Bertolt Brecht, “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication,” 1932.

“The human essence is no abstractum inherent in the single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”

Karl Marx, Sixth thesis on Feuerbach, 1845

“The employment of Der Flug der Lindberghs and the use of radio in its changed form was shown by a demonstration at the Baden Baden music festival of 1929. On the left of the platform the radio orchestra was placed with its apparatus and singers, on the right the listener, who performed the Flier’s part, i.e., the pedagogical part, with a score in front of him. He read the sections to be spoken without identifying his own feelings with those contained in the text, pausing at the end of each line; in other words, in the spirit of an exercise. At the back of the platform stood the theory being demonstrated in this way.”

Brecht, An Example of Pedagogics. (Notes to Der Flug der Lindberghs), 1929

In this article Brecht criticizes the one-sided use of the medium radio. Instead of distributing from one central point to individuals, it should set out to become a communicative medium through which individuals are able to transmit as well as receive. The problem is that radio can only be used to listen to and thus can only be applied as vehicle for the sake of the dominant (i.e., capitalists). As such it lacks the possibility to educate important things and simply reformulates traditional (as opposed to modernist) principles. Brecht’s employment of his educational principles in Der Flug der Lindberghs is exactly the opposite. It is meant to educate moral and political values by allowing the individual to participate. And participation is what is missing from the medium radio. By supplying the public with participation in the performance of artworks Brecht hoped to elevate the level of the people (proletariat) to a politically engaged collectivity.


How do Brecht’s concerns with a medium as communicative instead of distributive apparatus relate to (a) Plato’s preference of speech over writing (Brecht: “We have a literature without consequences”); (b) the possibilities opened up by the internet (blogging!)?

(c) In what ways the Platonian speech/writing-divide (a fundamental? difference between internet and radio) affects the use of internet?

(d) How does my quotation of Marx relate to Brecht’s article?

(e) Why—and this a point I found hard to grasp outside the immediate application to the radio—does Brecht claim that there is a lack of consequences (Folgenlosigkeit) in almost all institutions?

(As an additional—though maybe superfluous—point, it might also be interesting to consider the relationship between Brecht’s metaphor of the ideal radio as “a vast network of pipes” and the obviously connected name “youtube.”)


~ by Klaas van der Linden on February 14, 2009.

9 Responses to “Bertolt Brecht, “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication,” 1932.”

  1. Firstly, perhaps in the future it might be good to narrow down the questions to at least the same discourse, since if everybody posts 5 questions for each text it might tally up to quite a bit of responding. Let’s keep it compact and we can elaborate during lectures.

    As for the answers, I might try to approach the ones where you venture to link Brecht with Plato. Firstly, the fact that we make a time leap of 2 500 years here should be taken into consideration: through theatre, manuscripts, printing press, railways, photography, radio, television, Internet and other media. In the case of Internet, I doubt Plato’s binary speech/writing advances us much, as through our engagement with Internet we have developed a way more multifaceted interaction with the media. Perhaps it might be more interesting to assess the equilibrium of reading/writing? In 1997 philosopher Pierre Lévy observed the emergence of cosmopedia where ‘all reading is writing’. Yet writing as we used to understand it is almost passé as we increasingly ‘embed, annotate, comment, respond, syndicate, aggregate, upload, download, rip, and share’ (Manovich, 2008: 239).

    To go back to Brecht, indeed I think that the notion of consequences is a significant one and I see a parallel here with H.M. Enzensberger’s text. However, I think Brecht is trying to make the point that the medium should constantly redefine itself. I suppose, if this doesn’t work out, it is being subverted by other media. Perhaps this is where our enchantment with Internet and its unrivalled success lie.

  2. To Lina’s comment: Granted, there are 2500 years to bridge, but the issue here is foremost the difference between dialogical and one-way communication. And isn’t it interesting that dialogue is often almost automatically seen as more democratic, even though, as Imar explained in class, one could also argue that broadcasting does not privilege any particular addressee. In fact, the French communication scholar Dominique Wolton argues that public broadcasting is the equivalent of representative democracy. But what kind of communication do digital media allow? There is one to one (e-mail exchange, for instance), there is broadcasting, but what about Web 2.0?

