In the 20th century, middlebrow celebrated its interests as timeless and universal values. With those interests under fresh assault, it now paints their demise as signal of the End Time. Call it the middlebrow apocalyptic mode.I’m reading “Final Edition: Twilight of the American Newspaper,” Richard Rodriguez’s piece in the current Harper’s
. A couple of passages provoke me to reply:
When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed. If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death … it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.
Tying newspapers to civic health is nothing new; anointing them the very fountains of materiality is another turn of the handle. The ties between newspapers and places can be profound, but we can have places, and a sense of the same without newspapers. San Francisco is the home of several new online writing ventures that bring sense of place alive in the context of the web; Bold Italic
, one of the newest, is especially exciting. Here in Boston, Universal Hub
gives sense of place a lively, webby new twist; author Stephen B. Johnson’s ambitious venture outside.in
seeks to offer geospecific, hyperlocal web experiences in communities across the continent. Do any of them alone replace the newspaper? No. But to answer that question is to be not even wrong
when it comes to the state of the public sphere.
It was the pride and function of the American newspaper in the nineteenth century to declare the forming congregation of buildings and services a city—a place busy or populated enough to have news. Frontier American journalism preserved a vestige of the low-church impulse toward universal literacy whereby the new country imagined it could write itself into existence. We were Gutenberg Nation.
Sententious, metaphor-sprung, declaratory sentences like these epitomize the Harper’s style. They’re deeply seductive to the liberal imagination—hiding the utter nonsense that frequently lurks deep within subordinate clauses, or in this case, in the plain garb of a simple sentence. American city dwellers indeed did use the newspaper to help define their sense of place; it was but one tool, an important one, but subordinate and retroactive. Furthermore, Gutenberg Nation
is an utterly meaningless epithet. Johannes Gutenberg lived a century before anything called “low church” could have existed. Furthermore, he didn’t produce newspapers, but a Bible, one designed to look and function like the manuscript Bibles of his time, only at a lower price. The merely causal connection between Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and the existence of the nineteenth century American newspaper does not mean that Gutenberg somehow represents the essence of American public sphere, much less that the public sphere its natural, ideal and inevitable end result. Between the 15th and the 19th centuries, as throughout history, contingency rules. History is exactly like the future in one respect: both are but other names for “unintended consequences.”
Here’s a far more useful parallel to draw: like the newspaper in the 21st century, Gutenberg went bankrupt
. And yet the emergent public sphere flourished nonetheless.
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