Book review: Radio Benjamin

Andrew Neeson reviews a collection of Walter Benjamin’s radio scripts Radio Benjamin

This review first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine

radio_benjamin

In the early days of radio, Marxist critic Walter Benjamin wrote and presented 80 plus broadcasts on German radio. For the first time in English, Radio Benjamin is the full collection of the surviving radio scripts from these shows, mostly aimed at children, written between 1927 and 1933.

As niche books go, this is right up there. However, this is a fascinating book showing the eclectic range of Benjamin’s knowledge and interests, as well as insight into radio as a pioneering mass media form.

Radio Benjamin comprises four sections, the bulk of which is Benjamin’s contribution to “Children’s Hour” on Berlin and Frankfurt radio. Also included in this collection are two plays written for children, and various general radio talks and sketches. In addition, there are also several off air articles written by Benjamin reflecting on radio as a media and art form.

What strikes you from the off is the playfulness, mischievousness and wit of Benjamin’s scripts. In his broadcasts to children, Benjamin is both instructor and confidant. One of my favourites is his lively guide to the Berlin dialect. Celebrating the language and humour of Berliners, Benjamin peppers the broadcast with numerous examples of local banter and jokes. He also delights at making adults the butt of the young person’s quick wit. Did you hear the one about the man who sees a young boy on the street: ‘Huh, smokin’ already? I’m going to tell your teacher’, ‘Do what you want you old fool, I ain’t big enough for school yet!’

In other broadcasts, Benjamin’s focus is on some of the shadier sides of Berlin life and its outsiders. Shows include titles such as, Berlin Guttersnipes, the Rental Barracks (tenement housing for the poor), Witch Trials, Gypsies, Robber Bands of Old Germany, among others. While his scripts are not always politically correct, in a country where Fascist ideas were starting to permeate, Benjamin provided a subtle antidote to the dehumanising of outsiders and the dispossessed going on. In this sense, despite being aimed at younger people, his scripts are pleasingly subversive, offering themes and topics rarely discussed with children in official circles. “I’ll tell you something you’ll rarely hear in your German classes” is a typical retort.

Benjamin’s stories are a celebration of everyday life. Drawing form his wealth of knowledge and love of books, his scripts give history to people from all walks of life. In his description of banter among street traders, Benjamin remarks, ‘it had become an actual sport to lure the market women to rant’, before celebrating their quick tongue: “To spew insults straight from the heart, and with such perseverance, is indeed a great talent, one reserved for the privileged few. It requires not only a high degree of crassness and a healthy lung, but also a large vocabulary and, not least of all, great wit”.

Other stories range from the great toy shops of Berlin, American bootleggers, and the infamous Kasper Hauser. He also broadcast five shows devoted entirely to famous disasters, including the railway bridge collapse over the Firth of Tay in 1879.

Benjamin was himself dismissive of his radio work, describing it as “the work I do simply to earn a living”, and “of no interest except in economic terms”. However, this is exaggeration on Benjamin’s part and may reflect some disillusionment with what he was trying to achieve. Part of Benjamin’s interest in radio was in exploring the potential of this new media form, particularly as a democratic medium. In Reflections on Radio, Benjamin argues that radio as a form of mass culture has the potential to use montage and experimental techniques better than any other method to produce a genuinely modern art form. In this way there is a clear thematic relationship with his later, more famous and influential essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, as well Brecht’s epic theatre.

Benjamin argues that current radio has failed because it perpetuates the fundamental separation between audience and practitioner so that the audience was simply a passive bystander whose only power was to switch off. Radio should enable as many voices as possible to get behind the microphone.

