Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Enzensberger on Terrorism

Last month I wrote that I was first drawn to Hans Magnus Enzensberger through his study of the bomb-throwing anarchists of the late nineteenth century, entitled "Dreamers of the Absolute;" and, in Michael Roloff's anthology, Politics and Crime, which included this study, I first became aware of Enzensberger's theories about a "consciousness industry." This was all in reaction to my learning that the private sector of India's "knowledge economy" was providing itself with its own "well-armed paramilitary troops" in reaction to the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. This led me to return to Enzensberger's take on what motivates terrorism in the first place. The following passage from Part II of "Dreamers of the Absolute" seems relevant:

Individual terror is based on the conviction that history is made by emperors, kings, and presidents; a conviction that is shared by emperors, kings, and presidents. No bomb thrower can change the great and anonymous social forces: the technical and industrial potential, the aggregate conditions of the classes, the relationships of wealth to the lack of it and the administrative apparatus. It is for this reason that no modern assassin has become truly famous; even the two gunmen of Sarajevo were only pawns in a larger game. The actions of bomb throwers remain anecdotal.

This view of the late nineteenth century contrasts with current conditions in some interesting ways. In the brave new world of globalization, emperors and kings have been replaced by chief executive officers; and presidents are more beholden to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund than they are to their constituents. Those "anonymous social forces" persist; but the targets of frustration and rage have shifted. Meanwhile, the media have given the terrorists a greater crack at fame, usually for more than Andy Warhol's allotment of fifteen minutes. Thus, the leaders of al-Qaeda are as concerned with "media presence," consistent with consciousness industry principles, as they are with their ideological positions.

Also, Enzensberger is not as dismissive of that final sentence in the above quotation as one might think. He begins his next paragraph as follows:

Anecdotes, however, if they have a fine point, can be more expressive than whole volumes.

It seems to me that one of the consequences of consciousness industry thinking is that such anecdotes can be just as expressive even when their points are blunt, if not downright slovenly. I happened to come across a remark by Dame Judi Dench that today's actors are so concerned with "expression" that they no longer master the nuts and bolts of basic acting technique. This seems corollary to a media industry determined to get volumes of coverage out of anecdotes without worrying about more mundane matters like accurate description and comprehensive exposition. In other words the consciousness industry fertilizes the ground for the terrorists, all in the interests of their own business growth!

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