Philosophy in the Time of the Newspaper: An Interview with Tom Vandeputte

by contributing editor Jonathon Catlin

By Jonathon Catlin

Tom Vandeputte is head of Critical Studies at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, a fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, and author of the recent book Critique of Journalistic Reason: Philosophy and the Time of the Newspaper (Fordham University Press, 2020). Departing from the ambivalent place of the newspaper in the philosophy of history of Kant and Hegel, the book traces the explosion of motifs of reporters, messengers, readers, and the talk of the day in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Walter Benjamin, arguing that modern philosophy defined itself through and against a sustained confrontation with journalism. In place of the rational progress hypothesized by teleological philosophies of history, one finds in the newspaper contingent events, confusion, unreliable accounts, disputed facts, and the announcement of the new quickly lapsing into a repetition of what has already been. Ultimately, the book demonstrates, the newspaper—in the rendering of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Benjamin—“becomes a stage where history fails to take place at all” (15). The antagonism between the philosopher and the journalist even came to reprise the ancient polemic between the philosopher and the sophist; as Nietzsche quipped, “Hegel and the newspapers—like opponents” (72). Yet the conception of philosophy that emerges from Vandeputte’s generative readings is not a negation of journalism but its radicalization: post-Hegelian philosophy, the book contends, learned to ask the “questions of the day” with particular rigor, linguistic precision, and resistance to the temptation of presentism. An excerpt from the book’s introduction is available from the ICI Berlin.

Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Vandeputte about his new book.

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Jonathon Catlin: How did you become interested in the relationship between philosophy and journalism?

Tom Vandeputte: An important point of reference for this book is a hypothesis that Michel Foucault introduces in his lectures at the Collège de France in the early 1980s, towards the end of his life. Foucault draws attention to a problem that recurs throughout the post-Kantian tradition and is, in his understanding, constitutive of modern philosophical thought. Modern philosophy, he argues, is characterized by its preoccupation with a new question, emerging in the late eighteenth century, that he describes as the “question of the present” or simply as the “question of the ‘today’” (la question de l’aujourd’hui): “What is happening today? What is happening to us right now? What is this “now” in which we all live and which is the site, the point from which I am writing?” (74). From the moment it asks this question, philosophy is no longer concerned with a domain outside of time and history but instead turns towards its own time—and begins its inquiries by calling this time into question, by attempting to apprehend the very moment from which it is thinking and writing. As Foucault noted, philosophy’s turn to the “today” means that it enters into a relation with another mode of thought and writing: one that may be called “journalistic” in that it takes the jour as its principal concern. In a brief newspaper article from 1973, he analyzes this relationship. “We must fundamentally pose the question of the today,” he writes. “This is why, for me, philosophy is a sort of radical journalism” (220). Foucault points here to the affinity and tension between philosophy and journalism that are the main focus of my book. As I try to show, philosophy’s concern with the “today” is closely connected to its ongoing attempt at interpreting journalism itself, which now appears as a phenomenon emblematic of the “present age” that philosophy sets out to apprehend. Foucault may have had this relationship in mind when he wrote, in a footnote to his famous essay on critique: “There is much work to be done on the relationship between philosophy and journalism from the end of the 18th century on, a study…Unless it has already been done, but I am not sure of that…” (189).

Tom Vandeputte, Critique of Journalistic Reason (Fordham University Press, 2020)

JC: Your book begins with a striking passage from Hegel’s Jena Aphorisms, written before his major works: “The newspaper reading of the early morning is a kind of realistic morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude towards the world either through God or through that which the world is. The former gives as much security as the latter, in that one knows where one stands” (1). What conception of journalism did Hegel have in mind here, and how could it have been read in a quasi-religious manner?

