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How Does Paper Mean?

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LisaGitelman, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014)

JonathanSenchyne, The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2020)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 August 2020

Asheesh Kapur Siddique*
Department of History, University of Massachusetts–Amherst
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


At a 2004 conference at Princeton University, the leading practitioners of two influential approaches to studying the history of texts—the “history of the book” and “intellectual” history—compared the underpinnings of their respective methods. Robert Darnton contended that while seemingly “made for each other,” book history and intellectual history had proceeded along parallel paths over the late twentieth century, with the latter focused on the analysis of discourse, while historians of the book concerned themselves with the diffusion of texts. Quentin Skinner responded to Darnton by elaborating on these “contrasts.” He characterized the history of the book as “a specialized form of inquiry into the production, diffusion and enjoyment of printed and scribally published material,” while describing intellectual historians as primarily concerned with the meanings that actors in the past have ascribed to concepts as they expressed them in language. Intellectual historians, Skinner suggested, had paid relatively little attention to the social histories of how texts were produced and received, including questions of their physical attributes.

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Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Darnton, Robert, “Discourse and Diffusion,” Contributions to the History of Concepts 1/1 (2005), 21–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 21.

2 Skinner, Quentin, “On Intellectual History and the History of Books,” Contributions to the History of Concepts 1/1 (2005), 2936CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 29.

3 Soll, Jacob, “Intellectual History and the History of the Book,” in Whatmore, Richard and Young, Brian, eds., A Companion to Intellectual History (Malden, MA, 2016), 7282Google Scholar.

4 Jennifer Schuessler, “The Paper Trail through History,” New York Times, 17 Dec. 2012, C1.

5 Cf. Eisenstein, Elizabeth, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, vols. 1, 2 (Cambridge, 1979)Google Scholar; Darnton, Robert, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York, 1996)Google Scholar, Part III: “Do Books Cause Revolutions?”; Chartier, Roger, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, trans. Cochrane, Lydia G. (Durham, NC, 1991)Google Scholar, chap. 4; and Johns, Adrian, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 For histories of texts and textual practices geared toward trade audiences see, for example, Manguel, Alberto, A History of Reading (New York, 1996)Google Scholar; Houston, Keith, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (New York, 2013)Google Scholar; Wilson-Lee, Edward, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library (London, 2018)Google Scholar; and Price, Leah, What We Talk about When We Talk about Books: The History and Future of Reading (New York, 2019)Google Scholar. For examples of similarly marketed histories of paper see Basbanes, Nicholas A., On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History (New York, 2013)Google Scholar; Monro, Alexander, The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention (London, 2015)Google Scholar; Müller, Lothar, White Magic: The Age of Paper (London, 2015)Google Scholar; and Kurlansky, Mark, Paper: Paging through History (New York, 2016)Google Scholar.

7 Cf. Harris, Verne, “The Archival Sliver: Power, Memory, and Archives in South Africa,” Archival Science 2 (2002), 6386CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Head, Randolph, Making Archives in Early Modern Europe: Proof, Information, and Political Record-Keeping, 1400–1700 (Cambridge, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Robertson, Craig, The Passport in America: The History of a Document (New York, 2010)Google Scholar; and Weld, Kirsten, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (Durham, NC, 2014)Google Scholar.

