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What is Print Capitalism? - Definition, History & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How did nation-states come to be? They didn't just appear out of nowhere, did they? In this lesson, we'll see how printing, economics, and communities all entertwined to reshape the way we perceived our identities.

Imagined Communities

When we break it down, what is a nation besides a really broad community? Have you ever thought about this?

In the world today, most people live in a country, or what we'd call a nation-state. In vernacular terms, a nation-state is the territorial space where a nation lives. The state is the geopolitical space and its government; the nation is the community of people. You belong to a nation, so you're part of the community. But have you met everyone in the community? Do you think it's likely that you will meet everyone in your country? Probably not. So, what makes you part of the same community, if you'll never meet each other? Perhaps it's just the fact that you imagine it.

This is the idea behind the imagined community, a term defined in 1983 by historian Benedict Anderson, one of the most influential scholars to tackle the concept of national identity. According to Anderson, the nation exists because people believe it exists; they imagine the community and create their belonging within it. Of course, the obvious question is this: how in the world did this happen? How did strangers suddenly decide that they were part of the same community? Anderson has an answer for that too, and it all has to do with printing.

Print Languages

In the mid-15th century, Johannes Gutenberg developed a moveable-type printing press, which made it possible to print things much more quickly and affordably. Its impact went far beyond anything he could have imagined. Europe's emerging middle class suddenly had access to affordable books, and literacy flourished (at least, compared to the extremely low literacy rates of Medieval cultures). New Protestant churches of the 16th century believed that the Gospels should be accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy, so they started printing Bibles in local, vernacular languages instead of Latin and Greek.

Johannes Gutenberg
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That was a bigger deal than it may initially seem. Bibles in local languages became extremely popular, and printers couldn't produce them quickly enough. This sent a clear message: vernacular-language books sell, especially to the emerging middle class. People didn't want books in Latin and Greek, seen as aristocratic languages. People wanted books and newspapers in their own languages.

Benedict Anderson calls the vernacular languages that started appearing in newspapers and books print languages. Basically, these were the local languages that printers started to embrace. By doing so, however, the printers were also unifying people of diverse dialects under a single vernacular. Everyone who read these books and newspapers was reading the same language. It was a new and standardized form of communication.

Print Capitalism

So, let's review the situation up to this point. People are becoming more literate and reading newspapers on a daily basis in order to share information. Since they don't want to learn Latin, the printers acquiesce to the demands of the consumers and newspapers are printed in local languages. This unifies several dialects into one printing language read by everyone, who start to see themselves as connected. As people go through the same daily ritual of buying the same newspaper and reading the same information in the same language, they start to picture themselves as not disparate populations, but one unified whole. They start to imagine a community.

The use of printing languages helped unify local dialects into a standardized national language
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This, according to Anderson, is the root of the nation-state. Print media (particularly newspapers) was the foundation that allowed people to start seeing themselves as a unified nation. Since printing languages were developed in response to the demands of consumers (who purchased so many Bibles in vernacular languages), Anderson calls this entire idea print capitalism. In essence, it was the economic response to the printing revolution that fostered print languages and then built imagined communities around them.

Print Capitalism in the American Colonies

Anderson's theories are widely accepted, and we can see examples everywhere. In England, London-based printers defined the London dialect as the print language that unified the nation. In Spain, print capitalism helped elevate one form of Spanish above the others and coalesce the Spanish nation. There are examples everywhere, but the American colonies are notable.

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