What is a newspaper? First of all, it is a very ordinary object susceptible to passing unnoticed in most situations. We tend to forget that the newspaper was the first modern mass medium and a highly complex one. The various discourses and genres, the mixed ideology of truth-telling and entertainment, and the composite layout of the page make the newspaper a fascinating universe. If media studies did not have more up-to-date and modern technologies to explore, the newspaper could provide rich material for research.
The newspaper was probably even more fascinating for the generations that saw it develop from its noble eighteenth-century origins into the commercial mass medium it became in the mid-nineteenth century. This development led to a schizophrenia that has haunted the newspaper industry ever since. Baudelaire’s generation witnessed this transformation and experienced its consequences within the fields of art and poetry; as journalism became the dominant discourse of the nineteenth century, poetry became altogether marginalized. And yet, the newspaper was a captivating medium for poets as well. Not only did this medium bring news from the modern world; the form, genres, and aesthetics of the newspaper were highly innovative. Given its superbly modern features, it is not surprising that poets took inspiration from the newspaper, even if they despised its commercial basis.
How is this inspiration from newspapers articulated in Baudelaire’s writings? Baudelaire contributed to newspapers throughout his career as a writer, making the newspaper institution a central part of his literary life. From his writings, it appears that he recognized the way the newspaper influenced the gaze of the newspaper reader. As a dominating medium, the newspaper provided frames for the interpretation of reality and thereby contributed to the production of visibility. Of particular interest in this regard is the collection of prose poems entitled Petits Poèmes en prose (also referred to as Le Spleen de Paris). Not only were these prose poems published in newspapers and reviews, but they also bear witness to Baudelaire’s dialogue with the newspaper’s form and genres.
The rise of the commercial newspaper in the nineteenth century was a media revolution heralding today’s media situation in every aspect. Within a short period of time, the newspaper became the dominant discourse of the period and an incarnation of modern life. The increase in circulation numbers gives an idea of the large-scale consequences the commercial press had for nineteenth-century culture; from 1830 to 1880, the daily newspapers in Paris increased their circulation forty times.1
This triumph of the newspaper goes hand in hand with the development of a broader reader audience and new reading habits.2
Soon reading newspapers became the new, daily habit of the working classes as well as the bourgeoisie.
The popular and commercial press experienced its beginnings when, in 1836, Emile de Girardin launched the newspaper La Presse
. This newspaper had lower subscription rates than other newspapers and compensated for this through the invention of a soon-to-be popular genre, le roman-feuilleton
. A new journalistic regime began that catered to a broader public, welcomed fiction in its columns, and was devoted to the depiction of everyday life.3
In this manner, 1836 prepared for the shift from elitist and opinion-based newspapers to popular and industrial newspapers.4
The coming victory of the popular and commercial press is exceptionally well symbolized by a duel that was fought between the editor Girardin and one of his critics. Three weeks after La Presse
was launched, an editor from one of the conservative newspapers accused him of having reduced the noble mission of the press to vulgar commerce. Girardin shot from the hip and dispatched his opponent with a single shot.5
When Pierre Bourdieu describes how the world of literature during this period was constituted as a separate field, with its own rules and boundaries, he refers to the antagonism between poetry and journalism. Using Baudelaire as one of his chief examples, he asserts that literature was constituted in opposition to the rapidly expanding newspaper press, which was seen as corrupting the value of cultural production.6
Many of the literary authors fought against the rise of the commercial press, and the antagonism between literature and newspapers was deeply felt. Important in this regard is the fact that popular literature—especially le roman-feuilleton—
had found its way to the newspaper and thus consolidated literature’s place within the market. This more or less commercially oriented literature was despised by elitist authors such as Baudelaire and Flaubert. In this respect, Flaubert’s expression of his disgust is illustrative: “But, I maintain that a work of art (worthy of that name and conscientiously done) is beyond appraisal, has no commercial value, cannot be paid for.”7
Further, he asserted that, “[w]hen you want to earn money with your pen, you have to do journalism, serials [feuilleton
], or the theatre.”8
Accordingly, a hierarchy of genres was established: le feuilleton
at the bottom and poetry at the top. And although
certain novelists (notably Flaubert) had achieved literary prestige, the novel itself was associated with le feuilleton
, journalism, and industrial literature.9
We find a shrewd comment on the conflict between vulgar journalism and noble poetry in Honoré de Balzac’s novel Illusions perdues (“Lost Illusions”), published in three parts from 1837 to 1843. Here, Balzac tells us the story of Lucien, a young boy who sets off to Paris with a pure heart and the ambition to be a poet, but is corrupted little by little by life in the big city. As a result, he ends up making his living as a journalist. Throughout the novel, journalism is associated with lies and corruption, whereas poetry is associated with truth and purity. What is interesting is that Balzac shows how poetry actually makes alliances with journalism. Although Lucien fails in the marketplace as a poet, his success as a journalist is—ironically enough—made when he starts writing a series of semiliterary sketches in an effortless kind of poetic prose:
Lucien then read to them one of those delightful articles which ensured success for this petit journal
: in two columns it depicted one of the minor facets of Parisian life, a figure, a type, an everyday event or something out of the ordinary. This sample, entitled “People one sees in the streets of Paris” [“Les Passants de Paris”] was written in a new and original style, so that thought was provoked by the mere clash of words and the reader’s attention stimulated by the jingle of adverbs and adjectives.10
A footnote in the Pléiade edition of the novel informs us that this semiliterary form was widespread in the press; it is described as one of the many “studies of manners from Paris [études de mœurs parisiennes
]” which proliferated the press during this period.11
Given Balzac’s own financial situation, it is particularly significant that he stages a disillusioned and corrupted poet as its author. Although it is a novel, Illusions perdues
provides us with a description of the relationship between literature and journalism that is typical of the period.
