- Politics and Social Issues
The Internalization of Media Content and Hegemony
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
The sovereignty of the mind?
Hans Magnus Enzensberger paints a pretty grim picture of our ability to control our own minds. In his article, “The Industrialization of the Mind,” he states very clearly who is not in charge—“No illusion,” he writes, “is more stubbornly upheld than the sovereignty of the mind.” (68) But what force, real or ideal, can take our mind from us? The media. However, Enzensberger believes, needs to be treated as a whole rather than several separate and distinct things:
“Newsprint, films, television, public relations tend to be evaluated separately, in terms of their specific technologies, conditions, and possibilities. Every new branch of the industry starts off a new crop of theories. Hardly anyone seems to be aware of the phenomenon as a whole: the industrialization of the human mind. This is a process which cannot be understood by a mere examination of its machinery.” (68)
What the consciousness industry—a much more descriptive term than “the media”—do is take the products of creativity and imagination and turn them into immaterial products—stories, shows, movies—dedicated to reproducing the status quo, or, if you prefer Marxism with your media, attempt to guarantee the reproduction of the means of production. Enzensberger, again:
“The mind industry can take on anything, digest it, reproduce it, and pour it out. Whatever our minds can conceive of is grist to its mill; nothing will leave it unadulterated: it is capable of turning any idea into a slogan and any work of the imagination into a hit.” (69)
The consciousness industry
Does the media create the conditions for the maintenance of the status quo?
Theories of the mediums
All elements of the media—public relations, newspapers, television, radio, billboards, the slogan on a t-shirt—work together to produce consciousness but are studied, often, as individual phenomenon. Being someone who has studied and taught media for a living (it’s not bad—the pay would be better if I were an engineer or economist, but being Dr. TV gives me a little more credibility with students), I can say that yes, Enzensberger is correct. We have theories about how ideology is transferred from sender to receiver (Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding), theories that say that television has a fast effect (Albert Bandura’s Social Modeling Theory) or a slow effect (George Gerbner’s Cultivation Effects of Media), theories (probes to be more precise) that deal with how technologies shape us (Uncle Marshall McLuhan, ladies and gentlemen) and theories that walk, talk, blink and run a temperature (no, wait—that’s Rudolph). But what we don’t have, and probably never will, is a theory or set a theories that incorporate all media. A theory of that size may be too big to offer anything more than the same vague generalities you get from the Psychic Friends Hotline.
The closest thing to an all-encompassing single theory of the media is Gerbner’s work on cultivation. The media, as a whole, cultivate us, the gentle viewers, to the surrounding society. The consciousness industry reproduces the norms, expectations, laws and mores of that society. It offers concrete answers to everyday problems—buy this! No problem that we, the hapless and helpless, have cannot be solved by adopting an ideology or product which, the consciousness industry, quite helpfully, promotes. The only answers that it does not put forward, even though it maintains the status quo, is religion. Enzensberger points out that the metaphysical concerns of religion is focused on the otherworldly and acts as a buffer to the consumerist message produced by the consciousness industry. But do not worry, gentle readers, a strand of theological thought now includes retsyn®—the prosperity gospel says that God (or other metaphysical entity of your choice) wants you to have stuff! Someone has dipped their capitalism into my theology, and it has ruined both of them (but that is the topic of another post. . . ).
Note: While it does not really rise to the level of a theory, Douglas Rushkoff book Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say provides a nice account of how inescapable the media and its messages are. Go read it—I’ll wait. . .
Education and the Consciousness Industry
The scariest aspect of Enzensberger’s theory—and I think he is right about a lot of things—is what he says about education. If he is right, we are priming whole generations for their own personal mind work:
“The language laboratory and the closed- circuit TV are only the forerunners of a fully industrialized educational system which will make use of increasingly centralized programming and of recent advances in the study of learning. In that process, education will become a mass media, the most powerful of all, and a billion-dollar business.” (70)
Blackboard--a popular LMS
I see these technologies pushed every single day (I just have to check my e-mail). All of the major publishers are offering multimedia versions of their texts that can be incorporated into learning management systems (LMS for those of you who prefer acronyms). Some of these systems are proprietary to a specific publishers. Others work with several publishers to aid in incorporating material. All extol the virtues of such systems—after all, we want to make the most efficient use of student’s limited study time (or so the literature from company A tells me) and that this software (company B) states that the student can have their “reading experience” contoured (“massaged?”) by a special algorithm. (Wait, if this is “mind work,” where is the work?)
The main threat in these technologies is not the content—it tends to be of good quality—but in presenting the content in the manner that it becomes “the” complete answer. Books and magazines—the actual physical objects (remember those?)—at least offers other options even as they are part of the consciousness industry. Time’s coverage not doing it for you? Mother Jones has our back. The book you found not reaching you? The next one on the library shelf might. You may not choose to avail yourself to these options, but they are there. The book embedded into the LMS does not offer these choices. All of the auxiliary materials—videos, quizzes and discussion questions—are woven seamlessly into the technology and serve to reinforce the text. “See”, the LMS says, “there are simple answers!” Critique—why bother? It doesn’t grade ell and, hey, that YouTube video already provided it for me! <sigh>
Technology and Education
Does technology in education stifle critique?
