more space and time are mastered, the less readily one
can identify their masters."* Siegfried Kracauer
is today a medium we have gotten into the habit of underestimating
in many ways. It's become little more than background
noise. While television still retains the power to spark
controversy, not much attention is devoted to the qualities
and implications of radio. This presents an interesting
opportunity for stealthily appropriating this neglected
medium to make possible new and unpredictable situations.
to the attentiveness of a few intellectual spirits,
some of the original scenes involving radio were recorded
in the late twenties, shortly after its inception and
spread as a mass medium. These scenarios serve to remind
us of the basic conditions necessary for an appropriation
of radio - as well as of its intrinsic limitations.
Based on two such scenes, the following will present
the constellation of listeners and the dispersal of
the voice as the key radio motifs that cannot be mastered,
in light of which we will undertake a re-reading of
the radio theory postulated by Bertolt Brecht.
Scene. Constellation. The Evening of an Election Day.
all of the special correspondents sent here from abroad
were busy reporting to their newspapers back home about
the election-day fever that had broken out here in Berlin,
I decided to venture out myself on the evening of Election
Day and take a reading of the public temperature,"
Siegfried Kracauer begins in his brief report for the
The journalist goes out onto the street to give an eyewitness
account of what's happening there. March 1932: the situation
on the street was usually tense, with street battles
likely to break out at any moment, so that surely something
could be expected to happen on Election Day - even if
only a clash of hot tempers. But, to Kracauer's surprise,
the day ran its course in relative peace, "only
on the advertising pillars did the battle continue to
rage. There, one could see red National Socialist signs
stuck over the mouths of Thälmann and Düsterberg, as
if to forcibly prevent these two from having their say."
The feature writer continues onward toward Berlin's
wide-open public squares to see what will develop there
once the polls have closed. Will the battle on paper
be carried on into the public realm?
from the ‘Kaufhaus des Westens' department store a white
projection surface had been set up in the middle of
the square, before which, however, only a few people
were standing." In previous years the crowds of
people collecting in front of this type of election
announcement had grown larger and larger. They formed
groups that indulged in vehement debates - and were
capable of springing into action at any moment by virtue
of the fact that they were out on the street. Only in
the streets did these diverse individuals make up an
aggregate public whose reactions could not be predicted.
But by 1932 this spirit seems conspicuously absent;
an "abnormally low temperature" reigns in
the public space. Berlin seems much emptier and colder
than it normally is in March.
ends his precise observations with a search for the
reasons behind this situation. Perhaps people are afraid
of violent confrontations? No: "A more likely explanation
is (...) that most people are staying home to listen
to the election results with their families. The radio
is at fault for the abandonment of the public space.
At a time when politics has penetrated from citizens'
homes out onto the street, at decisive moments like
these, radio is driving them back into their living
rooms again." Radio dispels Kracauer's hope for
the politicization of the street, which one might have
presumed would be the reaction to the dawn of a revolutionary
movement. With the masses, a new public had emerged,
which was perhaps not vital in and of itself, but which
could at vital junctures politicize the street. But
radio stops this possibility dead in its tracks before
it's able to make historical inroads. The constellation
of listeners sitting at home partaking separately in
the public-ness of the program, who represent a kind
of dispersed public, appears unable to take concerted
action and is thus meaningless as a political factor.
The family listens to the voting results being broadcast
from the polls, maybe discusses them a bit, but, just
like the voice coming out of the radio, their reactions
are bounded by their own four walls. Even if the consciousness
of the listeners is changing, this has no direct political
impact. Just one year later, the National Socialists
will march through the deserted public spaces with their
parades and torchlight processions, while the masses
passively follow the events at home, learning from the
radio how the political landscape has changed.
scene: Dispersal. Spectral Voices and Radio on the Street.
Günther Stern also stepped out onto the street at the
end of the twenties. But this street wasn't eerily deserted;
it was instead filled with spooky voices: "It was
radio that first radically destroyed the spatial neutrality
attributed to music. You leave your home, the music
from the speakers still echoing in your ears; you are
inside it - it is nowhere. You take ten steps and hear
the same music coming from your neighbor's house. Since
music is here as well, the music is both here and there,
localized and planted in space like two stakes. But
they are both the same music: over here X is continuing
along with the same song he started singing back there.
You walk on - as you reach the third house, X keeps
on singing, accompanied by the second X, with muted
background vocals courtesy of X in the first house.
