The People's Republic of Paper: Rag Paper and Material Memory

Curator's Note

"There's nothing beautiful or healing about war.  But when you come back and you take something like your uniform which you served in and did all those things in in Iraq... I think that turning that into art is something that is beautiful and it does help to heal, especially those of us who have seen combat." - Phil Ailiff

Learning how to make paper... it's definitely been one of the largest impacts on my life... especially this kind of paper where we've put so much into it. - Jon Michael Turner

If at first it seems unlikely that Veterans would take up papermaking to deal with the trauma of war, then we might remember that the Combat Paper project revives an understanding of paper as a material archive of history and memory --- a tradition that, in North America at least, dates to the seventeenth century.  Currently, however, paper doesn't often have positive connotations.  It signifies the ecological waste of so-called "dead tree publications" or the alienation of bureaucratic modern life consumed by endless paperwork or by the inflated value of paper money.  As these clips suggest, however, the process of hand papermaking from cloth rags (paper's primary ingredient until the switch to wood in the late 1860s) facilitates intimacies between body and memory, past and present, artist and audience.  Tearing their war-worn fatigues into rags and transforming them into paper, the Veterans who make Combat Paper make into art the cloth that has absorbed blood, sweat, and experiences of, as they note, subordination and violence to themselves and others.  Paper, normally considered a mere support for written expression, itself performs the work of reappropriating and resignifying the experiences held within its repurposed cloth.  Even before anything has been printed on this paper, Drew Cameron calls it the "reclamation... and reconciliation" of "old dirty rags that are full of bad memories."  "I've done the whole process with [my camis]," recalls Jon Michael Turner, "and it's been such a let go.  So much weight has been lifted off my shoulders." 

"I put... there's so much history going into that paper, and that's what I'm going to write my book with," Turner continues, noting the continuity between the material form of the literary artifact and its content.  Turner speaks of putting "so much into" and "history going into" paper, blurring the lines between what he's put into his uniform, and what he'll put into his book (both his thoughts about war and the cloth that dressed his body in war.)  At moments like this, the Combat Paper artists sound almost like Lydia H. Sigourney, the antebellum-U.S.'s most popular poet.  In "To A Shred of Linen," cloth not only transmits a history of women's labor, but also "absorbs" stories of domestic life that it will "tell" once it becomes book paper.  Likewise, Henry David Thoreau, in the "Sounds" chapter of Walden, remarks that the tattered sails being taken from harbor in Boston to a paper mill in Fitchburg can tell a better tale about the sea than will the books they'll make.  Sigourney and Thoreau were also drawing on everyday examples like oft-reprinted calls for rags in newspapers that promised young women who turned in their old handkerchiefs that the same matter would return to them as a lover's note.  While these examples are different in character from cathartic resignification of war experience, the way paper absorbs and transmits history or narrative  in and through its matter is similar.  There are hundreds of other examples to draw on, and texts like these form the archive upon which my dissertation draws.  A full contextualization the Combat Paper project within the American imagination about paper isn't possible in this space, but I can say the project demonstrates that even in this "paperless age," neither the thingness of print nor the special ability of paper to "speak" its past have vanished, especially when people create or manipulate texts, pondering their physical relationship with the materials, and the histories they contain.  

I'm pleased to be sharing this beautiful Iraq Veterans Against War art project with readers on Memorial Day, 2010, and look forward to further discussion of this and the other curators' notes on our shared topic of paper. 


Thanks for this, Jon. Since hearing about your research I've become more attuned to the treatment of paper (mostly in the form of books) as a non-entity. Many have argued that once a book is digitized (meaning, of course, once the words are digitized) that its cultural value is entirely accounted for. This is certainly rhetoric at play in the outsourcing of library collections (and librarians!) in the name of the "digital" or "collaborative"--a false choice if there ever was one. I recently heard someone talking out how something or other "was cultural to the extent that paper was cultural"--by which they meant that it was *not* cultural. As this entry shows, nothing could be further from the case!

It also seems to me that there are serious class politics at play in this understanding of paper/book collections--that the "real" or "valuable" labor is that of the author, not the typesetters or papermakers, etc.

 Thanks, Mike.  Your question about what's lost in the false choice between digital and print raises for me a question about how media organize sociality.  We're quite familiar with how digital forms do it --- our conversation is happening in a time and space made available through the architecture of this site and the electronic infrastructure connecting you, me, and whoever else looks.  We're less likely to credit paper with the power to organize publics, unless we're talking about it as a material support for print.  But what, then, is the "People's Republic of Paper"?  We see in these clips that a papermaking session has brought together the largest local Iraq Veterans Against War meeting.  The Combat Paper artists imagine teaching other Veterans how to make paper form their fatigues, bringing them into and extending the People's Republic of Paper.  This has little to do with the written word; it is not the Habermasian salon of disembodied use of reason.  Combat Paper prioritizes the link between the body whose clothes go into it and what memories are shared through it.  It brings the reader/viewer into intimate contact with the author/artist through the continuity of fibers from battlefields in Iraq to art about battlefields in Iraq.  

