Feature

The Art of Thinking in Other People’s Heads

And what is a feuilleton?

By Alexander Stern | HUMANITIES, Winter 2017 | Volume 38, Number 1

Posted on January 9, 2017

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?

The answer is complicated, but lies somewhere at the intersection of a volatile political climate, quickly modernizing cities, and the emergence of mass culture. In papers like Die Frankfurter Zeitung, Das Berliner Tageblatt, and Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, German journalists attempted to come to terms with their fast-changing times, writing literary vignettes that reflected philosophically on culture, technology, and politics. The feuilleton section thus became a battleground over the meaning of modernity. The controversy it generated prefigured present-day concerns about the deterioration of attention and the media’s role in shaping—or, as Walter Benjamin suggested, generating—public opinion.

1.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century in France, printing technology and political conditions paved the way for the affordable daily newspaper, the world’s first mass medium. It quickly spread throughout Europe. In 1850 one in nine Germans read a paper; by 1890 the number was one in two. The newspaper market quickly became highly fragmented and diverse, not unlike our infinite playground of cable channels and Internet outlets.

The feuilleton (French for “little sheet of paper”) came to prominence during this time. Originally, in eighteenth-century French papers, the feuilleton consisted only of theater reviews, but it expanded to include poetry and literature, criticism, gossip, travel writing, and serialized novels. Writers like Balzac, whose later novels appeared in the feuilleton, changed their style to meet the demands of a mass readership. The “roman-feuilleton” became an essential part of the paper, wooing subscribers with diverting plots, unexpected twists, more dialog, less description, and cliff-hangers. (Today “feuilleton” refers to serialized television dramas in France.) Feuilletonists were in high demand and well paid, and feuilletons (the word designates the section as well as the pieces printed in it) were published in weekly stand-alone magazines as well as on the bottom third of the paper itself.

From the beginning, there was anxiety about the mixing of literature and journalism, the corruption of art by the marketplace, and the feuilletonist’s omniscient tone and florid style. Balzac wrote of the form that it mixed the “infallibility of an almanac” and the “gauziness of lace.”

Baudelaire’s prose poems, too, often appeared in a feuilleton. These were literary sketches of urban life that attempted to isolate and reflect on the fragmentation of experience in the city. Here is an example, “A Jester,” quoted in full:

It was the explosion of a new year: a chaos of mud and snow, criss-crossed by a thousand carriages, sparkling with toys and sweets, swarming with greed and despair, the official delirium of a great city, made to agitate the mind of even the most composed outsider.

     Amid the confusion and din, a donkey trotted briskly past, pestered by a lout armed with a whip.

     As the donkey came to a corner, a gentleman, gloved, varnished, brutally clasped in necktie and brand new clothes, bowed ceremoniously before the humble beast and, doffing his hat, addressed it, “I wish you health and happiness.” Then he turned toward I don’t know what companions with an air of conceit, as if requesting they add their approval to his satisfaction.

     The donkey did not see this fine jester and continued to run with the zeal that duty called for.

     I, for my part, was suddenly overcome with immeasurable rage at the magnificent imbecile, who appeared to me to concentrate in himself the whole spirit of France.

Baudelaire’s poems, forebear of an evasive genre scholar Andreas Huyssen has termed the “modernist miniature,” were somewhat out of place in the feuilleton section, like stumbling on an art film while channel surfing. The sketches bored readers, Baudelaire’s editor told him, and the series was cut short.

But for Weimar-era philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire was the poet of modern urban subjectivity. Benjamin—an exile of Hitler’s Berlin whose last years were spent combing the cultural remains of nineteenth-century Paris for insight into his own time—read Baudelaire as the first writer to really see the new relationship between the individual and the social and material world occasioned by industrial, capitalist urbanization. This was not primarily the consciousness of the consumer, but that of the alienated observer, whose attitude toward the marketplace and its wares ranged from idle curiosity to contemplative melancholy to profound disgust.

It is the consciousness, that is, of the flâneur, strolling the boulevards of Paris, taking in at leisure the brand-new chaos of the emerging metropolis. “A Jester” captures this activity, which we have since divided into “window shopping” and “people watching,” and the aestheticized agitation—Baudelaire called it “spleen”—that sometimes accompanies it. Commerce, all of the sudden, becomes disgusting, and ill-dressed strangers become symbols for an entire nation’s depravity.

Whereas Baudelaire’s feuilletons tried to capture in language the experience of flânerie, the popular feuilleton transformed flânerie into a saleable commodity in its own right. Writers and intellectuals were, of course, not just observers of the marketplace, but anxious to find their own place in it. They discovered that consumers would need not just top hats and walking sticks, but the attitudes and opinions to match. “In the flâneur,” Benjamin writes, “the intelligentsia sets foot in the marketplace—ostensibly to look around, but in truth to find a buyer.”

