Sunday, February 10, 2008

History of a sheet of paper

There's a story in the New York Times today about how digitization is dealing a deathblow to paper--really, "deathblow" is used in the article (interesting style guide question there, right? I thought it was two words--not that I type that phrase very often. If I could figure out how to use the new interface on Lexis-Nexis, which I believe to be as user-unfriendly as possible, I'd check to see how the style has been decided in previous uses in the Times.) I recommend David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous for some interesting points about how digitization changes the modes of categorization that paper had demanded (in, say, the form of book technology, card catalogs, the Dewey decimal system, and so on). And you can read it on a Kindle if you're a savvy early adopter.

I was fascinated by the Times chart about how paper use increased and decreased in different countries from 2000-2005. It's amazing, and yet the article doesn't discuss any of the implications of it or give reasons for some of the less intuitable changes. Of course China increased its paper use, as did India and South Korea to a lesser extent, but what do we make of those changes?

The article reminded me of one of the weirder essays I've ever found in my various perusals through the digitized database of American Periodical Series: "The History of a Sheet of Paper," which was printed in the Southern Literary Messenger (Charleston, SC) in 1836. It's the story of how a piece of paper transforms from a piece of cotton to a piece of fabric, then a rag, then a lesser rag, and finally a piece of paper--told from the point of view of the object itself. It's another form of print metempsychosis.

I'm going to insert paragraph breaks because the stream-of-consciousness of this piece of paper is intensely weird and worth reading in slightly easier format:
"It was in August that I first broke through my filled and brittle pod. How proud, how beautifully white did we all seem, as hundreds of thousands, were thickly scattered all around me, to a distnce, the extent of which I could not perceive. Mortals may perhaps think that I cannot now, and could not then perceive or be conscious of any objects around me. Let me tell these wiseacres that their conceit carries them too far in dreaming, that other parts, yes, all, even to the vegetable, have no eyes and therefore cannot see. What have eyes to do with seeing. I recollect perfectly well hearing Dr. Tincture tell Mrs. Sugar Loaf, the grocer's wife, that the optic nerve terminated in the brain. He told her this while I was a part of her morning gown. Now the eye cannot see without the nerve, and it must be the brain after all, and who can tell, or pretend to say, that I had no inward perceptibility. I know that I had! and that, much more acute than they are aware of.

"As we pods used to hang there--many--many a cheerful laugh did we have together--and though we could not move from the place where we grew, we heard from one another--some being stationed on the road side, and as travellers passed, could hear their conversation. It was thus that our ideas were received from our bodies, capable of motion (and by our reflective power these things were communicated from one to another without noise)--all about strange countries, and things that we never expected to see, and thus lived in glorious anticipation of some great change, when we heard of the gin and screw, (poor innocent victims) although were naturally dissatisfied with that, which afterwards proved to be our happiest time, as was afterwards manifested. The first thing I ever knew of suffering was on a beautfiul afternoon, when a heavy black hand seized me, and dragged me from my mother plant. We were, many of us, crowded into a basket, and stowed away, sweltering with heat and want of air. But I need not complain of my own sufferings, like all other parts of the universe, I have seen my changes for better and for worse, but like the human family, I found the first change by far the worst. When taken away from my native spot, to become a part of this cotton world, (and we are indeed no insignificant part, each of us having to fill our various stations) we were only passive observers of the actions of human life..."

The piece of paper appears to compare his experience being picked, "stowed away," transported by boat, and sold to that of the slaves who picked him as a piece of paper, but he also says "I have not felt a little proud, when I recollect the many stripes and thrashings that I have seen distributed on my account," as when a slave is whipped for "gathering an abundance of dirt in the basket with me." So who are the "poor innocent victims" of the cotton gin--I think he's talking about the other pieces of cotton, not the slaves. It's a bizarre lens through which to consider paper production, but the account is always framed in terms of the violence he or his friends or the people associated with him suffer. When he is transported on a boat, he marvels at the sailors who are whipped with a cat-o'-nine-tails and says they must suffer more than the slaves on the plantations. The cotton is then fashioned into a lady's dressing gown, burned by an iron, and turned into a rag. He then gets ripped apart again when "an unfortunate nail caught me and rent me nearly from her back."

The ragged dress is passed on to a washerwoman's daughter who mends the burn and the rip. Here's another place, though, where the apparent pleasure that the piece of paper takes in narrating violence inflicted on unfortunate people who come into contact with him (slaves, young poor women) makes for a really strange story. He insists that the young woman should not have been so proud to think she could wear a rich woman's dress, and her "ambition ... was her ruin. In assuming the character of [the piece of cotton's] first owner, she laid herself liable to the exposure which her conduct had deserved. ... She became the victim of [a young man's] designs, and bore all the infamy which otherwise must have fallen elsewhere." Again, this piece of paper seems to be present for some ugly situations, yet he seems to take a prurient interest in all of the suffering.

When he becomes the rags for an old woman's nightcap, he giggles at witnessing all of her naughty dreams of relations with mysterious men:
"My stars how should would jump and start in her sleep, fancy herself young again,--and then the beaux. She would be at one time dancing in thei ball room, at another leering at some young fellow, now hurrying down the street to avoid an admirer whom she had attracted, now pressed closely into the arms of one she loved, and how the old thing would sigh when she awoke and found it all a dream; then in the spirt of vexation she would almost determine to accept the very next chance she should receive. ... Poor crazy old creature."

The piece of paper, as is evident in that opening paragraph I quoted, is fascinated with his ability to transcend human modes of viewing through the optic nerve and has some sort of extra-sensory powers as an object that gets reconstituted over and over again. What would Sherry Turkle make of the story in her psychoanalytic history of technology? As a rag and then a sheet of paper, he lives in a delighted state of miscellany among
"old boxes, books, old shattered family portraits, pieces of old carpets, broken candlesticks, old fashioned fenders, poker, tongs, and part of a shovel, hoops for dresses, powder puffs, and various other such antideluvian relics, as cracked bells, and an old broken rocking horse, shoes with high heels, and silks that would stand by themselves, with roses on them as large as a cabbage, with many other things, whose names and use were entirely forgotten..."

What this jumble indicates to me is that the history of paper has always been bound up (or, rather, not bound up) in miscellany. When he is worn out as a rag, he's traded to a cluttered grocer's store, where he chafes at his low status as junk:
"The effluvia of this place surpassed any thing that I had ever before witnessed, and therefore it was fortunate for me that this miserable state did not last long. I have noticed, frequently, that when our worst circumstances press, the better turn of fortune's wheel is nearest. The wagon next carried me, along with others, to the Paper Manufactory, and there we were thrown into the mashtub, beaten, masticated, aye and washed whiter than I had been for some time past, for the running water carried with it every particle of dirt that had heretofore defaced me."

He becomes a sheet of paper that a young cadet uses to send to his love, where enjoys a paradisial life being kissed often by the reader and stored in a rosewood desk with leaves of lavender. I guess that's a fitting end to such a story, but you get the feeling that it may be too sedate a life for this object--to finally get stored instead of recirculated.
Blogger nbm on Tue Feb 19, 08:53:00 PM:
Very interesting! Where, one wonders, did the cotton-rag-paper acquire his strict sense of hierarchy?

With respect just to the aspect of the plant suffering for its transformation, I thought of the old song of "John Barleycorn," where Little Sir John is "cut at the knee" and "ground between two stones."