The Social Life of Paper

G41.2944 & E58.2344 (16509 & 16715)

Prof. Lisa Gitelman
239 Greene St. #812
available by appointment

Class meetings: Mondays 4:00-7:00, 244 Greene St. #306

Those who are careful (as they call it) to principle children well, instill into the unwary and as yet unprejudiced, understanding (for white paper receives any characters) those doctrines they would have them retain and profess.
–John Locke (1690)

It is unfortunately the perogative of this papering age of the world that, since the universe has fallen into the hands of the merchants of book and images, thousands of authors and artists, now blinded by the direct light of nature, see however quite well, as soon as this light is reflected from a piece of paper.
–Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1795)

The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.
— Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1803)

Susie, what shall I do—there isn’t room enough; not half enough, to hold what I was going to say. Won’t you tell the man who makes sheets of paper, that I haven’t the slightest respect for him!
— Emily Dickinson letter to Susan Gilbert (1853)

Common Sense on a Roll™
–Kimberly-Clark Worldwide (2008)


Course Description What is the cultural work performed by or with the technology of paper? How can a history of paper supplement and enrich recent histories of printing technology and printed artifacts like “the book”?  Or of “the literary”? What would it mean to imagine a paperless future? Organized around discussions of readings in common, this course considers the history, production, circulation and use of paper in the social production of knowledge, the shared imagination of value, and the mutual relations of consumers and commodities.

Course Requirements. Written work will consist of one shorter essay (10% each) and a final project due in at the end of the semester (70%). Informed participation in class discussion is an additional requirement worth 20% of the final grade and will include at least one in-class presentation. Written work is due in class as indicated on the syllabus and will be graded for both insight and effectiveness.  All work must be your own, and any plagiarism—no matter how accidental—will result in failure for the course. Late papers will be penalized and may not receive comments. The majority of the course readings will be available as PDF files, either in the “Resources” area of the course Classes site or via persistent links in the syllabus. Readings should be completed for the class sessions indicated on the syllabus. Also, please bring the assigned reading to class with you for discussion. If you notice any dead links on the syllabus or in Classes, please email me a.s.a.p., and I will try to help. Attendance is expected in this course: Absences may have a depressing effect on your grade.

Calendar of Class Meetings and Assignments

January 27   Introduction
Readings: “Adventures of a Quire of Paper” (1779) and Stanislaw Lem’s  Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, excerpt (1971)

February 3 Paper Theory?
Readings: Latour, “Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together,” and Derrida, Paper Machine, selections

February 10 Paper History: Antebellum U.S.
Reading: David Henkin, City Reading

February 24 Circulation and Recirculation
Readings: Ryan Cordell, “‘Taken Possession of’: The Reprinting and Reauthorship of Hawthorne’s ‘Celestial Railroad,'” DHQ; Meredith McGill, American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853, selections.
Browse: “Infectious Texts: Viral Networks in 19th-Century Newspapers”
Brief response paper due in class

March 3 Recirculation and Remediation
Readings: Paul Duguid, “Inheritance or Loss: A Brief Survey of Google Books” First Monday; Whitney Trettien, “A Deep History of Electronic Textuality,” DHQ; Bonnie Mak, “Archaeology of a Digitization,” JASIST.

March 10 Paper Data?
Readings: Martin Campbell-Kelly, “Information Technology and Organizational Change in the British Census”; Baker v. Selden U.S. Supreme Court Decision (1880); Nicholson Baker, “Discards” The New Yorker; Ellen Gruber Garvey, “‘facts and FACTS'” and Markus Krajewski, “Paper as Passion,” from “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron.