TV: My reading of the aphorism focuses on the two poles of Hegel’s comparison—the morning prayer and the scene of newspaper reading—as well as the image of philosophy emerging between them. A Zeitunglesen, or newspaper reading, that may be compared to the Morgensegen, the Lutheran morning prayer, would not be satisfied with the simple intake of facts: it would have to be a newspaper reading that grasps the daily news as an encounter with the absolute of a peculiar kind—one unfolding in world history. The comparison, in this reading, anticipates one of the key insights elaborated in the Phenomenology of Spirit, which was published the year after Hegel wrote this aphorism, just as the scene of newspaper reading prefigures his famous later proposition that philosophy is “its time, apprehended in thoughts”—a formula summarizing Hegel’s interpretation of the “question of the present.” Philosophy is here conceived in the image of journalism, but also moves beyond it. In its conceptual labour, the philosophical reading of historical life presented by Hegel does not leave the sequence of facts encountered on the pages of the newspaper intact; in order for it to be comparable to the Morgensegen, this reading also involves a negation and reconfiguration of the apparent unity and completeness of this factual material. As editor of the Bamberger Zeitung for a brief period, Hegel seems to have limited himself—in line with the conventions of his time—to the preparatory task of gathering this material and abstained from its philosophical interpretation. In his correspondence from that period, Hegel writes the newspaper trade “would interest me, since I […] follow the world events with curiosity [Neugierde],” noting that the challenge would be to approximate the quality of French newspapers without abandoning what is expected by the German reader, namely “a kind of pedantry and impartiality with regards to the news” (186).

JC: The newspaper also figures in Kant’s famous essay—originally intended to be published in a newspaper—“A Renewed Question: Is Humankind Constantly Progressing?” (1798) in which he attempts to secure the possibility of rational hope in historical progress as a ground for moral action, lest it be in vain. He uses the French Revolution as his case in point. It is important in your reading that he does not focus on the participants of the Revolution itself but on German “spectators” who read about it in newspapers from across the Rhine; in Kant’s interpretation, the events did not directly affect their personal interests yet they followed developments “with a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm” (6). The fact that expressing such support entailed some danger in monarchic German lands, writes Kant, indicates that “this participation, therefore, can have no other cause than a moral disposition in humankind.” It thus indicates not only humanity’s moral constitution, but also the capacity to realize it. Can you expand on the scene of “impatient, warm desire for newspapers” Kant depicts here?

TV: What interests me about the essay is the pivotal role that Kant, like Hegel, attributes to the figure of the newspaper reader in his philosophy of history. In his essay on the French Revolution, Kant asks how the possibility of progress may be reconciled with—and even grounded in—the concrete experience of this “event of our time,” a historical event suffused with violence and lapsing into terror. He does so by shifting his attention from the empirical course of history to the “spectator” on the other side of the Rhine—a subject still explicitly rendered in the first, unpublished drafts of the essay as a newspaper reader rather than a spectator (8). In these drafts, the “wishful participation” that Kant interprets as a sign of humankind’s moral disposition is thought to find its expression in the “warm desire for newspapers” characteristic of the period. Kant identifies this desire for “the most interesting” conversations with concern for humankind’s “supreme interest,” namely the realization of the highest good. Kant thus attempts to rescue the revolution as an event tainted by violence and failed hopes while also salvaging another contemporary phenomenon: what a character in Goethe pejoratively describes as Zeitungsfieber, the “newspaper fever” prompted by the events in France (188). In the first versions of the essay, this feverish desire for the new is read as an expression of a historico-philosophical impulse—a gesture later echoed in Benjamin, who interprets the “impatience” of the newspaper reader as a sign of a budding revolutionary disposition (Gesammelte Schriften, 2:628–29).

JC:  Both Hegel and Kant ultimately dropped the figure of the newspaper reader from their systematic, published works. You suggest they might have sensed that the ephemeral nature of the newspaper and the sometimes ironical or absurd character of the “talk of the day” might undermine the rational and moral teleologies they sought to provide evidence for—thus threatening the lapse of the lofty spiritual analogy at the opening your book into jest or playful proto-deconstruction, using language against itself: “What happens to the unfolding of spirit in time when it turns out to be nothing but the unfolding of the newspaper?” (13). What makes the linguistic dimension of the news particularly threatening to grand teleologies?

TV: In these passages from Kant and Hegel, the newspaper reader appears as a historico-philosophical emblem of sorts, a figure that is assigned a key role in their respective conceptions of historical progress, whether it treated as an incremental approximation of a distant ideal or as an immanent development of logos. But there is already an ambiguity, a tension in their interpretation of this scene of reading, which manifests itself in the disappearance of the figure from their published writings. This tension becomes a central theme in the three main chapters of the book, which discuss the philosophical interpretation of journalism and the news in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Benjamin. One of the hypotheses I try to substantiate is that these interpretations play a key role in their respective confrontations with German Idealism, in particular its philosophies of history. The newspaper, as the medium in which “the present age” relates to itself, no longer appears as the stage for purposeful progression but is recast as a site of different modalities of repetition, recurrence, or what Benjamin calls the “eternal return of the new” (GS, 1:677). This recasting is especially clear in Kierkegaard, whose early newspaper articles portray his time as a farcical play populated by journalists and editors endlessly repeating concepts and phrases of the great philosophies of history ad absurdum. In Kierkegaard’s polemic against the idea that reason, logos, drives history forward, language takes on a privileged role as the carrier of thought; in the false announcements, misunderstandings, and rumors making up the talk of the day, he recognized a dynamic in language that leads words astray, corrodes meaning, and exposes every conversation to the risk of lapsing into “chatter.” Here is an analysis of the public sphere which is profoundly at odds with the modern image of the informed, enlightened newspaper reader and anticipates some of the characteristic experiences of our own time. Here the newspaper reader and journalist do not appear as representatives of rational progression; instead he sees the “present age” as embodied in the image of the first automatic printing press—a “talking machine” spitting out endless piles of paper while rotating on the spot.

