“The sky quivers, the earth quakes before me, for I am a magician, I possess magic.”
— Pyramid Texts, utterance 472 (§ 924), ca. 2400-2300 B.C.E.
Attributed to Thoth, Egyptian God of the magical arts,
invention of writing, development of sciences, and judgement of the dead.
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.”
— John 1:1, New International Version
Texts have special properties. They are authoritative, constitutive, and cryptic. Far before we expressed every (ill-formed) thought on contemporary media, words inscribed on paper were magical. In a very literal sense, ideas, once written, become an authority of their own, beyond long forgotten intentions of the author. The text itself, the material words on a page, survives, and by doing so, is interpreted and reinterpreted according to various readers or audiences. Words written have power: historical, political, religious, legal, social, and cultural power. We scrutinize ancient codices deemed important enough to preserve, protect, and promulgate. We refer to texts to support or debunk or promote ideas. We guard secret tomes of occult knowledge. We burn or ban texts deemed offensive or subversive, and exalt those divinely inspired; over time one codex can be both demonized and revered, sometimes by the same groups at the same time. We collectively affirm that a signature on a document changes one’s very social status – innocent/guilty, married/divorced, born/deceased, master/slave – these contracts have weight because they are a tangible, and therefore permanent, method to prove agreement between parties, change legal status, and assert or deny rights.
Paper, then, becomes the means of transmitting that power. It has gone from a highly specialized method of communication for the trained, learned, elite; to revolutionizing how the general populace accepts authority; to commonplace and expendable in every home; to contentious product of the environmentally conscious. Special properties indeed.
Ancient Egyptians made the initial form of paper from papyrus plants as early as the third millennium B.C.E. It was followed by animal skin parchment, then ancient Chinese paper made from bamboo and mulberry trees in the first century C.E. The bulk of human history is contained, preserved, and circulated on paper.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection texts hidden in caves near the Dead Sea in what is current-day Palestine. The extensive library were found mostly on parchment scrolls, kept in jars that were hidden in holes on the floor of eight different caves. This library contained known Jewish texts in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, as well as documents produced there by its own community. The sectarian Qumran group were apocalyptic, and read these texts as a true indication that the world was ending within their lifetime. An obscure and little used text that survives and circulates has more power than one that was once important but has since disappeared into oblivion.
Until the printing press, little was mass produced. The widespread means of circulation played a pivotal role in modern history when reformists pushed for individuals to interpret biblical texts directly. Westerners grew increasingly literate, and ideas formed as a response to a decentralized authority form the basis of our contemporary notions of individualism. That you can even voice unpopular, controversial, or (as is most likely) completely benign opinions on your twitter or blog is the direct result of the invention of the printing press. Mass production of information means that even the boring have a voice.
My particular form of mundane expression involves the love of pretty stationary, wrapping paper, and the scent and look of old books. On a trip to New York I purchased the following lovely letters at the Museum of Sex. They came complete with stickers of floggers to seal your envelopes.
As with many craft-minded people, I often buy pretty paper for no immediate purpose, and simply wait for a chance to use it. I have rolls of Chinese wrapping paper, colourful rice paper, and stationary at my work station. I found the following inventive upcycling of Sunday comics on Etsy.
As I refuse to throw away a good carboard box, these are old shoe boxes covered in vibrant paper, applied and sealed with Modge Podge.
A similar idea can be found at apartmenttherapy.com, which details how to make wallpaper out of an old dictionary.
There are days where I am inundated by paper – articles to read, papers to grade, theses to produce – that I welcome taking this commonplace yet oh so important thing as paper, and not reading it. That is truly subversive for an academic.