Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Constituents of a Theory of the Media (1970)

Originally printed in the New Left Review, no. 64, 1970, pp. 13-36.

Potentialities of communication media
“For the first time in history, the media are making possible mass participiation in a social and socialized productive process, the practical means of which are in the hands of the masses themselves. Such a use of them would bring the communications media, which up to now have not deserved the name, into their own. In its present form, equipment like television or film does not server communication but prevents it. It allows no reciprocal action between transmitter and receiver /…/
This state of affairs, however, cannot be justified technically. On the contrary. Electronic techniques recognize no contradiction in principle between transmitter and receiver. Every transistor radio is, by the matters of its construction, at the same time a potential transmitter; it can interact with other receivers by circuit reversal. The development from a mere distribution medium to a communications medium is technically not a problem. It is consciously prevented for understandable political reasons. The technical distinction between receivers and transmitters reflects the social division of labor into producers and consumers.”

“The radio wars of the 1950s demonstrated that in the realm of communications, national sovereignty is condemned to wither away. The further development of satellites will deal it the coup the grâce. Quarantine regulations for information, such as were promulgated by Fascism and Stalinism, are only possible today at the cost of deliberate industrial regression.
Example. The Soviet bueraucracy, that is to sat the most widespread and complicated bueraucracy in the world, has to deny itself almost entirely an elementary piece of organizational equipment, the duplicating machine, because this instrument potentially makes everyone a printer. /…/ It is clear that Soviet society has to pay an immense price for the suppression of its own productive resources – clumsy procedures, misinformations, faux frais.”

Against unionist interpretations of media
“There is the danger of underestimating growing conflicts in the media field, of neutralizing them, of interpreting them merely in terms of trade unionism or liberalism, on the lines of traditional labor struggles or as the clash of special interests /…/ An appreciation of this kind does not go far enough and remains bogged down in tactical arguments.”

Contradiction
“the contradiction between the present constitution of the media and their revolutionary potential /…/ leads, subjectively, 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.”

Manipulation?
“The New Left of the 1960s has reduced the development of the media to a single concept – that of manipulation. /…/ it now threatens to degenerate into a mere slogan which conceals more than it is able to illuminate /…/
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 electronic media do away with cleanliness; they are by their nature ‘dirty’. That is part of their productive power. In terms of structure, they are antisecterian – a further reason why the Left /…/ has little idea what to do with them. The desire for a cleanly defined ‘line’ and for the suppression of ‘deviations’ is anachronistic and now serves only one’s own need for security. /…/
It often seems as if it were precisely because of their progressive potential that the media are felt to be an immense threatening power, because for the first time they present a basic challenge to bourgeois culture”

“At the very beginning of the student revolt, during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, the computer was a favorite target for aggression.”

“Manipulation – ethymologically, ‘handling’ – means technical treatment of a given material with a particular goal in mind. /…/
Thus every use of the media presupposes manipulation. /…/ There is no such thing as unmanipulated writing, filming or broadcasting. /…/ A revolutionary plan should not require the manipulators to disappear; on the contrary, it must make everyone a manipulator.”

“An all-too-widely disseminated thesis maintains that present-day capitalism lives by the exploitation of unreal needs. /…/ A socialist movement ought not to denounce these needs, but take then seriously, investigate them, and make them politically productive. /…/
These desires are not – or are not primarily – internalized rules of the game as played by the capitalist system. They have physiological roots and can no longer be suppressed. Consumption as spectacle is – in parody form – the anticipation of a utopian situation. /…/
‘Open spaces’ and ‘free time’ are concepts which corral and neutralize the urgent wishes of the masses.”

“Intellectual property”, producers and consumers
“The new media are oriented toward action, not contemplation; /…/ 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. The media produce no objects that can be hoarded and auctioned. They do away completely with ‘intellectual property’ /…/
It is wrong to regard media equipment as mere means of consumption. It is always, in principle, also means of production /…/
The contradiction between producers and consumers is not inherent in the electronic media; on the contrary, it has to be artificially reinforced by economic and administrative measures. /…/
– the prevailing laws for control of the air are anachronistic. They recall the time when the operation of a printing pres was depentent on an imperial license.”

“It has long been clear from apparatus like miniature and 8 mm movie cameras, as well as the tape recorder, which are in actual fact already in the hands of the masses, that the individual, so long as he remains isolated, can become with their help at best an amateur but not a producer. Even so potent a means of production as the shortwave transmitter has been tamed in this way and reduced to a harmless and inconsequential hobby in the hands of scattered radio hams. /…/
Any socialist strategy for the media must, on the contrary, strive to end the isolation of the individual participants from the social learning and production process. /…/ Anyone who expects to be emancipated by technological hardware, or by a system of hardware however structured, is the victim of an obscure belief in progress.”

