JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Hans Magnus Enzensberger
A Marxist media analysis

by R. G. Davis

from Jump Cut, no. 8, 1975, pp. 25-27
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

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.

“Today, America’s television culture is firmly entrenched as a global salesman for more than 200 multinational U.S. firms that do $200 billion a year in business overseas” (A. Horowitz, Global Salesman, Network Project, 1974).

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.

1. INTRODUCTION

“So far there is no Marxist theory of the media. There is therefore no strategy one can apply in this area.”

2. MOBILIZING POWER OF THE MEDIA

“The development from a mere distribution medium to a communications medium is technically not a problem. It is consciously prevented for understandable political reasons.”

EXAMPLE: With simple adjustments the transister radio could be made into a two-way system.

3. THE ORWELLIAN FANTASY

“George Orwell’s bogey of a monolithic consciousness industry derives from a view of the media which is undialectical and obsolete.”

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 liberal superstition that in political and social questions there is such a thing as pure unmanipulated truth seems to enjoy remarkable currency among the socialist left. It is the unspoken basic premise of the manipulation thesis.”

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

“There is no such thing as unmanipulated writing, filming or broadcasting. The question is therefore not whether the media are manipulated, but who manipulates them. A revolutionary plan should not require the manipulators to disappear; on the contrary, it must make everyone a manipulator.”

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.”

“There have been no historical examples up until now of the mass self-regulating learning process which is made possible by the electronic media. The Communists’ fear of releasing this potential, of the mobilizing capabilities of the media, of the interaction of free producers, is one of the main reasons why even in the socialist countries, the old bourgeois culture, greatly disguised and distorted but structurally intact, continues to hold sway.”

6. MEDIA EQUALITY

“The new media are egalitarian in structure. Anyone can take part in them by a simple switching process.”

“Potentially the new media do away with all educational privileges and thereby with the cultural monopoly of the bourgeois intelligentsia.”

7, 8, 9. PROPERTIES OF THE NEW MEDIA

“The new media are oriented towards action, not contemplation; towards the present, not tradition. Their attitude to time is completely opposed to that of bourgeois culture, which aspires to possession, that is to extension in time, best of all, to eternity.”

EXAMPLE: A socialized data bank would make information accessible to anyone, whereas a private library tends to preserve the scholarly caste.

“It is wrong to regard media equipment as mere means of consumption.”

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.

“Only a free socialist society will be able to make them [new media] fully productive. A further characteristic of the most advanced media—probably the decisive one—confirms this thesis: their collective structure.”

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 socialist movement ought not to denounce these needs but take them seriously, investigate them, and made them politically productive ... It is absolutely clear that within the present social forms, the consciousness industry can satisfy none of the needs on which it lives and which it must increase, except in the illusory form of games. The point, however, is not to demolish its promises but to take them literally and to show that they can be met only through a cultural revolution.”

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A summary: [run in two columns, ed.]

REPRESSIVE USE OF MEDIA

  • Centrally controlled program
  • One transmitter, many receivers
  • Immobilization of isolated individuals
  • Passive consumer behavior
  • Depoliticization
  • Production by specialists
  • Control by property owners or bureaucracy

EMANCIPATORY USE OF MEDIA

  • Decentralized program
  • Each receiver a potential transmitter
  • Mobilization of masses
  • Interaction of those involved—feedback
  • A political learning process
  • Collective production
  • Social control by self-organization

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14, 15. THE SUBVERSIVE POWER OF THE NEW MEDIA

“Franz Fanon was the first to draw attention to the fact that the transistor receiver was one of the most important weapons in the Third World’s fight for freedom.”

“Albert Hertzog, ex-Minister of the South African Republic ..., is of the opinion that ‘television will lead to the ruin of the white man in south Africa.’”

“The student movements ... recognized this and, to begin with, achieved considerable momentary success with the aid of the media. These effects have worn off. Naive trust in the magical power of reproduction cannot replace organizational work; only active and coherent groups can force the media to comply with the logic of their actions.”

EXAMPLES: Tupamaros in Uruguay, Arab guerillas, Fidel—specifically Moncada, 1953.

“So long as the cultural revolution has the initiative, the social imagination of the masses overcomes even technical backwardness and transforms the function of the old media so that their structures are exploded.”

EXAMPLES: Pudovkin’s KINOGLAS, Dziga Vertov’s KINOPRAVDA, Cuban literacy campaign, China’s wall newspapers, Czechoslovak protests of Russian invasion.

.”.. Enormous political and cultural energies are hidden in the enchained masses and with what imagination they are able, at the moment of liberation, to realize all the opportunities offered by the new media.”

16. THE MEDIA: AN EMPTY CATEGORY OF MARXIST THEORY

.”.. The Marxist Left should argue theoretically and act practically,” using the ‘most advanced productive forces in their society’ strategically. This ‘is no academic-expectation but a political necessity.’ Marxists have rarely understood the socialist potential in the consciousness industry. George Lukács is a perfect example of this ‘theoretical and practical backwardness.’ This theoretician of Socialist Realism only saw the dark side of the consciousness industry, whereas Walter Benjamin and Brecht saw the socialist possibilities. ‘Anything that culture produces’ can, according to Lukács, ‘have real cultural value only if it is in itself valuable ... The most typical example of such a process is the work of art ... In a highly developed mechanical industry, on the other hand, any connection between the product and the creator is abolished. The human being serves the machine, he adapts to it. Production becomes completely independent of the human potentialities and capabilities of the worker.”

“Lukács asks, ‘Which are the cultural values, which in accordance with the nature of this context [proletarian revolution] can be taken over from the old society by the new and further developed?’ Answer: the idea of mankind as an end in itself, the basic idea of the new culture.”

“Walter Benjamin counters with ['Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction']: ‘This is where the philistine concept of art turns up with all its deadly obtuseness—an idea to which all technical considerations are foreign and which feels that with the provocative appearance of the new technology its end has come.’”

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

“The idea of the self-sufficient work of art collapsed long ago.”

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).

“One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence and in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. The most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.”

“For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility ... But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics ...”

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 specialist will learn as much or more from the non-specialists as the other way round. Only then can he contrive to make himself dispensable.”

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.