H. M. Enzensberger: Constituents of a Theory of the Media

In this text Hans Magnus Enzensberger situates new media within social processes and maps out socialist media theory for what he calls consciousness industry.

He condemns Marxists for failing to appropriate the properties of new media. Former Soviet Union under Communist regime is mentioned as a succession of such failures (i.e. the circulation of primitively edited press, books and theatre), 1968 events in Paris also get their share of critique (i.e. the fact that the rebels occupied Odéon Theatre instead of radio headquarters). To sum up, he holds the Left responsible for cultural archaism along with the antagonism of the media.

Enzensberger considers new media as an antidote to bourgeois and capitalist culture as they are innately rebellious and action-focused. There is a clear political line drawn throughout the article and Enzensberger argues that ‘[o]nly a free socialist society will be able to make [structural nature of the new media] fully productive.’ However, in such a society the employment of the media does not originated from individual efforts as they only result in the accumulation of amateur culture: ‘Anyone who imagines that freedom for the media will be established if only everyone is busy transmitting and receiving is the dupe of a liberalism’. Consequently, Enzensberger envisions the potential of new media released by organised participants, namely, ‘non-material variety and mobility’ – the objectives of the mass need.

Apprehending the possibilities of new media (although the attribute ‘new’ is constantly subject to mutation) as political is crucial for Enzensberger, as they are capable of subverting power and this is where Marshall McLuhan is attacked, since he dismissed social processes of the media. In fact, according to Enzensberger, McLuhan depoliticised the media: ‘formulate[d] explicitly a mystique of the media which dissolve[d] all political problems in smoke’.

Enzensberger considers Walter Benjamin as the most prescient harbinger of the potential that new media encompass as he predicted their liberating and even destructive potential, whether the nature of art is being subverted and the author becomes redundant. 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.


I couldn’t help but hear ‘Avanti Popolo’ buzzing in the back of my head while reading the article. However, if we attempt to contextualise Enzensberger’s text outside of leftists politics, the liberating potential of new media remains a relevant statement. To paraphrase the subject of our Tuesday’s class, towards which novel directions  are new media extending us if they do at all? If so, perhaps you could you think of a few examples from your own experience? Furthermore, if we apply the term ‘politics’ in its broadest sense, what sort of politics are today’s new media capable of subverting? Or shall we abide by the previous left-right rupture?

As for ‘Avanti Popolo’, let T.Gatlif speak:


~ by zigelyte on February 14, 2009.

4 Responses to “H. M. Enzensberger: Constituents of a Theory of the Media”

  1. Note that Enzensberger’s term “conciousness industries” (or “consciousness shaping industries” (Bewusstseinsindustrie) is in fact a variation and exacerbation of Horkheimer/Adorno’s term “cultural industries” (Kulturindustrie).

  2. I guess you could say that new media could subvert the political values of the media that Enzensberger describes. If we think of film festivals and photo expositions around material recorded by telephone, this is a chance for everybody to make their own media products/art. Although I doubt this too, because I think that the people actually winning prizes/ being taken up in the catalogue in this are already (promissing) artists. Everybody else then indeed remains only an amateur, no matter how sophisticated the new technology they own.
    On the other hand, we could think of amateur footage that is taken in by the news when there are no official reporters on the spot. Although this footage is then still used to tell the story of the dominant broadcasters.

  3. I think we should have a closer look to the meaning of liberation. Enzensberger talks about liberation of new media in the sense that they would be egalitarian. 6: “The new media are egalitarian in structure. Anyone can take part in them by a simple switching process.” When used in a socialist society, they do away with any monopoly, and would produce instead of the consciousness-industry with its passive consumer behaviour, ‘politically productive needs’ (11).
    Maybe, Enzensberger would consider today’s internet as the most advanced example of democracy. And maybe the most liberating as it is not that centralized, you can interact, send and receive. But I wonder in what ways new media indeed can ‘subvert the power’ in general and not just the capitalist power that E. agitates against.

  4. just a short note on Lotte’s remark about amateurs: isn’t it interesting that in all these texts amateurs are discussed in rather negative terms (this also goes for Horkheimer/Adorno in the text we read for StotA.

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