Every kind of paper is purchased by the "waste-men." One of these dealers said to me: "I've often in my time 'cleared out' a lawyer's office. I've bought old briefs, and other law papers, and 'forms' that weren't the regular forms then, and any d——d thing they had in my line. You'll excuse me, sir, but I couldn't help thinking what a lot of misery was caused, perhaps, by the cwts. of waste I've bought at such places. If my father hadn't got mixed up with law he wouldn't have been ruined, and his children wouldn't have had such a hard fight of it; so I hate law. All that happened when I was a child, and I never understood the rights or the wrongs of it, and don't like to think of people that's so foolish. I gave 1 1/2 d. a pound for all I bought at the lawyers, and done pretty well with it, but very likely that's the only good turn such paper ever did any one—unless it were the lawyers themselves." –Henry Mayhew, Of the street buyers of waste (paper), London Labour
Men no sooner discovered the discovered the admirable art of communicating their ideas by way of figures than it was necessary to chose the material for defining those characters. – Encyclopedie, entry under Papeterie
From the grammatological point of view, few sentences could sum up the logocentric ideology better than this one from Diderot’s Encyclopedie. It is a history in two steps: in one of which the “figures” are discovered, and in the other of which they find a substrate, a material upon which they could assume their secondary, visible existence. In this story, the material is already substituted –its existence is laid out under the sign of substitution - or of supplementation, or of sublimation. The true mark, the idea, exists before its fall into the world of paper – or papyrus, or clay tables, or vellum.
In a Sumerian story, the invention of writing and the material for defining the characters are put in a closer narrative proximity – one in which that matter exists in a series of symbolically important materials that form the basis of what Jean Jacques Glassner calls a “duel”. The ur-form of the story is a competition between two magicians, one of whom transforms common objects into living beings, the other one of whom transforms common objects into superior living beings that eat the first magicians tricks – a stone becomes a snake, for instance, while the leaf of a tree becomes an eagle that eats the snake. A similar story of the duel of matter is told of Enmerkar, the ruler of a powerful state, and the Lord of Aratta, a distant state that Enmerkar wishes to gain tribute. Enmerkar sends messangers threatening Arrata. The first messenger threatens to have the goddess Inanna drown the city. The Lord of Aratta sent back a refusal, and a challenge: could Enmerkar send grain to the city in nets rather than sacks? Enmerkar does so, sending grains that sprout and provide a layer over the holes in the nets. The second time, Enmerkar sends his scepter, and the third time a garment. The forth time Enmerkar does something completely new, and without consulting the gods: he takes a lump of clay and he wrote upon it. The duel, here, comes to an end with the Lord of Aratta having to take hold of the clay tablet in order to read it. As in a children’s game, by touching the object, the Lord of Aratta signals his submission.
duel than the first unintended result of the letter – for Enmerkar was not originally intending to send a letter. Here’s how the passage is translated by Fabienne Huber Vulliet:
“His speech was substantial,and its contents extensive. The messenger, whose mouth was heavy, was not able to repeat it. Because the messenger, whose mouth was tired,was not able to repeat it, the lord of Kulaba patted some clay and wrote the message as if on a tablet. Formerly, the writing of messages on clay was not established. Now, under the sun and on that day, it was indeed so. The lord of Kulaba inscribed the massage like a tablet. It was just like that.”
The message and the clay, here, come together in a narrative about tricky objects – about metamorphosis – that is enfolded in another narrative about imperial power. From the point of view of the author of the lord of Kulaba, the signs and the tablet are two sides of one dated event (Now, under the sun and on that day…). There is a triangle here between the figures, the tablet, and the time – for that day is, in a sense, signed and becomes that day, the object of an act of deixis.