book”: as material object, replaced by the screen, and as a modality of discourse whose narrative, logical or demonstrative architecture, entailing the perception of the location and role of each fragment (chapter, paragraph, page) within the totality of the work, is appropriated by a form of reading that renders textual units autonomous.

The digital world is often described with an emphasis on the “dematerialization” it supposedly introduces. What are your thoughts on this? Might one conversely consider that reading digitally and on paper are similar activities?

On the one hand, there is nothing more material than the digital world, with its multiple computers whose screens serve as props for reading and writing. The ceaseless competition between market leaders to offer new products, to create need so that they will be bought, and fears regarding the obsolescence of digital data are all evidence of this materiality.

On the other hand, there is nothing more dangerous than the alluring idea that both activities are similar: as if reading a text on a screen were similar to reading in its original edition or one of its successive editions; as if reading a paper or journal in one form or the other were the same kind of reading; as if buying a book online or in a bookshop were the same experience. In the print world, reading works topographically, and the reader, as the metaphors put it, is a traveller, a nomad, or a poacher according to Michel de Certeau. He or she constructs the meaning of each text on the basis of its coexistence with other texts gathered in the same object. This is where the materiality of intertextuality, which is dear to structuralist criticism, lies. Digital reading, for its part, is thematic: each text is localized on the basis of the broader theme it addresses. This fundamental difference has several consequences.

The very concept of a journal, for instance, becomes uncertain when the consultation of articles is no longer derived from the immediate perception of an editorial logic made visible by the composition of each issue, but is organized on the basis of a thematic classification in which each article is placed in the context of articles from other journals on the same subject. If we allow that form affects meaning, it is clear that reading a sixteenth- or nineteenth-century book on a screen is admittedly appropriating its semantic content, but doing so without being aware of the reading experiences of past readers. This is where libraries play a key role, not only as producers of digitized collections, but also as institutions that maintain the possibility of a link between the present and the past of written culture.

Doesn’t the mobility of the relationships between the text and its formats observed in the digital world also exist with print, even though the written word is frequently represented as a definitively fixed form?

You are right, and the mobility of texts in their printed editions have featured in my recent research. There are multiple reasons for this mobility: the transformations of forms of publication, as previously noted; the textual variations, which may be produced by the author’s revisions, the publisher’s decisions or the typographers’ practices; the modalities of the attribution of a same work (anonymous, under a pseudonym or the author’s name); the migrations between languages due to translations; and, of course, the readings of their readers. All the above calls for nuancing the idea that print led to a standardization of texts—put forward especially by Elizabeth Eisenstein (1983). Recognizing this doesn’t mean we should ignore all the processes limiting its effects, particularly in the age of the old typographical regime, between the mid-fifteenth and the early nineteenth centuries: corrections were made during the printing process, and which, due to the multiplicity of possible associations of corrected and uncorrected sheets in copies of the same edition, resulted in multiple states of the “same” texts; handwritten marginalia singularized a copy as appropriated by a particular reader; and sometimes out of the publisher’s or the reader’s will, various texts, both printed and handwritten, were collected in unique bound volumes. The printed text is thus open to mobility, to flexibility, to variation, if only because at a time when print runs were limited (between 1,000 and 1,750 copies), the success, and by extension the reproduction of a work entailed multiple reprints, which were never entirely identical. The ability of the print press to reproduce an identical text in each copy of the same edition or in different editions of the same text does not mean that this was done. Conversely, it is worth noting that handwritten transmission did not necessarily result in the alteration of texts, especially when, as in the case of sacred texts, layout was standardized and copying was subject to strict control.

I don’t think this mobility can be compared to what the digital world allows or promises. The perhaps excessive obsession with the digitalization of already existing books should not conceal another aspect of the “great digital conversion,” as Milad Doueihi (2011) calls it, which is the ability of the new technology to bring about original forms of writing and publication, freed from the constraints both of the codex’s morphology and of legal regime of copyright. This digital writing can be polyphonic and palimpsestic, open and malleable, infinite and shifting. This is why it disrupts the categories that have been the building blocks of literary property since the eighteenth century: the originality of works, which always remain identical to themselves despite their different embodiments, the singularity of an “auctorial” authority to which the work is attributed, the publication of texts in objects in which the reader can intervene, but only in spaces left blank by the typesetting. Evidence of the specificity of digital mobility, which can erase all these categories, is conversely given by the efforts of the digital publishing trade to introduce the key concepts of printed culture (author, work, intellectual property) in a technology that is open to their disappearance.

Your work has shown how reading gradually became a private practice. Does the digital world change anything in that respect?

The “privatization” of reading has indeed been one of the key characteristics of its history, leading to the institutional limitation of oral reading for an audience of listeners in contemporary societies. Previously present in all forms of sociability (familial, friendly, lettered, activist) until the nineteenth century, oral reading was limited to schools and universities, churches and courts, and to the parent/child relationship. Admittedly, these days, it has been revived in various forms: readings of works by authors invited to bookshops or libraries; audiobooks, which initially targeted the visually impaired but now appeal to a broader audience; as well as theatrical performances by actors who recite works. What role should be attributed to the digital world in these contemporary mutations?

