Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer both commented on the cultural significance of the daily or weekly illustrated newspaper, whose juxtapositions of text, photography, and advertisements provided unprecedented insights into the contradictions of modernity. A single page in today's national edition of the New York Times provides an example of the largely unconscious revelations available in print newspapers, revelations that are not visible, or non-existent, in the online edition of the Times.
Page 11 of the September 14, 2008, National Edition features articles with three headlines containing the word "kill," each of which reports on political violence in a different part of the Middle East.
1. "Palestinian Is Killed In a Clash With Israelis."
2. "Bomb Kills 8 Kurdish Soldiers, Inflaming an Iraqi Regional Dispute."
3. "A Bomb Blast Near Kabul Kills an Afghan Governor and 3 Others."
The first two headlines are at the top of the page; the third is just below the fold. Above the fold (and thus above the third headline) is the following photograph, which accompanies the third article:
While the juxtaposition of three headlines of political violence in the Middle East with a graphic photograph of the wreckage of a car in which a provincial Afghan governor was killed by a suicide bomber is unsettling enough to encounter over a cup of Sunday morning coffee, the truly disturbing juxtaposition involves the advertisement that anchors the bottom third of the page.
A photograph of a large graduated diamond necklace on the right side of the ad accompanies the following text, in large caps: "BYE BYE BLING, HELLO POSSIBILITIES" The ad, for a company called CIRCA, is not selling the necklace, but offering to buy it. The text of the ad, in much smaller print, reads as follows: "You never imagined letting go of something could be so rewarding. As the only international jewelry buying house, CIRCA understands. We give you power to transform yesterday's trinkets into tomorrow's treasures instantly. Impeccable service and knowledgeable staff; with unprecedented pricing, CIRCA knows Change is Good."
One hardly knows where to begin. Underneath the photograph of an Afghan man grieving over his dead relative, we read of how rewarding it is to let something go: BYE BYE BLING, HELLO POSSIBILITIES. A diamond necklace worth tens of thousands of dollars is characterized as "yesterday's trinket." It would not be unreasonable to imagine that the circumstances that might put one in position to want to sell such a "trinket" could even be the death of a relative whose "trinket" it was. "You never imagined letting go of something could be so rewarding." And then the coup de grace of the final line, which remediates John McCain's remediation of Barack Obama's campaign slogan: "Change is Good."
To think seriously about this newspaper page is to think seriously about the possibility that the United States of America has gone insane. That such obscene juxtapositions go unnoticed by those responsible for the layout of the Sunday Times, that the American public encounters without noticing such obscene incongruities as a matter of course on an everyday basis, cannot be dismissed as insignificant. As Benjamin and Kracauer knew, the media formation of the illustrated print newspaper provided what Kracauer in a different context characterized as an ornament of mass culture. But as print newspapers are increasingly giving way to online versions, we need to ask, in the words of the CIRCA ad, if letting go of print newspapers is indeed so rewarding.
For readers of the New York Times online, these juxtapositions would be invisible. The three articles on page 11 appear in a list of clickable headlines on the "International" page of the online times. The photograph of the bombed-out car and the grieving relative is visible only if one clicks on the article about the Afghan bomb blast. And the CIRCA ad is nowhere to be found. What are the effects of this difference in the Times reader's experience?
To read the Times online is to be protected from the shock of these unintended juxtapositions. Maybe this is a good thing. One doesn't need to be hammered with the juxtaposition of three headlines about killing in the Middle East. One doesn't have to be assaulted by graphic photographs one doesn't choose to know about. One doesn't need to be exposed to the hyper-capitalism of newspaper advertising. As the CIRCA ad insists, maybe letting go of yesterday's media formation of the print newspaper has indeed let us transform the online newspaper into tomorrow's treasure.
Or maybe not. Maybe something important is lost by the disappearance of these unintended juxtapositions. Maybe it is important for us to be exposed to images that we might not choose to see, to be kept appraised of advertisements for products or services or points of view we may not be aware of or do not agree with. While technophiles and marketing gurus have for the past two decades touted the glories of the customized consumer experiences made possible by networked digital media, maybe such customization is responsible for the fragmentation of our politics and society at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
As I have argued elsewhere, in the years following the events of 9/11 print, televisual, and networked media have been increasingly preoccupied with pre-mediating the future so that the American public will not again have to experience the shock of a traumatic surprise like that they faced on September 11, 2001. The print newspaper is a media formation that predates that shock and that persists beyond it. Although the print newspaper reading public continues to dwindle in the face of digital newspaper formats, juxtapositions like those on page 11 of the September 14, 2008, Sunday Times provide perhaps the strongest argument why such "trinkets" should not be disposed of so quickly.