Joseph Elkanah Rosenberg teaches in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His research interests focus on 20th-century British, Irish, and American fiction and his first book, Wastepaper Modernism: Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Ruins of Print, will appear soon. William Stewart interviewed him over email.
WILLIAM STEWART: Your forthcoming book is titled Wastepaper Modernism: Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Ruins of Print – can you unpack that? The name is ambiguous, suggesting both an interest in ruined print (i.e. wastepaper) and the ruin of print (i.e. paper, printed matter as waste). Are these examined together in the book or is the project after something else altogether?
JOSEPH ELKANAH ROSENBERG: The short is answer is that I’m interested in both paper as a waste product – scraps, crumpled balls, tattered posters, and other papery debris – as well as the process by which it comes to be wasted. Or, to be specific, I’m interested in the literary imagination of these things. What I do in Wastepaper Modernism is examine a kind of obsession with destroyed print that haunts the modern novel from roughly the late 19th-century on. The modern novel is filled with images of wastepaper that, I think, tell us something about how fiction’s relationship to its own media begins to change around the turn of the century. Compulsively picturing the rotting of its own pages, the modernist novel seems anxiously aware of its own eventual decay. This obsession is, I think, at least in part a reaction to the emergence of new media technologies and art forms, like the cinema and the phonograph. Confronted with the new phenomenon of media that can actually record life and not just represent it through printed words, the novel becomes anxiously aware of its own scrappy materiality. It’s for this reason that wastepaper tends to appear in modernist fiction at moments of representational failure, or at least when representation is threatened – when the descriptive capabilities of language breakdown, the novel imagines instead the material decay of its own pages.
But wastepaper also tends to appear in the modernist novel in the place of something lost. For instance, in Henry James’s late fiction, when a character can’t recall some crucial memory there’s inevitably a description of some kind of wastepaper: a crumpled telegram, say, or a peeling billpost. In D.H. Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers, the first thing that’s described after Paul Morel’s mother dies and his lovers all leave him is a scrap of paper blowing along the pavement. We’re told that it reminds him that he’s alone. In both cases, wastepaper acts as a kind of material remainder – a left-behind thing that both emblematizes and takes the place of what has been lost. And of course it’s wastepaper that will show up at these moments, because it is, inevitably, the novel’s own material remainder – the thing that will remain when reading is over.
WS: Why is your discussion called ‘Wastepaper Modernism’? What makes this a distinctly modern phenomenon, besides the fact that you concentrate on modern literature? Is it that post-modernism would try to piece all the ruins together and say that it’s not actually waste but production, and that the iGeneration can’t understand wastepaper because everything is already backed up on its hard-drive?
JER: Before I get into what is uniquely modernist about this obsession with wastepaper, I should say that literature has always had an uneasy relationship to its own pages, even prior to the invention of the page. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, ends with Gilgamesh inscribing his story into the walls of Uruk – a city that the reader knows is going to be destroyed. So the epic literally ends with a premonition of its own material ruin – even Uruk’s eternal columns will eventually crumble. Paper, being considerably more fragile than stone, comes with its own set of difficulties. As a material form, it’s inherently ephemeral – we describe something lacking substance as ‘paper thin’.
There was a fantastic treatise written sometime in the 15th century by a monk named Johannes Trithemus called De Laude Scriptorum [In Praise of Scribes] in which he derides the then ‘new media’ of paper as a kind of ersatz parchment subject to a quick decay. Such a prejudice against paper as insubstantial and ephemeral lasted well into the 19th century.
In his history of the French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle derisively refers to the revolutionary 1790s as a ‘Paper Age’ marked by bank-paper that has no real value, and book-paper that holds no real ideas. For Carlyle, paper’s ersatzness has corroded into a fully infectious degeneracy in which paper counterfeits things of real substance. And of course, it’s at this time that, along with the industrial revolution, we have the mass-circulation of paper – city streets become clogged with posters, newspapers, and all kinds of printed litter. And the 19th century novel (especially Dickens) is wastepaper mad – think of Krook’s warehouse of tattered documents in Bleak House or the reams that fly through the circumlocution office in Little Dorrit.
At the birth of modernism, paper is both materially ephemeral and physically omnipresent. But whereas for Victorians like Carlyle and Dickens, paper’s ephemerality devalues meaning, modernist wastepaper resists meaning. I’ll try to explain what I mean. The paper scrap that blows in front of Paul Morel may remind him that he’s alone, but it does so in a rather roundabout way – it’s not as if it’s a photograph of his mother. Rather, it reminds him that he’s alone because it’s hollow matter – it has no message to convey, it’s pure detritus. Like Paul at the end of the novel, it’s been emptied of anything meaningful. Modernist wastepaper is both a medium and a mess – a left-behind ruin of communication that ultimately communicates nothing more than the lack of communication. It fits in perfectly with modernism’s general fascination with failure, but also stands against its (at least occasional) desire for transcendence.
