The man without principles

The career of the great German cultural critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger is a case study in the virtues of intellectual inconsistency.

By James Poniewozik
January 28, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
main article image

German poet and cultural critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger has been likened to Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Rorty and Marshall McLuhan, which I suppose is a nice way of saying that while it would certainly be improving for one to read him, you should not kid yourself that the poor man will ever be nearly as well-known as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Rorty or Marshall McLuhan. And why is German poet and cultural critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger not better known in this country? For starters, he's a German poet and cultural critic. Three strikes: He's 1) a non-North American who 2) works in an uncommercial artistic genre and 3) a hard-to-categorize nonfiction one. But there is probably a deeper reason: Enzensberger, who for decades has been writing engaging, playful, learned essays on politics, media, art, fashion, mathematics and history, is a promiscuous intellect in the best sense. That is, he is a man without a schtick.

Enzensberger spent the Cold War in Europe, the United States and Cuba, observing each culture with fascination and skepticism. (He writes with puzzlement about discovering the language of American promotion whereby even the greasiest diner could unironically claim "world-famous meatballs" -- which could only seem odd to a non-American, for whom "world" is not a strictly metaphorical term.) Above all he wrote political essays unsparing of both capitalists and communists in a period that valued ideologues. Poets make poor ideologues, because you can't count on them for consistency: Political entanglements have frustrated the ambitions of writers like Jorge Luis Borges, and even those who have tried to be good soldiers and surrender the means of artistic production for higher political imperatives have ended unhappily. Ezra Pound took that route to St. Elizabeth's mental hospital; even that dutiful poet of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, ended up performing a fatal self-criticism in 1930, saving Stalin the trouble.


But if this century's monolithic political systems rewarded intellectual rigidity, it's nothing compared with the single-mindedness demanded by today's only world superpower: the global attention market. Where the monoliths demanded loyalty to their principles, the intellectual celebrity system demands only loyalty to your schtick. The market needs a hook. The market needs a handle. The market, even for the university-lecture crowd, needs you to volunteer to be the left-leaning natural-history guy or the Italian semiotics guy. It needs you to select, and stick to, a neatly summarizable public identity and set of issues, preferably brief enough to fit, with your name and telephone number, on a Rolodex card. In "Zig Zag," Enzensberger rejects this, saying that the writer who tries to label his work "will have pinned himself down. He will no longer be a free agent. He will have to stick to his guns, even if he finds that he has no more use for them."

For Enzensberger, inconsistency, unpredictability, is not just a symptom of intellectual curiosity but virtually a moral cause. The 20 essays collected in "Zig Zag," written from 1962 to 1997, are divided into three sections, the first and shortest of which makes up a sort of manifesto of inconsistency. In "Second Thoughts on Consistency," Enzensberger casts the 20th century as one long, horrific series of committed individuals sticking to well-thought-out programs with disastrous results -- sold through slogans like "You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem."

He traces this either/or, our-program-or-theirs type of thinking to the Enlightenment opposition of the ancients and the moderns. Ever since then, he writes, we have looked at history as an endless series of dialectical choices. "Everyone could imagine that he faced a simple choice. He had only to pick one of the two sides -- the ancien régime or the Revolution, the old Adam or the New Man, Right or Left, and then he would be equipped with something he could call a worldview or firm position." In this environment, vacillation can be a kind of heroism: Khruschev and his generals, for instance, saved us from incineration by "throwing overboard the most sacrosanct principles of Marxism-Leninism" during the Cuban Missile Crisis. "Consistency," he writes memorably, "will turn any good cause into a bad one."


It's not difficult to psychologize this philosophy. Enzensberger was born in Germany in 1929 and, as he writes, "Mine is a culture which historically has been prone to believe that to possess principles and to act them out to their utmost consequences is good," starting with the Reformation and ending, well, you know where. And that you-know-where is the starting point for the political examinations that make up the wide-ranging second section of the collection. "Too young to qualify as a full-grown Nazi" but too old to have ignored Nazism, Enzensberger applies its lessons -- chiefly, the destructive power of the Big Idea -- to the world history that follows it. Whether critiquing the IMF and the World Bank or accusing the European Union of being antidemocratic and elitist, Enzensberger is deeply suspicious of any person or organization that thinks it knows best for others: "We are dealing with a supposed European Union that has sixteen members, but excludes more than twenty other nations. That such a community could presume to speak for our continent is absurd."

This view culminates in "The Hero as Demolition Man," which posits a post-ideological European hero, "the hero of retreat": the great leader who dismantles, rather than builds, a great and wrongheaded system, who retreats rather than advances and who is rewarded with unemployment and ignominy rather than a statue on horseback. This new hero class includes Mikhail Gorbachev and Adolfo Suaez, who oversaw the dissolution of the Franco regime in Spain in the 1970s. "Any cretin can throw a bomb," Enzensberger writes. "It is a thousand times more difficult to disarm one." This is a political position characteristic of Enzensberger's lifelong anti-partisanship, but also a limited one, sidestepping the question of what to replace the defused bomb with -- no trivial matter for, say, Russia -- and Enzensberger concludes by suggesting that these principles of "strategic retreat" be applied to "the closure of key industries" for environmental reasons, without any guess at how one could apply lessons from a dictatorial government to amorphous markets in a democracy.

