There’s an intriguing Bill and Ted quality to the way Mitchell and Kyle’s conversation bumps into crucial book history debates and corresponds with the scatological humor of Shakespeare (and Rabelais, among many others). Pointing at the roll in Mitchell’s hand, Kyle yells “That’s an intricate design!” Mitchell, holding the roll toward the camera, replies, “That is not intricate!” (2:12-15). At the heart of the debate is a disagreement about “repurposing a media object” (or, in this case, repurposing an object to make it media).
We’re tempted to think of books as assemblages of materials that have found their raison d’être in the final form of a book, but “book” is just one waypoint in the life of composite textual materials. Potty humor is especially appropriate in book history because the eschatology of paper tends toward scat. Flax plants might make a full cycle as linen underwear, as rags, as paper in a book, as toilet paper, then as fertilizer for flax plants. Repeat cycle.
Bookworms can interrupt this cycle, according to Robert Hooke. Feeding on the “husks of Hemp and Flax” in paper . . . [bookworms] reduce them into another form” and fast-track the association between paper fibers and fecal matter. Textual instability is a symptom not only of editorial practices, but also of ecology.
Because, as Jon commented earlier this week, paper is more than “a material support for print,” printed paper was (and still is) routinely recycled in practical ways that counter editorial design and repurpose media objects for their material value:
Kyle: “Oh, so if I just, you know, pull out a composition notebook and start wiping my [bleep] with it, what’s that?”
Mitchell: “That means, then you’re using it as t.p.”
Kyle: “No! That’s not toilet paper, that’s notebook paper. It’s got lines and it’s specifically designed for writing.” (1:54-2:08)
Does pen on paper make it writing paper, whatever its design? Do lines on paper make it writing paper, whatever its use? An ad campaign for the School of Visual Arts in New York played with this very dilemma by stocking restrooms with ruled t.p.
A few of this video’s 8,000+ commenters seem to have noticed that, while notebook paper can become toilet paper, toilet paper cannot technically become a notebook. Mitchell’s literary object corresponds with an even older writing technology, as ItsJillyBug pointedly notes: “Well its a scroll. Lmao”.
“Toilet paper is the new scroll. :P”, comments xXxincisionxXx. Actually, it’s true. Koji Suzuki recently worked with a Japanese papermaking company to have his horror novella Drop (2009) printed on toilet paper (from 100% recycled paper).The nine-chapter novella repeats every 86 cm (according to my unscientific, in-home calculation, that’s one chapter per sheet), offering what, in light of the textual history of paper, seems a reasonable compromise between form and function.
All of which leads to one essential question about design: should t.p. text be printed over or under?