About the Author
Hans Magnus Enzensberger was born in 1929 in Kaufbeuren, a small town in Bavaria. He was German author, poet, translator, and an editor. He is part of the last generation of intellectuals whose writing was shaped by first-hand experience of the Third Reich*. Enzensberger also had a brief stint in Hitler’s kiddie-cum-geriatic corps, and also served a stint as bartender and translator of the Royal Air Force while engaging in some black market activities to earn livelihood.1
Enzensberger has a sarcastic, ironic tone in many of his poems/writings. For example, the poem “Middle Class Blues” consists of various typicalities of middle class life, with the phrase “we can’t complain” repeated several times, and concludes with “what are we waiting for?”. Many of his poems also feature themes of civil unrest over economic and class based issues. Though primarily a poet and essayist, he also made excursions into theater, film, opera, radio drama, reportage, translation, et al. He has also written novels and several books for children.
About the Essay
“Constituents for a Theory of the Media” is considered to be an influential essay in raising the voice for realizing the true potential of the media. Through this essay, Hans Magnus Enzensberger calls for a much needed participatory model of communication and information exchange in opposition to the capitalist systems controlled by the bourgeoisie and influential class, who are, for reasons defined in the essay, inappropriate to handle the new media to its maximum.2 Enzensberger intention to raise thought of the media and the role of the socialist left is not about the distribution of media but “a fundamental organization of media.” According to him, the new media are “oriented towards action, not contemplation, toward the present, not tradition.”
He is asking the new socialist left to rethink the use of media and define radical changes to encourage reciprocation of information across classes. Being a classic Marxist thinker, you will find some marxists concepts pertinent in the essay. The two central concepts are “base” and “superstructure.” Let me explain what they are before we begin the summary of the essay. In the Marxist theory, the human society consist of two essential parts: the base and the superstructure. The base consists of forces and relations of production—the employer-employee working conditions, the technical division of labor, and property relations—into which people enter to produce the necessities of life. These relations then go on to describe the society’s other relationships and ideas, which are referred to as ‘superstructures.’ This superstructure includes institutions, culture, political structures, media, et al. Establishing a connection, the base determines the superstructure, not to forget that superstructures do influence the base but the base dominates. Remembering these two concepts is important as they are used in the essay and provides better perspective to the ideas presented by the author.
The Consciousness Industry3
Before we attempt to summarize the essay, it is important to understand the concept of the “consciousness industry,” the term coined by Enzensberger. The mind industry does not produce anything specific, rather its main business is to perpetuate the existing order of man’s dominance over man. To see in this perspective, I will quote from his book, The Consciousness Industry, “the mind industry is actually a product of say some last 100 years. It has developed at such a pace, and assumed such varied forms, that it has outgrown our understanding and our control. The current discussion of media also seems to suffer from theoretical limitations as we are failing to understand the phenomenon as a whole. Every new branch of industry is cropping up with ideas/theories, but how many really understand the phenomenon—the industrialization of the human mind. This cannot be understood by examining the machine as such. It is much deeper.” He goes on to say, “Equally inadequate is the term cultural industry, which has become common usage in Europe after World War II. It reflects, more than the scope of the phenomenon itself, the social status of those who have tried to analyze it: university professors and academic writers, people whom the power elite has relegated to the reservations of what passes as “cultural life” and who consequently have resigned themselves to bear the unfortunate name of cultural critics. In other words, they are certified harmless; they are suppose to think in terms of Kultur (German civilization and culture (sometimes used derogatorily to suggest elements of racism, authoritarianism, or militarism) and not in terms of power.
He adds, “the term serves to remind us of a paradox inherent in all media work. Consciousness, however false, can be induced and reproduced by industrial means, but it cannot be industrially produced. It is a social product made up by the people; its origin is the dialog. No industrial process can replace the persons who generate it.”
In the first section of the essay, Enzensberger comments on how the consciousness industry is capable of bringing about a radical change, with the development of the electronic media, as it “infiltrates” into all sectors of production. It is capable of determining the standards of the prevailing technologies. There are several forms of media which have com up in the past few years. He says that when the new forms of media merge/connects with the existing forms, they become capable of “forming” universal systems.
