The Art of Thinking in Other People’s Heads

  • 2017-01-24
  • The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities

The complaint that technology and media have distorted our culture, politics, our very understanding of reality is by now well-worn. They direct us to mere appearances, satisfy (and create) near-narcotic compulsions, splinter communities into defensive cells of mutual incomprehension and disgust, and generally leave us screen-addled and manipulated. These circumstances are sometimes contrasted to an image of the heyday of print media, which, presumably, encouraged judicious, nuanced, and independent reflection on the issues of the day. But, in Weimar Germany, complaints similar to those now leveled against digital derangement were made of the newspaper. The substance of these critiques speaks directly to our own media quandaries.

“In the beginning was the press, and then the world appeared.” So begins a satirical 1922 poem by Karl Kraus. A ruthless critic who regularly excoriated the press in his magazine The Torch, Kraus blamed German newspapers for the outbreak of World War I. He reserved a special hatred for the feuilleton (pronounced “fuh-yah-tawn”) section of the paper, which included, along with art, literature, and reviews, short impressionistic pieces about city life and culture. And he was far from the only one to bemoan “the age of the feuilleton,” as novelist Hermann Hesse dubbed it. In 1929 the philosopher Theodor Lessing, who would be assassinated by Nazis four years later, reflected that “feuilletonist” had become “the nastiest insult in the German language.”

Whence all this contempt for light reading material?