Boal, Enzensberger, and Baudrillard

From Gerald R. Lucas

At the conclusion of the selection from Theater of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal writes that the main goal of the theater should be the “liberation of the spectator, on whom the theater has imposed finished visions of the world.”[1] His conclusion is that the spectator becomes a voiceless victim of bourgeois drama, unable to do anything but passively accept visions of the world reflected by the artistic powers-that-be: “The spectator is less then a man and it is necessary to humanize him, to restore to him his capacity of action in all its fullness.”[2] for Boal, the theater is not about catharsis, where all potential action is purged, but about change that begins with the theater: “dramatic action throws light upon real action” by allowing the spectator to become actor and direct the action, not to remain a passive receptacle for others’ perspectives.[2]

Indeed, Baudrillard and Enzensberger are also concerned with people’s ability to respond. By “response,” Baudrillard means an ability to repay so that no one has power over another: “power belongs to the one who can give and cannot be repaid. To give, and to do it in such a way that one is unable to repay, is to disrupt the exchange to your profit and to institute a monopoly.”[3] For Baudrillard, this monopoly is in effect a silencing of opposition. Baudrillard sees us living in an era of non-response that is characterized by current media. He, like Enzensberger, seeks to end this silence by restoring the possibility of response.


Enzensberger, in his essay “Constituents of a Theory of the Media,” seeks to posit a theory of the media, something he sees lacking in current Marxist theory. His project aims to release the “emancipatory potential which is inherent in the new productive forces” of electronic media.[4] For Enzensberger, electronic media have a revolutionary potential that can challenge by forming new connections by giving the common human a tactical advantage in the ownership of these media. Since the use of the media presupposes manipulation, according to Enzensberger, we must therefore make everyone a manipulator.[5] Instead of receiving the media’s messages passively and being manipulated through those messages, Enzensberger sees new media as “oriented towards action, not contemplation; towards the present, not tradition. Their attitude to time is completely opposed to that of bourgeois culture, which aspires to possession, that is to extension in time, best of all, to eternity.”[6] Enzensberger sees new media as helping to form a collective method of production, thus ending the individual’s isolation through the connections formed by these media. Armed with tape recorders and video cameras, wage-earners can illustrate and display social conflict in everyday life and get the community actively engaged in how to best address those problems.[7]

Yet Baudrillard is not so optimistic. He sees that any use of the codified forms of media necessarily controls the message of those media: “there is no response from a functional object: its function is already there, an integrated speech to which it has already responded, leaving no room for play, or reciprocal putting in play.[8] For example, delivering any message via the television is succumbing to that medium’s form and being controlled and manipulated by its already codified system of power. Like McLuhan’s lesson, the medium is the message for Baudrillard as well: “But transgression and subversion never get ‘on the air’ without being subtly negated as they are: transformed into models, neutralized into signs, they are eviscerated of their meaning” (282). It is the “passage to the generality of political action which puts an end to the singularity of revolutionary action.”[9] Baudrillard concludes that the message does not matter as long as the codes of transmission remain mixed and controlled. He suggests that the codes themselves must be modified in order for any revolutionary messages are transmitted.[10]

Perhaps this is where new media enters the picture. Boal, Baudrillard, and Enzensberger were all writing their respective pieces in the early seventies, several years before the introduction of the personal computer and two decades before the Internet. Yet, it seems to me that the networked computer is being used more along the lines of Certeau’s tactic than the outright revolutionary ways envisioned by our theorists.[11] In using computers for their personal productivity, the wage earner undermines the univocality of the capitalist. Yet, the obvious question here is whether or not networked computers allow their users a response? I could cite the obvious example of file sharing upsetting the powers-that-be, the MPAA and the RIAA, not to mention the blogging community, open source, and the whole hacker community. Perhaps the latter is an example of the digital revolutionary: she has been condemned by the corporation and upheld as the hero of the information age by those whose fat wallets are not threatened.

The trick here seems to be not only the ability to control and the access to computers, but a mobilized community of users who seeks to make their voices heard. Does the polysemous Internet even have a chance?


  1. Boal, Augusto (2003) [1974]. "Theatre of the Oppressed". In Wardrip-Fruin, Noah; Montfort, Nick. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: The MIT Press. p. 352.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Boal 2003, p. 352.
  3. Baudrillard, Jean (2003) [1972]. "Requiem for the Media". In Wardrip-Fruin, Noah; Montfort, Nick. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: The MIT Press. p. 281.
  4. Enzensberger, Hans Magnus (2003) [1970]. "Constituents of a Theory of the Media". In Wardrip-Fruin, Noah; Montfort, Nick. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: The MIT Press. p. 261.
  5. Enzensberger & 22003, p. 265.
  6. Enzensberger 2003, p. 265.
  7. Enzensberger 2003, p. 267.
  8. Baudrillard 2003, p. 281.
  9. Baudrillard 2003, p. 283.
  10. Baudrillard 2003, p. 287.
  11. Certeau, Michel de (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.