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Attila Kotányi
Is There Any Media Criticism That Isn't Suicidal?

Presented at MetaForum III. Under Construction, Budapest Content Conference, Oct. 1996

I tried to refuse Janos Sugar's invitation since I feared that the media appears to me in a color far too critical even for a conference with a critical disposition to consider worth discussing. The reason for my being over-tense is to be found nowhere else but in my biography. I have lived in three dreadful dictatorships, the rise of two of which I have personally eye and ear witnessed among the wing flutters of the media. Theoreticians of early Italian fascism and Futurists like Marinetti pointed already at the eve of World War I to what an effect a single loudspeaker mounted on an open van where the speakers stood addressing the audience could produce. You could attract crowds even in a small town.

Of course, I didn't see and hear this myself, unlike the dictatorship of Horthy, who organized after the lesson of this Italian fiasco the counter-revolution that knocked down the Soviet Republic in Hungary [1] in 1919. Then, I lived through Hitler and Stalin's media policy at a rather woke up age. And moreover I am and have been a resident citizen of the media paradise of the liberal market of post-war Germany for 30 years. Since even its functioning depends on power centres, political and economic disposition junctions, so this is the third dictatorship: the liberal western European and partly American Cold War media world, which I have been and I am an intensive customer of. Until 1961 I myself was the colleague of the editor-in-chief of a French avant-garde magazine, called _ Situationiste International _. The magazine later became more famous, since most of the slogans of the students' movements of 1968 came from us. Our slogans were against the authoritarian state, family, and school, and against the media which served the settled down general conditions. Since then the general situation in Europe has shown similarities to the United States. There are remarkable similarities in social and production relations also including the contradictions between them, as it would be formulated by the classical Marxist literature.

The most eminent of these contradictions refers to the media which embody such a new form of power that it lies outside the three old spheres of power, without the separation of which modern democracy does not exist. All the dreadful political and repressive systems of this century have exploited the misuse of language and images and their respective power. After their takeover in 1938, Hitler and Goering had people's radios manufactured by assembly lines, so that all the families could listen to the Fuehrer's speeches. And they did listen to them, indeed. Later at a table conversation Hitler said, "Everything I have achieved, I achieved by persuasion." As we know, the secret lies in multiplication by a million times, simultaneity, and organisation. The practice of social and political life moves to a stage which is audible in every flat and visible in every cinema. I blame Hitler's critics for not admitting his superior awareness concerning the power of language. Although the message of the Bible is also the renewal of this knowledge. On earth, all power is given to the live, spoken word. This is evangelism, the good news.

The media of dictatorships repeat and animate the dead words and images of their own ideologies so that they seem to be alive. They do this persistently. Until the very last hour of their fall. Unless recognising and bitterly admitting what is mentioned above, we are supposed to listen to several pretentious explanations and fabrications about the origins of Nazi and Bolshevik power.

Once Arnold Gehlen, a conservative sociologist, was asked about his opinion on to what extent the media affect social life. He said, nobody can estimate it. Today, after 50 years this is commonplace.

Now I would like to point out that the criticism of my French magazine against the media ended in total failure, because after 1968 the media started to proclaim the same things about themselves that the magazine had previously criticised them for. The media pretended to place self-criticism on their agenda.

I had foreseen that the roles could be changed if criticism weren't much more philosophical, more biblical, and more personal than it had been in our case. What I hadn't foreseen was that Guy Debord, the editor-in-chief of the magazine and a friend of mine at that time, wouldn't be willing to talk to me at all about this. 20 years later he committed suicide. Voila, here is the corpse of a media criticism association nicely laid out for you. With the details I am at your service with pleasure.

Is there any media criticism that isn't suicidal? Is there any control system that doesn't mean rough censorship? I think these questions have a common root.

Well, that criticism is not suicidal that doesn't contradict itself, that doesn't do the same things it criticises. It can be simply a conversation between two or three people, looking for the living word and excluding the service of any other interest. Corporate organisations that supervise program distribution in today's liberal european states, and whose existence is otherwise very much deserved, should not be present at all, not even in a hidden form. It is difficult to find an example of this ideal media criticism because it occurs quite rarely in practice.

Let's look for the solution then, without making false compromises. A good example could be one of the German state standards, which defines the quality of drinking water. The rule prescribes that "drinking water should be oriented in the quality of spring water."

Well, media criticism that does not end up in self-contradiction, nor clash of interests, must be orientated in the dialogue of poets and wise men, anyway two or three people. This would be the standard.

The Hungarian nation hadn't believed anyone regarding public affairs for centuries, except for the poets who spoke the nation's own language. People knew very well why they had to turn to Janos Arany.

In today's practice the best way of criticism seems to be that heard on the Bartok Radio news section the other day. The announcer said that the government of the United States hopes that by the end of the century every American family would be connected to the Internet. The next piece of news: a great amount of pornographic videotapes downloaded from the Internet were confiscated in Belgrade. The topic of tapes was the sexual utilisation of three-year-old children.


The media serve the administrative focal points of liberal democracies, and there isn't any other way to find other rich sources to finance their very expensive functioning.

This servile dependence is the reason why it is almost impossible to criticise them. This dependence has a nature similar to the arguments between corporations and political parties on the market, and so it is useless to expect that electronically transmitted images and words can enjoy greater independence than the parties in these market arguments. The limit of the above mentioned expectations is valid to the continuous critique of the continuous broadcast and to the control of the chosen issues.

Consequently, among the given liberal conditions the so called moral responsibility of the media tends to be zero. But, of course, never reaches it. I can state it as a philosopher of law [2].

Pope John Paul II considers the media the blessing of God, because they connect people. I join to this statement, but it must be added that we should include all the slavery of this century in this blessing. What theologians have called grace is such a paradoxical thing.

[1] Temporary leftist dictatorship lasted 133 days in 1919. The successful counterrevolution was lead by Miklos Horthy who remained in power until 1945.

[2] Their culpability lies only in the structural distortion of communication, as the philosophers of the Linguistic turn, Rosenstock-Huessi, Levinas and Brumlick, would say.

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