Most of us using the cut, copy and paste function of digital word processors have never actually cut, copy and pasted bits of paper inscribed with printed text. One of the conveniences of the typographical age was translated, via metaphor and catachresis, into one of the essential editorial tools of the electronic age. That is because, as with other things, the digital world developed too fast for its architects to consider vocabulary too deeply. As is the case with most inventions and technological developments, terminology obeys the rule of familiarity. It makes adoption easier.
The typographical practice of cuting, copying and pasting was a series of physical operations dealing with physical text. Text may be a vehicle for disembodied ideas or abstractions, but it exists in physical, tangible space. Editing is a rearrangement of that physical space. It is the limits of that space and other physical constraints that led to the development of copying, cutting and pasting bits of printed text from one medium onto another. It is precisely because text has a claim on space that this editorial convenience saw the light of day.
Cutting copying and pasting (CCP) is violence done to the text. From a fundamental point of view, it’s not different from the pre-typographical practice of erasing or scraping a vellum manuscript. The wounds of this violence are indelible, both in the medium which has been cut and in that onto which the cut has been pasted. CCP, in this pre-electronic context, makes a textual archeology possible. That’s not the case, however, with CCP in a Word processor.
The electronic CCP is a purely disembodied application. It is made possible because text is itself disembodied. Its existence is physical but not tangible, to the effect that its form is always at risk of metamorphosis. Seen from this perspective, electronic text is like sound, ephemeral, provisional, subject to constant editing. Editing electronic text is not violence, it is pre-creational modelling. Once CCP has been done, the text can assume its pre-incarnational self. Until printed or inscribed, it floats in an indeterminate space, however much we click save and make copies of the document file. Text is not ‘saved’ until it’s been allowed to be born.