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  • Discipline and Media
  • Christy Wampole

Berlin-born Rudolph Arnheim (1904–2007) studied philosophy, psychology, and music and art history in the 1920s at the University of Berlin and published his first book Film als Kunst (Film as Art) in 1932. However, his Jewish descent prevented the book's distribution after Hitler's rise to power. Arnheim left Germany for Italy in the early 1930s and wrote and published there Radio: The Art of Sound in 1936 and became affiliated with the Centro Sperimentale Cinematografico in Rome. Though Arnheim had grown fond of Italy, and Rome more particularly, he was forced to leave the country for England in 1939 when Mussolini began to adopt many of the same policies towards Jews as those under Hitler's Third Reich. Arnheim began to work for BBC Radio and eventually moved to the United States where he received a fellowship to conduct research on American radio audiences through the Office of Radio Research at Columbia University. He began teaching the psychology of art in the late 1960s at Harvard University.

While living in fascist Italy, Arnheim managed to publish the following article in Sapere magazine in December, 1937. He outlines the problematics and potentialities of new technologies—specifically the gramophone, the radio, the telephone, and the television—which, he asserts, require human discipline in order to yield the greatest benefits to humanity without dominating everyday life. [End Page 421]

  • Disciplining the Gramophone, Radio, Telephone, and Television
  • Translated by Rudolf Arnheim and Christy Wampole

Sapere, December 15, 1937

"At the height of his power," said Paul Valéry, "Louis XIV did not possess one one-hundredth of the dominance over nature and the means to entertain himself and exercise his own mind with the sensations that people of rather modest means possess today." The gramophone has transformed our home into a sumptuous hall where it is possible to hear the world's most beautiful concerts. Radio brings the setting and voices of public events, stadiums, and the opera stage into our living rooms. Tomorrow, television will allow us to enjoy at home what we see today on the movie screen: adventures, pleasant heroes, and faraway places.

The social and cultural impact of these new media is unprecedented, despite the many adversaries who defend their hostility by marshalling an array of plausible objections and who would condemn the machines we are so proud of to burning at the stake. But if idolatry of progress is a commonplace—we cite Valéry again—so is the idolatry of progress qua curse. Every new development, be it material or of the mind, is to some degree dangerous because it tends toward uncontrolled generalization. It is therefore necessary, for practical reasons among others, to define the boundaries within which a new medium can yield benefits that couldn't be attained without it, and the limits beyond which it remains inferior to traditional means.

No one would find it odd to praise the light bulb. But how can one deny the calm serenity that dim light brings to an absorbing conversation? The typewriter is extremely convenient. But surely we wouldn't want to see the disappearance of something as significant and personal as handwriting. Appreciating transport by car doesn't necessarily mean renouncing the joys of a stroll on foot. If the truth be known, it is not new media in themselves that are tyrannical, but rather our minds, tending as they do to reduce everything to a single formula in the name of a natural but hardly commendable idleness.

Something in the nature of progress seduces us to betray the values of the past. We don't know if gramophones are already playing lullabies alongside cradles. Hopefully not. Even the voice of the soprano Toti dal Monte couldn't replace a mother's voice. This is what is essential: to recognize the irreplaceability of a maternal lullaby, even as we recognize the gramophone as unprecedented.

So the gramophone, radio, and television require discipline and their very efficacy as instruments depends upon economical use. They are media for the concentration and elevation of the mind, reserved for rare and precious hours. For this reason, their use should remain more limited...


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