  3. The question of the relation to Plato’s preference of speech exactly mirrors my doubts about Plato’s claims in our text of last week. I was wondering about the power of the speaker who sets the subject, intention and level of the speech which might not be understandable of interest or to the liking of the listener. However, Plato was talking about a dialog when he referred to speech and Brecht’s radio is an example of mass communication and therefore more comparable to a speech in an auditorium. The listener in the dialogue has the chance to ask questions and disagree, the listener in the public has far less chances making the speech and the radio one-way communication.

    Looking at the Internet or blogging in particular, I would say that the changed nature of today’s writing (I agree with Lina here), makes blogging almost a sort of spoken conversation. I would also like to add that in blogging there is not really someone transmitting or initiating or having the power of the speech (as the orator in the auditorium/ radio presenter). As Baudrillard points out in this week’s text, everybody becomes an equal contributor because they are all respondents and nobody is a transmitter or receiver in the first place.

    I would like to raise an extra concern about Brecht’s last sentence “ For innovations, against renovation!” I am not sure if I understand this correctly, because I would say that his (utopian) plans for radio are in fact a renovation of the media, there is not a real medium invented, only the uses of the existing medium are explored. I do understand that Brecht is writing of renovations in relation to ideological institutions, but as we can say that media themselves are political and can thus be seen as institutions wouldn’t it be more logical to innovate media to fight off the risk of one-way communication?

  4. The Lindberg notes were very helpful to understand the example better, thank you for those. A famous aspect of Brecht’s theory is ofcourse the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’. Its goal was to retain the audience from getting emotionally involved into the play, because the actors held a certain distance from their personage/ a-logical line-up of scenes etc. Brecht made sure that the audience knew that they were looking to a medium; that of theater. It then could be used as a pedagogical tool as the audience were not withheld to only pay attention to what was being said and to think about that.
    I think that you can find this idea also back in his repudiation of the use of radio: you are not expected to react to this uncritical medium, that does nothing to unravel it’s mediating force.
    The danger of not being critical to the message, because the medium does not invite you to discuss it or directly respond is indeed somehow related to the danger that Plato talks about when he discusses the danger of a written text compared to speech. Plato invented Media-Studies in his cave.

  5. Nina, your last sentence is a cherry on media theory pie we are trying to make here 🙂

  6. Brecht repeatedly pleads for critical audiences who are aware of the medium itself, a sort of hypermediate way of seeing I would say. But these media, that are often far from what they could be in Brecht’s utopian view (which he notes that the media can sometimes never attain) serve as pedagogical instruments to prepare the audience for a revolution. Nina explained above the idea of theater as a pedagogical tool, how the theater trained the audience to become aware of the medium and the way it worked. The revolution that is supposed to be the ultimate effect of theater according to Brecht should establish a dialogical communication where the audience itself becomes a teacher. Isn’t it paradoxical that media in their imperfect state are the way to do this?
    In any way it seems more appropriate that radio serves as a revolutionary medium if it could receive as well as send. In Brecht’s preferred medium theater, however critical the audience was instructed to be, there was no actual participation of the audience. Communication remained a one-way street. Although the difference with the fixed form of writing is obvious (both the ‘text’ or the ‘writer’ as well as the ‘reader’ is present, creating the potential for a dialogue) a real dialogue as radio would enable doesn’t occur. So why did Brecht choose theater as his main medium to start a revolution? I think this is related to the possibly false assumption that a dialogue is always democratic.

  7. What is coming to mind again and again is the notion of media literacy that is taught in schools since a few years (I think only in additional lessons, nothing mandatory, but there is course material offered on this which is used in the Netherlands and the US that I know of). Primary and secondary school children are taught how to read media, they are taught to have a critical stance towards them and how to ask the right questions to find out how objective the content is. I guess the idea is that the medium betrays itself when the content is biased if asked the right questions. Additionally, the children learn how to produce their own media. After having produced media themself, they will understand how media can be manipulated.

    The underlying ideas are that all media already have the Verfremdungseffect in them, children just need to be taught how to look at them to become aware of this effect, so there is no reason to innovate media. Especially after learning to make media themselves they will see this. I think this corresponds with Brecht’s Lindbergh experiment, people do not have to become active producers themselves, after the exercise they can go back to receiving one-way communication, but they will do so in a more critical way.

  8. But do people become aware of the content? We are now so immersed in and surrounded by media, that this almost seems impossible. To quote McLuhan (p. 18): “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception”

  9. […] Media and Performance Theory blog at Utrecht University […]

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