by R. G. Davis
from Jump Cut, no. 8, 1975, pp. 25-27
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, The Consciousness Industry (NY: Seabury, 1974) $6.95, hardcover.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, young enough to understand the new left and old enough to be critical of it (b. 1929), is a poet, editor of Kursbuch (a 200 page quarterly with 60,000 West German readers), novelist, theoretician and, most recently, scriptwriter for TV—“Vorhors de Havana” for West German TV and “Rachelle la Cubana” for PBS. Enzensberger is a Marxist who combines new ideas with a great sense of history in his cultural analyses. Seven of his articles which date back to 1962 have been collected by Michael Roloff under the title, The Consciousness Industry.
“Industrialization of the Mind” (1962), the first essay in the volume, discusses Theodor Adorno’s notion of a thought-control industry and its importance in maintaining capitalist hegemony. Unlike Frankfurt School members Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, Enzensberger does not subscribe to a grand conspiracy theory of capitalism and thus to the idea of capitalism’s opaqueness. In this early formulation Enzensberger is incomplete, and he suggests political actions which may be ineffective. He describes the historical development of the thought-control industry while in the later essay, “Constituents for a Theory of the Media” (1970), he broadens the investigation. He indicates directions socialists can take within technologically advanced capitalist countries. In these essays there is an important shift from the phrase “mind control” of 1962 to the expanded one of “consciousness industry” of 1970, which illustrates Enzensberger’s awareness that there has been a shift from Nazi Weltanshauung-control (Goebels’ propaganda) to a far subtler and worldwide bourgeois imperialist cultural influence.
Film is, of course, one of the most important aspects of this influence. The essays “Industrialization of the Mind” and “Constituents of a Theory of the Media” are not extensive enough by themselves to develop a complete theory of film, and that is not their objective. The attempt to isolate film from the rest of culture is a speculation of cine-structuralists and one common to liberal ideology. “Constituents for a Theory of the Media” is the most important essay in this book for the study of film or any other element of the media. The essay asks socialists to re-address the question of what use the media are, specifically the consciousness industry in advanced industrial countries.
A short tale: I read this essay late in 1970 when it appeared in New Left Review No. 84. In 1971 I became a member of the Socialist Bay Area School whose intention was to offer classes in history, philosophy (Marxism), political economy, Marxist aesthetics and so on. I suggested that in addition to traditional classes our school might intervene in existing institutions in the Bay Area such as KPFA, the Pacifica Foundation’s liberal, listener-sponsored radio station in Berkeley.
I meant intervene in the sense of analyzing the operation from a Marxist view and offering some insight into the nature of socialist programming. All agreed that it was an interesting idea, and I went to KPFA with the offer to do such an analysis. They accepted, and I was to carry it out. We never got around to doing the analysis, for our school staff showed little interest, and I found myself inadequate to proceed on the project alone. Later I was offered the management of a proposed radio station, a non-profit, educational, 10-watt station for San Francisco. In searching for personnel, equipment and a plant site for the station, I was pressed to investigate more fully what a non-commercial station might do that was radical and perhaps Marxist. The only material apparently available was a short essay on radio by Brecht, Enzensberger’s piece, and the theories of Walter Benjamin, all a little inadequate for the actual running of a non-profit, non-commercial, educational station in the USA. I left after three months, and the station was finally put together by Radio “Freaks” and still operates in a haphazard manner.
The absence of politically conscious people engaged in radio was apparent; absolutely absent were socialists who had some awareness of their ignorance. The oft-stated claim that “we want to do something different from KPFA” was supported by no analysis or investigation of the Pacifica chain, nor for that matter of the commercial stations. A few ultra-leftists wanted better news and political programs; the know-nothing activists wanted a “loose” structure, which they got.
“Constituents of a Theory of the Media” can be a part of the developing socialist media theory. I think the essay, written in 11 sections, is best presented in a condensed form with commentary.
2. MOBILIZING POWER OF THE MEDIA
EXAMPLE: With simple adjustments the transister radio could be made into a two-way system.
3. THE ORWELLIAN FANTASY
EXAMPLE: Xerox machines and other duplicators create havoc with copyrights and political control both in the USSR and the USA.
4. CULTURAL ARCHAISM IN THE LEFT CRITIQUE
The New Left’s fear of the media (note: the International New Left, not merely the U.S.) resides in a class prejudice against the masses and a sense that the media are by nature “unclean.” Most radicals prefer the traditional and more accessible journals or newspapers, “which are exclusive in terms of language, content and form.” Therefore, while the persistently apolitical underground explores the technical and aesthetic capabilities of the new media, the leftists who merely watch these explorations fall “hapless victims to commercialism.” For the New Left, radicals and even Marxists, “This leads to a split between a puritanical view of political action and the area of private ‘leisure’; objectively it leads to a split between politically active groups and subcultural groups.”
EXAMPLE: Radicals of the 60s (U.S. New Left) would attack the political news distortion of Time Magazine yet turn to the cultural section and sponge up images.
