- Blanks:Data, Method, and the British American Print Shop
The recent rise in study of paperwork and paper knowledge has much to teach a forum dedicated to reading and writing archives. Surveying what Benjamin Franklin called "little jobs," Peter Stallybrass argues that the early modern era's single-sheet printing—the massive production of broadsides and blank forms in particular—was a priority for handpress printers: more stable and more lucrative than book publishing, and thus always necessary in the undercapitalized print trade of the period. Ben Kafka's The Demon of Writing (2012) discusses the bureaucratization of the French republic, where political representation of the once disempowered converts to the delays, deferrals, and inefficiencies felt by the powerless through the failures of paperwork. Lisa Gitelman anatomizes the document as a genre—its logic of "knowing-showing"—of recognition, proof, and accountability. Significantly, the new paper scholarship appreciates information-based records, implying that it is the quotidian, rather than the literary, that fills the archive.
Yet thinkers affiliated with paperwork research rarely present, in historical terms, the subjective life engaged by such ordinary forms. Stallybrass and Gitelman insist that blank forms do not elicit modes of conventional literacy. While job printing, for Stallybrass, "transformed the texture of daily life," it did so "without necessarily having any connection to reading" (340). Like Stallybrass, Gitelman focuses on function: "Job-printed forms didn't have readers," specifying that [End Page 228]
whatever reading is entailed by genres like bills of lading and stock transfers, it is not reading that has very much to do with the readerly subjectivities that came to such special prominence in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the subjectivities of literature in general and the novel in particular.(Paper 31, 30–31)
On the other hand, Kafka demystifies our subjective investments in paperwork, but he paints on the canvas of modernity a portrait of selfhood pursued beyond and in some ways separate from his French Revolution topic. And to contrast "function" and "use" to "reading" is to simplify literacy, in all the obvious ways—reading can be instrumental, extractive, obsessive, meditative, glib, somnolent, fetishistic, distracted, imitative, bored, and on, and on, and on—and in precise ways as well, considering the intersection of reading and use that characterizes the early modern era (Cormack and Mazzio 2–4).
Interpreting their content, form, and use demonstrates a moral and emotional heft undervalued by the recent paperwork scholarship and accounts for the blank forms' "readerly subjectivities"—that is, their bearing of a life—in the eighteenth century.
The following pages correct the paper scholars' misapprehension, arguing for the cultural work done by early American blank forms—by the single-sheet bonds, indentures, bills of lading, and deeds so central to the colonial print shop. Mixing manuscript and print and entailing marks in the blank spaces for their completion, the legal forms help measure the subjective life of their users. By emphasizing their status as contracts, I document the norms of personhood manifest in the blanks, norms marked by tensions between voluntarism and constraint. After first sketching what blanks mean for the British American print shop, my argument then depicts a theater of literacy structured by the blank artifact. Interpreting their content, form, and use demonstrates a moral and emotional heft undervalued by the recent paperwork scholarship and accounts for the blank forms' "readerly subjectivities"—that is, their bearing of a life—in the eighteenth century. The essay concludes by making explicit the methods behind this case study, advocating for what I call archival reading. In this broadening of the argument, I champion archival reading over and against two dispensations with sway in the humanities: postcritical reading—that is, the urge to rid criticism of "the hermeneutics of suspicion" and to avail criticism of affective, reparative, and surface modes of cultural analysis—and distant reading—that is, the machine-based tabulation of verbal content, where data mining becomes literary meaning. Describing the habitus of the reading room and the virtues of small data, this essay suggests that the traditional archive is an ideal place for knowledge creation, not only because of the contact one makes with...