Kultur Shock

If there was one debate dominating German intellectual circles last year that went beyond the banter about affairs and scandals, it was about the death of the newspaper. The year saw two venerable national papers collapse, while many others reported spectacularly low sales figures, a downward spiral signalling the end of the print era, or at least a negative trend that is set to continue not just in Germany but across Europe. 

In Berlin media circles, journalists discussed the prospective disappearance of their work, life and calling as if they were watching their own funeral but not quite believing their eyes. To discuss your own professional fate in public is in itself a luxury, perhaps even an elitist indulgence. Who cares? an American friend of mine asked. Sure, he said, it would be scary to see newspapers folding as they have in the US, but we can get the same information, the same articles, the same quality online. Look at the New York Times or the London Times: the paywall seems to be working for them. While I didn’t  disagree, I felt he was missing the c-word, which in Germany ultimately moulds any discussion of the future: culture. 

Germany is one of the few countries in Europe—some say the only one—which economically and intellectually can afford to have an erudite culture section (“Feuilleton“) of several pages in every major newspaper. In contrast to the Anglo-American model, these are the sections where the liveliest debates take place. The intellectual feuds of the chattering classes are fought out there, but they are also the place for lengthy arguments about assisted suicide or immigration policy, for example, which a reader unaccustomed to this German tradition might look for in the op-ed or political pages. The famous Feuilleton-Kultur is alive; it is the country’s Talk of The Town, its intellectual—and thus cultural, social and moral—outlet.

Why are we fretting about dwindling sales figures and the diminishing of this kind of culture? These pages are most at risk of being downsized because they are not news-driven and not economic. Yet they bear the biggest growth potential because of their ability to attract readers with unusual stories, reflexive, humorous writing and sparkle. 

There is another issue, however, and rather a German one: Kultur means a little more than the English “culture”; it suggests a rich density, almost a metaphysical truth. The term took its modern meaning from German thinkers and writers such as Herder, Goethe and Humboldt (to a certain extent Adorno, too); Kultur is steeped in the idea of the Enlightenment.

This, I tried to explain to my friend, is why a certain type of German holds on to his newspapers so obsessively. His reply was of a kind common in the UK or the US, but rare in Germany: how, he asked, can this Kultur have any claim to universal recognition in a globalised world? He added that Germany seemed to lag behind multicultural countries like Britain or the US in its intellectual development, not having had a comparable influx of immigrants. To him, Kultur seemed a one-dimensional concept. You have all kinds of Kultur-foundations here, fellowships, organisations, ministries, he went on, in some admiration of the Old World’s ongoing obsession with reflecting upon itself in art.

I told him I saw it almost the other way round: Kultur in the old sense of the word isn’t an exclusive idea, but an elitist one. And the foundations my friend so admired more often than not give money to mediocre artists as long as they paint “provocatively” or exhibit “diversity”. We have never had a Tory-style debate about the limits of culture and the funding of arts councils, so we haven’t really defined what is and what isn’t part of our culture. It is made more difficult by the very idea of culture being so horribly abused by the Nazis. 

I don’t think Germany is quite the open society it prides itself on being. At the same time it is curious enough not to turn into the dystopian fantasy of elitist and one-dimensional boredom my friend had evoked. The fact that many newspapers are suffering an identity crisis as much as an economic one is proof of that, at least as long as we consider them as organs for thinking in democratic societies. What does it mean to be cultured or cultivated? To know your Thomas from your Heinrich Mann, to recite the beginning of The Odyssey in the original, or to tell if Kate Moss is wearing McQueen? 

These are the type of questions that the culture sections of newspapers have indirectly addressed, ever since they started to provide the educated classes with their daily dose of knowledge in the 19th century. Today, however, newspapers face a double bind: to provide culture, to reinvigorate discussion about what it constitutes—and to be interesting enough for people to pay for it, online or not. The old saying still rings true: we are only as cultivated as the paper we read. 

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