Postmodern wastepaper is, as you suspect, a much more productive thing – William S. Burroughs cutting up old texts to make new texts, B.S. Johnson reshuffling the pages of his novel, that sort of thing. They’re not quite piecing the ruins of print together, but they’re definitely giving waste a use value. Modernist wastepaper is utterly useless and completely unproductive!
As for the iGeneration, I think there’s something about our relationship to screens that is fundamentally different than our relationship to paper. The book is site-specific in a way that a screen is not. I should say that this thought is a bit counterintuitive. The literary critic F.W. Bateson famously once asked ‘if the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where is Hamlet?’ We tend to think of literature as having its true existence on some kind of astral plane – it doesn’t matter whether you read Hamlet in a folio or paperback. That’s just the hardware. But, of course, it’s only through the hardware of the page that we encounter a text. More than any other substance, paper moves and mediates between information and matter, between idea and thing. Reading a book, we lose track of the material on which it is printed. Noticing that material means diverting our eyes from the text and ceasing to read. And yet paper is entirely vital to the circulation of literature – it’s what books are made of – and there’s much to be said for reading’s sensory pleasures (the musty smell of old glue and ink, the crackling whisper of rustling pages, the dry scrape of paper against the fingers). In other words, the printed text has a kind of fluctuating materiality – both present and not present – which I think helps explain why the appearance of wastepaper in a text is so uncanny.
With screen media, information and matter have a clearer relationship – screens are projected on, not imprinted. A screen is a kind of vessel that contains images; printed paper has had words permanently scratched into it (we will briefly ignore pencils, though they too can leave a trace). To put it another way, while with computers you need certain hardware to run your software, the software nevertheless has a kind of independence from the machine. Print and paper are more problematically entwined.
WS: To expand my second question: does your book have any ramifications for the present state of affairs in which physical print seems to be increasingly endangered by digital text? Is there something significant about the existence of a printed form capable of being ruined that we lose through the surfeit of digital written forms? Do we lose something more than symbolism in the knowledge that blogs are never in danger of being burned?
JER: Well, while a blog may never be in danger of being burned, a computer certainly is. We all tend to think of electronic information – especially since the advent of ‘cloud’ storage – as having a kind of ethereal existence independent of physical machines. And in a sense it does. But this doesn’t mean that the information isn’t being stored somewhere. I know that I just said that software has more independence from hardware than print has from paper, but it’s not total freedom. Who hasn’t suffered from a corrupted hard drive? A few months ago, I had to have mine completely replaced because it apparently choked to death on dust. And who hasn’t come across a 404 error on the internet? ‘Server not found.’ In other words, the machine on which the website is hosted can’t be physically located. All this to say that as long as information is conveyed through matter, it will always be subject to decay. Cloud or no cloud, the internet depends on physical devices that will ultimately wreak their revenge on whatever we store on them. What I think we’ve lost is a sense of ecology. Because we don’t think of our devices as storehouses, we have a far more casual relationship to them. I have to replace my laptop every few years. I haven’t yet replaced my copy of Ulysses. Somewhere out there is a landfill filled with circuit boards, hard drives, and unloved old iPhones. We haven’t lost any waste, we’ve just exiled it from our view. Which of course allows us to make more of it. If anything, electronic media is the most wasteful technology of all. Unlike a Kindle, a book is recyclable. How long will it take for our piles of electronic waste to biodegrade?
As far as the threat of eBooks and the seemingly inevitable death of paper, I remain thoroughly skeptical for a number of reasons. One thing that I try to show in Wastepaper Modernism is that paper has been dying since the moment it was born, and there have always been worries about the ramifications this has for literature. These are not new concerns. It seems to me that the biggest stumbling block for eBooks is the question of ownership. From what I understand, when you purchase an eBook for your Kindle what you’re actually buying isn’t the text itself but rather a license to view it on your device. So who owns the text? And what will happen when your Kindle dies? Or when Amazon decides to phase out the Kindle in favor of, say, the new and improved Spindle or Twindle or Findle? Do you need to purchase a new license for your new device?
As it stands now, eBooks, though indisputably popular, aren’t really a medium unto themselves. Rather, though this is probably going to make me sound like Trithemus, they’re an ersatz product – a cheap replica that tries and fails to do what real paper does. The more e-readers like the Kindle try to replicate paper by allowing the reader to virtually turn pages, the more they advertise their screens as ‘paperwhite’, the more they reveal themselves as a counterfeit. As far as I know, while there are plenty of works only available as eBooks, no one has tried to create a genre that depends on the e-reader.
