Walter Benjamin’s Voice
Illustration by Doyle Saylor
by David Beer
by Walter Benjamin, edited by Lecia Rosenthal,
London: Verso. pp. 416
Writing at sometime around 1930 or 1931, Walter Benjamin (p.364) suggested that the voice on the radio is a like a visitor in the home, as such it is “assessed just as quickly and sharply” as any other houseguest. Unfortunately, as far as we are aware, there are no existing audio tapes with which to assess our sympathies for Walter Benjamin’s radio voice. Yet the newly translated collection of the scripts from his various radio broadcasts, gathered in the recently published volume Radio Benjamin, provides us with some insights into what he might have sounded like.
There is an undoubtable audio texture to these printed passages, the grain of his voice and the style of his speech find their way into the prose. But this selection of his radio outputs does more than simply allow us to listen to his imagined voice; these pieces also reveal something of his writing, his working practices and the emergence and formation of some of his key ideas. Far from being an unwelcome and maybe even annoying distraction from his work, as Benjamin himself would have us believe, it would seem, that these broadcasts became an important part of the development of his thinking and writing (as has been briefly suggested by Gilloch, 2002: 170 and Brodersen, 1996: 193).
These radio pieces, which are beautiful in their imagery and telling in their scope, simply attest too much care and attention for them to be considered insignificant or disposable. These are not words that were casually thrown together in order for their author to make some money and maintain his precarious lifestyle. Rather, these scripts are meticulous, creative and imaginative in the way that they tell stories about the everyday – from swindlers to local slang and through to the intricacies of the advice given on how to ask your boss for a pay rise.
According to Rosenthal’s editorial introduction to the book, Benjamin wrote and presented somewhere close to 90 radio broadcasts between 1927 and 1933. Although, as the helpful timeline at the end of the book reveals, nearly all of this activity actually occurred between 1929 and 1932. As Brodersen (1996: 192) notes, “only in the latter half of 1929 did he begin to work regularly for radio”. He adds that “in the three years between 1929 and 1932, Benjamin stood more than eighty times at the microphones of the Frankfurt and Berlin broadcasting stations – this fact underlines the importance of this aspect of his creative work” (Brodersen, 1996: 194).
This, of course, was before Benjamin’s radio broadcasting career was brought to a premature end by the broader political upheaval of the time. Benjamin left Germany in March 1933, and the story of his short life afterwards is well-known.
The period covered by these radio broadcasts were important years for Benjamin on both a personal and intellectual front. The significance of this period is illustrated by the presence of a chapter dedicated to 1929-32 in Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings’ (2014) recent and highly detailed biography. That chapter, tellingly titled “The Destructive Character”, opens with the breakdown of Benjamin’s marriage to Dora and the complexity of his personal and romantic circumstance. According to Esther Leslie’s (2007: 121) reading of his diary, there was even a period in 1931 in which he contemplated suicide – this happened again in mid-1932. So, there was some personal turmoil in the background to his radio broadcasts. Yet, Eiland and Jennings (2014: 317) also note that despite these troubles 1929 “was a high point of productivity for Benjamin”. Gershom Scholem (1981: 202), one of Benjamin’s friends and correspondents, similarly concluded that 1929 was a “high point of intensive literary and philosophical activity” for Benjamin.
All of this would suggest that his radio broadcasts were more than a mere distraction from his other works. In fact, it would seem that his radio career may even have become part of some positive writing practices on Benjamin’s part. Eiland and Jennings add that as well as writing his radio broadcasts he also wrote for newspapers, translated materials and moved his other writings forward with some pace. This included writing drafts of some of the sections for The Arcades Project amongst other things. As well as being a period in which his Marxist politics were reinvigorated, this was a period of mobility for Benjamin. He moved around between locations including Berlin, Paris and Ibiza, developing a kind of peripatetic lifestyle in the process.
The productivity continued though, and it is particularly notable that the first draft of his book Berlin Childhood around 1900 was completed in 1932 (see Eiland & Jennings, 2014: 383). And there are certainly very clear resonances between the autobiographical accounts of place and everyday life found in that book and those to be found in these radio broadcasts. The radio broadcasts, in this sense, can also be seen as a continuation of the montage approach to street scenes that he deployed in the earlier collage style essay One Way Street. In addition, during the period of his radio activity he published essays and wrote short pieces on a diverse range of subjects including book collecting, Karl Kraus, literary criticism, Paris, Brecht, food, publishing and photography. He would seem to have been roaming both in intellect and body.
