- Happiness in Voice Land:Walter Benjamin’s Radio Broadcasts
“Dear Invisible ones!” This is how Walter Benjamin addressed thousands of children through the new medium of German radio between 1927 and 1933. We do not know what his voice sounded like because no audio recordings survive of the eighty to ninety broadcasts he delivered between Radio Berlin and Radio Frankfurt, but with the publication of Radio Benjamin, edited by Lecia Rosenthal, we are invited to imagine it. Supported by a team of translators, Rosenthal has made available, for the first time to English-speaking readers, a significant selection of the Benjamin broadcasts. The book is divided into four sections: section 1 (“Youth Hour Radio Stories for Children”) and section 2 (“Radio Plays for Children”) comprise work specifically produced under the auspices of children’s programming; section 3 (“Radio Talks, Plays, and Listening Models”) features scripts which were not specifically produced for children; and section 4 (“Writings on Radio, Off Air”) concludes with a selection of Benjamin’s reflections on radio that were not written for broadcast. The volume is complete with a three-part appendix inclusive of a chronological list of broadcast dates, a list of broadcasts whose dates are not known, and a list of works for which there is scant information available. Radio Benjamin is a good introduction to the neglected traces left by the German critical theorist, and, in this regard, the editor acknowledges the pioneering archival research of Sabine Schiller-Lerg, whose Walter Benjamin und der Rundfunk (1984) remains a milestone for interested scholars. Far from being marginal to Benjamin’s canon, as well as to the related fields of modernist aesthetics and modern critical thought, the scripts in this volume bring to the foreground an indefatigable, experimental mind.
On his radio programs, Benjamin unfailingly features as “Dr. Walter Benjamin”—an important detail, since it informs us that, at the [End Page 397] microphone, he did not stop being the academic that he was by formation; quite the contrary, he seized the new medium as a golden opportunity to modernize the academic profession. In this regard, “Two Kinds of Popularity,” a 1932 critical piece published in the radio magazine Rufer und Hörer, may serve as a summa of his radio practice. The old style of popularization consisted in simplifying scholarly knowledge and adorning it with mass appeal. Radio Benjamin shows Benjamin opposing this trend by arguing for the reorganization of academic research in keeping with new technology. The task of the radio, he claims, is to convince the listeners that their interests “possess objective value,” that their questions, “even when not spoken into the microphone, call for new scholarly findings” (“Two Kinds of Popularity” 370). The radio has the power to create a new imaginary community, a fact emphasized in the charming play for children “The Cold Heart”: “[W]hoever wishes to enter Voice Land must be very modest. He must surrender all finery and relinquish all external beauty, so that nothing is left but his voice. However, his voice will then be heard by thousands of children simultaneously” (225). It is, in part at least, because of this power that radio affects the scholarly community, the identity of the philosopher, and the critic, changing the rules of scholarly research.
It is not surprising that he should address himself to children. In Benjamin’s oeuvre, childhood is the gateway to a different mode of critical thought. Recollecting childhood, as he does in Berliner Kindheit (1938) for instance, is the most immediate form of self-narration, hence the most accessible way of justifying and affirming his difference as a philosopher who had chosen the city as the desirable object of intellectual inquiry. Accordingly, in a number of radio scripts, Benjamin’s narrator shares memories of his childhood. “Street Trade and Markets in Old and New Berlin,” aired on Radio Berlin in 1929, evokes the feelings of warmth and safety associated with indoor markets. Here, Benjamin uses the unique qualities of the radio voice to...