Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Newspaper and Form

This is a guest post by Procne
This piece is intended as a set of reflections on the future of ‘the paper’.
Walter Benjamin once wrote that the newspaper is the ‘scene of the limitless debasement of the word’. Taken seriously, this insight poses a problem for those who wish to use the newspaper – or, say, a blog – as a tool of political organisation and intervention. Leon Trotsky suggested one possible problem with the form in an article on ‘The Newspaper and its Readers’ published in Pravda in 1923. He complained that ‘in some of our newspapers [plural], you get the impression that when the comrades in charge of this department submit fresh cables […], they have completely forgotten what they put in yesterday. […] Each wire looks like some sort of chance fragment.’ Far from being a means to achieve a holistic, or total, analysis of the political conjuncture, the unmediated, disjointed nature of the news-items (‘information’) and their usurpation of older forms of narration, such as storytelling, constitute a reification of experience. This is why, for Benjamin, the newspaper represents the ‘increasing atrophy’ of experience: ‘[t]he 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.’
Without wanting to sound otiose, I have sometimes wondered whether current or past editors of a newspaper such as Socialist Worker have ever seriously grappled with the problem of theform of the newspaper. It is not enough simply to keep churning out articles, treating form as an empty vessel. Form imposes certain serious restrictions and limitations, not only on what can be said, but on how it can be said. This is important because propaganda must be persuasive if it is to be effective. Producing effective propaganda, one might conclude, will require at least some basic familiarity with linguistic matters such as rhetoric, style and idiom, even before the ostensibly weightier matters of content and ‘substance’ enter the frame. Someone will doubtless soon pipe up to the effect that the relationship between form and content is dialectical, rather than simply dualistic, but this must be shown, rather than simply told.
What has been most notable about the proliferation of blogs and online commentary in the recent months is that it has become impossible not to relinquish the illusion of monolithic central authority. There is not one line; instead, there are many voices. This is why Charlie Kimber always manifests what might be dubbed a Chinese sneer whenever he is obliged to mention ‘the blogs’. One might recall Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on the novelistic discourse which mobilise the concept of polyglossia by way of a subterranean riposte to the monoglossia of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The blogosphere is undeniably polyglossic. One blog leads to another, which leads to another. The conversation is many-sided and multi-faceted. A total picture of the situation begins to emerge only in the corner of one’s eye, amidst a kaleidoscopic array of paragraphs which cascade one on top of the other in a waterfall of prose (some of which is stylish, some of which is not).
I hope, then, that I may be forgiven a brief digression before returning to more serious analysis. Emmanuel Kazakevich is a mostly forgotten Soviet novelist. In his 1961 short story,The Blue Notebook (1961), he offers a fictional reconstruction of Lenin’s experience of exile on the Karelian isthmus, situated between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga in north-western Russia. Hiding in a rural barn, guarded by a comrade, Lenin requests that his comrade’s sons make frequent visits to a nearby town in order to collect a large number of different newspapers. Kazakevich goes to the trouble of elucidating:
Each of the boys had his regular list. Sasha bought the Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik papers: Rabochaya Gazeta, Izvestia Petrogradskogo Sovieta, Novaya Zhizn, Volya Naroda,Yedinstvo, Zemlya I Volya, Izvestia Vserossiiskogo Sovieta Krestyanskikh Deputatov and Dyelo Naroda. It was Kondraty’s job to buy the Bolshevik papers and magazines: Proletarskoye Dyelo, the Moscow Sotsial-Demokrat, Rabotnitsa and whatever else he could find. Seryozha bought the Black-Hundreds’ and ‘yellow’ press: Zhivoye Slovo, Novoye Vremya, Novaya Rus,Purishkevich’s Narodny Tribun, and others. In addition, Kondraty had to buy the bourgeois papers: the Petrograd Rech, Dyen, Russkaya Volga and Birzheviye Vedomosti and the Moscow newspapers Utro Rossii, Russkiye Vedomosti and Russkoye Slovo.
There is a lot to read here, week by week, and Lenin, of course, reads all of this wordy stuff with a voracious appetite. He gobbles it up, unafraid and undaunted. Lenin is the antithesis of Oblomov – the anti-hero of Ivan Goncharov’s eponymous novel – who is utterly withdrawn from the sphere of immediacy epitomised by the newspaper. Oblomov responds to his friend Stolz’s encouragement to take a more active interest in the world as follows: ‘Do you expect me to load myself every day with a fresh supply of world news and then to shout about it all week till it runs out?’ Oblomov, being a fine specimen of mid-nineteenth-century Russia’s dissolute aristocracy, would rather lounge around in bed for most of the morning, perhaps considering the possibility of breakfast at about midday. He is a finely drawn individual specimen of a more general type – the proverbial lazy-bones, whom we have all encountered, perhaps embodied, at one time or another. (George Osborne might like to take note that there was no welfare state in nineteenth-century Russia). Lenin polemicised relentlessly against the Oblomovs.