Digital reading—which generally remains the practice of solitary, silent readers—may, thanks to social media, lead to the sharing of recommendations, criticism, interpretation, and annotation. Readers’ communities combine the private act of reading with the pooling of reactions. The digital world thus realizes the Kantian definition of public space and the critical use of their reason by private persons who submit their observations and thoughts to the reading audience. There is, however, one remaining difference between this pooling and the old forms in which the written word was shared: in the digital world, exchanging no longer entails being present in the same place. This presence characterized the agora in Greek cities, the intellectual and political forms of sociability of the Enlightenment era, and the manifestation of general will conceived by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This is why it is probably a good thing that in our societies, some institutions, libraries, and bookshops have re-established the old (and long-broken) connection between speech and the written word, and between the voices of the texts and those of the readers.

How does the digital world affect textuality? Does it increase possibilities of appropriation? Does it go so far as to change the order of properties and the author function, and should it lead us to rethink the idea of copyright?

The digital world indeed presents a great challenge to the order of properties, if we consider “properties” both in a legal sense, the basis of literary property and copyright, and in a textual sense, meaning the distinct characteristics of each discursive genre. Since it can be malleable and open, the digital text cannot be the object of property, unless it is restricted by an edition that forbids circulation, copying, or printing—which is the case for the thousands of highly priced subscription journals published by Springer, Elsevier, or Wiley. There are considerable differences between digitized books, which are published in compliance with authors’ rights and copyright, and digital books, which follow the logics and rely on the resources of digital publishing, and may make Foucault’s dream about the disappearance of the “author function” (Foucault 1979) come true as well as enable aesthetic creations that combine text, image, and sound and allow for the decisions and interventions of their readers. In the case of children’s books, harnessing these opportunities often means replacing books with websites, closed-ended texts with open-ended works, and giving free access to the publishing market.

What does the digital world change specifically in the historian’s practice and in the conditions of intellectual work?

There are changes at every step and in every form of the historian’s work. First, access to sources has changed, with the possibility of consulting digitized documents (archives, old books, recent bibliography). Research operations are also different, with the constitution of bibliographical or statistical databases, the previously impossible quantitative treatments that can now be performed, or, as we can see with medieval manuscripts, the possibility to see what cannot be seen by reading or consulting the original document. Lastly, the writing of history itself has changed, with unprecedented ways of presenting an argument and opportunities for readers to accept or refuse them. For authors, digital textuality allows for the development of demonstrations according to rationales that are no longer necessarily linear or deductive, unlike those required by the inscription of text on a page. A reasoning can be articulated in an open, fragmented, relational manner, thanks to the proliferation of hypertext links. For readers, the validation or recusal of an argument can now be informed by the consultation of texts (as well as the still or moving images, recorded words or musical compositions) that are the very object of study, provided of course they are accessible in digitized form. If that is the case, not only are readers no longer forced to trust the author; they can, in turn, if they have the inclination or time to do so, retrace all or part of the research steps. This is a fundamental epistemological change, which has been deeply transformative in terms of the techniques used to produce evidence and the modalities of construction and validation of scholarly discourse.

In the world of print, a history book entails a pact of trust between historian and reader. Notes reference documents that the reader will generally be unable to consult. Bibliographical references mention books that they would generally only be able to find in specialized libraries. Citations are fragments and their selection is the result of the writer’s will alone, while the reader is unable to be familiar with the totality of the text(s) containing these passages. These three classic forms of production of evidence (note, reference, and citation) are deeply altered in the world of digital textuality, insofar as readers are now able to read the book read by the historian and consult the analysed documents. The first uses of these new forms of production, organization, and accreditation of scholarly discourse show the extent of the transformation of the cognitive operations implied by the recourse to digital texts.

Do you see the field of scientific journal publishing as a paradigmatic example of what is at stake in the digital realm, in terms of dissemination, copyright, and reading?

Very much so. The tension between the free communication of ideas and publications that frame and limit access to texts has been a critical focal point in the conflicts between scientific communities and publishers. In recent years, there has been considerable controversy between scientific journals, which increasingly have recourse to securities-protected digital editions that make copying or printing papers impossible so as to retain a captive market for journals with subscriptions that may cost up to 15 or 20,000 dollars, and researchers, who are demanding free access to advances in knowledge. There are two opposite approaches in play here: the intellectual logic of free communication, harking back to the Enlightenment ideal of the sharing of knowledge, and the economic logic, also inherited from the Enlightenment, of publication based on the concepts of copyright and commercial profit. In 2001, 14,000 researchers, mainly in the field of biology, signed a petition that demanded immediate and free access to papers published in scientific journals. Today, the Public Library of Science publishes seven open access journals in the fields of genetics, biology, and medicine. In response to these initiatives, some digital journals (including Molecular Biology of the Cell and Science) have eventually agreed to release their papers from the paywall after a few months or a year.

