What can I say about Jacques Derrida’s book Paper Machine, besides “I adore this book, and wish everyone would read it”?
It’s the great French-Algerian philosopher’s most important look at the transformation of the written word through electronic and computing technologies. It’s also one of his most important looks back at his own career; he revisits and updates a thousand and one of his earlier ideas and positions from the point of view of transformations in writing technology. “It seems as if I’ve never had any other subject, but paper, paper, paper,” he half-jokes – knowing that philosophical deconstruction was/is as much a function of a technological epoch on the wane as it was a social/intellectual breakthrough.
“Paper” for Derrida isn’t just the paper of books, but also identity papers (the French term for undocumented immigrants is “sans-papiers,” i.e., without papers), newspapers, and printer paper – “Papier-Machine” means “typing paper, printer paper, machine paper,” even as it comes to mean (and I’m here I’m extrapolating) the whole structural edifice of a world built on networks made of paper. William Carlos Williams said that “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words”; you could also say that a poem (or a book) is a machine made of paper.
This retrospective aspect makes Paper Machine a great introduction to Derrida and his writing, even as it introduces new wrinkles. The man who famously titled a chapter in Of Grammatology “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing” has to stop and rethink “what does this mean?” in a world where “the end of the book” (that is, the printed book) is a real possibility. It’s fun to watch.
Also fun, and given the positions in the book, inevitable — the book has been scanned and OCRed, and is now available at AAAARG.org, aka the best website for philosophy/theory PDFs ever. So, please — give it a whirl.