In a note from the Arcades Project, which contains Benjamin’s unfinished notes on late nineteenth-century Paris, he writes of the three main ingredients of the French newspaper: “On information, advertising, and the feuilleton: the idler must be furnished with sensations, the merchant with customers, and the man in the street with a worldview.” Thus was born a style of writing one might call, repurposing a phrase of Bertolt Brecht’s, “the art of thinking in other people’s heads.”

The implication Benjamin drew was not just that in the feuilleton art and the intellect began to be commodified, but that experience itself was being tailored to capitalist specifications:

The feuilleton . . . meant that the poison of sensation was injected, as it were intravenously, into experience. That is to say, the quality of the momentary encounter was discerned in everyday experience. The experience of big-city inhabitants was the first to offer itself up to this process. The feuilletonist taps in to this situation. He estranges the city-dweller from the city. He is thus one of the first technicians called in to fulfill the enhanced need for immediate encounters.

Benjamin famously distinguishes between Erlebnisse (one-time encounters or experiences that fill our minds momentarily and then pass away) and Erfahrung (experience of a deeper sort that is integrated into our life as a whole—the kind of experience about which we can say, “I am experienced.”) Modernity, per Benjamin, is characterized by the deterioration of the latter and a preponderance of the former—the accustomed shocks of mass entertainment, mass transportation, mass media, and the serial gratifications of binge-watching, -shopping, -eating, -drinking, -swiping, etc. The job of feuilletonists, Benjamin suggests, is to sift the nuggets of momentary diversion out of the soil of everyday experience, polish them, and present them to their readers. In brief, they make the everyday consumable. This process has since—with the photograph, the movie camera, the smartphone—been made infinitely more efficient.

2.

As the feuilleton entered Germany and developed further, the line began to blur between two clashing impulses of the French feuilleton: the Baudelarian prose poem grappling with capitalist modernity and the puff piece submitting to it. Many German papers already had a feuilleton section by the early nineteenth century, but the German form didn’t coalesce into a stable category until the turn of the twentieth century. It distinguished itself from its French predecessor in its more overt political content and a tendency toward self-reflexivity. Many of these feuilletons reflected on print media itself and on the accelerating pace of society.

For example, Kurt Tucholsky, renowned Weimar critic and satirist who edited the weekly feuilleton of the Berliner Tageblatt, composed a humor piece called “The Newspaper Reader’s Prayer.” It’s about a news junkie, who finds himself in a now familiar media spiral, inundated by stacks of newspapers. Music of constantly shifting genre plays in the background. He prays to God to help him overcome his addiction:

I must read it all:

The civil war between north and south China

The gymnastics tournament with splits and beams . . .  

Churchill overthrown; Parliament enraged

the Pope and Mary Wigman engaged

(suits him too)—Storm in the Azores

missing: Lundendorff’s dachshund’s tail

boom in Greenland swimwear.

The piece satirizes just the condition Benjamin had identified: a public yanked from one sensation to the next, unable to assimilate anything and unable to stop. “Wherever a newspaper lies / there I must hurry—out of greed / for paper, always more paper.”

And yet Benjamin was no fan of Tucholsky’s writing. In a 1931 article called “Left-Wing Melancholy,” he cited Tucholsky as one of a group of politically impotent leftist writers whose work, despite pretensions of radicalism, served to cement the extant socioeconomic structure. According to Benjamin, the “political significance” of the “left-wing intelligentsia” in the quickly unravelling Weimar Republic “amounted to nothing more than the conversion of revolutionary reflexes, insofar as they have even arisen in the bourgeoisie, into objects of diversion, of amusement, which can be supplied for consumption.” Despite the fact that Tucholsky’s feuilleton seems to satirize a superficial and compulsive element in the culture, the piece, from Benjamin’s point of view, simply becomes another item like the ones it lists. It doesn’t indict the culture, it teases it. This gentle satire—which finds current analogs not just in humor pieces and op-eds but also TV shows like HBO’s Silicon Valley—transforms discontent into consumption, dissipates political energy, and even normalizes the object of satire. Tech hypocrisy becomes a cute blunder that even the hypocrites can enjoy.

In another feuilleton in Berlin’s Weltbühne, Tucholsky complained in a familiar vein of the conformity, celebrity, and slogans of urban capitalism:

In Berlin, the entire bourgeoisie is wearing hand-me-down intellectual fashions, and everyone looks to the next tax bracket, because no one has an internal compass. . . . They don’t like to decide anything for themselves; someone else has to tell them. Ready-to-wear dispositions. Factory-made individuality. Mass-produced goods made to look handmade. And anything but true collectivism.

