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On Paper

Response given at the conference ‘On Paper’, Beveridge Hall, Senate House, 30 April 2010

 

Software: Microsoft Office

On a couple of occasions lately I have had the chance to think about paper and also the end of paper. Of course paper is a manifold thing.

Software: Microsoft Office

I happen to have been reading ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, a treatise on Japanese aesthetics in the everyday written in 1933. It is a bewailing of the end of certain practices, flushed out by Western style – the purging of shadows by the new electric lights, the replacement of wooden and foliage toilets by shiny porcelain, the metal nib replacing the brush, blue ink replacing black. Paper features much. It was lived with. In the traditional Japanese house there was a shōji (障子), a window-wall of translucent paper over a gridded frame of wood or bamboo. It was this – so unlike glass windows or brick walls – that produced the shadows and the soft light of living.

 

 

Tanizaki also speaks of paper for writing and drawing –on – as an author it is of course a concern to him. He writes:

 

I understand paper was invented by the Chinese; but Western paper is to us no more than something to be used, while the texture of Chinese paper and Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose. Even the same white cloud might as well be one color for Western paper and another for our own. Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to draw it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall. It gives off no sharp noise when it is crumpled or folded, it is quiet and pliant to the touch as the leaf of a tree.

Indeed Tanizaki goes so far as to say that from the adoption of Western writing implements, ink and paper,  gathers the clamour to replace Japanese characters with Roman letters. Were this not so:

 

our thought and our literature might not be imitating the West as they are, but might have pushed forward into new regions quite on their own. An insignificant little piece of writing equipment, when one thinks of it, has had a vast, almost boundless, influence on our culture.

 

I mention this only because it struck me that paper is not one thing but many. And because if there is a sense of loss or reinvention as we move into the paperless era – which as we know has not yet proven to be such – then this text too speaks of loss, as a certain sense of paper is replaced and along with it come all sorts of implications. This aesthete’s sense of the world is echoed for me in Walter Benjamin’s relationship to the political-aesthetic shaping of the everyday, including in relation to paper.

 

I remember being struck by a passage in a letter from January 1934 to Gretel Karplus – when Benjamin was at his poorest, barely surviving in exile in Paris, and keeping warm by day in the Bibliotheque nationale. He writes:

 

Now I have a small and bizarre request regarding the arcades papers. Since the first setting up of the numerous sheets on which the notes are to reside, I have always used one and the same type of paper, namely a normal letter pad of white MK [Max Krause] paper. Now my supplies of this are exhausted and I would very much like to preserve the external uniformity of this bulky and thorough manuscript. Would it be possible for you to arrange for one of those pads to be sent to me?[1]

 

The paper had to remain the same. Odd in a sense – for this was a man who had got used to working on scraps – an aesthetic of refuse. The scrap was a way of managing and delivering information. Benjamin repeatedly treated the composition of his work as a form of collage: he wrote out his thoughts and also copied out the thoughts of other authors, then cut them out, stuck them on new sheets of paper and arranged them anew. He would dash down thoughts on any scrap he could find.

 

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He carried notebooks with him to record sudden flashes. All his scraps of paper, sketches of essays jotted on the back of library book return reminders, wind roses and co-ordinate planes that plotted ideas in relation to each other were archived. Even the most ephemeral of texts, objects, images found a place in his archive. The archive had its external posts. Benjamin’s notebooks crammed with tiny writing were deposited with friends and could be recalled by him at any time. Benjamin’s notebooks, unlike his other scraps, testified to a fine taste, finer than Artaud’s – no school exercise book for him, but rather chamois leather and vellum. Other people broght them for him. This was not a part of the aesthetics of necessity. This was an archive that was organised in various modes, including by written format (‘printed’, ‘only in handwriting’, ‘typewritten’). And Benjamin worked on a book that was never to be, a scrapped book that remains a scrapbook – The Arcades Project, a work composed almost entirely of quotations and devised such that the material within it remains mobile, its elements can be shifted at will. His thoughts, the thoughts of others, thoughts on prostitutes or bourgeois private gentlemen, advertising or fine art, all this is of equal value, for knowledge that is organised in slips and scraps knows no hierarchy.

