July CommQuote

Anke Birkenmaier on French radio pioneer Paul Deharme:

 

In principle, radio broadcasting seemed to Deharme a surrealist medium par excellence. Similar to the surrealist automatic writing, it made its audience listen to the dictate of an unknown voice; also, it allowed for instantaneous communication between audiences all over the world that resembled the quasi telepathic communication achieved by the first members of the movement in their creative sessions. How could the surrealists not be taken in by a medium that seemed to promise liberation from analytical “written” reasoning and grant access to a mass audience that had been out of reach until then? And yet, surrealist radio broadcasting would remain an experimental radio practice that aimed at being better than surrealism itself…

For Deharme, radio broadcasting’s greatest asset was precisely the fact that vision was not available to the audience. The absence, in radio-and also in the surrealist automatic writing-of physical images would lead to the creation of increasingly powerful mental images in the listener. In this way, radio was superior to film or theater. Relying on the work of French psychologist Henri Delacroix and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Deharme put forth the argument that pure words were in fact always associated with “inner” mental images, and that the physical production of words in combination with images in film or in theater deprived the audience of their own mental images, creating “only” sensations and impoverished after-impressions of what should be a creative act. The radio experience, in contrast, was more stimulating because its mental images were sensations at the same time.

One problem with radio broadcasting, as Deharme saw it, was the short attention pan of the listener. All of his professional know-how was invested in preventing it rom becoming a background medium. Due to the absence of physical images, the radio listener’s attention span is smaller; though the voice may seem real, the image associated with it has its origin only in the brain and is accompanied by a feeling of unreality. For that reason, music and sound effects are especially important to lend life and substance to the image-yet this liveliness should always appear to be dream-like, in a realistic yet artificial way.

The distinction between the dream-likeness of radio and the everyday reality of the istening audience was crucial to Deharme, for whom the main task of radio was to ake the listener dream, as opposed to the producer-focused surrealist idea of using dreams to extract or generate words from the inspired artists. The problem with the surrealists, according to Deharme, was that they claimed to rely not on dream images ut on the language of dreams, whose authenticity was generally to be doubted because it is extremely difficult to reproduce. The language produced during a period of half-sleep was not quite the same as the one that would originate from a dream. In short, Deharme contested the relevance of the surrealist automatic writing for a larger audience. He associated the ability to dream with the freedom to imagine alternate worlds, and did not find that surrealist poetry was effective at producing these words for the reader. This is why radio-fiction took a prominent place in Deharme’s radio heory: the listener seemed to understand it and be provoked by it more easily than by poetry.

From Surrealism to Popular Art: Paul Deharme’s Radio Theory, by Anke Birkenmaier, Modernism/modernity (volume 16, Number 2, pp357-374)

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