Georg Lukács as example of a reactionary position
“‘Anything that culture produces’ can, according to Lukács, ‘have real value only if it is in itself valuable, if the creation of each individual product is from the standpoint of its maker and a single, finite proces. It must, however, be a proces conditioned by the human potentialities and capabilities of the creator. The most typical example of such a process is the work of art, where the entire genesis of the work is exklusively the result of the artist’s labor /…/ In 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.’ /…/
These nostalgic backward glances at the landscape of the last century, these reactionary ideals, are already the forerunners of socialist realism, which mercilessy galvanized and then buried those very ‘cultural values’ which Lukács rode out to rescue.”

On the N.Y. avantgarde and McLuhan
“From the Cabaret Voltaire to Andy Warhol’s Factory, /…/ the apolitical have made much more radical progress in dealing with the media than any grouping of the Left. /…/ Today this apolitical avant-garde has found its ventriloquist and prophet in Marshall McLuhan, an author who admittedly lacks any analytical categories for the understanding of social processes, but whose confused books serve as a quarry of undigested observations for the media industry. /…/
This charlatan’s most famous saying – ‘the medium is the message’ – perhaps deserves more attention. In spite of its provocative idiocy, it betrays more than its author knows. /…/
The complementary mistake consists in the widespread illusion that media are neutral instruments by which any ‘messages’ one pleases can be transmitted without regard for their structure or for the structure of the medium. In the East European countries the television newsreaders read fifteen-minute long conference communiqués and Central Committee resolutions which are not even suitable for printing in a newspaper, clearly under the delusion that they might fascinate a public of millions.
The sentence, ‘the medium is the message’, transmits yet another mesage, however, and a much more important one. It tells us that the bourgeoisie does indeed have all possible means at its disposal to communicate something to is, but that it has nothing more to say. /…/ It wants the media as such and to no purpose.
This wish has been shared for decades and given symbolical expression by an artistic avant-garde whose program logically admits only the alternative of negative signals and amorphous noise. Example: the already outdated ‘literature of silence’, Warhol’s films in which every thing can happen at once or nothing at all, and John Cage’s forty-five-minute-long Lecture on Nothing (1959).”

Writing and talking
“Written literature has, historically speaking, played a dominant role for only a few centuries. /…/ Now it is being succeeded by the age of the electronic media, which tend once more to make people speak. /…/
The formalization of written language permits and encourages the repression of opposition. In speech, unresolved contradictions betray themselves by pauses, hesitations, slips of the tongue, repetitions, anacoluthons, quite apart from phrasing, mimicry, gesticulation, pace, and volume. The aesthetic of written literature scorns such involuntary factors as ‘misdirections’. It demands, explicitly or implicitly, the smoothing out of contradictions, rationalization, regularization of the spoken form irrespective of content. /…/
Structurally, the printed book is a medium that operates as a monologue, isolating producer and reader. /…/
None of the characteristics that distinguish written and printed literature apply to the electronic media. Microphone and camera abolish the class character of the mode of production (not of the production itself). /…/
As at present constituted, radio, film, and television are burdened to excess with authoritarian characteristics, the characteristics of the monologue, which they have inherited from older methods of production – and that is no accident. These outworn elements in today’s media aesthetics are demanded by the social relations. They do not follow from the structure of the media. On the contrary, they go against it, for the structure demands interaction.”

Original and reproduction, document and fiction
“In the productions of the consciousness industry, the difference between the ‘genuine’ original and the reproduction disappears /…/ Strictly speaking, it has shrunk to its legal dimensions. A document is something the ‘forging’ – that is, the reproduction – of which is punishable by imprisonment. This definition naturally has no theoretical meaning. The reason is that a reproduction, to the extent that its technical quality is good enough, cannot be distinguished in any way from the original, irrespective of whether it is a painting, a passport, or a blank note. The legal concept of the documentary record is only pragmatically useful, it serves only to protext economic interests.
The productions of the electronic media, by their nature, evade such distinctions as those between documentary and feature films. They are in every case explicitely determined by the given situation. The producer can never pretend, like the traditional novelist, ‘to stand above things’. He is therefore partisan from the start. This fact finds formal expression in his techniques. Cutting, editing, dubbing – these are techniques for conscious manipulation without which the use of the new media is inconceivable. /…/ The material, whether ‘documentary’ or ‘fiction’, is in each case only a prototype, a half-finished article, and the more closely one examines its origins, the more blurred the difference becomes. (Develop more precisely. The reality in which a camera turns up is always faked, e.g. the moon landing.)”

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