The truth of the matter is that computers already a have a medium-specific form of narrative – video games. It’s here, I think, that the computer’s literary future lies. And while video games will inevitably change the way paper-based narrative is told, it won’t replace the novel or poetry any more than the old new media of the cinema and radio did.
WS: I could also see how a discussion of wastepaper might carry an unfairly negative connotation. We’ve talked before about Dominique Laporte’s History of Shit, a central theme of which is that the development of individuality is closely linked to the implementation of sanitation systems in modern society. Slavoj Zizek echoes this link between our identity and waste during his interview in the film The Examined Life when, standing in front of a garbage processing facility, he says, ‘This is where we should start feeling at home. Part of our daily perception of reality is that this disappears from our world . . . But the problem is that trash doesn’t disappear.’ Is your book interested at all in this relationship, in the way that the wastepaper can play a role in revealing something about the nature of the wasters?
JER: I remember that scene. Zizek, like Oscar the Grouch, looks totally at home in a rubbish heap.
In any case, both Zizek and Laporte have their intellectual roots in post-Freudian (specifically Lacanian) psychoanalysis. And one of the major psychoanalytic ideas that has remained pretty stable over the past century is that the self is always defined by what it rejects. In other words, we become ourselves through an act of wasting. This is why Laporte sees the idea of the private citizen as arising with the invention of sanitation. Or, to be specific, a 16th-century French law requiring that human waste be disposed of in the home, not thrown into the street, which he sees as marking the invention of privacy. The difficulty is what we then do with the waste matter we reject – Zizek is right, it doesn’t just disappear.
Paper poses a similar problem. The pages we discard or leave behind make up a kind of psychic residue. We record our innermost thoughts in diaries, our confidences in letters; even a discarded shopping list can reveal uncomfortable psychological truths! I think this is why so many writers had a rather ruthless relationship to their own bookkeeping. Henry James, for instance, regularly burned his correspondence. While on one level this suggests a certain worry about posterity, I think it also tells us something about how we relate to our own mental waste. Where our formal pages show us at our best, wastepaper reveals our true selves in all their scrappy reality. I think this is another reason why when wastepaper appears in the modernist novel it tends to clog or obstruct stream-of-consciousness narration – it’s a residuum of the self that can’t be reabsorbed.
I should say, though, that while we may have an uneasy relationship to our own waste, our relationship with the waste of others can be even more weird. Portia Quayne, the orphan heroine of Elizabeth Bowen’s wonderful novel The Death of the Heart, collects all the junk mail her guardians receive and stuffs them into her escritoire. They provide her with a kind of illusion of love: look at all those letters, I must have so many friends! In other words, she fabricates an imaginary social world out of other people’s waste. Of course, this infuriates her guardians, who in the process of cleaning up Portia’s mess of letters discover – and naturally read – her diary, which has all sorts of disastrous consequences (namely, the disillusioning of all of Portia’s fantasies). All this to say that there is a close link between our waste and our self-illusions, and the relationship isn’t necessarily a happy one.
WS: Imagining one potential ‘opposite’ of wastepaper might be to think of an archive, where nothing is discarded as waste, but rather everything is given an order and a place. Jacques Derrida characterizes the idea of the archive in terms of hegemony, commanding institutional authority in order to protect the users of the archive from the unregulated and the uncertain. If this is an accurate portrayal of the ideology of an archive, how might waste paper represent a type of liberation through entropy?
JER: Interesting thought there, William. I really like the idea of wastepaper as an entropic force that threatens the archive’s hegemony. This being said, it’s an entropy that the very process of archivization produces.
From what I remember, Derrida makes the argument in Archive Fever that archives have historically been a tool of state power, a point that was earlier made by Michel Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge. Foucault calls the archive ‘the system that establishes statements as events and things’. Cataloguing, in other words, is inherently historiographical and inherently political. By giving documents an order and a place, the archive transforms the mess of the past into an official historical record. The word archive comes from the Greek arkhe, which means to govern – the arkheoin was the home of the chief magistrate, in which all the important state documents were kept. Like individuals, governments have a highly selective memory. While everything within a national archive is of course deemed important, what’s left out – what is, in other words, deemed waste – can be very telling. And this doesn’t just apply to atrocities that a state may wish to cover up, but to things as seemingly banal as paperwork. What could be more disillusioning to a nation’s brilliant image of itself as a shining beacon of freedom than heaps of forms relating to public zoning?
All this to say that while everything within an archive might have an ‘order and a place’, such cataloguing is only made possible through an act of waste (or, more politely, exclusion).
I should be clear, though, that this isn’t necessarily a sign of censorship, state control, or other kinds of deviousness; it’s simply how libraries work. They have to be selective: archives are physical spaces holding physical objects, and no library can grow quick enough to store all the documents we daily publish. Archivists and librarians have the horrible task of determining today what the future can afford to forget.
