A two-way medium: Radio Benjamin editor Lecia Rosenthal speaks to Kester John Richardson-Dawes


"For Benjamin, radio, like film, carries the potential for redistributing the means of aesthetic production, dissemination, and consumption. That its potential would not be fulfilled in Brechtian terms, or in the arrival of a “two-way medium,” is a possibility Benjamin was acutely aware of." 

In an exclusive interview, Lecia Rosenthal speaks to Kester John Richardson-Dawes about editing Radio Benjamin, the first volume to focus comprehensively on Benjamin’s works for radio with many pieces translated into English for the first time. They also discuss Benjamin's critical pedagogy and financial precarity, the auditory aura and questions of citation and obscurity, and what the digital archive has done to our experience of forgetting, loss, and the severing of text from context. 

KR: Could you give an outline of Radio Benjamin for readers unfamiliar with the new collection?

LR: Between 1927 and early 1933, Walter Benjamin delivered approximately ninety radio broadcasts on the regional radio stations in Berlin and Frankfurt. Of these on-air performances, some forty to fifty typescripts remain. The great majority of these texts have never been translated into English, and, even within Benjamin scholarship, have been largely ignored. Radio Benjamin, the first volume to focus comprehensively on Benjamin’s works for radio, provides translations of these fascinating materials.

The range of these materials is impressive. This is true both in terms of subject and in terms of audience and genre, or what the German scholar Sabine Schiller-Lerg refers to as “programming” type, a term that, I think, productively suggests the degree to which Benjamin was employed to write within certain kinds of prescripted, if not entirely binding or fixed, broadcast expectations.

The book divides Benjamin’s radio texts into four sections. The first is comprised of the radio talks Benjamin wrote for children’s radio, tales and discussions that can loosely be subcategorized into three groups: talks related to Berlin; stories about rogues, cheats, frauds, and other figures of rule-breaking, scandal, and the suspension of law; talks on catastrophic events. The second section includes the two radio plays Benjamin wrote for children. The third, Benjamin’s radio broadcasts not written specifically for children, is perhaps more difficult to categorize in terms of program type or genre. It brings together the radio plays, a novella, a conversation, a discussion of the emergent discourse of labour management and career counselling, the surviving example of a kind of practical, self-help genre that Benjamin called a “listening model,” as well as selections from Benjamin’s on-air literary criticism and reviews. The fourth section includes texts not written for broadcast but that present some of Benjamin’s thoughts on radio as a new medium.

Finally, Radio Benjamin includes an Introduction and an Appendix, which provides a critical overview of all of Benjamin’s known radio output, including mentions of those radio works that are considered lost or missing. Both the Introduction and the Appendix address the problem of taking in the full range of Benjamin’s radio output, particularly given the complexity and lapses of the archive, and of the archive of early radio performance in particular.

Though extensive, Benjamin’s output for Weimar radio has received relatively little attention. Benjamin is, by now, solidly within the academic pantheon. Over 40 years ago, Hannah Arendt called him as the “most important critic” of his time, and since then, his reputation has only grown. Such superlatives are often invoked in descriptions of his work. Given this, it is surprising indeed that the radio works have gone largely unnoticed. Radio Benjamin offers readers a chance to tune into these lively and creatively engaged texts. 

KR: In Radio Benjamin we see some of the best examples of Benjamin’s humour, for instance when he advises on the best way to squeeze a pay rise out of an employer. Could you describe one of your favourite humorous moments from the new collection?

LR: In “Much Ado About Kasper,” one of the radio plays Benjamin wrote for children’s programming, the “Radio Man” (whose absurd name, Maulschmidt, already introduces a layer of parody; something like “snout forger,” it plays on the idea of a radio announcer as a kind of big mouth or auxiliary voice), chases Kasper all over town, hoping to put him on the radio. At the end of the play, when Herr Maulschmidt finally catches his prey, he informs Kasper, “He who laughs last, laughs loudest. We at the radio station are even cleverer than you. While you were out in the city perpetrating your scandalous deeds, we secretly installed a microphone in your room, under your bed, and now we have everything you said, on a record...” (Radio Benjamin, 219). In one sense, this dialogue is a condensed satire on any simplistic interpretation of the meaning of radio as revolutionary or of the new technology as necessarily contributing to a progressive narrative of increased freedom. At the same time, even as it entertains the threat of apparatuses of sound inscription, recording, and broadcast becoming inescapable, the play avoids didacticism or heavy-handedness by playing with comically lowered stakes; what has been secretly recorded turns out to be nothing but a ridiculous verse by Kasper.

