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

The journalist Martha Maria Gehrke, who, among other jobs, worked as an author for the Weltbühne and as an editor of advice books, exhibited a fair bit of cultural pessimism in proclaiming the “end of the private sphere.” This, in her estimation, was a result of the parallel development of collectivism and the “technologization of life,” and it exhibited itself in the forceful intrusion of radio and the gramophone into daily life. In responding to this, art psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who worked as a film critic and culture editor at the time (also for the Weltbühne), took a much more optimistic stance; collectivism, in his view, was not a “product of technology,” and aside from that, he felt that it could also have a positive impact on social and communal life – as altruism out of self-interest.

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The End of the Private Sphere


The Great War, like all wars, transcended isolation and raised the masses to a hitherto unimaginable level of importance. The importance remained as the war ended; the masses have recognized their weight and become active. Soviet Russia is only the most complete example of collectivism; the great trend is everywhere the same.

We are not experiencing today the first reaction of history to individualism, we are not experiencing for the first time the preponderance of the masses; but for the first time a parallel development provides a previously unimaginable and unprecendented support: the development of technology.

Prior to the existence of cities, isolation and, as its internal form and consequence, individualism were facts of nature. The more people came together in dense concentrations, the stronger became the external preconditions of collectivism. Almost every new technical invention also signified and signifies a more intense concentration of people. One recalls the distinction between workshop and factory; one imagines what it means to travel in a sedan chair, on a horse, and certainly in a carriage, or instead in a train of twenty cars—immediate examples that anyone might supplement at will. Such were the developments before 1914. Since the end of the war the technologization of life has proceeded with bewildering speed. There is radio, through which it is no longer just a few hundred or thousand theater-goers who share the same experience, but which day-by-day, night-by-night, forces the same program upon the ears of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of listeners.

Forces? But it is hardly the case that anyone is forced to take out a radio subscription! Certainly not. But—disregarding entirely the imponderable influence of mass phenomena in themselves—the neighbor down the street has a radio, and the one across the hall, the one below, above, and next door. All of them have speakers, all of them open their windows well into the autumn, and if they are closed in the winter, the speakers, so very good at reproductions, penetrate the walls of old and new buildings alike into the home that was once my castle. I am steadfastly a pirate listener, although it was not in the least my intention to become one. If the radio is silent, then the gramophone resounds; there is no apartment house in which it would not be represented in numbers, no homeowner who lacks the altruistic need of allowing everyone around to take part in the perfection of his recordings. For collectivism has one of its most distinct effects in the contemporary form of entertainment. Before, entertainment and sociability were always mutually determined for the majority of people; is it an accident that in today’s fairgrounds and dance halls there are social classes represented from which in previous times only the men, at most, would be present, and then only secretly. Is it an accident that everyone today expects the understanding participation of the whole street in the sounds of his entertainment, and that in such streets there no longer exists the odd individual who takes the speakers and gramophones, the barking of a dog and the clatter of a running engine for an invasion of the private sphere? An accident that he, as the single individual, lacks the courage to invoke for his own benefit what few civil prohibitions there are? A majority, however, that feels itself bothered and proceeds in solidarity against the disturbers of the peace – that tellingly does not exist.

It would be foolish to speak of the end of the private sphere were there no further evidence that a collective reaction to an individualistic century. It is only the parallel development of technology that justifies the concern, and, in light of the most recent developments, now more than ever. The problem of the telephone is all but completely solved; now we are at work on television. There is no question that here, too, we are very near a practical solution. A General Union of German Televisers has already been founded for the purpose of “promoting television and representing all interests associated with it.” It will achieve its goal, and humanity will be one wonderful invention the richer. But will it be possible to deploy this invention in such a way that it serves the general public without disturbing the sphere of the individual?

It will hardly be possible – if only for the reason that there will be scarcely any, and certainly too few, individuals who feel this disturbance to be just that. That no one will be forced to acquire a television, and, once one has one, will always be able to turn it off? But who can guarantee that airwaves will not be discovered and machines invented that subordinate the viewer’s will to that of the broadcasters against which the viewer has as little defense as a church steeple has against being observed by someone with binoculars? Utopia? After the events of the last century, that word is no longer valid.

Defense measures? They have no chance of success, since there is no will for defense in general. Conclusions? No conclusions should be drawn. The attempt has merely been made to offer evidence, not for the sake of argument but because we all, each in his own way, must come to terms with that evidence.

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