 

Hierarchies in Benjamin’s view also collapse in relation to mass reproduction. There is a tension between the inviting tactility of the usually artworld, usually semi-restricted commodity and the desire to keep it pristine, as investment object. But, another type of book can surface – the children’s book, books that insist on play, on tugging, pulling, unfolding, teasing, gaming an even sometimes, as in annuals, writing, drawing or colouring in. Benjamin enjoyed and encouraged child’s graffiti on books and cuttings out, even though he was a collector of same.

 

I want to stay with Benjamin for a few moments more. Yes, he was a fetishist of paper – and of certain pens and inks. He wrote about handwriting on various occasions – was a trained graphologist too. But he also yielded, without nostalgia, to the pressures of modernity, commandeering the typewriter for his letter writing, controversially, for it offended his friend Scholem to receive such a missive.  He had thoughts about what the typewriter was and might become and how it might change everything, once we had changed it. He writes about the possibility of new modes of notating thought and suggests that the mechanical transposition of the typewriter or other future machines will be chosen over handwriting only once flexibility in typeface choice is available. Such flexibility is necessity because only then can all the nuances of thought and of expression be captured. One single standardising typeface could not provide this, he argues. Once versatility is achieved the writer might happily compose directly on the machine, rather than with pen in hand - this would of course affect the resultant composition, and books would be composed according to the capabilities of the machine, much as photographs eventually found their own aesthetic rather than imitating painting’s one. Benjamin writes:

 

The typewriter will alienate the hand of the literary writer from the pen only when the precision of typographic forms has directly entered the conception of his books. One might suspect that new systems with more variable typefaces would then be needed. They will replace the pliancy of the hand with the innervation of the commanding fingers.[2]

 

Without this flexibility in mechanical systems of writing, what is being lost, according to Benjamin? The pliancy of the hand in writing allows for the recording of meaning in the form of a trace, which possesses a shape, a size, an amount of pen pressure. The standard characters of the typewriter can barely imitate this. Benjamin imagines and hopes for a type of mechanical reproduction that could incorporate these other aspects, and so allow extra-layers of meaning to be drawn from the content of words and the ways they are drawn. He imagines a future machine, suggested by the present one, but far exceeding its capacities. Only with this would this writing be adequate for purposes of expression. With his fantastic machine, the energetic dance of the fingers jabbing away at a keyboard of variable typefaces sensitive to hues, tones and shades of meaning would type at high speed but relinquish none of the extra-linguistic meaning intimate to handwritten characters. These extra-linguistic aspects amounted to a type of scriptural unconscious and they were what made graphology possible. Graphology was a technique that fascinated Benjamin and in 1930 he complained that the academy had still not accepted this scientific method and had appointed to date no chairs for the interpretation of handwriting.[3] He contended that: ‘Graphology has taught us to recognize in handwriting images that the unconscious of the writer conceals in it.’[4] And this is because it takes place in a cubic space of the paper, depths discovered in the surface. All handwriting is, for Benjamin, like the writing that takes place on Freud’s ‘mystic writing pad’, the children’s writing tablet that was, for Freud, an analogue of consciousness with its capacity to forget temporarily, but always potentially recall or be assailed by any memory trace at any moment.[5] Freud noted how the mystic writing pad with its wax, translucent paper, celluloid and pointed stylus allowed both erasure and retention, for words, images can be written and then erased by an easy movement of the hand, while permanent traces of all the etchings that have been made on it are retained beneath. For Benjamin, the graphologist, the scratches of the surface of articulation, the surface of writing, can likewise be probed in order to reveal a deeper significance. Quite literally, for in 1928 Benjamin makes that claim that any scrap of writing, any few handwritten words, might be what he calls a free ticket to the great theatre of the world, for it is, he says, a microcosm of the ‘entire nature and existence of mankind’.[6] Interestingly, just as the Artaud’s notebook facsimiles have appeared, so too have reproductions from Benjamin’s archive in book form. We can read his handwriting and doodles, his graphic layouts of drafts of essays and so on.