Enzensberger is strongest in the final section, loosely concerning culture and media, where he fully applies his polymath arsenal, intellectual playfulness (one essay is titled "In Praise of the Illiterate") and polyamorous interests. Enzensberger was writing media criticism long before the institutionalization of academic "media studies"; in a remarkably prescient 1962 essay, he argues for considering film, television, public relations and news together as "the mind industry." Almost 40 years ago, he anticipated not only many of today's uses of mass media -- distance learning and mass opinion polling, to name a couple -- but also the later, facile criticism that attacked media as merely oppressive or stultifying. ("Television makes you stupid. No matter how finely spun or crudely worked they appear to be, virtually all current theories of the media come down to this simple statement.") The paradox of mass media, he wrote, is that it relies for its perpetuation on independent and creative thought. "In order to harness the faculties of the human mind, you have to develop them ... In order to exploit people's intellectual, moral, and political faculties, you've got to develop them first ... Criticism of the mind industry which fails to recognize its central ambiguities is either idle or dangerous."


It's a simple message, but one some of Enzensberger's successors haven't learned after two generations: witness the protests that a "National Entertainment State" is violently and irresistibly depriving us of free thought and volition. In 1988's "The Zero Medium; or, Why All Complaints about Television Are Pointless," Enzensberger concisely lays out and coolly demolishes four leading variations on that thesis, namely, that television 1) manipulates our opinions (a belief, he notes, equally attractive to the left and the right), 2) forces us to imitate immoral behavior, 3) destroys our ability to distinguish fantasy from fact and 4) numbs our critical faculties. Enzensberger nails the condescension underlying these theories, deadpanning that their proponent either "makes no use of the media at all, in which case he doesn't know what he's talking about; or he subjects himself to them, and then the question arises, through what miracle he has escaped their effects ... unlike anyone else."

Unlike the slack-jawed zombie of the Entertainment Statists, Enzensberger's couch jockey is "the decisive social figure in [television's] game ... determinedly steering toward a state one can only describe as programlessness." Now, Enzensberger is hardly a "Baywatch"-embracing tele-utopian -- his own critique of the medium is itself sniffy and condescending. At best, he says dryly, television is a content-free "Buddhist machine" useful for the therapeutic annihilation of worldly thoughts. (We're not being lobotomized, we're lobotomizing ourselves!) But after a year's worth of "Truman Show"-inspired fatalism, it's at least a relief to read a television theorist who is actually willing to credit the masses with free will, who refrains from examining the back of his reader's head to point out the corporate thought-control implant.


Well, usually, anyway. In his preface, Enzensberger declares that the effort to sell his little small-press book in the American market is futile: "To ask for an American reader's attention seems preposterous. Is he not a person under the influence, a victim of forces beyond his control? ... The chain store at the nearest shopping mall will save him the trouble and come up with a selection of its own, dearly paid for by the publisher." Perhaps there's a note of irony here; perhaps, when it's your own sales figures you have to justify, that "manipulation thesis" Enzensberger decries among other media critics starts looking more and more attractive.

But one also has to wonder whether Enzensberger has simply become gloomier over time. The first of the essays in "Zig-Zag" appeared early in the Cold War, when world political and cultural issues were defined by borders as clear as the one that divided his country at the Elbe; and many of his essays from before the 1990s seem to feed joyfully off this tension, the delightful circumstance of having two hubristic world monoliths to lay into. Writing in a golden age for political iconoclasm, he anticipated the end of the Cold War dynamic years before it happened; but once it actually occurred, it deprived him of a powerful subject. His preface at least makes it seem like he's decided that one side has finally won absolutely and for good, that we have only to look forward to the thousand-year reich of Barnes and Noble. Perhaps as a result, some of his later pieces sound merely cranky, like "The Street Theater of Rags," about the prevalence of casual wear among the well-to-do -- what should have been a rich topic for him -- where he instead grouses that millionaires dress like bums, young people look like potato sacks and everybody wears ads on their T-shirts nowadays.

Yet the situation that followed the fall of the Communist Bloc -- the great dialectic torn down and ideology discredited -- seems tailored to Enzensberger's intellectual interests. The final essay of the collection, 1995's "The Future of Luxury," beautifully applies his scholarly arsenal and wit to the one-world market of today. Enzensberger looks at how over 2,000 years luxury -- that is, the collection and display of goods not necessary for living -- has spread from the wealthy down to the lowest levels of society. As luxury became more democratic, anti-luxury rhetoric became a backhanded form of elitism; the concept of the crass nouveau riche emerged as the middle classes began to threaten the elites. Conspicuous consumption became ugliest just as more of us became able to practice it.


Coming full circle, today's luxury has become a minimalist one, an idealized peasant life based on access to rare necessities like time, space, quiet, air, attention and security. Where every citizen is Croesus, luxury is an empty loft and a bottle of clean water. The sport-utility vehicle ad sells not the truck but the desolate plateau the truck can drive you to, the urban noise its tinted windows can shut out. Because luxury has never really been about material possessions themselves. It is "an attempt to flee life's monotony and misery." The hitch, he notes, is that this new luxury will elude not only most of the poor but also many of the rich -- the wealthiest and most famous, he notes, "can buy sufficient space and a certain degree of security. But they have no time and no peace." Whereas the elderly and dispossessed will "dispose of their time as they like. But it would be a mockery to call that a privilege."

The future Enzensberger envisions here, in other words, cannot be understood through the traditional antinomies of East-West, right-left, rich-poor, even Coke-Pepsi; a future where wealth is rationalized no longer in Darwinian terms but in moral ones -- where to spend money is to live purely, where you can argue against third world development in the name of environmentalism. It looks to be a future, to borrow the title of an Enzensberger book, of a thousand "civil wars," not only within nations but within social classes, political parties and cultural schools. It should in many ways be a future both scarier and more fun than the old binary arrangement of schism and ism, a future to confound ideologues and to delight the bold and the schtickless.

James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

MORE FROM James Poniewozik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------