5. DEMOCRATIC MANIPULATION
Comment: There is a utopian edge to “make everyone a manipulator.” Nonetheless, the essential point is to confront the false notion of “truth” in the news and in documentary films. Radicals often produce documentaries and news programs telling us “where it’s at.” Godard wrote in LE GAI SAVOIR (text in film), “there are no self-evident truths.”
6. MEDIA EQUALITY
7, 8, 9. PROPERTIES OF THE NEW MEDIA
EXAMPLE: A socialized data bank would make information accessible to anyone, whereas a private library tends to preserve the scholarly caste.
EXAMPLE: The telephone is in the hands of many; the telegraph is in the hands of bureaucratic institutions. Wireless, UHF bands, inherently numerous and uncontrollable, are often badgered by anachronistic attempts to control the air waves.
EXAMPLE: 8mm and super 8, half-inch portapacks and other items will remain apolitical as long as they are individual and aesthetically irrelevant. Licensing in the economic sense attempts to change what is independent into a concession. The professional media degrades the “unprofessional” media.
Comment: To take a breath here, one can begin to see the methodology of the critique. Enzensberger is both picking apart the capitalist use of the media while sniping at the use of the media by socialists, yet within a socialist approach. He struggles to flesh out possibilities. The broad aspect of his critique poses larger questions: questions of the qualitative impact of each medium in the same and different cultures. He, a West German, begins to gather up the ends of Western capitalist countries’ media possibilities. West Germans, for example, read perhaps two times the books that Americans do there, television does not go on 20 hours a day ... and so on into France, Italy, et al..
10, 11, 12, 13. A SOCIALIST STRATEGY
[A strategy is not a specific program but an approach.]
A. End the isolation of individual participants, breaking down the “private production” methods of bourgeois intellectuals by organization. There is no “emancipation by technological hardware.”
B. Aggressive forms of publicity for workers and producers with tape recorders and cameras taken into factories, exposing and exploding the “privacy of the work place.”
C. Communication networks: mass newspapers written and distributed by their readers; a video network of politically active groups. Organizational structure is a reversible network, providing a socialist model.
D. Socialists can disentangle themselves from the notion that capitalism “lives by the exploitation of unreal needs.” Enzensberger argues, “The attractive power of mass consumption [and spectacles] is based not on the dictates of false needs, but on the falsification and exploitation of quite real and legitimate ones without which the parasitic process of advertising would be redundant.”
A summary: [run in two columns, ed.]
REPRESSIVE USE OF MEDIA
EMANCIPATORY USE OF MEDIA
14, 15. THE SUBVERSIVE POWER OF THE NEW MEDIA
EXAMPLES: Tupamaros in Uruguay, Arab guerillas, Fidel—specifically Moncada, 1953.
EXAMPLES: Pudovkin’s KINOGLAS, Dziga Vertov’s KINOPRAVDA, Cuban literacy campaign, China’s wall newspapers, Czechoslovak protests of Russian invasion.
16. THE MEDIA: AN EMPTY CATEGORY OF MARXIST THEORY
Comment: Lukács had an enormous influence in the Soviet bloc following in the (Zhadanov and Stalin) and has a respectable following in the conservative West. Although Brecht argued with Lukács (see H. Avron, Marxist Aesthetics), Brecht has been de-politicized in the West. Brecht, in addition, never argued for bourgeois realism that Lukács could theorize. The debate is only understood within a Marxist framework.
(Enzensberger takes on McLuhan at this point: it’s worth reading but has been done as well elsewhere.)
17. THE ACHIEVEMENT OF BENJAMIN
This is a direct refutation of Lukács. Enzensberger loves the risk inherent in Benjamin’s perspective, and here it is best to quote directly from Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Illuminations, written in 1936).
Comment: Up to this point Enzensberger’s essay is a recounting of the arguments within Marxist aesthetics, those that provide useful insights for a socialist strategy, whereas in the last two sections, “Supersession of Written Culture” and “Desacralization of Art,” he engages in a deeper theoretical positioning. He argues that “cutting, editing, dubbing are techniques of conscious manipulation without which the use of the new media is inconceivable. This in turn challenges the tyranny of the printed word.” The author becomes a part of a group who produce the new media.
The new media “do not produce objects,” they “create programs”: and as such challenge the old category of works of art as objects. The “author” is an old category, too. In order not to lose his/her expertise yet overcome the elitism inherent in the role, he/she must engage in reciprocal labor with the masses.
The image here is of a literacy teacher. One senses the star poet of West German’s fear, fear of his integration and loss of status. No matter: Hans Magnus risks his ego, yet hugging Antonio Gramsci to his bosom he ends with: “Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.”
This essay, written in 1969 during immense political activism in West Germany and France, called for the grasping of the media both from its reactionary artistic experimenters and the socialist bureaucracies. Since then we have seen abuses and progressive distortions of the media, yet the ideas in this and other essays afford Marxists working weapons in their struggles.