In “Berlin Dialect,” we see Benjamin’s interest in wit as a subject, in the forms of expression, delivery, and language of a certain scene and type of humour. Taking on the famous terrain of Berlinish, or the so-called Berlin Schnauze, Benjamin presents examples of the “fun” of Berlining, emphasizing that whatever its particularities, the linguistic or cultural subspecies includes “making fun of Berlining” (4). This suggestion of a kind of unsparing auto-critique demonstrates Benjamin’s interest in activating his young audience’s critical engagement with Berlin, as he manages to approach the city –  its physical spaces, culture, factories, language, people, literature, etc. – as both familiar and foreign.

In “Berlin Toy Tour I,” Benjamin describes the “animal aisle,” a section of the toy gallery of a Berlin department store. At the end of the passage, he notes: “I nearly forgot to say how many Easter bunnies there are now in the animal gallery. Department stores have now become strategic locations; they would be the first to be occupied by the Easter bunnies if they ever planned an attack” (42). Is this funny? I’m not sure, but when I read it, it makes me think first of a Doctor Who episode, something to do with the notion of an enemy occupation led by bunnies. “Berlin Toy Tour I” was delivered on Radio Berlin on March 15, 1930, suggesting a reference to a pre-Easter holiday display, and perhaps a nod toward a critique of commodity culture. At the very end of the essay, Benjamin offers just such a critique, stating clearly that “the more someone understands something and the more he knows of a particular kind of beauty – whether it’s flowers, books, clothing, or toys – the more he can rejoice in everything that he knows and sees, and the less he’s fixated on possessing it, buying it himself, or receiving it as a gift” (43). Benjamin artfully embeds this bit of wisdom within an ironic appeal to his audience to stop listening to the broadcast altogether, which lends a layer of complicity, insight, and authority to his listeners: “Cover your ears for a moment. What I have to say now is not for children to hear.” He concludes, “Those of you who listened to the end, although you shouldn’t have, must now explain this [critique of commodity fetishism] to your parents” (43).

On a broader note, the question of humour in the broadcasts points us to the question of Benjamin’s artfulness and the way he manages to make the experience of listening, and of critical pedagogy, enjoyable. In this regard, one could examine his comments throughout the volume on the relationship between popular culture, and radio in particular, and entertainment. I’m thinking, for instance, of his broadcast, written together with Wilhelm Speyer, “Prescriptions for Comedy Writers,” as well as his comments in “Theater and Radio.”

KR: Benjamin complained about being dependent on income from his broadcasts. How do you think this condition of financial insecurity affected the content of the radio shows?

LR: It is true that Benjamin’s comments on his work for radio, at least those comments that remain for us to read in the correspondence, often evince a sense of disparagement towards this aspect of his intellectual and critical labour. It is as if he did not or would not allow himself to take it as seriously as he took his other work. But we ought not allow these comments to mislead us. For one thing, Benjamin’s radio works cannot be neatly severed from the rest of his work; the radio texts are intertwined with and often directly related to the writings published elsewhere. For instance, a version (now lost) of one of his best known essays, “Unpacking My Library,” was first delivered on the radio.

I think the word you use here, the complaint, is apt. With the exception of a single broadcast in 1927, the entirety of his work for radio took place between 1929 and January 1933. During these years, Benjamin’s situation grew increasingly untenable. And regarding financial matters, Benjamin was acutely unreconciled. To an extent, he approached his work for radio as a form of coerced necessity made all the more problematic by virtue of his having previously been excluded from a university position. At the same time, his comments about the radio works being “unimportant” – that is a word he uses – are interesting not only as they speak to Benjamin’s affect, state of mind, or sense of financial precariousness, but also because they downplay the growing importance of Benjamin’s position as a kind of public and even popular intellectual. Whatever he may have said about them, the works for radio should challenge our understanding of Benjamin as simply an elite, esoteric voice, just as they, in their discussions of these categories, challenge our thinking about the relationships between the elite and popular, the expert and the layperson.

