Preparing to Print: Pondering Weight
“In the letterpress ecology, every text is deeply, immediately material. Creating any text requires metal type, lead spacers, woodblock and intaglio images, metal and wood furniture, a chase, quoins, and, of course, ink and paper—not to mention the press itself and the tools required to operate and maintain the system. Every text has, quite literally, substantial weight behind it.” - Cordell
In Lab 5, the preparation process for the print project required extensive thought about formatting, layout, and material. In addition to the metal type, lead spacers, quoins, and much more, the process as whole was quite heavy. Reflecting on the work of Lab 5 in supplement to the class readings, a clearer, heavier, more intricate impression of the print economy comes to mind. “Weight,” in reference to the lab and readings extends far beyond material, and touches upon elements of labor, economic systems, as well as social inequality.
As is the case with many artifacts, the history of an object expands far beyond its own physicality. The interactions in the use of such artifacts, the process of its production, the materials used, the system in which those materials were produced — are all elements of an artifact’s history. Artifacts — in this case books or printed paper — are merely small representations of larger histories. Objects becomes lighter representative objects that stand for much greater, much heavier processes. Ironically, the interpretative history drawn from artifacts is confined by the materiality of the object itself. A book, for example, is more than what is is composed of, it is also how and why, for whom and by whom it was made. As mentioned in Herman Melville’s “Tartarus of Maids,” and Sarah Werner’s “Finding Women in the Print Shop,” these aspects of how, why, for whom, and by whom were not always obvious.
In an earlier lab, the class discussed the materiality of paper. Parchment paper was often made of animal skin — and therefore, necessitated the killing of animals for paper production. Taken further, one book could possibly indicate the murder of an entire herd of animals. When thinking past the materiality of an object, one can consider “weight,” or costs of production that are often overlooked due to a greater attention to the materiality of an object. Herman Melville’s “Tartarus of Maids” reflects on this weight – the separation between product and process, in which the labor of paper production is invisible to the common eye, while the fruits of materiality are enjoyed by a select few.
“At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper. In one corner stood some huge frame of ponderous iron, with a vertical thing like a piston periodically rising and falling upon a heavy wooden block. Before it–its tame minister–stood a tall girl, feeding the iron animal with half-quires of rose-hued note paper, which, at every downward dab of the piston-like machine, received in the corner the impress of a wreath of roses. I looked from the rosy paper to the pallid cheek, but said nothing.” – Herman Melville, “Tartarus of Maids”
Melville’s short, gothic piece captures the narrator’s simultaneous fancy and horror at the practices of the paper mill. The tone of Melville’s piece characterizes the narrator as an upper, or upper-middle class intellectual man with a love for books and paper. In the contrasting words such as “blank-looking girls,” and “ponderous iron,” it is clear that the narrator is grappling with this very weight: the separation between product and process. Unable to reconcile the two, the narrator’s enchantment of the product and deep unease at the sight of the young working girls perturbs him. He leaves the paper mill, or the “Devil’s Dungeon” in frenzied state of gothic sublime. Melville’s piece, like Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle reflect on “invisible process” of production that quite often take advantage of those who are socially and economically vulnerable. In a capitalist system, “weight” is also a gendered and racial concept.
Taking Melville further, one cannot discuss weight, or means of production without considering the economic system in which such processes occur. Up until the late 19th century, the weight behind books and paper also included the weight of slave labor. The southern economy in its resources of livestock and cotton, profited from labor of slaves. The weight of books and paper not only included costs of animal use, but the lives of 60 million and more and the systemic repercussions that still persist today. Up until the 20th century — as shown by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle in regards to the meat packing industry — the weight of production likely also included immigrant labor. Ultimately, the material weight of paper is only a tiny fraction of the weight of its history — one that thrived from the externalized costs of trauma, lives, hardship, racial, gendered, and social inequality that allowed the production of paper to even persist.
The history of the print economy is not just one of material consumption and use, but one of process, weight, and erasure. Those who were involved in the print and publishing economy — women like Hanna Barett, Margaret Hodgets, and people of color — did not often have their names on record. The history of product and its process is thus incomplete without the acknowledgement of those who went un-named. One could argue that because of such erasure and exclusion, the history itself is not wholly true.
Overall, Lab 5 helped put the print ecology in context. It touched upon the sociopolitical implications of “weight,” and shed light on the fact that our conception of artifacts — i.e. our relationships with them and how we interact with them — is deeper and far more complex that what would initially seem. Physicality is just the surface of an artifact’s history, process, and use. The divisive relationship between product and process persists today in the 21st century as well. Labor processes often invisible from finished products remain racial and gendered. These divisions allow for a select and privileged few to consume such products at the cost of hidden or unseen labor.