JC: Kant also wrote a newspaper essay responding to the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which dashed the naive views of progress Voltaire satirized in Candide. Here, too, Kant saw a promising moral disposition in the concern of faraway peoples. In your reading of Benjamin’s writings on Karl Kraus, you similarly write that his vision of creaturely history as “continuous catastrophe” was informed by not only “the exceptional violence of the Great War but also by the monstrous banalities of which the newspaper provides evidence on a daily basis” (139). You see this informing his later view of history as comprised of “typical catastrophes” and what you call “catastrophic sameness” (145). As he famously wrote, “The concept of progress is to be founded in the idea of catastrophe. That ‘things go on like this’ is the catastrophe” (144). What are the consequences of the news presenting catastrophic events as exceptions versus as the status quo?

TV: The image of history as a catastrophic progression plays an important role in the chapter on Benjamin, which focuses on his 1931 essay on Kraus, the Austrian writer depicted at the outset of the text as an ancient messenger whose reports of unfolding catastrophe bear an affinity with the Neue Zeitungen of early modernity. But this image of history already appears in his earlier writings, where it is also linked to the scene of newspaper reading. The 1923 manuscript where Benjamin first articulates a concept of catastrophe founded in continuity is organized around a critique of the experience of history contained in the phrase, uttered in the face of unfolding catastrophe, that “things surely cannot ‘go on like this’” (144). For Benjamin, this experience of history, which treats catastrophe as exception and assumes that a presumably uncatastrophic “normal” condition “automatically restores itself,” is characterized by a “stupefying amazement about that which repeats itself on a daily basis” (GS, 4:929). His argument is that this Staunen—“amazement” or “astonishment”—cannot lead to insight into the urgencies of the historical moment, but only undermines its possibilities. This is, in my view, one of the key problems motivating Benjamin’s sustained interest in the work of Kraus: how the horrors and atrocities of their time, despite being disseminated and discussed on a daily basis, could persist uninterrupted. In Kraus’s expansive oeuvre, Benjamin discovers not only the elements for a critique of journalism and the “eternal return of the new” presented in the newspaper, but also the image of a different journalism, an “eternally new, incessant lament” over the persistence of the world in its catastrophic sameness. In a kind of inversion of Kant’s scene of the spectator’s “wishful participation” in unfolding world-historical events, Benjamin posits a different image, where the scene of newspaper reading is invested with a different affective charge: “It is as if one is caught in a theatre and forced to watch the bad play on the stage unfold, willingly or not, as if one must again and again make it into the subject of one’s thought and speech, willingly or not.” For Benjamin, the historical task is to find one’s way out of this theatre.

JC: “To seize the essence of history,” Benjamin wrote in his unfinished Arcades Project, “it suffices to compare Herodotus and the morning newspaper” (121). Whereas Herodotus here represents the “first” history, the newspaper represents the other limit, the newest history of the present. Benjamin thus proposed a “philology of the newspapers” to study the reified experience and “historical feeling of vertigo” he observed in his own era (121). You focus on three notions that go beyond the homogenous, empty, linear time ascribed to modern philosophies of history: Kierkegaard’s notion of the “instant,” Nietzsche’s “untimeliness,” and Benjamin’s “actuality.” What alternate conceptions of time and experience do these counter-figures generate?