For me the high point of the collection is the children’s play, “Much Ado About Kasper”. Benjamin uses various descriptions to try and break the separation between announcer and listener. The play starts with a scene of fog so that none of the characters can see, thus putting the characters in the same blind situation as the audience. As the story develops, Kasper (a popular children’s figure) is asked to speak on the radio. He refuses and is hounded across town by the radio announcer. The final scene ends with Kasper managing to escape his pursuers only to find that a microphone was hidden in his room and he had been broadcasting all along. Contrary to the democratic potential of radio, Benjamin draws out its more sinister side. Thus in the wrong hands, radio can be a powerful tool to exploit and oppress. These themes are particularly relevant today with regards to discussions around surveillance and the internet.

The power to liberate versus power to control was also relevant for Benjamin. His last broadcast in on 29th January 1933 was also the day before a major radio event in German history: the first national broadcast. This was done by the Nazis to announce and celebrate their election victory.

There are 4 comments

  1. Michael Rosen

    I presented a one-hour radio programme for BBC Radio 4 based on these. We voiced up some of the broadcasts for the first time since they were first aired, I went to Berlin and visited some of the places that Benjamin spoke of (like the great Borsig works and the flats (like ‘Barracks’) , I went to the Kunstarchiv in Berlin to see the manuscripts and look at his correspondence with his son who was the target age at the time. Later this year, we are convening an international symposium at Goldsmiths, University of London based on all Benjamin’s work for or about children and pedagogy.

    An interesting ‘meta’ aspect of this is that whereas Verso and the Left press have been very interested in the book, a one-hour radio programme (yes, radio) bringing the broadcasts to life for a mass audience has been treated with complete indifference. I am of the strong belief that there is a stream of left scholarship that hates popularity. It sullies marxism with the possibility that people ‘out there’ might share it.

  2. RayB

    This is a very interesting article and I’d love to hear the programme you made, Michael. Are there any recordings of your programme or even the original broadcasts online? I’m not much of a radio listener so perhaps many on the left like me are unaware of these programmes? There’s so much media available in other mediums that radio is drowned out in the promotion wars.

  3. Michael Rosen

    For people interested in Walter Benjamin in this area, we’re hosting a symposium at Goldsmiths:

    Water Benjamin, Childhood and Pedagogy:

    An interdisciplinary symposium

    Monday 6th July 2015

    Room LG01, Professor Stuart Hall Building

    Goldsmiths, University of London

    Sponsored by the journal Pedagogy, Culture and Society

    Hosted by the Centre for Identities and Social Justice, Department of Educational Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London

    The cultural critic and theorist, Walter Benjamin turned his attention several times to the nature, culture and habits of children along with the artifacts that are made or written for them. He also wrote an autobiography based entirely on his childhood in Berlin around the year of 1900 which was based on a draft known as the ‘Berlin Chronicle’. In the 1980s, a cache of radio scripts of broadcasts for children was found, which appeared in English for the first time in 2014.

    This interdisciplinary symposium celebrates Walter Benjamin’s re-emergence as an important thinker and writer on childhood and education by situating his work within wider academic contexts, bringing together international scholars to explore various strands of his life and work.

    The aims of the symposium are as follows:
    To consider whether Benjamin was presenting a consistent view of childhood;
    To examine what this view (or views) consisted of, how this relates to Benjamin’s views on memory and recall;
    To examine the pedagogic intentions and content of these broadcasts;
    To consider what light Benjamin’s work on and with children sheds on childhood in urban contexts and on the relationship of this to pedagogy;
    To consider how Benjamin’s work is related to views of childhood appearing or current at the same time, such as those of Melanie Klein, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich, along with prevailing ideas about German children.

