Did Gertrude Stein Predict the Internet?
Author: Marcie Bianco
August 27, 2013
With the recent selling of The Washington Post to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and the Boston Globe to Red Sox’s owner John Henry, there’s been an upswing in public discourse lamenting, yet again, the imminent death of print journalism. Over at The Daily Show, John Oliver quipped that “there are now more people buying newspapers than people buying newspapers.” Although, contrary to the hilarious Onion article, entitled “Print Dead at 1,803,” it’s arguably only print journalism, and not all printed matter, for whom the bell tolls.
But Gertrude Stein told us all this back in 1934.
Indeed, during her acclaimed and much publicized “lectures in America” in 1934-1935, Stein dedicated most of her third lecture to articulating how the aims of the newspaper industry attempt but fail to meet the desires of the reading public. She begins her inquiry with the twofold question as statement: “As I say what does the newspaper really want to do and what does anybody who reads the newspaper want to feel that they want the newspaper to do.”
Her answer to both parts of the question unfolds through the typical Steinese method of writing; the progressive, yet never repetitive, presentation of thoughts as they are worked out in her mind in the continuous present. “Newspapers,” she determines, “want to do something, they want to tell what is happening as if it were just then happening…. [T]hat is what they mean by hot off the press….” The problem, of course, is that there is a temporal delay inherent in print production. What is lost in this delay—the temporal proximity of an event, as well as the correlative intensity of the sensation resulting from the proximity of the event—is critical. Here is the difference between what is supplied to the reader and what is demanded by her. The reader, Stein explains, craves the “feelings” associated with experiencing “happenings,” without which the reader would feel disjointed, out of time; “it is like the sun standing still…. [Y]ou cannot call a day a day if it is not a day if nothing that had been happening has happened on that day.”
We read newspapers because “happenings” give both structure and meaning to our daily lives. Because newspapers are print media and have a wide audience, the happenings presented to the reader create moments of shared experiences. A community of us read a narrative about Topic X, and it is the narrative that we share in common; a point of cultural intersection that can build community. Thus, newspapers give meaning to us as socio-cultural subjects. They also effectively establish a hierarchy of culture determined by one’s literacy and individual interests—what you read is as much an object of unity as it is of division.
In order to create that affective connection with the reader, the newspaper must “deceive the reader into feeling that yesterday is to-day,” the consequence of which, Stein contends, is that the particular happening being written about is “no longer an exciting thing.” Not only is the happening no longer exciting, but the newspaper itself is, in toto, not at all exciting.
Nope. Not one bit.
But, Stein clarifies, “it is not their business to be exciting.” It is, rather, the newspapers’ business to tell us a story. The problem, which she offers no solution to, is the discrepancy resulting from the failed “deceit” of the reader. Newspapers are not exciting to us because they tells us what we already know. The newspapers, she explains, are “real life with the reality left out”—and what is more exciting, especially in the realm of entertainment, than “reality” in the 21st century?
Jump ahead nearly 70 years, with the advent of the Internet, when we are inundated with tweets and status updates from across the globe at every second of every day, and print journalism seems even a more failed enterprise. Newspapers, for Stein in the 1934 as well as for us in 2013, are not just inadequate but irrelevant sources of information.
The temporal stagnation of print journalism—what Stein refers to as the “curious thing” of newspapers being “written as if what is happening is happening as [journalists] are writing”—has only become more apparent in the age of technology, where information reaches millions of people with the tap of a touchscreen. Stein’s bon vivant lesbian descendent, Fran Lebowitz, also observed this “curious” tendency in print journalism: “now every article in the New York Times begins ‘In a rocky road in Afghanistan…’ It’s like three paragraphs ‘til you get to the facts. Facts are what is important in news, [but] people aren’t interested in facts anymore. People are interested in other people’s opinions—that’s what they see on the internet. That’s what they participate in.” What Lebowitz is commenting upon is the strategy of giving us more story-like narratives instead of singular, fact-based “news” in order to give the reader a sense of immediacy, as if the event-as narrative were unfolding in the moment of reading. It is, in other words, a kind of literary deceit Stein describes that exposes the fabricatedness of narrative form itself, particularly in terms of temporality. For Stein, the fabrication is a journalistic imperative. For Lebowitz, it is a perennial frustration. (If only she used Twitter, she could get all the 140 character bits of “news” she so desperately desires.)
And those in charge of print media have not remained oblivious to this fact, although their solutions have been far from effective. Digital strategist Ken Doctor told the UC Berkeley School of Journalism that these solutions “are essentially counterintuitive products.” Simply translating printed matter onto the screen has been unsuccessful: “older readers who may like the idea of ‘reading the paper’ in its traditional format don’t like reading online; younger readers who like reading online find it nonsensical to read yesterday’s news—and pay for it—when they can news of the moment free online.”
Print journalism is untimely—not in the exciting, PoMo sense of psychological intrigue. No. It’s just untimely in the sense of being outdated. And, it has always been untimely; the gap just became more noticeable to us in the 21st century.
Print journalism, Lebowitz was right, is not about news anymore—or, if it is, it shouldn’t be. Instead it needs to refashion itself with a comprehension of its untimeliness; it can no longer deceive the reader.
There is cultural capital in materials, especially in printed matter. This is why we keep our bookcases in the living room, instead of hidden away in the bedroom. This is also why the coffee table is such prime real estate; with careful deliberation do we decide which materials “matter” in representing us to guests in our home. Perhaps this sort of gravitas that shaped how Stein imagined “a paper” in Tender Buttons: “a courteous occasion makes a paper show no such occasion and this makes readiness and eyesight and likeness and a stool.” A coffee table is the site of such a “courteous occasion” for “no such occasion” (like the news-paper) to take place.
While Stein may have believed that “no one is ahead of [her] time,” her ability to deconstruct the newspaper as a non-happening, yet existing object certainly qualifies her genius and renders her knowledge as fantastically untimely. Sure, technically she did not predict the internet, but if Al Gore can taking credit for inventing it, I’m certainly fine with giving a big lesbian nod to the “mother of us all.”