restricted access Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the Late Twentieth Century by Kate Eichhorn (review)
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Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the Late Twentieth Century. Kate Eichhorn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. Pp. xiv + 216. $26.95 (cloth).

Utilitarian in appearance, prone to maddening paper jams, and associated with the banality of office work, Xerox machines have not evoked the nostalgia inspired by typewriters, turntables, or 35mm cameras: it is hard to imagine a Xerox machine lending ambiance to a coffee shop or its parts being repurposed for jewelry. The replacement of xerographic copiers with analogous digital machines over the last two decades has made their obsolescence all the less striking. Not only have we failed to miss them, we may have failed to even notice that they are gone.

This neglected and maligned technology has found a worthy elegist in Kate Eichhorn. Her Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the Late Twentieth Century reconstructs a recent past in which the Xerox machine was edgy, innovative, and central to the counterculture. Although xerography was designed for replication rather than creation and was promoted as a way to make corporate and government bureaucracies more efficient, it turned out to be remarkably well suited to artistic invention and political subversion. Eichhorn argues that such against-the-grain uses of xerography shaped the ways that late-twentieth-century counterpublics were constructed and in turn impacted the arts, grassroots organizing, and the experience of urban space. Announcing at the outset that Adjusted Margin does not restrict itself to a “linear narrative of the copy machine’s evolution,” Eichhorn instead assembles a constellation of artifacts and stories, including moments of relevant autobiography, that “locat[es] the copy machine in time and space and in competing histories of ideas, art, and activism” (7). The resulting account succeeds in filling a substantive gap in media history with an eclecticism that does justice to its subject.

Adjusted Margin begins with the official history of Xerox, drawing on Haloid Company advertisements and instructional materials that convey a mid-century optimism about xerography’s ease, speed, affordability, versatility, and fidelity. If this enthusiasm feels overstated to anyone who has physically assaulted a photocopier in frustration (a common occurrence, Eichhorn assures us), it prefigures the sense of possibility embraced shortly thereafter by activists and artists. Among the latter is Sonia Landy Sheridan, whose Generative Systems program at the Art Institute of Chicago placed photocopiers at the center of a novel curriculum that investigated the creative opportunities of new technologies. Sheridan becomes a focal point for considering the broader phenomenon of copy art. A later chapter revisits the artistic dimensions of xerography with a focus on community formation and urban space.

The second chapter initiates an emphasis on place by turning to the copy shop’s ambivalent relationship with the law. Although copyright infringement is par for the course in copy shops, [End Page 206] it is generally understood to serve the public good and therefore ignored—hence the symbiotic relationship between universities and the copy shops that cluster at their edges. Categorizing these copy districts as “abject zones,” both necessary to and disavowed by society, Eichhorn offers the high-profile raid of Toronto’s Best Copy by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the wake of 9/11 as an extreme example of how the copy shop’s marginalization can devolve into xenophobic scapegoating (75). Striking as this incident is, in the absence of other instances of government targeting, it is asked to carry a great deal of argumentative weight in defining how the copy shop is framed in terms of national imaginaries. The chapter is more convincing in its broader claim: if, as Benedict Anderson, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and others have argued, the rise of print culture contributed to the rise of nationalism, xerography exercises a converse power to erode “print culture’s monopolies of knowledge” by threatening the state’s ability to control, or at least monitor, the circulation of discourse (65).

Xerography undermines a sense of national unity in other ways too: by privileging local production and distribution of print and by bolstering the vernaculars of specific subcultures. These features made it a powerful tool in the formation of counterpublics organized around the arts, political action, or both...