    Timetable

    10.00 Coffee
    10.30 Michael Rosen Goldsmiths, University of London
    Welcome and Introduction
    10.45 Esther Leslie, Birkbeck College, University of London
    Colonial and Communist Pedagogy
    11.30 Eric L. Tribunella University of Southern Mississippi
    Benjamin, Children’s Literature, and the Child’s Gaze
    12.15 Gillian Lathey, University of Roehampton
    Enlightening City Childhoods: Walter Benjamin’s Berlin and Erich Kästner’s Dresden
    1.00 Lunch

    2.00 Sam Dolbear & Hannah Proctor. Birkbeck College, University of London
    Childish Adventures: Walter Benjamin’s Journeys into Picture Books and Children’s Encyclopaedias
    2.45 Matthew Charles, University of Westminster
    Education as Transmissibility
    3.30 Iris Pereira and Brenton Doecke Universidade do Minho, Portugal
    Beginning again
    4.15 Tea
    4.30 Finish

    Abstracts

    Esther Leslie
    Birkbeck College, University of London
    Colonial and Communist Pedagogy

    Benjamin’s first published piece of writing was a critique of Lily Braun’s Manifesto for School Children, in 1912. Throughout his life he returned to questions of pedagogy and the ways in which children come to know and learn. This paper explores the ground laid out between two types of pedagogy, colonial pedagogy (as Benjamin terms it) and communist pedagogy. It draws in some questions of what is at stake in Benjamin’s sometimes harsh reviews of books on children playground rhymes and toys, and explores the paradoxical significance of debris – the outmoded, exhausted – for the task of accomplishing what ‘the adult absolutely cannot: recognise the new once again’. What the child achieves – and what Benjamin aspires to, is the bringing of ‘materials of widely differing kinds ‘into a ‘new intuitive relationship.’ Benjamin’s works negatively – anti-pedagogical, anti-historicist, anti-linear and refusing distinction between ‘major’ (older) and minor (young) things, people, events etc. What might be learnt from this destructive process and can it leave a legacy beyond itself?

    Eric L. Tribunella
    University of Southern Mississippi
    Benjamin, Children’s Literature, and the Child’s Gaze

    Benjamin’s fragments and essays on the subject of children and their books turn repeatedly to the subject of the child’s gaze. In “A Child’s View of Color” (1915-1916), he says that the child possesses “the highest artistic development of the sense of sight; it is sight at its purest” (SW 50). Having not yet adopted the adult view of the world, children’s sensitivity to nuance and fluidity allows them “to create the interrelated totality of the world of the imagination” (SW 51). For Benjamin, children’s ability to see the world differently from adults allows them access to a unique form of imaginative play in their perception and manipulation of the world. In “Old Forgotten Children’s Books” (1924), he claims that “children are particularly fond of haunting any site where things are being visibly worked on” (SW 408). In finding and manipulating the materials of these work spaces, “they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely different kinds in a new, intuitive relationship” (SW 408). Benjamin’s child is the collage artist who can make the world anew, but the objects created or perceived are less material products for the world than occasions for the child’s expansion of an internal, imaginative space of play. “After all,” he writes, “the role of children’s books is not to induct their readers directly into the world of objects, animals, and people—in other words, into so-called life” (SW 410). In this way, he sees artists and children defying the pedagogues, who “brood pedantically over the production of objects” (SW 409, 408). Further, in “A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books” (1927), he describes the “gazing child” as entering into the imaginative space of the book rather than taking the book as fixing or “meeting” the objects of the external world (SW 435).

    Benjamin’s use of the child reflects a desire to imagine different possibilities in perceiving and engaging with the world, and in these early writings on children and their books we find a continuity or affinity both with Benjamin’s own textual collage style and with his interest in Baudelaire’s flâneur, for whom sight is also crucial. The child and the flâneur share a particular way of seeing unfettered by instrumentality and characterized by a sense of wonder, an aimlessness of path or purpose, and a keen interest in triviality and detritus. Similarly, writers of children’s literature make use of the child for similar ends—to imagine a way of remaking the world in and through the imaginative play of children who look or wander about in fantastical worlds of school, city, or dreams. To wander or to look is to be absorbed—by a book or by the spectacle of the city—and thereby to experience a childlike delight in what is seen.

