Things to Charm a Storyteller


Polly Dickson in 3:AM Magazine:

It speaks from within the home, with the voice of a guest. And, like a guest, ‘upon arrival, it is usually assessed just as quickly and as sharply’ (‘Reflections on Radio’, 1930-1). The voice of radio, unhampered by flesh or face, rings of unbelonging.

Radio Benjamin (2014), edited by Lecia Rosenthal, is the first book in English devoted entirely to Walter Benjamin’s work for radio. It artfully compiles some forty radio programmes and plays produced and broadcast between 1927 and 1933, most of them translated here for the first time into English by Jonathan Lutes, Lisa Harries Schumann and Diana K. Reese, and places them alongside a selection of his theoretical writings on radio.

Listener and broadcaster in these texts have a furtive, strained relationship. Inhabiting the same room – for ‘the radio listener, as opposed to every other kind of audience, receives the programming in his home’ (‘Reflections on Radio’) – the two are invisible to one another: to each other, they are Benjamin’s ‘dear invisible ones’. Theirs is a highly mediated intimacy that can be stifled immediately – an intimacy that lacks both touch and body. Benjamin’s broadcast is a space of compromise, where the valence of sound is afforded only by the conspicuous loss or suspension of sight and touch. As Rosenthal puts it in her introduction: ‘the impossibility of giving a complete account remains an essential component of the medium of sound broadcast and audio performance itself’.

There is a word to fit this necessary concession of the radio voice: acousmatic. ‘Acousmatic sound’ is sound that we hear with a cause that we cannot see; sound from an invisible source. Benjamin’s texts are already a curious group of creatures, with topics ranging from ‘True Dog Stories’ (1930) to the Borsig car factory (‘Borsig’, 1930), from ‘The Mississippi Flood of 1927’ (1932) to ‘What the Germans were reading while their classical Authors were writing’ (1932). There are drifting scenes lifted from childhood, bright accounts of tales of fraud and swindle and disaster, didactic ‘listening models’ (Hörmodelle) offering advice for the workplace, and a handful of raucous plays. And the texts are made more curious still for having undergone a double upheaval, twice removed from their sensory places of origin. First is the acousmatic loss: the compromise of the radio voice which can be heard only at the loss of its visual base. The second is the loss of sound itself – for, with the exception of a fragment from the play ‘Much Ado about Kasper’, no recordings of the texts remain. It is a fact that prickles, constantly, in reading them. In the face of what they may have lost, writes Rosenthal: ‘we must read and imagine what we cannot hear’.

Benjamin’s own dubiousness towards the (still relatively young) medium of radio is made obvious in excerpts from his letters to historian Gershom Scholem and others expressing disregard for the pieces and stressing his financial motives in producing them: ‘the series of countless talks… are of no interest except in economic terms’; ‘the work I do simply to earn a living’. But at moments, Benjamin’s tired scepticism reaches a more acute distaste for the strange power of the radio voice. Radio, after all – as it gives stage to the bodiless voice and invites it into the homes of the masses – was to gain quick, easy hold under Fascism.

More here.