There is a comment by Adorno about Benjamin’s radio years being his most untroubled period, relatively speaking. Adorno’s point was that the radio work provided Benjamin with income, in no small part thanks to Ernst Schoen, who, through his position at Frankfurt’s Southwest German Radio, helped Benjamin to secure work. Of course, the takeover of the radio by the Nazis in early 1933 put an end to Benjamin’s broadcast career. In retrospect, the radio period becomes interesting in biographical terms not only for what Benjamin was able to do during the years when he worked intensively on air, but also for the historical forces that seem, in so many instances, to have inauspiciously limited, cut short or rerouted his career. Adorno’s comment places emphasis on the relative prosperity of the radio years; it is only in comparison with what came before, and what will come after, that the years from 1927 to 1933 can appear somehow stable for Benjamin, financially speaking. Another way of thinking about the juxtaposition between the radio period and what comes afterwards: how does the radio period anticipate, or fail to anticipate, the coming of fascism?

Perhaps your question can be reposed to ask what the radio works have to say about financial insecurity, and its significance both for Benjamin personally and for his critique of capitalism, political vulnerability and disenfranchisement.

KR: Could you outline the relationships between broadcasting and print culture for Benjamin, given his work for radio magazines and the feuilleton columns (resembling today’s ‘arts and culture’ section in newspapers)?

LR: I can imagine a future project devoted to the subject of the interrelated media, publishing venues, and apparatuses of distribution and archivization from which Benjamin borrowed and in which Benjamin’s work appeared, including the feuilletons and radio journals he cites and in which his work appeared. Similarly, one could explore the changing meanings of “broadcasting,” and for that matter “publishing,” in this emergent context.

In the radio works, as elsewhere in his writings (particularly The Arcades Project), Benjamin borrows from an array of novels, journals, newspapers, children’s literature, images, etc. So in this sense, “print culture” is interwoven into the radio broadcasts as a kind of co-existing archive, a set of references and proper names and citations. One question becomes whether or how the embedded references, some of them given more implicitly than directly, presume, and at the same time often critique, notions of shared or common knowledge. A fascinating text in this regard is his radio play, “What the Germans Were Reading While Their Classical Authors Were Writing,” in which Benjamin stages a series of conversations between figures from the German Enlightenment on topics including the meaning of popularity and the rise of popular reading culture.

Additionally, one could consider the interrelationships between Benjamin’s on-air broadcasts and the published, written works to which they are often related. In some cases, this means the radio scripts take us to texts published in variant forms elsewhere. Along with “Unpacking My Library,” well-known works, including Berlin Childhood around 1900, began in some form as broadcasts.