8 Cf. Curti, Merle, The Growth of American Thought, 3rd edn (New Brunswick, 1982)Google Scholar; Perry, Lewis, Intellectual Life in America: A History (New York, 1984)Google Scholar; Rodgers, Daniel T., Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics since Independence (New York, 1987)Google Scholar; Menand, Louis, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York, 2001)Google Scholar; and Ratner-Rosenhagen, Jennifer, The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History (New York, 2019)Google Scholar. Neither of two recent edited collections on the state of the field of American intellectual history includes an essay on ideas of media or communication: see Isaac, Joel, Kloppenberg, James T., O'Brien, Michael, and Ratner-Rosenhagen, Jennifer, eds., The Worlds of American Intellectual History (New York, 2017)Google Scholar; and Haberski, Raymond Jr. and Hartman, Andrew, eds., American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times (Ithaca, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 On communicative structures cf. Steele, Ian K., The English Atlantic: An Exploration of Communication and Community (New York, 1986)Google Scholar; Brown, Richard D., Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700–1865 (New York, 1989)Google Scholar; and Adelman, Joseph M., Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763–1789 (Baltimore, 2019)Google Scholar. On print cf. Pasley, Jeffrey L., The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic (Charlottesville, 2001)Google Scholar; Cotlar, Seth, Tom Paine's America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (Charlottesville, 2011)Google Scholar; and Holt, Keri, Reading These United States: Federal Literacy in the Early Republic, 1776–1830 (Athens, GA, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On epistolarity cf. Dierks, Konstantin, In My Power: Letter Writing and Communication in Early America (Philadelphia, 2011)Google Scholar; Skemp, Sheila, First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence (Philadelphia, 2011)Google Scholar; Good, Cassandra A., Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic (Oxford, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Damiano, Sara T., “Writing Women's History through the Revolution: Family Finances, Letter Writing, and Conceptions of Marriage,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd series 74/4 (2017), 697728CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Cf. Krajewski, Markus, Paper Machines: About Cards and Catalogs, 1548–1929 (Cambridge, MA, 2011; first published 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Yale, Elizabeth, “With Slips and Scraps: How Early Modern Naturalists Invented the Archive,” Book History 12 (2009), 136CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Blair, Ann, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven, 2010)Google Scholar; Robertson, Craig, “‘You Lie!’ Identity, Paper, and the Materiality of Information,” Communication Review 17/2 (2014), 6990CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Yeo, Richard, Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science (Chicago, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Eddy, Matthew Daniel, “The Nature of Notebooks: How Enlightenment Schoolchildren Transformed the Tabula Rasa,” Journal of British Studies 57/2 (2018), 275307CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a discussion of the paperwork-as-instruments approach see Jardine, Boris, “State of the Field: Paper Tools,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 64 (2017), 5363CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

11 For “print capitalism” see Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 2006; first published 1983), chap. 3Google Scholar.

12 For the “managerial revolution” see Chandler, Alfred D. Jr, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA, 1977)Google Scholar; and for the role of paperwork see Yates, JoAnne, Control through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management (Baltimore, 1989)Google Scholar.

13 Brooks, Joanna, “The Early American Public Sphere and the Emergence of a Black Print Counterpublic,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series 62/1 (2005), 6792CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Loughran, Trish, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770–1870 (New York, 2007)Google Scholar; Pratt, Lloyd, Archives of American Time: Literature and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Senchyne, Jonathan, “Paper Nationalism: Material Textuality and Communal Affiliation in Early America,” Book History 19 (2016), 6685CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Gitelman's account of the relationship between paperwork and “the liberal subject” in the United States (49) bears comparison with Joyce's argument for the entanglement of liberal subjectivity, bureaucracy, and paperwork in the nineteenth-century British state and empire. See Joyce, Patrick, The State of Freedom: A Social History of the British State since 1800 (Cambridge, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, chaps. 3–4.

15 Skinner, Quentin, Visions of Politics, vol. 1, Regarding Method (Cambridge, 2002), 16Google Scholar. For Skinner's debts to Wittgenstein and Austin see ibid., 161.

16 Chartier, Roger, “Laborers and Voyagers: From the Text to the Reader,” diacritics 22/2 (1992), 4961CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 50 (“forms produce meaning”); and McKenzie, D. F., Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (Cambridge, 1999; first published 1985), 13CrossRefGoogle Scholar (“forms effect meaning”). With respect to intention, Chartier has written that “meanings and significations … are not reducible to the intentions of authors of texts or producers of books.” See Chartier, Roger, “Texts, Printing, Readings,” in Hunt, Lynn, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley, 1989), 156Google Scholar.

17 On the heterogeneous theoretical underpinnings of book history see Suarez, Michael F. SJ, “Historiographical Problems and Possibilities in Book History and National Histories of the Book,” Studies in Bibliography 56 (2003–4), 141–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 An excellent entryway into this literature remains the special issue on New German Media Theory, Grey Room 29 (2007), 7–133.

19 See also Gitelman, Lisa, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Stanford, 1999), 34Google Scholar.

20 Kafka, Ben, “Paperwork: The State of the Discipline,” Book History 12 (2009), 340–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 351.

21 Darnton, Robert, “‘What Is the History of Books?’ Revisited,” Modern Intellectual History 4/3 (2007), 495508CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 495.