Slogans are subjugating all of Berlin.

We find elements of Benjamin’s own critique of capitalism in Tucholsky, but, again, this kind of writing can, for Benjamin, only ever reinforce the subjectivity it appears to criticize. The writer wanders the crowd, points out its failings, processes his judgment in clever language, and sells it back to the masses. The piece creates a reader convinced Tucholsky is talking about everyone but him. Again discontent is made marketable, and what Benjamin calls the “petty-bourgeois revolt against the enslavement of the ‘free individual’ by ‘dead formulas’” can begin its next cycle. 

The attitude of the flâneur infects, according to Kraus and Benjamin, even the tone of feuilletonists’ writing. The feuilletonist is detached from language, in the same way the flâneur is detached from the marketplace, and the way modernity in general is, as the Romantics had fretted, detached from tradition. Of the Weimar left Benjamin wrote:

What does the “intellectual elite” discover as it begins to take stock of its feelings? The feelings themselves? They have long since been sold off. What is left is the empty spaces, where, in dusty heart-shaped velvet trays, the feelings—nature and love, enthusiasm and humanity—once rested. Now the hollow forms are absent-mindedly caressed. An over-clever irony thinks it has much more in these presumed clichés than in the things themselves; it is extravagant with its poverty and makes out of the gaping void a celebration.

In modernity we are wrenched out of history, take up an “objective” viewpoint on our culture, and immediately find genuine connection to much of it gone. God dies, traditions wither, only the words remain. To the feuilletonist, in Benjamin’s view, this means we can finally think clearly. We can finally view religion, tradition, and so forth objectively—things that to premoderns were still obscure because they were too close to their culture, because the words meant too much.

The feuilletonist thus covers all his subjects with a finish of urbane, pseudo-philosophical detachment. Kraus wrote:

When a streetcar accident takes place in Vienna, the gentlemen [of the press] write about the nature of streetcars, about the nature of streetcar accidents, and about the nature of accidents in general, all with the viewpoint: what is man?

Glib generalization and a tone of seen-it-all skepticism seduces the reader and seems to lift them up into the writer’s realm of free-floating observation. Even when written in the first person, the feuilleton takes up a kind of third-person “I” that surveys the scene, wary and detached, hovering above the crowd. Judgments seem to emerge effortlessly. Individual observations always serve some unassailable universal point. Feuilletons were written with what Benjamin called a “false subjectivity that can be separated from the person and incorporated in the circulation of commodities.”

The feuilletonist is like a conversation partner who convinces you of something by assuming you already knew it. A tacit note of almost conspiratorial intimacy accompanies his opinions: This is just obvious to two people of our intellect and experience. The reader is, on the one hand, flattered without argument into accepting the view expressed, and, on the other, infantilized.

The result is the manufacture of opinion—not that the feuilleton necessarily indoctrinates its readers. Rather, it absolves them of having to think for themselves. “It is precisely the purpose of the public opinion generated by the press,” Benjamin wrote, “to make the public incapable of judging, to insinuate into it the attitude of someone irresponsible, uninformed.”

3. 

This all seems rather dire, and yet Benjamin wrote for the feuilleton section of the Frankfurter Zeitung, and published a book, One-Way Street, that made use of the feuilleton’s characteristic prose-poetic style. And other writers for the Frankfurter Zeitung, including Siegfried Kracauer and the novelist Joseph Roth, thought the form indispensable.

For Kracauer its value lay in the opportunity to attend to detail. He famously wrote, “The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself.” His sociological study of employee culture in Berlin first appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung feuilleton and consisted of meticulous observations of mundane episodes in the lives of the new class of salaried employees populating the office and leisure spaces of Berlin. The role of the feuilleton, in Kracauer’s view, lay in painstaking phenomenological investigation of the trappings of modernity: streetcars, movie palaces, hotel lobbies, billboards. Where other writers ruminated on the big events and saw in every news item a sign of the times, Kracauer thought a more accurate image of social reality would emerge, unforced, from intensely observed minutiae.

There is some overlap between this style and the literary New Journalism of writers like Norman Mailer and Joan Didion. They share an attention to what is ordinarily ignored, a conviction that the story is not in the event but on the sidelines, and—at least in the best examples—confidence that insight will emerge from details and ought not be imposed from above. But while the New Journalists responded to the false objectivity of reportage—Mailer called it “one of the great lies of all time”—by becoming characters in their pieces, the Frankfurt feuilletonists responded to a “false subjectivity” by digging deeper into the things themselves, wary not just of phony detachment, but of finding in reality only what it had already put there. “Truth is the death of intention,” as Benjamin put it.

