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  • The Coming of Paper: Aesthetic Value from Ruskin to Benjamin
  • Kevin McLaughlin

Slowly, with eyes turned cautiously upward, he sought to learn what was happening up there, took one of the papers from the desk without looking at it, laid it on his open hand and raised it up gradually to the gentlemen while himself standing up. In doing so he had no definite purpose, but merely acted with the feeling that this was how he would have to conduct himself when he had finished the great petition that was to exonerate him completely. The Assistant-Manager, who was giving his full attention to the conversation, merely glanced fleetingly at the paper, not at all reading over what was there—for what was important to the Chief Clerk was unimportant to him—took it from K.’s hand, said: “Thanks, I already know everything,” and calmly laid it back on the table.

—Franz Kafka, The Trial

In their classic study The Coming of the Book (1958), Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin inform us that paper production was industrialized at the end of the eighteenth century in order to meet the demands for information, administration, and public instruction. 1 Like its ancient precursor, papyrus, paper had been valued throughout medieval and renaissance Europe as a practical and efficient [End Page 962] medium: even its relative ephemerality seemed well-suited to the short-term needs of record-keeping, administrative memoranda, and business correspondence. 2 For the ends of the Enlightenment mass produced paper presented itself as the ideal medium. And indeed the economic and political institutions that emerged in the nineteenth century would be unimaginable without it. Mass produced paper also played an important role in the literature of this period. Here, however, something of a conflict started to surface. It is especially evident in popular fiction. For, while industrial paper made possible the mass circulation of narrative fiction in the nineteenth century, the image of paper often appeared in this fiction as the instrument, not of enlightenment, but of ideology. The unfulfilled promise of mass produced paper in Balzac’s Illusions perdues and the endless stream of paper that issues from Chancery Court in Dickens’s Bleak House are typical of the decidedly unenlightened character of paper in much nineteenth-century popular literature. 3 The image of paper in Kafka’s The Trial plays on this nineteenth-century motif up to a point. K.’s story has often been viewed as an inscrutable, apparently pointless trail of bureaucratic paper: “Here are my papers [Legitimationspapiere], now show me yours,” he ineffectually commands the officious warders arresting him at the outset. 4 And yet in the passage cited above paper appears to take on a certain, if somewhat enigmatic, kind of value. The image of paper here is not reducible to the traditional alternatives: it is neither the picture of enlightenment—of the efficient dissemination of knowledge—nor the stereotypical nineteenth-century metaphor for the spread of ideology and bureaucratic nonsense. Paper is handled differently here; it appears to mean something, as we say. The Assistant-Manager does not notice: he does not bother to “read over” the paper, much less “over-read” it (überlesen is the word here). He “already knows everything.” But his “fleeting [flüchtig] glance” is something of a missed opportunity. Walter Benjamin suggests such an observation when he cites this passage in a discussion of “gesture” [Gestus or Gebärde] in Kafka. For Benjamin this scene is an especially valuable specimen in his inquiry into gesture: K.’s handling of paper shows how Kafka makes gesture “the subject for reflection without end” [einen Gegenstand zu Überlegungen, die kein Ende nehmen]. 5 The appearance of paper here bears more scrutiny, as Benjamin himself demonstrates when he comes back to the subject of paper later in his essay. Though he does not lay them out explicitly here, Benjamin’s citation carries implications that are worth [End Page 963] unfolding—implications for an approach to the image of paper as a sign of aesthetic value in the nineteenth century. What follows here is an attempt to begin such an explication.

Paper was deeply involved in the debates about value in...

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