When such universal systems are produces, the contradiction between the productive forces and the productive relationships also augments. “Productive force is a central idea in Marxism and historical materialism. It refers to the combination of the means of labor with human labor power. All those forces that are applied by people in the production processes are encompassed by this concept. To sum up, human knowledge can also be a productive force.” Per the Marxian Class Theory, “class consciousness within the production process precedes the formation of productive relationships. Marx sought to define class as embedded in productive relationships rather than social status.”4
Enzensberger says that “the socialist media theory needs to work outside on the boundaries of a monopoly capitalism.” It is only then the media can be productive. Being attentive to all this is good, but not enough. For the media to be productive, we need to exploit the emancipatory potential of the new media. This potential lies in the fact of opening up the media, encouraging reciprocity of information between the transmitter and the receiver, and encouraging feedback.
All these thoughts leads us to the fact that it is important to mobilize the media, which in itself is an important concept. According to Enzensberger, “anyone who thinks of the masses only as object of politics cannot mobilize them.” It is for the first time in the history that media is making participation possible. To put this possibility into action, one requires the development “from a mere distribution medium to a communications medium,” which is technically plausible. However, due to politics, this is not achieved, and thus the technical distinctions between the receiver and the transmitter always persists. This clearly reflects the social division of the labor – the consumers and the producers, which in the consciousness industry becomes of political importance. This structural analogy can be worked out through an organized effort, however, minimum activity on part of the “voter/viewer” is desired. Typically, any feedback given by the masses is reduced to some indices, as part of some election agenda. All these activities are reducing the power of media into the hands of the bourgeois, which is surely not a place media’s true potential resides. Enzensberger quotes from Theory of Radio building on the thought presented above:
“Radio must be changed from a means of distribution to a means of communication. Radio would be the most wonderful means of communication imaginable in public life, a huge linked system—that is to say, it would be such if it were capable not only of transmitting but of receiving of allowing the listener not only to hear but to speak and did not isolate him but brought him into contact. Unrealizable in this social system, reliable in another these proposals, which are after all, only the natural consequences of technical development help towards the propagation and shaping of that other system.”5
The Orwellian Fantasy
Enzensberger says that the Orwellian bogey of “monolithic consciousness industry drives from a view of media which is unidirectional and obsolete. The possibility of total control of such a system at a central point are the talks of past.” He further says that the understanding and demonstrating a two-way communication can actually be dealt statistically. Arguing this opinion he also says that “supervision on the basis of approximation can only offer inadequate instruments for the self-regulation of the whole system in accordance with the concepts of those who govern it. It postulates the high degree of internal stability If this precarious balance is upset, then the crisis measured on the statistical methods of control are useless.”
It needs to be recognized that societies in the late industrial era require a robust information exchange platform. Any attempt to block this will result in a block in the entire system. All this will eventually result in death of the system. He gives example of the Soviet bureaucracy, who denied itself “almost entirely” an elementary piece of organizational equipment, the duplicating machine, because the instrument had the potential to make everyone a printer. It was quite evident that the Soviet had to pay price for such a repression. With this Enzensberger says that the problem of censorship is entering a new historical stage. The freedom of press and information has been, like mentioned in the essay earlier, is concentrated only with the bourgeoisie. Slowly, one can see the transformation already in the form of the consciousness industry taking an upper hand.
Cultural Archaism in the Left Critique
While we know that the consciousness industry is about to bring forth a radical change in the way media is perceived, it is important to discuss the concept of manipulation, which till now helped in self learning and development. Now, the same concept is threatening to degenerate “into a slogan which conceals more than it is able to illuminate, and therefore itself requires an analysis.” The socialist left perspective is constrained in attacking only the existing productive relationships. The bigger question of “whom the media should be handed over to” is yet not answered or even thought about for that matter. Unfortunately, the socialist left till now have not proven anything in terms of handling the media in the right direction.