What makes this so shocking?"
notices how the voices in the radio leak out of the
houses. The deserted public space takes on a macabre
quality through these "duplicate voices,"
because all of them are sounding simultaneously, all
asserting the same claim to being the one authentic
voice. This is the underlying *shock* of ubiquity that radio evokes for music-lover Stern. For him,
radio is an uncanny medium that forces "the human
being" to decide whether just to ignore the phenomenon
or to "avow" the "duplicate voices,"
with the danger, however, of thereby becoming "himself
Stern perceives as an eerie phenomenon can be explained
by the basic technical conditions inherent in radio:
the distribution of the voice and its dispersal from
one station to an indeterminate number of end devices.
The peculiar materiality of the broadcast voice comes
from the fact that it is only ever heard in plural form.
Therein lies its threat for "the human being,"
whom Stern always puts in the singular, as opposed to
the plurality of the identical duplicate voices. Any
attempt at an appropriation of this "outgrowth,"
this "immoderation," is doomed to fail, for
it would necessarily be turned against the subject of
the appropriation and would end up dragging it along
into the spectral realm of technology. Once there, its
voice would be dispersed again into the uncanny public
space of radio.
Perspective. Association. Listeners Unite.
we have sketched two original scenes from the history
of radio that evoke its uncanny qualities: the listeners
in their dispersed constellation and the voice dispersed
identically among many different receivers. These two
scenes evoke the abandonment of public space and the
haunting of the resultant emptiness by doubles and ghosts.
Left-wing media criticism seems to have found this dispersal
similarly strange - and to have viewed it above all
as nothing but a problem. This probably explains why
the opportunities for distribution offered by radio
were to a large extent ignored in the course of the
numerous attempts to appropriate the medium - from Brecht's
suggestions and their reception by Enzensberger, to
Radio Alice, to Geert Lovink's model for sovereign media.
Or, alternatively - thanks to Brecht - distribution
was regarded instead as a drawback that must somehow
be overcome: "The broadcasting system must be changed
from a distribution system into a communication apparatus."
Hence, the inherent potential for ghostly distribution
- the creation of a dispersed public and a more than
mere acoustic transformation of spaces and situations
- is ruled out, although this is a potential for which
radio is uniquely suited among the media.
how, then, can this potential be appropriated? Although
it may not seem so at first glance, this is just the
question Brecht poses in his "Radio Theory."
He remarks in his essay on how the presence of radio
receivers changes public spaces, qualifying this observation
however with the comment, "but it cannot be the
main task of radio to also place receivers under bridges,"
and going on to assert the above-cited demand that radio
be transformed into an apparatus for communication.
The kind of radio communication Brecht meant is usually
taken to consist of an "interaction" between
transmitter and receiver, thus not taking into account
the peculiar constellation of the many listeners. Brecht's
explanation seems to acknowledge this: radio is "purely
an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out."
Only a major change could transform this distributive
sharing-out into a two-way communication.
is this really what Brecht is asking for? Because he
goes on to say that radio is already fulfilling this
function of conveying information: "The task of
radio is not limited to the mere repetition of reports."
Brecht is not interested in communication in the sense
of interaction, but rather in transforming distribution
itself, in understanding it as a form of communication.
The technical apparatus need not be transformed, according
to Enzensberger's reading, but instead the function
of supply. It should not simply be used to "prettify
public life," but must in its function *as*
a supply medium be able to transform the situation of
the listener and, as Brecht notes elsewhere, to realize
"his mobilization and redrafting as a producer."
Brecht's theory is not motivated by a desire to devalue
radio, but consists instead of a critique on the prevailing
use of the medium, in which the possibilities of distribution
are not being adequately exploited.
contemporary relevance of his analysis can be found
in the fact that, unlike Kracauer and Stern, Brecht
does not blame the rise of radio for the decline of
a public culture, but instead perceives for the first
time the opportunity provided by radio to "relate"
listeners to one another in a kind of aggregate constellation,
i.e. to organize them into a free-form association.
in this way, the real task of a left-wing appropriation
of radio would by no means consist of an inversion of
the medium, which could after all be understood only
as a self-contained act: an act that always remains
a future projection, that never actually begins. Instead,
the task is to embark upon an appropriation of the medium
that heeds the fundamental condition of the spectral
nature of distribution. This appropriation would be
open-ended, allowing for the development of models that
would test the medium over and over again to discern
what possibilities it might offer. In which situations
might radio intervene? What kind of political impact
might the dispersed public represented by the listeners
be able to exercise? How can the constellation of listeners
be transformed into an independent, politically effective
association? In the course of searching for answers
to such questions, hitherto unforeseen practices connected
with the use of radio could evolve.
from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida
Open House. Kunst und Öffentlichkeit
/ Art and the Public Sphere,
o.k books 3/04, Wien, Bozen: Folio 2004]