In some instances, we can trace connections between Benjamin’s radio broadcasts and his published pieces by following his citations. For example, there is a moment in “Berlin Guttersnipe” when Benjamin, coming to the close of his broadcast and making his “last inlay,” the three moments of “intarsia” as he calls them (they are a kind of verbal intermixing or patterned layering of references), briefly discusses labyrinths, one of his familiar tropes. Referring to “one of the most beautiful labyrinths you’ll ever see,” he asks his listeners to consider its location, which he says is “the home of the bookseller Paul Graupe,” where the labyrinths, Benjamin says, are “each meticulously drawn in pen by the Munich painter Hirth so as to invite you to wander with your eyes” (35). There are several issues one could focus on here, especially considering that Benjamin goes on to describe his own radio talk, itself a kind of radio walk or tour, as “rather labyrinthine” (36). The layering of the visual within the verbal or textual raises the question of intermediality and a kind of persistent radio ekphrasis, or radio’s relationship to the presentation of the visual, sometimes discussed in terms of an endemic “blindness” of the medium. The elaborate figure of the labyrinth can also be a figure for the work of critical thought and one could consider the development of the labyrinth as metaphor or allegory in Benjamin’s work over time. But there is another interesting issue that arises, and this is the problem of how to read the work of the trace and the uncertain significance of the proper name. Benjamin has left us the references to one “Paul Graupe” and “the Munich painter Hirth.” I imagine that for most readers these names are not immediately meaningful. And this obscurity is, I think, a part of what makes them interesting moments in the text, not only in their own right, but also in terms of how they challenge us to think about the way such references function for Benjamin and for us. What kinds of meaning, knowledge, obscurity, illumination, significance, or insignificance are conjured by the instance of the name? Readers interested in more on Paul Graupe and Hirth can look in Radio Benjamin fora follow up footnote. Suffice it to say that the references can be connected to a piece published by Benjamin in Die literarische Welt just after this broadcast. Clearly, at the time Benjamin was working on, or being worked on by, a set of concerns or preoccupations related to his experience of Berlin (Berlin understood as a name for a vast canvas combining layers of lived experience, memory, textuality, literature, cultural events, imagined happenings, etc.). Perhaps too there is a sense of the contemporary or contemporaneity here, which is to say a question of what constitutes the mark of a kind of historical present within a text. How might the relative obscurity of a text’s references contribute to what is sometimes called its “occasionality,” and to what effect?

Such questions may be especially relevant to the radio works, as they bear the traces of their ephemerality in the fact of their relationship to anarchival memory and the unrecorded performance. While we have some of the radio pieces in typescript, we do not have recordings of the “live” aspect of these performances or access to changes Benjamin may have made during the broadcasts. What traces remain of Benjamin’s audio performances? In addition to the typescripts (whose survival, it turns out, betrays an astonishing history of chance), what documents remain to tell the story of Benjamin’s contributions to early radio? No audio recordings of the broadcasts have been found. A fragment of one performance of “Much Ado About Kasper” is an exception, though it does not include Benjamin’s voice. In some cases, the only trace we have of the broadcasts is an announcement in a radio journal. In this regard, the question arises as to the interrelationships between audio broadcast, audio recording, and other scenes of publication including print.


KR: Many of Benjamin’s broadcasts for children are categorised in Radio Benjamin as ‘stories about cheats and frauds.’ What do you think this says about the concerns of the radio shows as whole?

LR: The broadcasts featuring rogues, outlaws, and cheats are indeed fascinating. Often, Benjamin is interested in such figures because they help to demonstrate the blindspots and prejudices of contemporary ideology. In “Cagliostro,” for instance, Benjamin tells the story of the famous figure of “fantastical lies,” the great fraudster who “performed his séances, miracle cures, alchemies, and rejuvenation treatments in the so-called Age of Enlightenment. This was an epoch when, as you know, people were particularly sceptical of all forms of irrational tradition, claimed to want to follow only their own free minds, and, in short, should have been especially well protected from men such as this Cagliostro” (127). At the end of the broadcast, Benjamin returns to this theme: “precisely because people were so firmly convinced that the supernatural world did not exist, they never took the trouble to reflect upon it seriously and thus fell victim to Cagliostro, who led them to believe in the supernatural with a magician’s finesse” (132). The argument here might be understood very loosely as akin to a “dialectic of enlightenment” critique. The overconfidence in an arrival of Enlightenment maturity fostered an unexamined, residual symptom, a space of ignorance and gullibility that permitted a belief in Cagliostro and an insufficiently critical reception of his claims.

Although the broadcasts “as a whole” probably don’t cohere so easily, Benjamin’s interest in these stories certainly can be related to his broader interests in the workings of power, sovereignty, and in the aesthetics and theatrical elements of politics.  This is certainly the case, for instance, in the broadcasts, “Witch Trials,” “The Gypsies,” “Robber Bands,” and “The Bastille.”KR: In your introduction to Radio Benjamin, you make an intriguing comment aboutthe ‘vanishing of an auditory aura,’ in a reference to Benjamin’s famous ‘Work of Art’ essay. Could you say a bit more about how radio affects the relationship between art and technology?

