Back to the future (of newspapers), with Benjamin

This will not be the first time that a return to the work of Walter Benjamin has served to kick-start this blog’s overarching project.  In this case, I was prompted to reach for Benjamin after reading a passage from Clay Shirky’s recently published Cognitive Surplus:  Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  While I cited the passage in question a few posts back, I will reproduce its core claim here.

The internet is the first public medium to have post-Gutenberg economics.  You don’t need to understand anything about its plumbing to appreciate how different it is from any form of media in the previous  five hundred years.  Since all the data is digital (expressed as numbers), there is no such thing as a copy anymore.  Every piece of data, whether an e-mailed love letter or a boring corporate presentation, is identical to every other version of the same piece of data.

You can see this reflected in common parlance.  No one ever says, Give me a copy of your phone number.  Your phone number is the same number for everybody, and since data is made of numbers, the data is the same for everybody.  Because of this curious property of numbers, the old distinction between copying tools for professionals and those for amateurs – printing presses that make high-quality versions for the pros, copy machines for the rest of us – is over.  Everyone has access to a medium that makes versions so identical that the old distinction between originals and copies has given way to an unlimited number of equally perfect versions. [54-55]

Some of you will understand my urge, upon reading and reflecting on Shirky’s formulations, to return with dispatch to what is probably Benjamin’s best-known essay, whose title in English is “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.”  I was fortunate to have at hand the volume edited by my dear friend Tom Levin and my former colleague at Princeton, Mike Jennings, which includes “The Work of Art” as well as Benjamin’s other writings on media, some of which are lesser known, especially to readers of English translations of his work.

Was it serendipity that led my eyes down the table of contents, past “The Work of Art” and other essays I’d read before, some more than once, to the volume’s final section, “The Publishing Industry and Radio?”  Arguably.  In any case, here I found a small goldmine, some of which I will share over my next several posts.

For now, I will copy-blog Benjamin’s brief essay entitled “The Newspaper.”  Its prophetic character will be evident to anyone who has reflected for longer than 30 seconds on the internet’s impacts on journalism, publishing, and media.  I would simply suggest by way of editorial comment that those who concern themselves with the future of newspapers might do worse than to return to this particular trace of their past.

The Newspaper

In our writing, opposites that in happier ages fertilized one another have become insoluble antinomies.  Thus, science and belles lettres, criticism and literary production, culture and politics, fall apart in disorder and lose all connection with one another.  The scene of this literary confusion is the newspaper; its content, “subject matter” that denies itself any other form of organization than that imposed on it by the reader’s impatience.  For impatience is the state of mind of the newspaper reader.  And this impatience is not just that of the politician expecting information, or of the speculator looking for a stock tip; behind it smolders the impatience of  people who are excluded and who think they have the right to see their own interests expressed.  The fact that nothing binds the reader more tightly to his paper than this all-consuming impatience, his longing for daily nourishment, has long been exploited by publishers, who are constantly inaugurating new columns to address the reader’s questions, opinions, and protests.  Hand in hand, therefore, with the indiscriminate assimilation of facts goes the equally indiscriminate assimilation of readers, who are instantly elevated to collaborators.  Here, however, a dialectical moment lies concealed:  the decline of writing in this press turns out to be the formula for its restoration in a different one.  For since writing gains in breadth what it loses in depth, the conventional distinction between author and public that the press has maintained (although it is tending to loosen it through routine) is disappearing in a socially desirable way.  The reader is at all times ready to become a writer – that is, a describer or even a prescriber.  As an expert – not perhaps in a discipline, but perhaps in a post that he holds – he gains access to authorship.  Work itself has its turn to speak.  And its representation in words becomes a part of the ability that is needed for its exercise.  Literary competence is no longer founded on specialized training but is now based on polytechnical education, and thus becomes public property.  It is, in a word, the literarization of the conditions of living that masters the otherwise insoluble antinomies.  And it is at the scene of the limitless debasement of the word – the newspaper, in short – that its salvation is being prepared.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Culture, History and historiography, Journalism, Media, News, Reading and writing, Tech

One response to “Back to the future (of newspapers), with Benjamin

  1. “Work itself has its turn to speak.” I am letting that line echo a bit in my mind….

    As Benjamin also predicts, again, what was old has become new again. Thank you for turning this up.

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