TV: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Benjamin’s critiques of journalism, in spite of their polemical thrust, also tried to rescue something from the phenomena under scrutiny. As I try to bring out in the book, philosophy and journalism, as distinct modes of thought and writing, are never simply opposed here; the two have a more complicated relationship. This is already suggested by the writing practice of each of these thinkers. Kierkegaard’s earliest writings almost all have a “journalistic” character, not only in the sense that they are written for newspapers and journals, or intervene in the “talk of the day,” but also in the sense that they are concerned with grasping and characterizing the moment in which they are written. His last writings also take the form of a Blad, the self-published “paper” he called The Instant. Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations were conceived as a periodical of sorts, of which he planned to publish thirteen biannual “issues.” Benjamin, of course, wrote extensively for journalistic media—not just due to external exigencies—and had a practical and philosophical interest in the form of the Zeitschrift, the journal, from his earliest writings onward. But the positive moment in their interpretation of journalism, their attempts to wrest something from it, is also evident in their reflections on time and temporality. The three concepts central to these reflections—the “instant”, the “untimely” and the “actual”—each draw on the analysis of journalism in that they attribute a central place to the “now” of thought and writing. For each of the three thinkers discussed here, time is not given as an empty form, but is produced in the moment of thinking, reading, or writing. Although each thinker conceives of this temporality in different ways, there is a common rejection of the representation of time as a homogeneous continuum made up of now-points. Instead, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Benjamin each attempt to articulate the “now” as a site where the present is irreducibly exposed to a futurity that cannot be conceived as a mere extension of what has been. Although it is marked by a radical discontinuity, each conceives of this future as pulsating within the present. As I show, these conceptions of time are elaborated not only through a polemical confrontation with Kant, Hegel, and historicism, but also through their respective critiques of journalism. Journalistic writing, the form of the newspaper and the journal, contain a promise of this other temporality, this “now” understood as the harbinger of an unforeseeable future, but tend to betray it by reducing time to a homogeneous succession of dates and history to an endless series of positively determinable facts.

JC: One of the main criticisms of journalism shared by the thinkers you focus on is that it takes empirical events to be immediately given and unproblematic; each was critical of the reified view of the world as an “unlimited series of facts” (128). In the Anglo-American context, journalism has undergone renewed scrutiny in the era of Trump and Brexit amidst debates about the corrosion of language and truth, yet fact-checking often seems pedantic and futile against the proliferation of lies. Amidst the essays celebrating Jürgen Habermas’s ninetieth birthday last year, Raymond Geuss criticized his theory of communicative rationality, using Brexit as a counterexample: instead of generating rational consensus, prompting public discussion actually generated an outpouring of false information and polarization on an issue on which most Britons were initially quite ambivalent. Even if we admit, with the rejoinders that followed, that Habermas’s theory is only an ideal speech theory, the state of public discourse is not encouraging. However, it seems from your book that we’ve been here many times before. What broader insights might your study provide about language, media, and truth today?

TV: The critique of communicative rationality plays an especially important role in Kierkegaard’s polemical portraits of the “present age.” His early newspaper articles never cease to draw attention to the impulses in language threatening the smooth functioning of communication—even in its ideal form. The polemic against the positivism of facts is central to the chapters on Nietzsche and Benjamin, whose writings respond to a different stage in the history of journalism and the form of the newspaper, which evolved dramatically over the nineteenth century. Already in his early writings, Nietzsche attacks what he calls an “idolatry of facts,” exemplified in different ways by historicism and journalism. Not only the lofty philosophies of progress but also the purportedly sober insistence on positively determinable historical facts are, for him, an attempt at erecting new gods, of seeking a stable ground where there is none. The truth is, as he puts it, that the event never simply precedes the report—it only comes into being in the “echo of the newspapers” (98). Nietzsche’s main reproach of this idolatry of facts is that it harbors a fatalism, a denial of the irreducible incompleteness of what has been and a foreclosure of as yet unrealized interpretations. Both the conspiracy theories of our own time and the fixation on history as a sequence of facts are, from this perspective, convulsions of what he called the “last human being.” For Nietzsche, the challenge is to move beyond this false opposition and invent new forms of writing and reading the present. Benjamin, in his own philosophical and political project, takes up this question as well. His critique of the “unlimited series of facts” of the newspaper is combined with a search for a different kind of factuality. Whereas the former represents an experience of history that fails to provide an impulse to intervene in the course of events, Benjamin finds in Kraus the image of another journalism—one whose reports of a world permeated by “war and pestilence, fire and floods” prepares the ground for an interruption of the catastrophic history unfolding in the present.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: G. W. F. Hegel, by Friedrich Julius Ludwig Sebbers. Courtesy of picture-alliance/Design Pics/Ken Welsh via Deutschlandfunk Kultur

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