    E.F. Benson, for instance, has his fictional David Blaize literally transported through his pillow into a fantastical dreamland in David Blaize and the Blue Door (1918), a children’s work of literary nonsense and a prequel to Benson’s traditional school story featuring an older version of the same character. Like Benjamin’s child reader, David’s imaginative wanderings through a Carrollian wonderland are used by Benson to reimagine an adult world order. In particular, Benson’s earlier David Blaize (1916) and his own biography suggest a discomfort with adult models of desire and pleasure between boys or young men, and Benson’s boy characters imagine different possibilities through acts of looking and wandering. Benjamin’s interest in the imaginative work of the child’s gaze, of his wanderings through fantastical cityscapes, and of his manipulation of toys and objects provides a way of reading Benson and others who make use of the child to reconfigure or reassemble adult systems, objects, or expectations. For both Benjamin and Benson, the child stands poised to defy instruction, and in both of Benson’s children’s books, the child enacts a different model for experiencing and consummating desire.

    Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings Volume 1, 1913-1926. Eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

    Gillian Lathey
    University of Roehampton
    Enlightening City Childhoods: Walter Benjamin’s Berlin and Erich Kästner’s Dresden

    Two German writers, born just seven years apart (in 1892 and1899), and two memoirs of childhoods set in cities that effectively no longer exist. Walter Benjamin, essayist, cultural critic and philosopher, compiled the numinous fragments known as Eine Berliner Kindheit um 1900 (Berlin Childhood around 1900, trans. Howard Eiland, 2006) while in exile from Germany in the early 1930s, driven – according to his preface – by a sense of the city’s doom, and filtering impressions of a privileged childhood through a politicised adult consciousness. Erich Kästner, urbane journalist, poet, satirist and author of the internationally successful children’s classic Emil and the Detectives (1929), offers in his Als ich ein kleiner Junge war (1957) [When I was a small boy] a hymn to the lost city of Dresden, the expression of an enduring mother fixation, and a vision of the child’s moral certainty and responsibility that also characterises his fictional children. Both sets of memoirs convey in engaging or poetic prose transcendent sensations of childhood, but are at odds in their stated purpose. Indeed, Max Pensky has argued that ‘what Kästner wants to preserve as a nourishing light, Benjamin wishes to exploit as an arsenal’ (Pensky, 1993: 250). A comparison of selected themes these texts share – anxiety at Christmas and perspectives on the social topography of the city – will throw light on commonalities in the representation of the thought processes of two hyper-aware children, as well as paradoxes inherent in adult reconfigurations of the past.

    Sam Dolbear & Hannah Proctor
    Birkbeck College, University of London
    Childish Adventures: Walter Benjamin’s Journeys into Picture Books and Children’s Encyclopaedias

    In 1931, Walter Benjamin published ‘Verdant Elements’ in the Frankfurter Zeitung, a review of a children’s primer by illustrator and writer Tom Seidmann-Freud (a niece of Sigmund Freud, who changed her name from Marta to Tom as a teenager).

    Traditionally, according to Benjamin, the pedagogical function of the primer was to usher the child across a threshold into a serious adult world of cold abstractions and fixed meanings. The child learning from the primer ‘was under the influence of the black on white, of law and rights, the irrevocable, the being set for all eternity.’

    Benjamin praises Seidmann-Freud’s primer for departing from this view of the child, instead creating a playful approach, which trusts the child to find its own path. The primer conceives of learning as a ‘great adventure’ placing the child in the position of a horse rider guiding its steed around a bright new landscape – a ‘world of tree leaves and fish, shops and butterflies rise up from the water.’ The primer encourages mischief and absurdity, and is not afraid of fantasy, leaving space for the child’s imagination to explore.

    By raising the question of how to teach without reproducing the values of the existing social order, this short review stages tensions that animate many of Benjamin’s writings on childhood and pedagogy. Benjamin frames the relation between the individual child and the existing adult world as a confrontation between chaos and order, rationality and the fantastic, suggesting that the child might be able to unravel or challenge dominant structures.

