Paperwork: Fiction and Mass Mediacy in the Paper Age

Paperwork: Fiction and Mass Mediacy in the Paper Age

Paperwork: Fiction and Mass Mediacy in the Paper Age

Paperwork: Fiction and Mass Mediacy in the Paper Age

Synopsis

"The Paper Age" is the phrase coined by Thomas Carlyle in 1837 to describe the monetary and literary inflation of the French Revolution--an age of mass-produced "Bank-paper" and "Book-paper." Carlyle's phrase is suggestive because it points to the particular substance--paper--that provides the basis for reflection on the mass media in much popular fiction appearing around the time of his historical essay. Rather than becoming a metaphor, however, paper in some of this fiction seems to display the more complex and elusive character of what Walter Benjamin evocatively calls "the decline of the aura." The critical perspective elaborated by Benjamin serves as the point of departure for the readings of paper proposed in Paperwork.

Kevin McLaughlin argues for a literary-critical approach to the impact of the mass media on literature through a series of detailed interpretations of paper in fiction by Poe, Stevenson, Melville, Dickens, and Hardy. In this fiction, he argues, paper dramatizes the "withdrawal," as Benjamin puts it, of the "here and now" of the traditional work of art into the dispersing or distracting movement of the mass media. Paperwork seeks to challenge traditional concepts of medium and message that continue to inform studies of print culture and the mass media especially in the wake of industrialized production in the early nineteenth century. It breaks new ground in the exploration of the difference between mass culture and literature and will appeal to cultural historians and literary critics alike.

Excerpt

Time of sunniest stillness;—shall we call it, what all men thought it, the
new Age of Gold? Call it at least, of Paper; which in many ways is the
succedaneum of Gold. Bank-paper, wherewith you can still buy when
there is no gold left; Book-paper, splendent with Theories, Philosophies,
Sensibilities,—beautiful art, not only revealing Thought, but also of so
beautifully hiding from us the want of Thought! Paper is made from the
rags of things that did once exist
.

—Thomas Carlyle, the French Revolution (1837)

Paper—product no less marvelous than the impression for which it serves
as a basis
.

—Honoré de Balzac, Lost Illusions (1837)

“The Paper Age”

“The Paper Age” is the phrase coined by Thomas Carlyle in 1837 to describe the monetary and literary inflation of the French Revolution— an age of mass-produced “Bank-paper” and “Book-paper.” Carlyle’s metaphor draws on the concept of the material support, the technical term adopted in the nineteenth century to name the substance charged with the bearing of impressions. Dictionaries tell us that this sense of support was derived from a metaphysical context in which the word had been used interchangeably with the Scholastic concept of the substratum, the fundamental substance bearing a particular quality or mode. Carlyle’s metaphor seems very much to turn on this derivation: with mass-produced paper and with the conditions of mass mediacy for which it stands, he claims, the support itself loses substance (“Bank-paper” has no “Gold”; “Book-paper” no “Thought”). According to this historical narrative, loss of substance in the mass media prefigures the appearance of what Carlyle does not hesitate to call “the masses,” a social and political medium equally lacking in substance. Such are the “waste multitudes” that rise up in The French Revolution as the ghostly support of “an inarticulate cry” (36). in their “winged raggedness” these masses become the medium . . .

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