Cover page

For E, C, and J

Title page


Paper is accommodating, and that's what makes it such a wide field. It's not a field you can till on your own. I would like to thank Martin Bauer for his continual reading of the text, and his suggestions and objections right from the start; Henning Ritter for discoveries, feedback, and encouragement; Eberhard Sens for extensive supporting work on the basic scaffolding and bibliography; Philippe Despoix for Canadian commentary and the insight into Harold Innis's literary estate; Justus Fetscher—as always—for opening up side doors in the universal library; and Dirk Liebenow for papers from collections in Lower Saxony.

Fortunately, print media are not only made of paper; they are also conversational media. Thank you to my Süddeutsche Zeitung colleagues Jens Bisky in Berlin for ideas shared in passing and Thomas Steinfeld in Munich for his parallel commentary and editing.

In every field there are proven experts, and some of them are open to visitors from the neighborhood. I would like to thank Frieder Schmidt, head of the Cultural and Historical Paper Collections in the Museum of Books and Writing of the German National Library in Leipzig, for his enlightening discussions and patient/critical review of the manuscript.

The idea for this book first took shape during a three-month stay at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin from October to December 2008. For their suggestions during this hiatus I would like to thank the rector Luca Giuliani, all of the employees, my co-Fellows and, above all, the librarians working for Gesine Bottomley and her successor Sonja Grund.

The Microbe Experiment

On November 16, 1932, the French writer Paul Valéry gave a lecture at the Université des Annales in Paris entitled “La politique de l'esprit.” In this lecture, he described the present day as a state of chaos which made it impossible to foresee the future. We live, he said, in a civilization based on a kind of trusteeship. Just as banks can only survive as long as all of their account holders do not try to withdraw their deposits at once, civilization can only exist as long as the imaginary resources sustaining it are not suddenly revoked. To illustrate civilization's “structure fiduciaire,” its dependency on the interplay between trust and credit, Valéry proposed a thought experiment. It was not his idea, he said, but one borrowed from a review he had read long ago of a book by some English or American author whose name he had forgotten. Imagine, Valéry suggested, that a mysterious microbe attacked and swiftly annihilated all of the paper in the world. “No defense, no remedy; it is impossible to find any means of exterminating the microbe or of countering the physiochemical phenomenon attacking the cellulose. The unknown destroyer penetrates drawers and chests, reduces to dust the contents of our pocketbooks and our libraries; every written thing vanishes.”1

At the time, Valéry knew nothing of the rapid deterioration of paper made from groundwood pulp. The purpose of his thought experiment was to draw attention not to the actual decay of paper but to the fact that paper is omnipresent and indispensable in modern civilization. He needed an image to illustrate a crisis in the ongoing self-preservation of civilization as a whole, not just of literature or the arts. This is why he referred to pocketbooks and libraries in the same breath. He described the civilization around him as having paper coursing through its veins, with social institutions and routines dependent on paper. Imagine a world with no more paper, he said, with no more banknotes, bonds, files, laws, poems, or newspapers.

When Valéry gave his lecture, radio and gramophone technologies were still young and people had just begun to experiment with television. Even cinema, the telegraph, and the telephone had failed to replace paper as the key medium for storing and circulating words, images, and numbers. The tremendous destructive force of Valéry's hypothetical microbe highlighted the ubiquity and universality of paper in modern civilization. His thought experiment revealed all of the places that paper could be found.

The philosopher Jacques Derrida may have been familiar with Paul Valéry's lecture. In a long and very personal interview with the journal Cahiers de Médiologie at the end of the last century, in 1997, Derrida stripped the elements of fantasy from Valéry's microbe vision of the year 1932 and transformed the notion of paper's swift, sudden disintegration into a prediction that paper would gradually retreat from the universality that Valéry had in mind. Derrida said we are currently experiencing the kind of shrinkage that Balzac envisioned in his novel La peau de chagrin: just as the magical parchment inscribed with Arabic letters retracts in the novel, paper is shrinking and contracting in our world.2

Derrida was clever. He did not talk about the end, much less the “death,” of paper. He expected paper to continue to have a massive presence in modern civilization even after the explosion of digital media. He only said that the age of paper's structural hegemony as a medium for images and symbols was drawing to a close—and when he spoke of the “retraite” or retreat of paper, he did not mean a retreat across the board, but a retreat from key positions.

Derrida had spent his whole life thinking about the written word. In the interview, he described how his writing hand would glide over a sheet of white paper; he talked about writing on a manual typewriter, then on an electric one, and finally on a computer; and he said that the overlapping transitions between these writing routines were a defining experience of his generation. But to both Derrida and Valéry, paper was more than just a writing surface. Derrida, too, talked about the merging of paper, money, and banking—about “monnaie fiduciaire,” or paper money, and how it came to be replaced by credit cards and plastic. And he talked about the conflation of legal persons and “papers” in modern society and the problem of the “sans-papiers,” the undocumented immigrants in France; in the eyes of the state, I am whatever “my papers” identify me as, even if those papers are actually made of plastic.

This book picks up on Valéry's thought experiment, where the microbe acts as a detector revealing the universality of paper. At the same time, it follows up on Derrida's suggestion that we should contemplate the age of paper's expansion and structural hegemony from the perspective of its retreat.

When we talk about books, letters, and newspapers, we think we understand our world of origin; it exists in our general consciousness as the “Gutenberg era.” But decisions go into the establishment of terms like this, and the decision behind the term “Gutenberg era” was to make the printing press, and thus the printed book, into the perspectival anchor of modern media theory. The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan played a key role in popularizing this decision with best sellers such as The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964). Both books portray the printing press as the mother of the modern world and the model for all “media revolutions.” For all that historians have vigorously critiqued McLuhan's interpretation of printing and typography in recent decades, his ideas persist in our everyday understanding of the “Gutenberg world.” For this reason, several passages in the book at hand analyze the “paper age” in the context of McLuhan's media theory.