In 1839, another attack on journalism was launched, this time in the form of an article entitled “De la littérature industrielle” (“On Industrial Literature”), written by the literary critic Sainte-Beuve. Severely criticizing the commercial development of the press, Sainte-Beuve proclaims that, “The situation of the daily press today, as far as literature is concerned, is, to put it bluntly, disastrous.”12
He points to two particular problems. First, “industrial”—or commercial—literature did not confine itself to its proper domain and did not respect the distinction between commercial and “serious” literature. Second, the proliferation of advertisements in the newspapers influenced the “serious” genres, and it had become difficult to separate commercial from noncommercial genres. As an example, Sainte-Beuve refers to la réclame
, a sort of book review, which appeared to belong
to the genre of editorial writing, but actually was paid for by the book’s publisher. Thus, la réclame
opened a connection between commercial and noncommercial genres, branching the typographically marked dividing line—le filet
—between the two.13
What Sainte-Beuve is actually criticizing is the fact that the field of literature was becoming less distinct and more difficult to read
, as the strict differentiation between high and low and commercial and noncommercial no longer held. As Bourdieu points out, the editors of Le Figaro
and Le Petit Journal
soon started to make room for semifictitious, commercial, and popular genres.14
In the modern newspaper, journalistic, commercial, and literary genres were thus juxtaposed, and the outcome was a miscellaneous compilation of genres, most of them characterized by brevity and discontinuity.
The newspaper in mid-nineteenth century can be seen as a part of a fast growing, visually oriented print culture that rapidly changed the visual field. To understand its influence, it is crucial that the newspaper should not only be seen as a textual phenomenon, as the site of journalistic writing, but also be recognized as a visual phenomenon characterized by experiments in layout and typography. On a single page, different headlines, fonts, and font sizes could be seen, and a variety of brief pieces of prose, without any apparent connection, were presented to the reader. This fragmented form gave rise to a new mode of reading; linear reading was now abandoned in favor of discontinuous reading, browsing, and zapping on the page. Just as the flâneur let his gaze flicker in the street, the newspaper reader let his gaze flicker over the newspaper page.
What is interesting is that the aesthetics of the modern newspaper resemble, to a certain extent, modernist aesthetics. The juxtaposition of texts that have no apparent connection is based on the same principle that will later be crucial to the avant-garde: montage. The montage of the nineteenth-century newspaper precedes the collages of Picasso and Braque, as well as the montages of avant-garde film. Furthermore, the typographical exploration of the newspaper page parallels the poetic exploration of the white space of the book page. The ultimate reference here is Stéphane Mallarmé, who scattered words all over the page in his poem Un coup de dés (“A Throw of the Dice”) (1897), using a variety of fonts and sizes. This pioneering poetic work should be seen in relation to Mallarmé’s experiments with typography and layout in the one-man journal La Dernière Mode: Gazette du Monde et de la Famille (“The Latest Fashion: A Gazette of High Society and of the Family”) in 1874. Presumably, his experience with the white surface of the newspaper page had an impact on his later typographical experiments as a poet.
Yet, the relation between modernist aesthetics and newspaper aesthetics is complicated. From an aesthetic perspective, it could be argued that poetry belonged to the autonomous sphere of literature, whereas the newspaper belonged to the capitalist universe. How should we then describe the relationship between fragmented art and fragmented newspapers? Here, as always, Benjamin gives ambiguous answers. On the one hand, he disavows the newspaper, claiming that its fragmented layout contributed to the loss of experience that characterized modernity:
If it were the intention of the press to have the reader assimilate the information it supplies as part of his own experience, it would not achieve its purpose. But its intention is just the opposite, and it is achieved: to isolate events from the realm in which they could affect the experience of the reader. The principles of journalistic information (newness, brevity, clarity, and, above all, lack of connection between the individual news items) contribute as much to this as does the layout of the pages and the style of writing.15
Benjamin here outlines the ideals of journalism: newness, brevity, comprehensibility, and above all, disconnectedness. Although these features are easily recognizable as typical features of modernist literature (clarity exempted), they belong to the capitalist media culture and are hence judged in negative terms. On the other hand, Benjamin recognizes that fragmentation and disconnectedness have a revolutionary potential when they appear in art; in particular he praises the principle of montage (in film) insofar as it contributes to a new kind of perception. However, the dichotomy between “negative” fragmentation in newspapers and “positive” fragmentation in art is transgressed when Benjamin comments on forms and genres akin to the newspaper in the opening piece of One-Way Street (1928). There, he speaks in favor of “leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards” circulati...