In “Old Newspapers”, an essay written in 1920, Kurt Tucholsky went back and read some newspapers from 1910. The essay begins by taking the paper as a physical object – a text with a destination.
“The editor sent me a sausage wrapped in an old newspaper that, like the sausage, came from the now bypassed era of peace.” This makes Tucholsky think of – a topic to write about: newspapers.
The topic soon grows wings.
Old newspapers are funny. 1910, 1911 – God send us such cares, such Liliputan concerns. “The social democratic court report”. “The resignation of Crown Prince Hohenlohe from the Presidium of the Reichstag.” (The Reichstage had nothing to say, its Presidium had nothing to say, thus what did it have to say, when…?) “The Battle against Hermann Nissen.” Oh yes, it was a gay, a harmless, a good old small time.
Old papers are funny. But how is it that, when one reads them, one soon becomes sad?
Because one sees, how badly they have done their task. Because one sees, how little foresight they had, how they didn’t know the world, how they didn’t even fulfill the role of presenting good reports, informing the inhabitants of earth objectively and meticulously about one another. How they substituted, through lyricism and sentiment, what escaped them in precision and information.
Because so it was at that time that most newspapers worked against their own time, whose heartbeat they, perhaps, heard, but did not want to hear.
1910 – today, one wants to scream: For God’s sake! Four more years! Do something! It is flickering! Pour water on it! You happy souls, you still have time! But then: “the struggle against Hermann Nissen.” And the picture even becomes grotesque, when one leafs through the newspapers from July, 1914. As for eight days previous not a single headline slinger recognized a single thing about the ‘great age” that was breaking over them, just as there was no advertising editor, , no picture editor, no chief of a bureau, no politician even who saw the collapse of a culture at all, that was standing close before them, and coming closer,always closer… On the second of August they were all very well informed and they were all wading into blood and phrases.”
The defender of the newspaper might reply that Tucholsky was looking for prophecy, not news reporting. But I believe Tucholsky puts his finger, here, on a peculiarity of the “new” that constitutes the news: the new seems cut off from the future.
Dominique Kalifa has shown how, during the Belle Epoque, Parisian newspapers reported more and more crimes. Crime went from being a matter of the police report that was relegated to the fourth page to a matter of interest that was popping up, even in the newspapers that were intended for a high bourgeois audience. Why do crimes and accidents so perfectly fall into the net of the news?
It is because they are perfectly new. They only possess a past. As newspaper time was transformed by radio,tv and internet time, it is true that sometimes, the crime is captured as it occurs. In this sense, it has a certain future, tends towards a certain outcome. But it is not the indeterminate future of the shaking of a culture, of the collapse of norms, of the emergence or submergence of a class, of all the constituents of history. At most, accident and crime are destined for the trial – a retrospective future. When Tucholsky asks why the newspapers of 1910 give no indication of what is coming –and, on the contrary, disseminate a vulnerability and complacency that smooths the way for the invisible future-disaster – he is approaching the mystery of the new in the news, the limit that defines the news consciousness.
The paradox of the news is this: because the accident and crime pose no epistemological threat to the news – since they are the new in its purest form - -they tend to take over the news to the extent that they become the great determinants of what the newspapers don’t report on. Alchemically, accident becomes essence in the newspaper. The future that the newspapers can’t image is imagined in the news.