March 24 Substrate/Aesthetics
Readings: Craig Dworkin, No Medium; and Jonathan Safran Foer, “The First Empty Page,” Playboy

March 31 Substrate/Politics
Readings: Ben Kafka, Demon of Writing; Matthew S. Hull, Government of Paper, selections

April 7 Substrate/Knowledge
Readings: Erik Meuggler, The Paper Road, selection; Lorraine Daston, “Type Specimens and Scientific Memory,” Critical Inquiry; L. H. Bailey, front matter, Cyclopedia of American Horticulture

April 14 Substrate: Recyclable
Reading: Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books, selections

April 21 (rescheduled to 5:10 on April 23)
Readings: Drucker, “From A to Screen”; Gitelman, “Xerographers of the Mind”; Komaromi, “Samizdat as Extra-Gutenberg Phenomenon”; and (recommended) Latour and Lowe, “The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original Through Its Facsimiles”

April 28 Paper topics: A conversation with Ellen Gruber Garvey
Readings: “Sabotaging the Dissident Press,” and Abbot on the Future of Knowing.

May 5 Presentation and discussion of paper topics.

May 12 Conclusion.
Readings: Ferris Jabr, “Why the Brain Prefers Paper,” Scientific American (November 2013); Borges’ Library of Babel

Final papers due May 19th

Highly Selective Bibliography of Relevant Works

Appadurai, Arjun, ed. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Augst, Thomas. The Clerk’s Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Basbanes, Nicolas A. On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History. New York: Knopf, 2013.

Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Becker, Peter and William Clark, eds. Little Tools of Knowledge: Historical Essays on Academic and Bureaucratic Practices. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Blair, Ann M. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Brown, John Seely and Paul Duigud. “Reading the Background” 173-205, The Social Life of Information. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000.

Casper, Scott E., Jeffrey D. Groves, Stephen W. Nissenbaum, and Michael Winship, eds. The Industrial Book, 1840-1880. A History of the Book in America. Vol. 3. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Duguid, Paul and John Seely Brown, “The Social Life of Documents”

Fleming, Juliet. Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Garvey, Ellen Gruber. Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Groebner, Valentin. Who Are You?: Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe. New York: Zone Books, 2007.

Guillory, John. “The Memo and Modernity.” Critical Inquiry 31:1 (Autumn 2004) 108-132.

Henkin, David M. The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Kafka, Ben. “Paperwork: The State of the Discipline.” Book History 12 (2009) 340-353.

Kaiser, David. Drawing Things Together: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Lau, Estelle T. Paper Families: Identity, Immigration Administration, and Chinese Exclusion. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Levy, David M. Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age. New York: Arcade, 2001.

Lupton, Christina. Knowing Books: The Consciousness of Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

Luskey, Brian P. “Jumping Counters in White Collars: Manliness, Respectability and Work in the Antebellum City” Journal of the Early Republic 26:2 (2006) 173-219.

Mak, Bonnie. How the Page Matters. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

McGaw, Judith A. Most Wonderful Machine: Mechanization and Social Change In Berkshire Paper Making, 1801-1885. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

McLaughlin, Kevin. Paperwork: Fiction and Mass Mediacy in the Paper Age. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener” (New York, 1853).

Mihm, Stephen. A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Mueggler, Erik. The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

Pellegram, Andrea. “The Message in Paper” Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, ed. Daniel Miller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Poovey, Mary. Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

William Powers, “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal”

Price, Leah. How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Robertson, Craig. “A Documentary Regime of Verification” Cultural Critique (June 2006).

Rosenberg, Daniel. “Early Modern Information Overload” Journal of the History of Ideas 64 (January 2003) 1-9.

Sellen, Abigail J. and Richard H. R. Harper. The Myth of the Paperless Office. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002.

Sherman, William H. Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

Trollope, Anthony. The Struggles of Brown, Jones, and Robinson by One of the Firm (London, 1870)

Tudge, Colin. The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why they Matter. Three Rivers Press, 2007.

Vismann, Cornelia. Files: Law and Media Technology. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).

Weber, Max.”Bureaucratic Authority,” Sociological Writings. Ed.Wolf Heydebrand and trans. Martin Black with Lance W. Garmer. New York: Continuum, 1994.

Yates, JoAnne. Control through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.