Of course these “pictures of thought” (Denkbilder), to use Benjamin’s word for them, also differ from New Journalism in that they were not long-form pieces. Their truncated form meant they shared much in common with new visual media gaining prominence at the time. Benjamin and Kracauer noted the similarity of the feuilleton form to photography and cinematic montage, and Huyssen argues that much of their significance lies in “remediation” of these new forms. That is, the avant-garde feuilleton attempted to subject new media to the mediation of an older form—literature. Whereas the popular feuilleton of Tucholsky and others employed literary techniques in support of the tendency toward momentary diversion, Benjamin and Kracauer followed Baudelaire and applied literary vision to these fragmented phenomena. The feuilleton was a space, to use Benjamin’s language, to try to reintegrate isolated sensations into a more holistic conception of experience.

A good example comes in a Joseph Roth feuilleton in the Frankfurter Zeitung called “Man Reads Newspaper.” Roth provides a detailed portrait of a man not unlike Tucholsky’s news-addled reader, only from an observer’s perspective.

The face of the newspaper reader has a serious expression, which at times intensifies into melancholy, then recalls itself and dissolves into smiling amusement. While his sharp oval glasses, in the middle of which rest polished and swollen pupils, crawl slowly and inquiringly across the lines, the dreamy fingers of the newspaper reader dart across the marble sandstone of the café table and perform here a silent piano piece, which seems like a kind of mourning—as if the finger tips were seeking out scattered invisible crumbs and nimbly picking them up.

Roth goes on to describe the reader and his paper in detail—the sensationalist headlines, inviting print, and what they do to the reader. The feuilleton’s amusing title encapsulates Roth’s worry—that though we may think we’re reading it for mere diversion, the paper threatens to mold us in its image, to turn its readers into headlines.

The news toys with the concealed strings of [the reader’s] soul, even while he believes that he is toying with the news. If he weren’t wearing glasses, it would nearly seem he were being read by the newspaper. He may believe that his imagination plays an idle game with the half-experienced articles and enlivens them. But they play an unchecked game with his imagination. He is completely given over to a shallow exposé. Everything beams with so much common sense and leaves him dazzled.

Roth’s feuilleton does a number of things at once. It continues the critique of journalism in Benjamin’s vein. The reader is pandered to: He feels himself to be in control, but in reality reads in a state of distraction, maneuvered through the paper by catchy headlines, slick writing, and the eminent reasonableness of its tone. Second, by describing this newspaper reader to his readers—who were, of course, reading the newspaper—Roth forces them to reflect on this state of absorption, to look at it and themselves from the outside. (Eric Pickersgill’s photographs of smartphone users offer a modern equivalent.) Finally, it provides us with an alternative model of literary journalism, one that is honest in its perspective—Roth’s narrator speaks from an embodied point of view—and intensely attentive to detail. He remediates the fragmented, absorbing experience of newspaper reading by refracting it through the eye of a particular observer. The reader is invited to think through the experience and not, as in Tucholsky’s “Prayer,” to merely laugh at its absurdity while more or less repeating it.

Comparisons between Hitler’s Germany and our own time are rightly regarded with suspicion, but the critique of the feuilleton is relevant to an age in which the abundance of news and opinion seems somehow to have left us less informed and more close-minded. One reason for this is that the news has become a cultural product, one that glibly reinforces its consumers’ worldview. The world doesn’t appear until after the press. Benjamin’s critique suggests that this situation is not technologically determined, nor the product of overt manipulation, but the result of the subjection of ideas to the logic of the marketplace.

The feuilleton also shows, however, that the mixture of literature and journalism need not serve this end. As our experience becomes fragmented and formed by an ever-increasing number of devices and stimuli, the need for its remediation and perhaps even its redemption in written language becomes ever more acute.

About the Author

Alexander Stern has recently completed his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He has also written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, and Washington Monthly.

Funding Information

Walter Benjamin’s writings have been at the center of numerous NEH-supported projects. In 1978, Edward Said led an NEH seminar for college teachers on media criticism that examined writings by Benjamin and others. Benjamin’s Arcades Project and his writings on language have been translated with the support of NEH grants. Alexander Gelley at the University of California, Irvine, has twice led seminars for college teachers focused on reading Benjamin’s Arcades Project writings. Feuilletons in Russian and Czech newspapers have been studied with NEH grants. The criticism and poetry of Charles Baudelaire has also been the subject of NEH-supported projects.