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Mechanization Before and After:

Intertextuality and Print

How did the invention of print and the printing press modify the ways in which readers and writers related to text?

In order to answer this question, I would like to focus on the notion of authorship, ownership and intertextuality.

Our modern day notions of an author come out of the development of print after the invention of the printing press. The romanticized idea of ‘originality’ and ‘creativity’ as Ong described them, come out of a print culture that saw written work as “closed, set off from other works, a unit in itself.” (p. 131) Ong outlined that “manuscript cultures had few if any anxieties about influence to plague them, and oral cultures had virtually none.” (p. 131)

Intertextuality, derived from “intertexto, meaning to intermingle while weaving” (Keep, McLauchlin, Parmar) is seen as writing shaped from other writing, within social and cultural contexts, transforming previous written text. Ong outlined that “manuscript culture had taken intertextuality for granted” (p. 131) Manuscripts “deliberately created text out of other text, borrowing, adapting, sharing the common, originally oral, formulas and themes” (Ong, p. 131) Print culture does not have a notion of common, collective, shared thought in written form. Authors, after the printing press, are required to verify and ensure their work is solely their own, or give reference to those who’s works have influenced or informed their own writing. Print cultures “set apart an individual work from other works even more, seeing its origins and meaning as independent of outside influence”. (Ong, 1982, p. 131) With modern day copyright laws and ownership of proprietary text, the notion that author and publisher ownership of print are at a heightened state.

Print and the printing press put an end to open, shared, communal sense of text. “Print ultimately gives rise to the modern issue of intertextuality.” (Ong, 1982, p. 131) With the advent of the printing press and printed books, text is seen as fixed, stable, and an entirety or whole unit. Here the notion develops that authorship is firmly connected to the individual who created and crafted the words into a narrative, story or description. “The printed book or written codex seemed to encourage the notion of text as an organic whole – a unit of meaning physically separate from and therefore independent of all other texts.” (Bolter, p. 178)

With the advent of secondary orality, and electronic, hypertextual works of text, the tension between author and written work has returned. The shift back to deconstructed, communal, open and shared text has begun. “A literary work, then, is not simply the product of a single author, but of its relationship to other texts and to the structures of language itself.” (Keep, McLauchlin, Parmar)


Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Keep, C., McLaughlin, T., & Parmar, R. (1995). The electronic labyrinth. Retrieved, 10 June 2003, from:

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

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