    Benjamin’s celebration of the child’s idiosyncratic qualities runs counter to pedagogical theories espoused by many of his communist contemporaries, both in Germany and in the Soviet Union (which he had visited five years previously). This collaborative paper will attempt to think through the political implications of Benjamin’s writing on childhood and pedagogy today. Does Benjamin’s work provide a genuinely revolutionary theory of childhood or does his emphasis on individual subjective experience align his work with contemporary liberal conceptions of the child?

    Matthew Charles
    University of Westminster
    Education as Transmissibility

    In an early definition of education, Walter Benjamin insists that you cannot teach by example, only through a mutual transformation of learner, educator and the learnt in a medium of transmission. The task of education is therefore to make teachings transmissible for each new generation, a conception that has much in common with that of the storyteller, who appropriately joins the ranks of teachers and sages in Benjamin’s writings. If Kafka’s stories provide one exemplary location in which a modern crisis of “transmissibility” manifests itself in the epoch of mass media, they simultaneously provide models for the pedagogic reconstruction of such media. How might the deformative power of technological media and some of the affects of its users (boredom, distraction, frustration, resistance) be thought of in terms of a destructive force or agency that provokes such transmission? And to what extent does this, in a reversal of our usual pedagogic assumptions, involve a positive transformation not so much of the learner as the educator and their teachings?

    Iris Pereira and Brenton Doecke
    Universidade do Minho, Portugal
    Beginning Again

    ‘… the most urgent task of the writer today: that of recognizing how poor he is and how poor he must be in order to begin again at the beginning.’
    Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer, 1934

    Substitute ‘educator’ for ‘writer’, and you have the gist of what we are proposing to argue in this paper. We are appropriating Benjamin’s language from an address he gave to the Institute for the Study of Fascism, in Paris, in 1934. This was at the time of the Nazis’ rise to power, when writers like Benjamin had been driven into exile, and forced to contemplate the cultural resources they had at their disposal that would allow them to challenge the Nazi triumph over German language and culture. By the ‘poverty’ of the writer he means a capacity to ‘begin again’, in the sense that prior understandings of the traditions in which a writer works can no longer serve as a rationale for the work that a writer does, where everything is under attack, and the foundations of culture have been radically undermined.

    Our argument is that at the current moment language educators should similarly begin with an acknowledgement of their ‘poverty’. Their work has come to be mediated by a complex machinery of measurement, all designed to render them accountable for improving the educational outcomes of students. This has involved an historical forgetfulness with regard to earlier moments in history when educators understood their work differently. We are thinking especially of the moment of ‘Growth’ pedagogy in the English speaking world, when educators such as James Britton, John Dixon, Douglas Barnes and Harold Rosen emphasized the need to be fully responsive to children’s needs rather than judging them according to predetermined standards of performance. The answer to our current situation, however, does not lie in going back, let alone nostalgia for a time when other values and beliefs shaped the work of language educators. The insights of those educators need to be reclaimed, but this should be done in the spirit in which Benjamin conceives of ‘beginning again’, reflexively engaging in one’s work and seeking to cultivate a responsiveness to students that might enable us to see and respond to them anew.

    The paper will draw on work that we have done respectively with language educators in early childhood settings in Portugal and secondary schools in Australia. ‘Beginning again’ is not something that can simply happen, but educators need to develop within themselves (indeed ‘train’ themselves) to find ways of engaging with students that challenge how their relationships with them are currently mediated by standards-based reforms. Crucial in this respect is cultivating an ability to use stories – both to respond to the stories that students bring within them into class and to tell stories of one’s own that produce a better understanding of the complexities of one’s social and cultural setting as an educator. To do this, we shall revisit Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’, arguing its relevance to educators.

    Do you have questions about Walter Benjamin, Childhood and Pedagogy: An interdisciplinary symposium? Contact c.ruscoe@gold.ac.uk
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    Professor Stuart Hall Building(previously NAB) , Room LG01
    Goldsmiths University of London
    Lewisham Way
    SE14 6NW London
    United Kingdom

    Monday, 6 July 2015 from 09:00 to 16:00 (BST)

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