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M.M. Gehrke and Rudolf Arnheim, "The End of the Private Sphere" (1930)

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M. M. Gehrke stresses her forbearance from taking a position, claiming only to establish the facts. But she speaks only of unpleasantries, only of the noise of terriers, pigeons, and exhaust pipes unleashed on the individual by dear neighbors on an era of the collectivism of engineers. As if there were not also more worthy sounds pressed by one person upon the other. She steps into our times like someone who has long been sheltered from a pouring rain; raising her umbrella, she fears in the future that this meager defense will be taken away as well.

Collectivism is a dangerous concept because it is an unstable one. Collectivism is not a product of technology nor of life together in cities. It is much more to be found in its purest form on the first beginnings of culture, among primitive peoples and animals. The development and specialization of intellectual work among humans, the increasing division of labor, the disintegration of community into classes of various educational and income levels – these developments destroyed collectivism. It was precisely the factory work mentioned by Gehrke, which, seen from without in comparison to the artisans’ workshops, began the formation of great masses and overthrew a genuine collectivism, a collaboration that was self-evident at the time of the guilds.

Collectivism is not the equivalent of massing together. Big-city dwellers, packed together body and soul, lead no more a life of community than do sardines in a can. They do not live together; they bother one another. That is not collectivism; collectivism would simply be the nicest and most efficient way of coming to terms with the nuisances.

More powerful attacks on private life than cheap modern walls and automobile horns are currently underway. Here one would have to speak of the general concentration of cultural production, of the standardization of utensils and diet, of the entertainment monopoly of radio and television concerns, against which one will need not only, as Gehrke stresses, defend oneself, but upon which one will become dependent. Who know whether twenty years from now there will not be but a single play to be heard each evening in all the apartments of the nation (unless, that is, a captain of industry invites his friends to his private theater). How to come to terms with that?

The conflict between the individual and the collective did eventually find its resolution, one of much benefit to our work, but which brought with it an impoverishment of life. Papered walls and a bank account offered sufficient protection for those inquires that thrived magnificently in greenhouses, that led science and art to the pinnacle. But the majority of people will live without education and culture until precisely the same economic system that brought forth illiteracy tears down the walls by making needs equivalent and leading the whole of the people – perhaps to culture, perhaps to vulgarity. Those who until now have indulged themselves in all the peacefulness of privacy with the good things of life, now see themselves being forced to take into consideration the needs of the general public because the individual sources of supply are slowly drying up. And they see themselves referring not to self-interest but to an altruism that can be exceedingly useful. For now that the same bread is being baked for all, it is in their own interest to contrive to improve that which is offered and to refine the tastes of the masses so that the general fare they purchase with their greater income might also be palatable. This necessity will admittedly cause enormous harm to the work of culture for a long time to come, and it is no pleasure to see what barbarism and crudity the Soviet system, for example, is introducing into art and science. But the present necessity, seen from the egotistic standpoint of the individual, simultaneously awakens the crippled joy of life in the community, of helping, of exchange. It will vouchsafe to the productive the pleasure of teaching, of giving, a welcome bonus to the fanaticism that the loneliness of the study so often involves. And it will, as is so evident in our contemporaries, tempt one to betray the intellect and in the protection of cozy, lulling comradeship give oneself over to the pleasures upon which the masses still depend today but which signal depravity in the cultivated. A useful disturbance: the all too solid position of the pampered will be shaken; in difficult circumstances they will have to rearm themselves to become fruitful, not only for the object of their attentions, but for their fellow men as well. And onto the groat-strewn pond where the teeming mass lives its life will fall sunshine and the stimulating fragrance of new-fashioned, dangerous feed. The discontent is worth it.

Source of English translation: M.M. Gehrke and Rudolf Arnheim, “The End of the Private Sphere” (1930), in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg. © 1994 Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press, pp. 613-15. Reprinted with permission of the University of California Press.

Source of original German text: M.M. Gehrke and Rudolf Arnheim, “Das Ende der privaten Sphäre,” Die Weltbühne 26, no. 2 (January 7, 1930), pp. 61-4.

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