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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Newspapers - from lento to presto

“Such a book, such a problem has no hurry: on this question we are both friends of lento, myself as well as my book.” So wrote Nietzsche in the preface to Dawn.

Lento, of course, is the opposite of the speed at which, supposedly, both Fama and the mass media moves. In fact, Nietzsche was dead when his books – especially Thus spoke Zarathustra – began to move at a much faster speed. A sort of legend claims that 150,000 copies of Zarathustra were produced for a special field edition in World War I, thus introducing a generation of German soldiers to Nietzsche as a German thinker next to Goethe and Luther – Goethe’s Faust and Luther’s Bible being the other books put out by this soldier’s press. A Nietzsche scholar, Richard Krummel, has recently suggested that this legend was based on some misunderstood remarks in certain memoirs of the war.

Nietzsche, of course, took Fama’s course and  spoke, in his books, in many voices and tempos. He spoke in presto as well, showing a marked preference for images of lightning strokes and dynamite, and for “arrows” – aphorisms that were launched at great speed. Lento is definitely related to Nietzsche’s fascination with “great events”, events that unfold over thousands of years – as he supposed the uprising of slave morality had unfolded. However, there is a sense in which presto and  lento are not, in fact, opposites, but express two aspects of that characteristic of modernity – the simultaneity impressed upon modern societies by mass media. The mass medias may have interpreted themselves from the beginning in terms of acceleration. And yet they have also interpreted themselves from the beginning in the rhetoric of what Marx called the “middle class prophets” – those who prophesize that the world market and global capitalism are the end of history. “The observation that free competition=the last form of the development of the forces of production and thus of human freedom means nothing more than that the domination of the middle class is the end of world history – clearly a pleasant thought for the parvenus of the day before yesterday.” [Grundrisse]

It is hard, maybe impossible, to date a tempo. But one can make an at least symbolic case that modernist presto began on November 29, 1814, when the Times of London installed a Koenig press, which harnessed steam power to the old manually driven iron printing press and could print 1,100 one sided sheets per hour. John Walter unveiled the press with typical capitalist panache by firing his crew of manual pressman, telling them that “if they were peaceable, their wages should be continued until similar employment should be procured.” (The North American miscellany, 1851).

The faster machines made the newspaper, like the railroad, one of the avatars of the industrial experience. Being able to produce more newspapers meant extending the circle of newspaper sales; it meant changing the ‘turnover’ time of the newspaper, which could not only come out daily, but could compete over different segments of the day – as morning, afternoon and evening papers appeared. And the change in turnover time meant that news would have to be produced. The new would now be on the assembly line.

England, of course, had the most advanced industrial system in 1814. Other sections of the world lagged behind. Pierre Sorlin, in an essay arguing that the “public” is a mirage, (1992)  pointed out that Gogol, in the letters that he wrote around the time Dead Souls was published, in 1842, estimated that he would sell 4,000 copies. “ To the 2,500 captive buyers, which represented the usual clientele of every new book and which, frequenting literary circles, was more or less in relation to himself, he hoped to see functionaries join perhaps landowners who would be fascinated by the audacity of the subject. Conscious of the field of possible prospects in the same way as other writers in his entourage, Gogol aimed at the narrow circle whose reflexes he knew well. .. It is instructive that he made a prognostic error: it took four years to exhaust the first printing of 2,400 copies.”

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