As well as being intellectually productive, this was also a period of experimentation for Benjamin. He involved himself in a series of drug experiments which he documented as a part of his interest in the concept of experience – some of these experimental experiences have been captured in the short pieces gathered in the recently published On Hashish (Benjamin, 2006). This is quite a set of contrast in his life, combining drug experimentation with wide ranging intellectual pursuits and youth radio.
Beyond this more general intellectual trajectory, these radio programmes were composed at the beginning of a period in which Benjamin would produce his vastly influential work on media. In other words, Benjamin was working in the media whilst also formulating his ideas about it. These works on media, which sprouted from this period of radio broadcasts are, according to Gilloch (2002: 163), still recognized to be amongst his strongest works and are still shaping contemporary cultural and media theory. It is hard to imagine that his period of working in radio did not somehow come to inform these later works, not least because it is clear that Benjamin was coming to develop the ambivalent views that were to enable his later writings on media and technological reproducibility to flourish and endure. Again, Benjamin was engaging in the emergence of mass produced culture whilst also attempting to theorise and understand its potential.
The book itself is organized into four sections, following the editorial introduction there are sections on Benjamin’s radio stories for children, on his radio plays for children, on his other radio talks aimed at adults and, finally, and lending some interesting context and a sense of how he understood his radio work, there are some short writings on the medium of radio. This final section includes pieces by Benjamin that were not for broadcast, rather they are pieces of writing about the medium through which was broadcasting. As a consequence of this structure, from the outset the reader is drawn into a series of brief dalliances with the everyday before moving into the longer carefully crafted plays, which on occasion are even prone to play with the audio focused properties of radio. The third section then sees a shift in style, moving towards a more obviously instructional and educational tone exercised through some longer form pieces. The final section, although only very brief, gives some interesting context to the rest of the book and shows that Benjamin was not only working on radio but was at the same time reflecting on its properties, potential and affordances. Indeed, there is a three page article written originally for a radio magazine that illuminates Benjamin’s approach to the writing of the broadcast scripts that make up the preceding 370 pages.
In this short piece Benjamin suggests that radio should aspire to a kind of popular education, but that this needs to be done with care and with an appreciation of the audience. Radio should not, he concludes, offer what can be heard in “any old lecture hall”. Radio, he proclaims, should aspire to popularity as it develops its “literary dimension” (p. 369). He thought that radio could mobilise knowledge and involve the audience. This he saw as being an ‘active’ process in which knowledge is transformed by its communication on radio and, in turn, this might even then have an ‘impact on the pursuit of knowledge itself’ (p.370). Benjamin took radio seriously, and there is some sense here that he found it productive in the formation of knowledge as well as in its broadcast. He saw radio as having the potential to enhance scholarship and make it popular.
There are perhaps some telling clues in this small magazine piece that reveal something of the principles, agenda and approach that defined and shaped the various scripts that make up the rest of the book. It also reveals something of his own working practices and his attempt to hone some form of public scholarship. Radio, this indicates, was a part of the way Benjamin worked in this period. Radio may not have been the defining medium of Benjamin’s work, he was undoubtedly a writer in spirit, but it clearly shaped the writings and ideas that he contended with around these formative years.
The pieces gathered here show Benjamin working in a different mode to his other written outputs. This is to be expected as, in addition to this being an aural delivery, he was addressing an audience that he was likely to imagine would be somewhat different to his usual audiences, particularly as many of the broadcasts were part of ‘Youth Hour’. What comes through, perhaps a little more than in his other writings, is his sharp wit and playfulness. These existing properties rise to the surface when Benjamin is writing for aural delivery. The tone is often light-hearted and fun, with the occasional joke or a passage that celebrates some oddity or quirk of everyday interaction. The stories are enchanting, sarcastic and provocative. The vignettes provide him with a playground within which he toys with images and visions of people and places. Characters like the guttersnipe, the bootlegger, the trader, the Berliner are drawn and painted with small evocative details. The places we encounter occasionally take the form of the gothic and mythical, properties that Graeme Gilloch’s (1996) book Myth & Metropolis associates with Benjamin’s writings on cities, as well as often finding something interesting in the thoroughly ordinary and even mundane. Benjamin uses landmarks that he knows are likely to be familiar to his listeners, but which he sees from different perspectives and vantage points. In other instances he takes the listener on journeys to experience the unfamiliar in far-off places, to discover unusual lives or to tell of disasters, ruins and tragedy.
