PRINT January 1983


Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Critical Essays

From one perspective, in Critical Essays Hans Magnus Enzensberger is attacking cultural clichés, especially those that occur by and in language. Cliché: “Art concerns, allows, comes from purity of mentality or of the human soul.” “What is going on in our minds has always been, and will always be, a product of society” (page 1). Mind has always been shaped; remember that in Western civilization culture—or that which historians recognize as culture—coming from anywhere but the more privileged classes is a fairly recent human invention. Only now the mind is considered to be a temple. The forces that shape it are hidden. “Only when the processes that shape our minds become opaque, enigmatic, inscrutable for the common man, only with the advent of civilization, did the question of how our minds are shaped arise in earnest. The mind-making industry is really a product of the last hundred years” (page 4).

Right now the mind or cultural industry holds the central position in the power conglomerate. What are the ramifications of this situation? One ramification: the focus of culture is control rather than creation: “Consciousness, however false, can be induced and reproduced by industrial means, but it cannot be industrially produced” (pages 4 – 5). In these terms an artwork's value is no longer (its) “truth” or (its) “essence”—an art object—but how it contextually fits into and modifies the rest of the industry. “Truth” and “essence” are outdated values.“ . . . To criticize the industry from the vantage point of a ‘liberal education’ and to raise comfortable outcries against its vulgarity will neither change it nor revive the dead souls of culture . . . The indictment of the mind industry on purely esthetic grounds will tend to obscure its larger social and political meaning” (page 5). “The mind industry's main business and concern is not to sell its product; it is to sell the existing order, to perpetuate the prevailing pattern of man's dominion by man, no matter who runs the society and no matter by what means . . . The material pauperization of the last century is followed and replaced by the immaterial pauperization of today” (pages 10 – 11). So Creation occupies an ever smaller part of the industry.

Its main section, obviously, is education. “Up to now it has not managed to seize control of its most essential sphere, education” (page 6). Thomas Jefferson: “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to George Wythe, August 13, 1786, in The Portable Thomas Jefferson, New York: Viking Press, 1976). In all highly industrialized nations today it is the middle class that has cultural hegemony: “It invents ideologies, sciences, technologies . . . art and fashion, philosophy and architecture, criticism and design” (Enzensberger, page 230). Cliché: ''The middle class is powerless because it neither controls nor possesses what really matters, the means of production, and because it doesn't create surplus value.“ Corollary cliché: ”Artists are powerless." A cliché is actually a tool those in power are using to maintain territorial domain.

One of the mind industry's main tools is language. If the center of what I call “real language” or communication or breath is poetry, the only way the mind industry can use language is to change such living language or poetry into one-way monologue, into advertisement. Both Walter Benjamin, Enzensberger's acknowledged influence, and Karl Kraus worked mainly on attacking the deadness of language. Clichés: “No one reads poetry anymore. Books are outdated. Even if someone still reads, the marketplace now so controls literature, nothing good can get published.” But aren't these statements true? Clichés that work, of course, are true.

If “poetry” is that which is packaged as poetry—the slim little volume of good ragpaper—if poetry is that which is taught to be poetry in the schools, then of course such clichés are true. Literature or the creating of more books or good writing—writing according to various formal rules—is what schools teach us to stop us from writing what we need want to. But if poetry is breath and life, it has to be simply whatever language is restoring breath to life. Whatever its forms. Poetry is by nature antagonistic to the political controllers. In this culture in which various verbal and other forms of control are constantly deluging our minds, the only possible poetry is that which destroys and cleans out.

Apply these arguments to the other art functions. “'For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an even 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 . . .'” (Enzensberger, quoting WaIter Benjamin from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” page 69). (When I saw the show Diego Cortez curated for the Marlborough Gallery last spring, I noted that the majority of the original objects on the gallery walls looked better as reproductions in his catalogue.) Obviously visual artists in these cases, in the case of conceptualism, etc., have been moving from product to process in accordance with history. But how conscious is each of these artists of why he or she is working this way? In other words, what are the artist's politics (in the work)? I'm not talking about propaganda. Here is the determining factor of our art's value or meaning.

Two- (or more-)way communication is now technologically but not politically feasible on a mass scale: "The technical distinction between transmitters and receivers reflects the so-called social division of labor into producers and consumers, which in the consciousness industry . . . is based, in the last analysis, on the basic contradiction between the ruling class and the ruled class” (page 48). Any functional analysis of communication must be an analysis of power. Just as we can't get rid of the industrial life, so we can't eradicate power.

The existence of every nation historically has been and is predicated not on power, but on one-way power or, precisely, on the nation's ability “to decide the death or life of the individual” (page 98). Neither Hitler nor Auschwitz was a historical anomaly, but rather a norm: the existence of the state depends on its ability to legislate death. “'A crime is a sin, consisting in the committing, by deed or word, of that which the law forbiddeth, or the omission of what it has commanded'” (Enzensberger, quoting Thomas Hobbes from Leviathan, page 94). “The oldest permanent court of law of Roman history was a special court that only acted in cases of treason” (page 81). Historically decisions regarding human good and evil have and do depend on their political contexts. Treason is the crime of crimes and “is nothing but the juristic name for revolution” (page 87). What does such a situation have to do with art? Language. The definitions of even the words we use—“good,” “bad,” “crime,” etc.—have been and are being politically determined.

The result for us of living with language that controls rather than communicates, for communication is life, is that we don’t know what we know and we don’t know if we know. The spy story is our literary representation.

It's absurd for me to accept that another person knows what's in my mind or is my mind more than I do. Artists aren't concerned with the abolition of power but with the restoration of self-power or the ability to know.

What, then, is “revolution”? “Terror . . . infiltration, subversion, undermining, conspiracy, stab in the back” (page 140)? “Is there still a ruling class? . . . Is there still an intellectual opposition?” (page 142). Do we the middle class have power? What does anything mean? “In reality we live in a permanent state of war” (page 146). Just as the state tries to be the one existent who's not subject to change, we've been taught to desire changelessness, security of identity. “In recent times even seemingly ambiguous, blind, yes nonsensical, acts by the smallest groups have provoked occurrences that had the effect of a bugle call” (page 151). Rather than promoting overall theories and structures, Enzensberger suggests we fit each means to each situation.

Kathy Acker


Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Critical Essays, edited by Reinhold Grimm and Bruce Armstrong, foreword by John Simon (New York: Continuum Publishing Co.), 250 pages.