 

Scraps, bits and bobs, cutting and cuttings. Here were are with a sensibility that has been prominent on the day. I was struck in panel 3, Marking the Surface, by each paper’s more or less explicit dealing with chance through collage, cutting, disjuncture. Heather spoke of the fear of arbitrary sign systems on the part of the sighted. But they came because like the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table the moment was right. This hammered home in Patrizia’s comments on photography and its chance illuminations, its arbitrary capturings of frozen instants – expressed by Benjamin as its access to an ‘optical unconscious’. Henderson spoke of the chance configurations of books curated in Sinclair’s passageway stall and the thrill of chance findings, the great tosher’s dream fulfilled. And it was al initiated by Luisa’s sense of the peculiar disjuncture on Blake’s collaged page in the intermingling of proto-mass and unique papers and modes – as also in Adam’s commonplace book. I wondered after it all if the page seen from this aspect of its discordant papers, surfaces, depths and volumes, scraps and fragments, was Blake or john Gibson made again for as a contradictory configuration, a modernist avant la letter, whose homogenization in the web triggers ‘that infinite that lay hid’. Our researches are never exhaustive. The object that has passed through time bears traces or maybe punctures, woundings – to bring up the paper/skin analogy – that can open and reopen and yield new contents, new meanings on that basis of what Tony called a ‘material textuality’ that includes the physical features of the text.

 

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Handwriting. Typewriting. Books. Pamphlets. Ends and beginnings. Scraps. Stuff scrapped. Books scrapped by circumstance or design. Scrapings.  All of these forms needs their readers too. In One Way Street from the 1920s., Benjamin talks of getting his hands on a long desired book. He gives himself up to the ‘soft drift of the text’, which ‘surrounded’ him as secretly, densely, and unceasingly as snow’. To the reading child, ‘the hero’s adventures can still be read in the swirling letters like figures and messages in drifting snowflakes’. The reading child’s breath is part of the air of the events narrated. He mingles with the characters, and ‘when he gets up, he is covered over and over by the snow of his reading’.  That drifting – here a snowy thing – came up in relation to the digital, the digital derive, adrift in the text of the web – a mode of reading. Benjamin perhaps got to this too – in his notion of the flurry of letters released into the cityscape.

 

I think of his swirling words, flotsam of a dreamy Romanticism, as re-articulated in more modernist guise in Benjamin’s thoughts on literacy in the modern cityscape. As he puts it, in One Way Street, newly expelled from what he calls the bed-like sheets of a book, ‘a refuge in which script could lead an autonomous existence’[7], words flicker across the night skyline, glimmering their neon messages above shops, or they stand upright on posters, newspapers or cinema screens.  He notes:

 

If centuries ago it began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisement force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular.

 

These vertical and sometimes moving scripts make the fixed and regular print in the book seem archaicly still. The urban dweller must be able to read such a cityscape - its signs, its words, its images, a ‘blizzard of changing, colourful, conflicting letters’. Script, he notes, ‘is pitilessly dragged out into the street by advertisements and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos’. And it resonates with developments in art, where, since Mallarmé, the graphic nature of script is incorporated.

 

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Software: Microsoft Office

 

Mallarmé predicted the future, Benjamin claims, incorporating in his 1897 poem ‘Un coup de dés’ all of ‘the graphic tensions of the advertisement’. Apollinaire took this further in his Calligrammes in the second decade of the twentieth century with his ‘ideographic logic’ of spatial rather than narrative disposition.[8]

 

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And the Futurists clambered on board too, with Marinetti insisting on typographical revolutions, to express the disruption of syntax, metre, punctuation in pursuit of ‘lyrical intoxication’ in his efforts at abrupt instantaneous telegraphic communications. Words rise up.