Now, if you have ever made bold to hawk a newspaper such as Socialist Worker in one of the main streets of the town where you live, you will not have failed to notice that many hundreds of people walk past you as if you were a ghost. They see you as having loaded yourself with a fresh supply of world news and they note, with varying degrees of interest and indifference that you are shouting about it for at least part of the week. The Oblomovian response to this type of activity is not an uncommon one. It is not just that these people are lazy, or busy, or that they have other things on their mind. Some may be lazy, or busy, or just engrossed in the marathon of conspicuous consumption, but many others will walk past because they already know, without having to take the trouble to read it, precisely what the newspaper will contain. The actual content will change from week to week, but it is the same basic, wordy stuff. Can you honestly claim to remember the detail of what was printed in Socialist Worker in the third week of May in 1999 in the same way that you might recall a particular moment in a novel, say, or a poem? One wonders whether the stalwarts of the Central Committee have spent much time reading novels. I suspect not. So we are back to Benjamin again: the newspaper is the scene of the limitless debasement of the word. The propaganda is ineffective because it fails to provoke the curiosity of its intended readership.
Yes, yes, yes, I know what you will say, thou staunch loyalist thou. Of course, there are people who buy it. It's a brave old world out there, so we don't need to talk about all this internal shit. We shouldn't pause for thought or reflection because we must march onwards, ever onwards, into the radiant future of struggle. Of course, there are empirically verifiable exceptions which could be cited with wild gesturing arms in order to refute the general line of my argument. We have the statistical reminders that 50 papers were sold on Friday in the Potemkin village near Glaisdale, whilst an even more impressive 75 papers were sold in the space of an hour by the multi-storey car-park in Slough: ‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!/ It isn’t fit for humans now.’ The number-crunchers hope to be able to measure the effectiveness of our propaganda with reference to a set of figures, as if the number of papers sold on a demonstration were some kind of revolutionary dipstick. There is a grain of truth in this, for sure, but a relentless focus on this kind of bad positivism becomes a fetish which only serves to avoid the real questions and problems. The trees conceal the woods and ‘life is dragged along on the triumphal automobile of the united statisticians’, whose myopia is truly pitiable. 
It is true: the revolutionary newspaper can indeed invoke the fleeting curiosity of a not-insignificant portion of the population – and this is important because it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is important to persist with the form (even as particular ‘brands’ may come and go). The problem is that this curiosity is far more ephemeral than it should be, given the moral, ethical, political and social issues to which the said paper sets out to address itself. So who are these fleeting readers? To where do these people go? To what houses, flats, cubicles and cottages? How is their curiosity to be not only excited, but sustained and turned into a more durable kind of political commitment? Perhaps, just perhaps, the answer might lie with the kind of language that is used. I am not sure the editors of Socialist Worker have answers to these questions, because I doubt very much whether they are questions that have ever been seriously considered, except fleetingly and ephemerally.    
This problem exists just as much for the editors of and contributors to newspapers like The Socialist, Socialist Resistance, The Weekly Worker, Socialist Appeal, Solidarity, or whichever socialist newspaper you care to name. As I have mentioned at the outset, the problem is with the form of the newspaper, rather than with any particular instance of the form. But let’s be ‘concrete’ for a moment: if you have ever sold Socialist Worker, you can perhaps engage in quick thought experiment: imagine the attitude that you assume when you pass by one of those lonely doppelgangers in, let us say, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, or the Socialist Party. The paper s/he is selling is not a saleable commodity in your eyes, nor, indeed, is it something you would touch with a proverbial barge-pole. This, then, is the attitude assumed by the vast majority of passers-by when they see you selling Socialist Worker. Perhaps, if you can begin properly to empathise with the experience of such a passer-by we might begin collectively to address the problem of how we, as an historically situated gathering of revolutionary militants, might actually go about relating to the contemporary working class. Therein lies the distance between a vanguard of a few thousand revolutionaries and a mass party.
Curioser and curioser: so why did Lenin read all those newspapers? and have the cadres of the SWP been trained in a similar fashion? Socialist Worker, in the colloquial idiom of the party rank-and-file, takes the definite article: it is not a paper, one amongst many; it is The Paper. ‘Do you want a copy of the paper?’ This phrase must have become so ubiquitous on demonstrations and picket-lines that, eventually, it spawned a parody. Radicalised students at one of the London universities began printing and distributing a news-bulletin wittily entitledThe Paper, in an ironic tribute to the panoply of socialist organs, each of which makes its own claim to exclusivity and uniqueness. But ideological hegemony is a difficult thing to achieve, even in the small world of the revolutionary left in Britain. Very few members of the SWP will take the trouble to consult the newspaper of other left-wing organisations; some will consult the bourgeois and pro=capitalist press; a handful might make the effort to read the publications of the BNP and its splinter-groups, as well as those of the EDL and the NF. Many more will simply take the line from the paper. After all, there is only so much time in the day: some hours must be spent in labour, eating and sleeping. But this is no way to train a cadre, and so we are back to Oblomov. The paper’s readers are deaf to the polyglossic, which is a problem, because the world is infinitely more complex than the paper allows for. One sometimes wonders whether socialists can truly learn that dialectics necessitates antagonism, polemic and the forcing through of contradictions, if their print-culture produces nothing but a relentless monotone.   
So, where do we go from here? Let us start by taking a lesson from one of our Egyptian co-thinkers.