Paper is older than the printing press, and its history encompasses far more than just the history of printed paper. Above all, paper is not merely inert matter or a passive object upon which the intellect expresses itself in the form of letters. “Paper, you know,” Paul Valéry said in his lecture, “plays the part of a storage battery and a conductor; it conducts not only from one man to another but from one time to another, carrying a highly variable charge of authenticity or credibility.”3 It was not from the world of books that Valéry, the advocate for the mind, borrowed terminology for his incidental media theory of paper. By describing paper as an “accumulateur” (storage battery) and “conducteur” (conductor), he charged it with energy. This metaphorical electrification moved paper into the realm of batteries and circuits. The book at hand also takes the view that paper is a dynamically energized medium for storage and circulation.

Paper can be folded and creased, crumpled and cut, torn and burnt, covered with numbers, letters, and lines, filed away and pulled out again, mailed or concealed. It comes in a variety of formats and qualities, from notes to folios, from packing paper to decorative paper. The following account cannot compete with Valéry's microbe, which tracks down paper everywhere, in all of its forms. Instead, it attempts to bring together three different ways of looking at paper. The first focuses on paper in its physical, material form, as a product of civilization, something which does not occur naturally in the world but instead requires a technology to produce it. This cursory history of paper technology is largely limited to a European-American perspective; it encompasses Arab paper as the direct precursor to European paper but only looks at Asian papermaking from afar. Every episode in the history of paper technology comes back to the question of how paper became a basic element of Western civilization and how it came to occupy such a key position in the world we think of as the “Gutenberg era.”

This leads to the second way of looking at paper, namely, the way it appeared to Paul Valéry: as a storage battery and conductor. This book explores the cultural techniques, infrastructures, and routines in which paper functions as a medium for storing and circulating words, images, and numbers. The printing press is given its due as the single most significant entity in the paper age, but printed and unprinted paper are fundamentally placed on an equal footing. Writing paper appears throughout this book, and glances are thrown in the direction of the postal system which supplied the infrastructure necessary for circulating it. Just as Valéry mentioned libraries and pocketbooks in the same breath, this book looks not only at the blank sheets of authors and scholars but also at the correspondence and accounting techniques of merchants.

The third approach to paper involves looking at the paper age from the inside. Has this age developed an awareness of itself, and, if so, what characteristics does it attribute to paper when it turns its interpretive gaze inward? Paper is more than just a practical basic material; it is a metaphorical resource, a fact that can be seen in our everyday language when we refer to someone as a blank page, when we consider obligations to be honored on paper alone, or when we attempt to turn over a new leaf. Paper metaphors can be found throughout the history of science and ideas, from John Locke's comparison of the human mind with white paper to Saussure's description of the dual nature of linguistic signs as being like two sides of the same piece of paper. It goes without saying that this book can only touch on paper's long history as a material for reflection.

The avenues of exploration have been determined by this author's profession. As a literary scholar and newspaper journalist interested in cultural studies, I have focused in particular on the question of what modern European literature knows about the material from which it is made, as well as on the links between the history of paper technology and the emergence of periodicals. In doing so, I have relied on the fact that, apart from its many other charms, modern literature has the advantage of being an exemplary chronicler of paper. The history of paper therefore goes hand in hand with the history of literature in this book. Art historians would have a different focus; their sights would be set on paper in the graphic arts since Albrecht Dürer and the use of paper in the collages of twentieth-century visual art. Social or economic historians, in turn, would describe the paper production landscapes of Italy, France, and central Europe and the paper trade in more detail; they would hone in on the trade relations and internal social structures of the old paper mills and the economy of eighteenth-century factories and industrial paper plants. Historians of everyday life could not recount the history of paper production without going into an equally detailed history of papermaking at home, in prisons, in factories and plants, and the diffusion of paper in the form of sacks and bags, envelopes and accounting books, and festival and party supplies.

The examples used in this book to illustrate the universality of paper—at least rudimentarily—were not chosen at random. The approach was driven by the author's overriding interest in paper as a medium for words and images, and it coalesces in a general thesis which states that by embedding our media origins in the paper age, we can better understand both the “Gutenberg era” from which we have come and the transitional period we now find ourselves in, as digital paper begins to compete with analog paper. The idea that the “age of books” and the “age of the internet” are in rigid opposition to each other—a view promulgated in talk shows and media debates throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century—is a product of our common understanding of the “Gutenberg era.” The book at hand was written to counter the fixation on this supposed opposition, which prevents us from recognizing that the paper-based routines and cultural technologies which have shaped our infrastructures of knowledge, economics, leadership, the arts, and modern public life since the early modern era are antecedents to our digital storage and circulation media. Electronic media and our rapidly expanding digital infrastructure are transforming not just the “Gutenberg world” but the entire paper age. Paper is a virtuoso of substitution. By insinuating itself into existing patterns and routines, it was able to take over key roles in modern civilization, in banks and libraries, post offices and press agencies. It faced no serious competition until the age of the telephone and telegraph. But we have lived for some time now in a world where paper-based routines and cultural technologies, such as written communication over long distances, are being supplanted, supplemented, or transformed by their digital successors. Electronic paper is getting better and better at mimicking its analog counterpart. Newsprint and book paper have accounted for a declining proportion of total paper production since the end of the twentieth century, and elegiac predictions concerning the future role of conventional paper are certainly not in short supply. At the same time, we generally have only a vague awareness of paper's history to date. But since origin stories sometimes tell us more about the future than predictions do, this book only turns its attention to electronic paper after recounting the tale of the analog paper age.


The Diffusion of Paper in Europe