Nowhere is the relationship between the archive and its waste better demonstrated than in Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘The Library of Babel’. Borges’s story imagines a total library that contains in its infinite collection of books every possible combination of the letters of the alphabet. Which, of course, means that in addition to holding all information that could ever be useful, the library also contains a lot of gibberish. The books are completely useless to their readers – rubbish, in other words – which leads to the rise of a cult of ‘purifiers’ who routinely destroy the nonsense books as they search for readable literature. All this to say, waste is built into the archive itself – indeed, the archive itself is a kind of managed wasting.
As far as wastepaper presenting a kind of liberation through entropy, I think I’d rather say that wastepaper simply reveals the processes of destruction and waste that the archive exploits. But then again, even archives routinely cull their own material. Perhaps wastepaper is a sign of the decay that even the archive will eventually succumb to. I need hardly tell the editor of a journal entitled Rough Beast that the center cannot hold for long.
WS: I once read a discussion on the 16th-century father of the essay, Montaigne, that situated him within a crisis of information: thanks to the advent of printing and the rapidly growing availability of books that occurred during his lifetime, he was ‘saturated with more knowledge than he could ever hope to understand as a coherent whole’, as Dudley March writes. In response, Montaigne abandoned as impractical all attempts to comprehensively organize the chaos of his experience, instead using his essays to piece together a psychological collage that was as idiosyncratic as it was incomplete. Four hundred years later, this sentiment would appear again at the end of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’ Eliot’s allusion-laden poem, mocked by many contemporary reviewers as a parade of citations, juggles a difficult ambiguity: threatened by the information vortex that typifies modern existence (a vortex that Montaigne already felt in the mid 1500s), we seem to be trading waste for waste. Our only defense against the over- whelming totality of human experience that will surely tear us to shreds is to find refuge in whatever shards of the past we can gather around us and work into some pattern or narrative of significance. It seems like, as historically-situated and historically-conscious beings, we’re wastepaper either way. Do you think there is some historical essence that is illuminated when thinking about wastepaper? To be coy: is history wastepaper, and is wastepaper history?
JER: Again, my answer is both – history is wastepaper and wastepaper is history. As your mention of Montaigne makes clear, ever since the invention of the printing press (and probably earlier) we’ve been subject to a kind of vortex of information.
This really came to a head in the mid-19th century with the mass industrialization of print. Of course, it wasn’t just a case of there being too many texts to process – the vortex a problem of matter as much as it is of information. Dickens, for instance, regularly portrays London as a city clogged with rotting printed debris: bill-posts, flyers, newspapers, ticket stubs, cigarette papers, and other kinds of ephemera. In one piece he wrote for his journal, Household Words, he recounts meeting the King of the Bill-Stickers who lives in a kind of hut made out of putrid, decaying print. Dickens describes the King’s litter as presenting a kind of risk of contamination, as if it threatens to reduce all printed matter into waste.
It’s tempting to read The Waste Land as a kind of poetic staging of such a threat – in shoring together all of these fragments, the wandering ‘I’ of the poem ends up subjecting them to the ruin he fears. Whenever I teach the poem, I try to get students to see it as being as much about the wasting process as any specific kind of waste. Waste is something that happens in the poem – an active breakdown of distinctions between meaning and unmeaning. Indeed, the poem is far more ambivalent about waste than many readers have claimed (including Eliot himself, at least after his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism). At one point, the voice of the poem laments the fact that the Thames is not littered with ‘sandwich papers’, ‘cardboard boxes’, and other papery debris. Eliot clearly wants his waste.
To return to the question of wastepaper as a kind of history, I think it’s important to remember that the distinguishing line between rubbish and relic is rarely a neat one. In a report on Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee that he wrote for an American magazine, Henry James offers an account of a double-sided ‘historic page’ made up of a presentable recto and a sordid verso. The presentable recto is all the pomp and circumstance of the great occasion; the verso, however, is all the mess and debris left in its wake. That James figures this relationship as being two sides of one piece of paper makes the point beautifully: waste is the necessary backside of our historical consciousness.
WS: I notice in myself an embarrassing inability to get rid of any piece of paper that I’ve written on, and scribbled-on scraps are constantly falling out of my notebooks and journals because I don’t know what else to do with them. Since writing this book, have you become at all preoccupied with your own ‘wastepaper’? What’s currently inside the wastebasket at your desk?
JER: As I tend to write notes on whatever is immediately close to hand – old envelopes, bills, newspapers, articles – it can be a bit tricky for me to distinguish my waste from my work. I suppose, given my research topic, this is only appropriate. In any case, as my cat tends to ruffle through the rubbish, I’ve had to get rid of the wastepaper basket in my home office. Which of course means that my filing cabinets are a mess.+