The technology itself does not necessarily extend, content-wise, the needs of the establishment. What the technology does do is prime the young mind (especially) to expect answers to be provided by the technology. No need to seek out other opinions; they will be provided to you, pro and con, message and rebuttal (keep reading for more on this. It’s worth it, I promise).
I Give Up!
A personal note (if you will indulge me one): I am writing this while listening to people extolling the virtues of new corporate sponsored learning. Or, in other words, lets create the next generation of people to continue the machinery necessary to continue the machinery. Critical thought? Only if it saves money, produces intellectual goods, increases donations and doesn’t question the basic assumptions you should already agree with. Want to really screw up the presenters of these programs? Ask them IF rather than WHY we should do this. The former asks for the basis for the program, the latter the instrumental reason of the program. The former is infinitely harder.
Who's Writing this Crap?
“The mind industry's main business and concern is . . . to "sell" the existing order, to perpetuate the prevailing pattern of man's domination by man, no matter who runs the society, and by what means. Its main task is to expand and train our consciousness - in order to exploit it.” (72)
This is perhaps the second scariest part of Enzensberger’s theory—when you rush to the ship bridge to see the captain you find an empty wheelhouse. The consciousness industry has been established and set into motion—who is there to stop or guide it? If you answered “no one,” give yourself two points. If you said Bill Gates, return to the top and re-read. Hans?
“Certainly it is not the intellectuals who control the industrial establishment, but the establishment which controls them. There is precious little chance for the people who are productive to take over their means of production: this is just what the present structure is designed to prevent.” (74)
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
The Great your-least-favorite-group-here Conspiracy
Who is the establishment? Short of a conspiracy of global political and business leaders, or a 1960’s garage band, there really is no one group you can point to as “the establishment.” At best, the establishment needs to be understood as those groups and industries that benefit from the current political and economic conditions. Today, it is easier for corporations to maintain the status quo since 1) there are fewer corporations that own more more parts of the consciousness industry than ever before and 2) there are fewer political parties, especially in the United States, and each party is more . . . influenced . . . by corporations wishing to maintain the status quo. The space for dissent is limited. How limited? Mr. Enzensberger, if you please:
“The truth is that no one can nowadays express any opinion at all without making use of the industry, or rather, without being used by it. There are many who feel revolted at the thought of entering a studio or negotiating with the slick executives who run the networks. They detest, or profess to detest, the very machinery of the industry, and would like to withdraw into some abode of refinement. Of course, no such refuge really exists.” (74)
Dissent? Let's Run With It!
All dissent comes through or from inside the establishment. The establishment hopes to be able to diffuse any critique by legitimizing it. The critique loses any type of emancipatory power since it is under control by the same establishment that is airing it. Brilliant!! But by legitimizing it, the establishment risks having the critique to, possibly find root in the wider consciousness. The establishment risks releasing a virus against itself through its own industry. The risk is great by the person espousing the belief; the risk is equally great for the mind industry itself. Enzensberger says it is a risk the intellectual needs to take:
“It might be a better idea to enter the dangerous game, to take and calculate our risks. Instead of innocence, we need determination. We must know very precisely the monster we are dealing with, and we must be continually on our guard to resist the overt or subtle pressures which are brought to bear on us.” (75)
Social Media--Self-Consciousness Factory
The mind industry has greatly expanded since Enzensberger published his ideas in 1974 due to new technolgies. Social media is the most recent innovation of communication technology. Unlike the traditional media, social media—Facebook, Twitter, blogging—allow for all individuals, not just intellectuals (thank God!), to provide content. Has “the establishment,” the industries and political groups who thrive in the current economic conditions, co-opted everyone into the process? Has the consciousness industry morphed into the self-consciousness industry, making the user both the oppressor and the oppressed? Has “the establishment” cut off all means, both internal and external, of dissent?
Social media is hard to discuss because it is extremely contradictory. Let’s use Facebook as an example. You post about your day on the platform. Facebook then attempts to use that post to monetize you. This is primarily done through targeting your interests—the stuff you post about—through advertising. Log back on and you will find something that deals with your last post for sale.
Dissent and Social Media
Do social media sites like Facebook provide an avenue for dissent?
Facebook is Your Friend--Just Ask It!
Everything about Facebook is there to entice you to post—certainly you want your friends and family to know how you are doing (without actually having to talk to them—bonus!). Those stories, photos and videos you share because you think they are funny, touching or sad (or did an algorithm “think” you would think they were funny, touching or sad)—you want to build a community, right? We won’t even touch the “engage or die” mantra of the social zealots (much less the zealots themselves). Are you duped by a false need to share? Does this make you a consciousness worker drone, no matter how oxymoronic that sounds? Or have you executed free will? What about blogging—active dissent or cog in the machine (wait . . . what)? Has the consciousness industry drafted everyone into the factory of the mind?
I Wish I Knew . . .
I believe that when “the establishment” overreaches—that is, when they attempt to take too much power, control or capital—there is a window of opportunity for change within the existing system. When the establishment attempts to deny or curtail rights to individuals or groups, a critical mass can form around that issue, forcing the establishment to give ground on that issue in order to maintain the rest of the system.
I wish I had more concrete answers but I fear we haven’t even figure out the correct questions to ask . . .