What Sigourney's poems about cloth and paper suggest to me is the history of women's labor behind printed materials.  Sigourney, though financially successful, tired of the balancing act of the mid-century woman writer: remain properly private while in public.  By tracing the history of women's work from flax fields to looms, into the home, and finally to the paper mill, she shows print to be a public object made of the most private items (Peter Stallybrass often jokes that holding a Renaissance text often means holding Renaissance underpants), and one that is entirely within the sphere of women's creation, including authorship.  The kinds of stories the pillowcase might tell in the closing stanzas of the poem are all basic elements of familiar nineteenth-century American women's writing: sentimental or sensational domestic fiction and poetry.

So, I think you're spot on in saying that privileging the abstracted written text removes from view the kinds of social organization that result from shared labor be it domestic work or papermaking.  In the tradition I discuss above, paper makes associations whether by absorbing the history of those who touch its cloth, or by bringing together those who work cloth into paper. 

One point this video + your discussions raises is whether there's two different and competing fantasies at work in transforming cloth into paper. ("Fantasy" isn't exactly the word I mean, but I'm struggling to think of a better one. "Idealizations," maybe?)

Anyways, in one, effacing the memory of the cloth in the paper is precisely the point. The discarded, abject cloth gets redeemed and remade into new, pristine paper. Virgin resurrection. At any rate, if you're a commercial papermaker, at least, you don't want readers and buyers to think about the cloth that went into your paper's production; if you can see the dye used to bleach bad cloth, it means you've bought a bad book, in the same way that a yellowing pulpy page reflects badly on a book or newspaper today. For Thoreau and co, you might wonder about those stories, but it's a lost possibility; you're assuming that you can't actually read them in the paper itself.

The soldier's paper is quite different, in part because it's artisanal and single-use. Here the ideal/fantasy is that the memories of the soldier are born by the paper, and can actually be made manifest to the reader. This papermaker doesn't want the medium to be completely invisible. 

This isn't dissimilar from the Arts & Crafts aesthetic that pushed bookmakers towards "fine papermaking" in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. But it's got a different valence to it now than it would have for a Renaissance or even a 19th century reader, precisely because we've now come to associate cloth paper with "fine papermaking": resumé paper, archival-grade theses, usw. I think that's one of the subterranean assumptions that makes the veterans' paper project powerful. 

Great post, Jon. I like how you connect Combat Paper with numerous examples of historical literature that ask to be read as assemblages of ideas and matter, words and rags.

At 2:48 in the second video, one vet watches another work and comments, "That image is so..." Before he can finish his appraisal of the image, he is cut off or overpowered by another vet who asks "Is that taken down the barrel of a tank?" The artist chooses to talk about the image's backstory rather than its aesthetics. "Yeah, I put my camera on timer and I pointed it down the barrel." This inspires a conversation I can't transcribe because I don't know the lingo used. A tank is referred to as a "255" and another vet names a location I don't recognize and asks if that's where the picture was taken. The conversation ends only when the documentary interrupts it with voiceover and cuts away.

In some cases, it's hard to demonstrate the rhetorical contribution of textual materials, to show how material backstory inflects final form. (Full disclosure: I want to take issue with "final form" in my post later this week, so I'm giving it a pass here.) In this case, though, the backstory the vet tells about the image is, presumably, one that was enacted in the very fibers on which the image appears. The fibers have been reconstituted into paper, but we could go even farther and say that the ecology of that experience in Iraq (soldier, tank, clothing) is reconstituted in its final form through a series of reconfigured relationships. The final form is a palimpsest that asks to be read--and, I think, judged aesthetically--on more than one layer.

In addition to naming the tank type or guessing the location of the image, I wouldn't be surprised if an Iraq vet could also identify the type of fatigues used to make the paper, based on color and visible fibers in the paper. Such "fiber literacy" would be another important point of connection between these vets and historical readers throughout most of the history of printed books.

 Timothy, I wouldn't say that 18th- and 19th-century papermakers necessarily aim to efface the cloth that went into their paper, in fact idealization and fantasies were quite powerful marketing tools for them.  I have in mind the advertisements that promise a handkerchief's return to a maid as a lover's note or the newspapers that claim to be printed on the processed linens of mummies.  Sigourney takes this kind of popular consciousness about paper's materiality and spins it for her purposes. Perhaps it's the case that the fantastical is meant to help smooth over the fact of the bad bleach job or (every now and then) the unshredded piece of rag.  I mean to suggest, though, that it isn't always the case that, as Lisa Gitelman writes, "the success of all media depends at some level on inattention or 'blindness' to. . . media technologies themselves. . . in favor of attention to the phenomena, 'the content'" (Always Already New, 6).  This is obviously the opposite of what the Combat Paper folks are doing, and I think that, in rag paper anyway, there was a similar tendency to draw attention to the possibilities of its material content.

Likewise, I've always thought of the Arts & Crafts paper and book craftsmanship as a reaction to the postbellum hyper industrialization of bookmaking.  For paper this means the drastic shift from rag pulp to wood pulp and, as anyone who's worked with early wood pulp books can attest, the powerful cocktail of acids that quickly destroy them.  

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