Rethinking Attachment

History is made when archives accession and “process”—as it is called—records of interest. One of the first steps in processing any collection is the removal of items hazardous to the records themselves. For the most part this means that the original boxes and folders are replaced with new, acid-free ones, but I can remember at least one case in which strips of nitrate film (combustible) needed to be removed, and another in which a sample of mineral hornblende or pitchblende (radioactive) had to be whisked away. These things happen. By far the most common hazard excised from within boxes and folders, though, is the paperclip. Like water, mold, insects, and war, paperclips are the enemies of archival preservation. Like water, mold, and insects, paperclips have no history. (Wars, as we know, have histories according in part to the archives that survive them.) A potential agent of rust, the paperclip is forever banished from the historical record wherever professional archivists hold sway. A paperclip is neither document nor document-able but slips unwanted into a barely discernable crack between the archive and museum. There is a bricks-and-mortar museum someplace in Britain devoted to the history of the pencil and one in Baltimore devoted to the history of the tampon, or so I’ve been told, but no museum that I know of renders a history of the paperclip. There is no such thing. 

As processing archivists well know, before a scourge of bent metal fasteners flooded the records of business and civil service in the later nineteenth century, potential agents of rust were already lurking. Straight pins, large and small, were sometimes used to connect sheets, which might alternatively be bundled with colored string (familiarly, “red tape”) and pigeonholed or otherwise sorted and arranged according to the reigning logics of bureaucratic labor. Pins damaged the historic fabric, one might say, pricking holes where paperclips would later press together without puncture. Offices using straight pins tacked pages as they tailored paperwork. These were incremental workaday acts that pointed doubly toward the phylogenies of paper—originally made of rags—and of files. The OED tells us that a file was once “a string or wire, on which papers and documents [were] strung for preservation and reference.” Pretty soon file came to refer both to the string or wire and to the collection of pages so strung: certainly neither the first nor the last time that object and subject have emerged to semantic conflation. The word indenture offers a related case, since it referred first to a medieval legal agreement with its separate pages indented along one edge so that they fit together. Connecting became containing, as the things done to pages (materially) became the things done on them (linguistically) and then with them (instrumentally).

If straight pins, staples, and ring binders help to recall the original meaning of file by transecting the pages they collect, then they also help to evoke “the managerial revolution” of the late nineteenth century, whereby the modern corporation emerged to reshape the world economy it has since defined. Structural changes to labor and finance accompanied changes to the techniques of management. Modern offices hatched new genres, like the memo, and entailed new gender politics, welcoming women secretaries at the same time that they welcomed a raft of new business machines, everything from telephones and typewriters to the humble staple and paperclip. Vertical filing alone—file folders arranged in file cabinets—is said to have worked a revolution in bureaucracy, circa 1890. While students of big business know that corporate power tends to be consolidated according to the directional logics of vertical and horizontal integration, the years that I have spent trolling through archives have prompted an appreciation of additional micro-logics: Corporations may proceed by integration, but offices function according to enclosure and attachment. Folders and envelopes are differently instruments of enclosure, while paperclips and staples attach. These are micro-logics by which bureaucratic labor collects and connects; in short, these are the everyday techniques whereby bureaucracies know.

Today’s graphical user interface has worked to interject and in place of older logics of enclosure and attachment. The paperclip icon signifies attachment in the email program I usually use, though of course the act of sending an email attachment is far different than clipping sheets of paper together. One difference is temporal. Paper attachments can be composed after the documents to which they adhere—think of annotated coversheets—while paper enclosures necessarily antedate the missives that enclose them. Email attachments have reversed this clock. They work more like traditional enclosures, since you can’t attach an electronic file to your email message unless the file already exists. But the biggest distinction to be drawn between old forms of attachment and new is probably that sheets clipped together can be pages of the same document or they can be different documents, but an email attachment is always a distinct entity. Bent steel paperclips harbor a sort of attachment theory in miniature, we might say, whereby a document negotiates its own identity as/and others. (The ugly “as/and” is key.) By contrast, an email attachment is always alien to the email that makes it one. Papers get clipped for storage and transmission, but email attachments exist only to be transmitted and unattached, unmade, undone. This may be what accounts for the beauty of these old paperclips, as I see them. Each was one of millions, here rendered one-of-a-kind. And each in its ingenious, intricate morphology hints a model of attachment on distinctive terms.

Further reading: Early Office Museum, “History of the Paper Clip”; Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977); JoAnne Yates, Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); Cornelia Vismann, Files: Law and Media Technology, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008); Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1992).


Fascinating.  As a rhetorician, it is obvious that attaching things is a rhetorical act.  Yet, as a basic consumer/worker/paper-using person that rhetoric is so ingrained, it never occurred to me before.  The notion that the e-mail attachment is simultaneously an association and an alienation is also worthy of further exploration.  The latest movie players on the web are fashioned as discrete containers around which a site can place their own controls and such.  I wonder if a similar process is playing out there and elsewhere.


Thanks for this incredibly evocative piece. I’m always interested in places where the material and the virtual intersect, and the virtual paperclip is an utterly taken-for-granted icon for me. Rather, it used to be. I appreciate the images you’ve included, which raise questions about the paperclip or pin as an aesthetic object, further troubling the paradoxical nature of the paperclip you describe.

I’ve been unnerved by the dialog box that opens in gmail when the word “attach” appears in the message, asking if I intended to include an attachment if one is not already appended.

Reading “Rethinking Attachment,” I immediately recalled a fragment of an essay/open letter I never completed. With some effort, I found it in my digital archive. I'll use this occasion to circulate it.  Another angle on the paperclip and questions of attachments…

An open letter to A.V. of the memorable paperclip,

I discovered your paperclip in Professor Ellis’s returned copy of Essays on the Essay.  Perhaps, Professor Ellis had forgotten to carefully fan through Essays on the Essay before returning the book to the York University Library, or  perhaps Professor Ellis had no use for your note written in blue ballpoint pen on University of Toronto stationery? The note read, “Aca le mando una copia de mi libro que acaba de salir” and was signed “Saludos, A.V.” But it's the engraved, gold paperclip I remember:  on one side, it read “Distinguished” and on the other,  “Handsome.” The paperclip was attached to the note.  Before returning Essays on the Essay, I discarded the note and kept the paperclip. How could I resist? Eventually, I gave your paperclip to a lover in lieu of a ring or some other predictable token of affection. For the record, the paperclip did not hold the relationship together but unlike most rings, it was never returned.  

With thanks,




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