In fact, as this might suggest, many of the core themes in Benjamin’s more well-known works are to be found in these seemingly less serious broadcasts. This is Benjamin operating as a kind of public thinker, engaging people in themes that were to become the celebrated properties of his yet to be fully realised writing portfolio. As such, it would seem that these radio broadcasts became, at least in part, a significant component of his writing practices. He was either trying out ideas or finding ways of communicating his other research for a mass audience. These radio broadcasts frequently carry the telling properties of Benjamin’s writings.
First, they are full of the type of microscopic attention to detail that breathes life into Benjamin’s written accounts of the social and cultural world that he observed. Microcosms are opened up in these short scripts and are then used illuminate interesting aspects of how the social world operates.
Second, the ordinary often becomes enchanted. As we know, Benjamin often brought a fresh eye to find the extraordinary aspects of our everyday lives that are couched in the familiar. Third, these radio broadcasts share an interest in place with some of his most well know writings on cities. As with his other writings, the encounters with places here are populated with characters of different types – such as swindlers and traders – and they are also multidimensional in the attention to the materiality of space, buildings and infrastructures. The objects in these spaces also get attention as Benjamin brings out the vitality and excitement in the particularities of certain places. These are sensory accounts of spaces that translate to the reader the experiences of that place and time.
Finally, these broadcasts, as with his writings more generally, deal in the fragments of modernity and the fragmentation of modern life. Benjamin captures this fragmentation in its rich entirety, and as lives become defined by the escalating complexities of modernity and consumer capitalism.
Within these visions of change Benjamin also maintains a sense of heritage, history and the myths that populate those spaces. It has often been commented that it is this type of richness that has allowed his work to endure; this richness is undoubtedly woven through these broadcasts. Benjamin, as is probably most notable in his famous unfinished work on the Paris arcades, uses fragments from various resources to tell these stories. He adds colour and perspective by including snapshots, snippets and readings from those involved or from those who have something to say about the particular story he is telling. So, even in these broadcasts, there is still evidence of the method’s that he used for capturing the social world. His intellectual foundations and techniques find their way into his spoken word.
What we have in this volume of selected radio broadcasts is not something that will force us to reassess Benjamin’s core ideas or his central preoccupations. Rather these themes are likely to be cemented and reinforced by these scripted talks and plays. This is Benjamin finding new ways to communicate and develop the ideas that define his writings. As Lecia Rosenthal (p.xxii) notes in her introduction to the pieces, “the radio broadcasts were central to his writings; some of the written works most important to Benjamin were presented, at one time and in one form or another on the radio”. As such, the radio work clearly became part of his working practices. In these broadcasts he works with similar themes, using similar approaches, with similar topics and techniques, what is different is the tone. Walter Benjamin’s voice is as sharp as we might have imagined it to be, but it also clear and crisp in its purpose. As we read we can imagine the warm fuzziness of the voice emerging from the speakers, revealing the intricacies of modernity to us whilst also engaging and entertaining with the enchantment that he found in ordinary life. This book might not cause a radical rethink of Benjamin’s well-known theories, ideas and methods, but what it does reveal is something of his craft as a thinker and writer. Benjamin’s broadcasts offered a space for his ideas to evolve. This then is a book that might be used to enrich our interpretations and understandings of his other writings, it lends a good deal of context to the emergence of those ideas – both in terms of the balance of his different work commitments and also in terms of the genesis and development of his thoughts. Most of all, though, this book allows us to gain a richer sense of Walter Benjamin’s voice. Benjamin’s work is always full of stories of life, events, places and experience. Here we get to hear him speaking about these stories as he attempts to communicate with a different type of audience. The results are of interest to readers of Benjamin’s works, but beyond that the broadcasts are important and readable in their own right. Benjamin’s thoughts and ideas slide smoothly from the page to the public audio broadcast. This collection allows us to hear those ideas and to experience them in sonic form.
Benjamin, W. (2006) On Hashish. Edited by Eiland, H. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press.
Brodersen, M. (1996) Walter Benjamin: A Biography. London: Verso.
Eiland, H. & Jennings, M.W. (2014) Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press.
Gilloch, G. (1996) Myth & Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City. Cambridge: Polity.
Gilloch, G. (2002) Walter Benjamin: Critical Constellations. Cambridge: Polity.
Leslie, E. (2007) Walter Benjamin. London: Reaktion Books.
Scholem, G. (1981) Walter Benjamin: The Story of A Friendship. New York: New York Review Books.
About the Author:
David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. His most recent book is Punk Sociology. He also edits the Theory, Culture & Society open access website supplement theoryculturesociety.org