The reading of digital scientific papers is a paradigmatic example of the prevailing logic in the digital world, in which context is no longer given by the printed object, but by a thematic order. The very concept of the journal is at stake here, with the disappearance of the material form that conveyed the logics (scientific, intellectual, aesthetic, political, etc.) based on which a series of sometimes quite diverse papers (in terms of genre and topic) were collected in the same issue.

What challenges does the digital world raise, in linguistic and educational terms, and for libraries? How does it change the role of professionals and of the bodies that have traditionally legitimized knowledge and writing?

At this point, these challenges have been clearly identified. Linguistically, there is the domination of a “universal” language, English, as a result of the prevalence of powerful US corporations in the database, search engine, and information markets. For libraries, the challenges consist in combining their traditional role, which is more necessary than ever, of preserving and passing our written heritage with their introduction into the digital world and the building or acquisition of digital collections. This should never be done if both are considered to be equivalent, and it should always be emphasized that digital reading (which in effect can very well do without libraries) cannot replace the reading of original documents—both for researchers, since material forms affect intellectual or aesthetic meaning, and for all readers eager to understand the past. For teaching, there is a twofold challenge: on the one hand, technology-enhanced learning should be used, but on the other, handwriting should still be taught (which is no longer the case in several US states) and knowledge of the print world should be passed on.

However, for libraries and schools, the digital world poses an additional challenge as it is the most powerful machine for spreading errors, falsehoods, fake news and fake knowledge ever devised. The digital world is far from limited to digital and digitized books; it includes a massive wealth of platforms and websites that circulate falsified knowledge, absurd theories, and political manipulations. This is another notable difference from the print world, in which the order of discursive “truths” is established on the basis of immediately visible criteria: the text genre, the publisher’s identity, the choices of booksellers and librarians. This no longer applies in the digital world, where all texts are presented on the same device and in the same form, with the same circulation and the same mode of reading (several studies have shown that one of the defining features of reading for digital natives is precisely a low level of concern for the truthfulness of discourse read on screens). This puts librarians in the position of taking on the new task of teaching readers about the criteria and means to sort and hierarchize digital discourse, which are not as evident as in print. This should also be a duty for schools, if we want the digital world to serve as an instrument for building a rational, critical public space and not as a powerful machine at the service of the worst propaganda.

Would you say the digital world has induced a revolution, and/or, at least, a reconfiguration of the place of print?

I think revolution is the right term, even if the current perception of this revolution is mitigated by the resistance of print culture (printed books dominate the book market all over the world: over 90% of sales in France and Brazil, and 80% in the US, with proportions of digital book purchases decreasing in the past few years). Will this state of affairs last, as Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière (2012) seem to think (and as I’d like to think too)? Two reasons suggest that it might not, however. First, all the institutions of print culture are struggling or in crisis: bookshops are closing; powerless against e-commerce, some newspapers, including prominent titles, have discontinued their print editions; and libraries sometimes succumb to the digital temptation by moving out their print collections. This poses a danger for printed books.

Second, the practices of younger readers and writers, “wreaders” as they have been called, involve the fragmentation of text, the discontinuity of reading, and the acceleration of expectations and communications. These everyday practices, occurring on multiple devices such as smartphones, necessarily affects relationships to written culture, in which books have played and still play a central role. Will books resist this? As I have said, this is not guaranteed by any means, although they will not disappear in the short term, as Microsoft executives claimed before (scared, then sceptical) participants at the 2000 Buenos Aires International Publishers Congress.

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Carrière Jean-Claude & Eco Umberto (2012)[2009]. This is Not the End of the Book. A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. Translated from French by Polly McLean. Evanston, Northwestern University Press.

Doueihi Milad (2011). Digital Cultures. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Eisenstein Elizabeth L. (1983). The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Foucault Michel 1979. “What Is an Author ?” In Harari Josué V. (ed.). Textual Strategies : Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Translated by Josué V. Harar. Ithaca, Cornell University Press : 141-160. [Accessed on 15 June 2020.]

Grazia Margreta (de) & Stallybrass Peter (1993). “The Materiality of the Shakespearian Text.” Shakespeare Quarterly, 44(3) : 255-283.

McKenzie Donald Francis (1986). Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. London, British Library.

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Titre Roger Chartier
Légende Roger Chartier at Centre français de recherche en sciences sociales (CEFRES), Prague, 2011.
Crédits Source : Wikipédia, picture by Michael Wögerbauer
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Cécile Rabot et Roger Chartier, « From Print to Digital: A Revolution in the Order of Speeches »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 7 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 novembre 2020, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Cécile Rabot

Université Paris Nanterre/Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique-Centre de sociologie européenne (Cessp-CSE)

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Roger Chartier

Collège de France/Centre de recherches historiques (CRH)

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