The theory of repressive tolerance , which is in itself an important concept, has also permeated discussion of the media by the left. This concept has also become a vehicle of resignation among the left socialist. Electronic media, innately, is dirty. Enzensberger says that in structure, media is typically anti-sectarian, and this the reason why the left has not yet thought of a reform. The resistance to this, unconsciously, is further enhanced by the cultural factor—the social history of the participants in today’s Left movement. Enzensberger says that it seems that because of their progressive potential, the media are seen to be a threat as they challenge the bourgeoisie culture and thereby the privileges of the intelligentsia. He concludes by saying that the ability to harness the true potential of media is genuinely lacking. The counter reaction to this fear is the split that results among the political active groups and the subcultural groups. On one hand, the comrades take refuge in the antiquated techniques of communication rather than exploiting the potential media offers, and on the other hand, they cannot escape from the consciousness industry’s program/aesthetics. The only beneficiary of this antagonistic attitude of the Left towards the media is the capitalist.
The Democratic Manipulation
We talked about manipulation as part of the cultural archaism. Here Enzensberger recognizes the fact that “manipulation” as such is political act when it comes to the media industry—“every use of media presupposes manipulation.” This, from a practical standpoint is fine. Any form of media is required to be first manipulated and then produced (even the live telecast of the sting operations that we see.) So, the bigger question is not the fact that media are manipulated, but who manipulates them? Such manipulation can be encountered only with the direct social control. Though there is no such example till now wherein a direct social interaction of media has been made possible, but the capitalist knows that this is a possibility of the future and they thus fear the realization of the true potential of media is about to come through.
To look at this in perspective with the current media order, such talks read and sound like fairy-tale. It is unimaginable for many to see a close world order like the one presented above. With internet burgeoning and media opening the public communication platform, we are, to a great extent, learning to harness the power the media as a medium for exchange of information. This brings us to an important point, which is also presented by Enzensberger that the new media is egalitarian in structure. And this is proven well from the point above that everyone now is participating in the process of information exchange and thereby learning themselves.
Properties of the New Media
Having said this, the author points us towards the fact that the “new media is oriented towards action than contemplation, towards the present and not tradition.” Media for the first time, is making it possible to record historical material and then make it available at will to the people. Hence, it would be wrong to say that media equipments are mere means of consumption, they are transforming into means of production. Seeing it closely, one will realize that the hiatus between the producer and consumer is not “inherent” to electronic media, it is a creation of fiction by the economic and administrative forces. Enzensberger provides an example of telephone and telegram to explain this further. Telegram is still in the hands of bureaucracy, telephone is accessible to everyone. The former is till now, in the hands of the bureaucracy. Enzensberger says that the laws that regulate the transmission are antiquated and needs to be reformed in the foreseeable future.
Even if the gap between the receiver and transmitter is closed, the prospect of anyone becoming a producer with the use of media will be limited to individual tinkering. And this is what the bourgeoisie also aims at. Only a “free socialist society will be able to make media fully productive.” Enzensberger compares the private production of media with that of a licensed cottage industry, which even if made public, remains a huge compromise. Even if we hand over the media to individuals, it will more so become a site of mockery by the professional media producers as it will clearly show that the masses do not know how to use the media properly, thus proving them to be incapable to be able to articulate.
Enzensberger says that “not only this run counter to the results of the latest psychological and pedagogical research, but it can easily be seen to be a reactionary protective formulation; the “gifted” people are quite simply defending their territories.” He further says that the socialist who think that the masses cannot govern themselves are nothing but nationalist.
A Socialist Strategy
Any socialist strategy for media firstly need to remove the isolation of the individuals from the learning and production process of the media itself. The idea of having an open media is not just easy exchange of information but also instigating higher level of learning and involvement in the process. All this demands a higher and mature level of organization of the media. Availability of the media is something Enzensberger questions in his paper. He adds, “by producing aggressive forms of publicity which were their own, the masses could secure evidence of their daily experiences and draw effective lessons from them.” The bourgeoisie society contradicts this belief by raising the issue as a threat to data privacy—official and commercial secrecy. The author says that only a “collective and organized effort can tear down such paper walls.”