LR: In the radio works, Benjamin is often interested in the effects of distance (for instance between himself and his audience, and between himself and the past from which he borrows his sources). Given that one of the effects of technology is the mediation of distance, Benjamin takes up the problem of radio in terms of its potential to displace, mask or manipulate alterity, both geographical and temporal. The notion of a dangerous, deceptive immediacy is one Benjamin addresses throughout his writings on technology. But at the same time as he is wary of the technological displacement of materiality and the human body, he takes a famously nuanced approach to the production of new forms of immediacy. For Benjamin, radio, like film, carries the potential for redistributing the means of aesthetic production, dissemination, and consumption. That its potential would not be fulfilled in Brechtian terms, or in the arrival of a “two-way medium,” is a possibility Benjamin was acutely aware of.

As for the vanishing of the auditory aura, this was simply a way of positioning the famous “Work of Art” essay alongside the radio works. Benjamin is interested in the notion of a lost auditory trace, in sound culture and liveness, in dramatic performance and conversation, in a pre-audio-recording age. Radio makes theatre newly, differently interesting to Benjamin. Similarly, radio makes the speech of the market hall, in its disappearance, newly significant for him. It is not as simple as the romanticization of lost modalities, types, characters, or utterances. It becomes a question of the archive and of reading or hearing the remnants and fragments of a different set of conditions, whether they be conditions of knowledge or technology.

KR: For some thinkers, the ‘radio voice’ is inherently authoritarian. For others it is a trustworthy voice, associated with official announcements. How do you think Benjamin plays with our expectations of the ‘radio voice’?

LR: I think Benjamin plays with the acousmatics of the radio voice: the voice that comes as if out of nowhere; the disembodied, faceless voice; the broadcast audio utterance that resounds across distance from a dislocated, uncertain origin. I’m not sure he was able to play with this detachable voice with the kind of sophistication that later technologies would permit, as all of his broadcasts required live performances, himself and/or actors reading his scripts. However, he was certainly aware of the medium’s novel relationship to place, or the way in which it permitted a kind of covert, powerful, and possibly dangerous, intimacy with a voice without place, a voice that bypasses and overrides the scale of the human body to reach an audience at a distance. As he puts it in “The Cold Heart,” in this placeless place, called “Voice Land,” “nothing is left but [the] voice” [225].

Perhaps one might approach the question of the radio voice through Benjamin’s interest in citation and superficiality. In some instances, Benjamin wants to use radio to animate a kind of sampling, or montage, that would dramatize historical debates, or what he calls the unresolved “conversations” of the past. In his short essay “Two Kinds of Popularity: Fundamental Principles for a Radio Play,” he describes his ambitions for his play “What the Germans Were Reading While Their Classical Authors Were Writing.” He writes: “In order to gain depth, the superficial was taken as a point of departure. The aim was to present the listeners with what is in fact so prevalent and so gratuitous that it invites this typification: not the literature, but rather the literary conversation of the day. Yet this conversation, unfolding in coffeehouses and at fairs, at auctions and on strolls, was preoccupied with poetry schools and newspapers, censorship and the book trade, secondary education and lending libraries, Enlightenment and obscurantism in unforeseeably diverse ways” (371). The superficial, the spoken, the everyday conversation: Benjamin aims at the evanescent, dematerialized, but nonetheless representative voice, the utterance that will combine historical resonance with the nonsense, resistance, and petty static of actuality.

One of the fascinating aspects of editing this volume was the process of tracking down Benjamin’s embedded references and citations. The search for source material brought me back to questions about what constitutes obscurity and superficiality today, in the digital context. What has the digital archive done to our experience of forgetting, loss, and the severing of text from context? Benjamin’s interest in notions of messianic remembrance is well known. Does Google seduce us into thinking that the whole – of context or memory or meaning – can be restored? Certainly it would be a mistake to assume that the messianic longing Benjamin wrote about has been obviated by digital culture; the catastrophic injustices that engaged him are hardly overcome through proliferation of the archive. At the same time, to an extent the mediatisation of everyday life has proliferated the archive of the “conversation of the day.” The radio voice, as part of that conversation, never really developed into the “two way” medium Benjamin, with Brecht, had envisioned. But perhaps there is still time.