- Walter Benjamin for Children: An Essay on his Radio Years, and: Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde
From the perspective of an era dominated ostensibly by the visual media, radio appears as a lost medium, an archaic frequency at once material and ideological whose political and cultural significance has declined dramatically since the end of World War II. Yet the antinomy of radio and visual imagery may be less stable and more highly mediated than a physiological model of sensibility would lead us to believe. The influential conceptions of imagery developed by theorists such as Rudolf Arnheim, Ernst Gombrich, and Walter Benjamin have largely eclipsed the substantial speculative and even practical encounters sustained by these authors with the medium of radio. Gombrich, for example, has published an essay on the mythological dimension of radio and, more specifically, on his own wartime activities as a monitor of German broadcasts for the BBC “listening post” between 1939 and 1945. 1 In 1936, Arnheim published one of the first full-length studies of radio and its cultural significance. 2 Several years prior to the publication of Arnheim’s book, Walter Benjamin formulated his theory of “dialectical images” during a period (1929-33) when he was writing and broadcasting radio scripts for children. One would also not want to overlook the submerged correspondences between poetic Imagism and fascist radio broadcasts in the career of Ezra Pound. In each of these cases, the engagement with radio on the part of these writers is directly linked to the political and cultural milieu of the 1930s.
The political milieu in Europe of the 1930s was dominated, of course, by the development of fascism, and it is a critical commonplace to observe that effective political manipulation of the technical media, especially radio, can be traced to the innovative practices of fascist regimes. Moreover, one could argue, with Alice Yaeger Kaplan, that the medium of radio was indispensable not only as a material instrument of fascism, but as an ideological simulacrum of “state fetishism” and its primitive community of enchanted listeners. 3 In spite of these important correspondences between radio and fascism, or between radio and popular culture (extending to talk radio, car culture, and pop music culture in a contemporary setting), the discourse on radio, in contrast to the vast discursivity of visual culture, remains relatively undeveloped.
Two recent volumes of criticism help to redress, through highly divergent approaches, this material and ideological obscurity. (It is surely not fortuitous that the publication of these volumes coincides with a resurgence of interest in the problem of fascist modernism.) The oblique evocation of the radiophonic medium in Jeffrey Mehlman’s Walter Benjamin for Children: An Essay on his Radio Years may be contrasted to the more polemical and explicit orientation of Kahn and Whitehead’s Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde. In addition to essays on various modern and postmodern radio practitioners, the Kahn and Whitehead volume provides a selection of historically significant writings on radio (by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Marinetti, Artaud, among others). The differing orientations of the two editors (Kahn is a professor of media arts, Whitehead a writer and audio artist) is reflected in the diversity of the eleven contributors, who include an art historian, a philosopher, literary scholars, and several media artists.
Kahn’s introduction presents the materials gathered in Wireless Imagination (a phrase borrowed from Marinetti) as a sourcebook, a primer for future historians and theorists of [End Page 244] radio and sound art. Accordingly, one finds among (and within) the essays an admirable combination of historiographic and speculative analysis. Several essays are particularly useful for their documentation of early radio or sound art. Christopher Schiff’s essay, “Banging on the Windowpane: Sound in Early Surrealism,” provides detailed description of the early careers of Cocteau, Apollinaire, and Satie (along with a number of minor figures), which helps to controvert...