 

Software: Microsoft Office

 

 

Software: Microsoft Office

 

I think today often of this swirling, chaotic writing, of writing screaming from billboards, moving vehicles, LED screens, as it has for so long – demanding and never finding really adequate enough attention. It may be that our reading, day to day, in the cityscape, is more like the traipse through the blizzard of words that jostle for our attention, while we absorb them more dreamily, inattentively. This might be the true struggle that is going on on the streets. But they seem currently to have the upper hand. If Benjamin saw them mobilise into uprightness, now they swarm, chasing us, catching up with us wherever we are in those little handheld gadgets that people carry. Beeping, squawking, demanding attention. A flurry of messages keeping us on message – on line – on a line, hooked, lined and sunk. Our attention is commanded.

 

And I am captivated by an image that I have yet to decode. Walking into the British Library or any other library, even in cafes, all over the place, the reader-writers sit in ranks, gazing at an upright screen, its greeny-blue illumination lighting up their face, in the shadowy realms that the post EU light bulbs engender.

 

Software: Microsoft Office

 

Software: Microsoft Office

 

Software: Microsoft Office

A certain return to Tanizaki’s shadows? Or each human for his or herself a glaucous aquatic gleam.  The shadows will be chased out again soon though. Apparently this sight will no longer be with us in 5 years, as electronic ink – if the sort in Kindle Machines – needs no backlight and will become the preferred mode of display.

 

We have heard much today about disappearances. Zara spoke of the heightened consciousness of materiality and how the new forms reveal to us what we never knew about the old ones as they are threatened with extinction. Known to themselves, perhaps for the first time, they rally, excelling in what they alone can do. It reminds me of the thought that it was only once photography had perfected verisimilitude in the image, albeit in black and white, painting stressed impression and colour. Medium-specificity is something that goes on reinventing itself.

 

We are all readers and researchers. That is important. Our particular investments as researchers are crucial. Other questions arise for those who are satisfied with their e-readers. Laurel’s talk made me ponder the etymologies of browsing and brwosers, of searching and researching. Re-searching implies that scholar look again and again, or find something they lost before. If we find that which was sought before, this suggests something of that idea of reinvention: that for us, the digital interface refinds, or looks again after print matter, the lost thing. We come to know it anew. But what we come to know conclusively is that it has bulk, weight, presence – enough to driver arbiters of space and storage to distraction. Roland Barthes said of the historian Jules Michelet that he sat in the archive and ingested history, the dust floating up into his lungs from those old books, their leather covers, their crumbly pages, he – as we say – devoured, seeking out the histories of France. What is our food for thought in front of screens? Michelet’s dust transformed for me into Iain Sinclair’s dirt now archived inside his pamphlets at the Harry Ransome Center in Austin, Texas. Not the dust of paper and leather but a trace of labour. It is the dirt that tumbled from his fingers as he wrote in those now archived notebooks in snatched moments while working as a gardener and labourer.  I wonder if the trace of labour gets erased or obscured in the digital age. If it becomes imperceptible because of networks and mechanisms that tend towards invisibility. The book is an artefact. We know that system. We know the weight and value of its paper, its print. We know its publishers. We know its bringing into being through chains of labour. What do we know of labour on the web or with the e-reader. Text comes to us as data, run through various display mechanisms, whose own status as artefacts easily becomes invisible. All that labour of programmers and server maintainers, of data inputers appears and does not appear. Property and labour are in strange relations on the web – witness pirating, pirate facsimiles on Aaaargh and the rest. Or labour is given freely in Web 2.0 in the blogosphere, where data is given up endlessly without remuneration. Labour is the same in cyberland, but different too. 

 

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[1] GB4, 330.

[2] vol.1. p.457

[3] vol.2 p.398

[4]  vol 2, p722.

[5] Selected Works vol. 11 p. 430

[6] (vol.2 p.134)

[7] Vol.1 p.456.

[8] Quoted in C. Butler, early modernism, p.170.