Once the media achieves the right level of freedom, it will work as a platform for redefining individualism into a “new kind of political self understanding and behavior.” However, what is the right level of freedom is something which is not clearly defined. It is like questioning, how good is good.
Another thesis maintains that the present-day capitalism “lives by the exploitation of unreal needs.” However, this is the best of the half-truth. The “consumer terror” is more related to or corresponds to the “prejudices of the middle class.” The mass consumption is based on the falsification of the consumer needs, and a socialist movement is required to understand these needs seriously and make them “politically productive.” Enzensberger further adds that the socialist and their regimes themselves becomes an accomplice of the system they have undertaken to fight by rejecting the needs of the masses on grounds of falsification.
In short, for the emancipatory use of media, we need to decentralize the system, mobilize the masses, and introduce a participation and feedback.
The Subversive Power of the New Media
Everyone in the international class struggle recognizes the underlying power of media. Frantz Fanon, a French psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary said that the transistor receiver was one of the most important weapons in the third world’s fight for freedom. Through this statement, we come to know about the immense potential of media. There are enormous political and cultural energies hidden in the masses. With their imagination and freedom, they can harness the opportunities offered by the new media.
Enzensberger considers Walter Benjamin as the most prescient harbinger of the potential that new media encompass. Benjamin predicted media’s liberating and destructive powers. He outlines the reciprocal correlation between the author and the masses: the former should be the agent of the latter, while the masses need to become authors themselves.” Enzensberger adds that the apolitical groups have shown much more radical progress in dealing with media than any political group, be it Leftist or Marxists. This is further proven in the understanding of media by Marshall McLuhan. He saw media as the extension of man, which—the extension thesis—alters the patterns of interdependence among people, as it alters the
ratios among our senses. He proclaimed that “new
forms of media transform our experience of ourselves and our society, and this
influence is ultimately more important than the content that is transmitted in its
specific messages.” In other words, all technologies are
extensions of our powers and capabilities. Our technologies are means of enhancing
or amplifying a particular function that has use to us – whether for good or for bad
(extensions and amputations).”
McLuhan’s “medium is message” transmits yet another message, and indeed an important one. It tell us that the bourgeoisie does indeed have all possible means at its disposal to communicate, but the fact is it has nothing more left to say. Enzensberger says that it is ideologically sterile and incapable of making any appropriate use of media.
The Achievement of Benjamin
“The idea of the self-sufficient work of art collapsed long ago.” Enzensberger talks about the work of Benjamin:
“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 …”
Supersession of Written Culture and Desacralization of Art
Towards the end of the essay, Enzensberger talks about the “deeper theoretical positioning.” He says that without the conscious manipulation, the use of the new media is inconceivable. This puts forth a challenge to printed word. The author becomes a part of a group who produce the new media.
The new media create programs. They, to a certain extent pose a challenge the old category of works of art as objects. The “author” as such falls into this old category. “In order not to lose his or her expertise yet overcome the elitism inherent in the role, he/she must engage in reciprocal labor with the masses.” In the process, the specialist will learn as much or more from the non-specialists as the other way round. Only then one can contrive to make oneself dispensable to a field or domain.
Open for Discussion
Many of the observations which Enzensberger has made in the essay have been realized. Media has transformed into a role of a producer/creator, well almost. What I want to put forward for discussion is that if we apply the term ‘politics’ in its broadest sense, what sort of politics are today’s new media capable of subverting or is subverting for that matter. Also, how is digitization of media helping people to transform from non-specialists to specialist, is the media helping them to be dispensable or still is concentrating the power into the hands of bourgeoisie?
Fact: “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.”
- Contemporaries include Günter Grass (born in 1927), Martin Walser (1927) and Jürgen Habermas (1929).
- The Consciousness Industry, On Literature, Politics and the Media, A Continuum Book, The Seabury Press, New York, Edition 1974
- The Consciousness Industry, Essay The Industrialization of Mind, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, 1974
- Bertoit Brecht, Theory of Radio (1932), Gesammelte Werke, Band VIII, pp, 129 ff, 134