Everything Has Its Price. Hans Magnus Enzensberger on the scientific mind between mania and a pact with the devil


Text: Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s new book has the title „The Elixirs of Science“ / It is about bourgeois characters and the tendency of the modern intellect to taste forbidden fruit - -

Text: EVERYTHING HAS ITS PRICE. Hans Magnus Enzensberger on the scientific mind between mania and a pact with the devil

Text: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 - 1831)

Alexander Kluge: Think about someone like Hegel, who, quasi-singing in Swabian dialect, educates the youth „in loneliness and freedom“. Or take a scholar, a physicist, in the 19th century and consider how autonomous he is within his field – he is only going to take advice from other physicists – and you realize that intelligence looks very different in today’s service economy.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Yes, what Gramsci called the „organic intellectual“ – of course he is institutionally-based and dependent on the institution; and increasingly financially dependent, too, in particular for large-scale research projects. I mean, nowadays all the biologists run companies, many of them have gone public with their companies, they have patents ...

Kluge: And a keynote speech, say, about ethics would just hold them back. For example, even at a conference about defense technology, which includes a lot of intellectual work ...

Enzensberger: ...yes, of course ...

Kluge: All those foundations, the military, everyone else who’s involved in that would feel like they are held back by the kind of keynote speech that someone like Böll or Habermas would give.

Enzensberger: Yes, an obstacle. In a way, it is obstruction. And as long as it‘s only some committees or some journalists, it does not have any direct impact on the issue, the reaction of society always comes too late, I think. They are going to be late. But I mean, the example of nuclear power shows that it can become a political force which even applied physics has to acknowledge. If the entire society protests, a political force emerges, but that only happens with a delay, and only according to the principle: „It has to get worse before it gets better,“ of course.

Kluge: But the autonomy of the intellect we have inherited, the ideal of the 1800s ...

Enzensberger: ... yeah, sure, it’s still ...

Kluge: ... that is not so common anymore.    

Enzensberger: … the last of the Mohicans, living outside those boundaries.

Kluge: But even if I offer and sell my intelligence to strangers, as a service provider, I cannot guarantee that intelligence might not still come out on top.

Enzensberger: Yes, something that’s not quite in the interest of the customer might still come out of it, of course. For example, in biotechnology there are more and more scientists who say: it can’t be done this way, not just because of political or ethical reasons, but also for scientific reasons. That means, the manic phase has to end eventually, when the limitations become obvious. Trees are not always going to grow up to the skies, as the saying goes.

Kluge: And besides, the elixirs of science, that’s obviously a reference to the „elixirs of the devil“ ...

Enzensberger: Yes ...

Kluge: ... that means the antidote is produced, unintentionally ...

Enzensberger: Yes, okay, many scientists didn’t notice that their work also contains insidious implications. And there is a certain ambiguity to this kind of project, because on the one hand there is a downright passionate interest in science, and at the same time there are political reservations in regard to the consequences of science, of research and technology. You can demonstrate that on a large scale, that is, at a societal level; but you can also tie it to individual researchers who got involved in certain situations ... people like Oppenheimer, those are tragic biographies; someone whose work comes back to bite him, also psychologically speaking. It’s really interesting. Everything comes with a price.

Kluge: Like a pact with the devil.  

Enzensberger: Yes, something like that.

Kluge: But at the same time, if I put everything you are interested in together, it’s basically ... you study the bourgeois character. In a benevolent way. In a pleasurable way.

Enzensberger: Sure ...

Kluge: Our relatives are like that ...

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: And between the adventurous and those on the verge of manic insanity and the good head of the household ...

Enzensberger: ...there are all kinds.  

Kluge: ... all kinds, and all these characteristics are related.

Enzensberger: Yes, and often in one and the same person. There are psychological ambiguities, conflicts that they carry inside – they rise to the surface too, but they are also psychological and cause breaks in a biography, create conflicts and disappointments, catastrophies, tragedies, but also this flash. The flash of recognition, this high, it’s amazing.

Text: The risky progress of homo sapiens

Kluge: The „bourgeois character,“ a common phrase during the turn of the century ... „boring“ equals „bourgeois,“ basically „narrow-minded“ ... it’s completely wrong.

Enzensberger: Completely wrong, of couse.  

Kluge: It’s the progress of homo sapiens, but in a risky way ...

Enzensberger: It was an interesting class ...

Kluge:  It wasn’t the farmers who developed the big machinery.

Enzensberger [shakes his head]: Okay, it goes back a long way. Of course this productivity was present in the invention of agriculture. It was one of the greatest revolutions in the history of mankind, after all.

Kluge: But as soon as the big machinery comes into the picture ... things change.

Enzensberger: Yes, things change.

Kluge: There is a guy you wrote a poem about. You wrote poems about all of them. It’s Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Text: Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: Admired by Lenin. The „Taylorist.“  What kind of man is that? Sometimes you describe him as a puritan.

Enzensberger: Well, he was. It was very complicated, even on a psychoanalytic level. On the one hand, he was a puritan, an objectifier of the world, a materialist, whatever you want. But at the same time, in the sexual dimension he was extremely disturbed. He showed up in women’s clothing, he was basically a transvestite – secretly, of course. Very secretly.

Kluge: At night, he slept on a bed of nails, so that he wouldn’t be overcome too much by his sexual fantasies in his dreams.

Enzensberger: Yes, he had to do his work, and for that purpose, he had to chasten himself. He had to get rid of a part of himself, he had to fight it, exorcise it, so that his entire energy could go into the rationalization of labor, where he was extremely cruel, including regulations bordering on sadism, the worker was merely an instrument.

Kluge: The individual traits are dissected, analyzed, and put together differently.

Enzensberger: Yes, of course. It was during the historical era of Fordism, the assembly line was invented, the rationalization of labor ... today industrial production follows different criteria, because people have realized that it doesn’t work like that, that it paralyzes the creativity of manpower in the long run, if you treat it like an object. They have learned from their mistakes. Capitalism keeps learning. That’s one of the reasons it survives.

Text: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, writer

Kluge: But it’s interesting, because at first this labor power leads to an incredible explosion of productivity.

Enzensberger: Yes, sure, the recognition. He analyzes ergonomics, all the ... man‘s expenditure of energy is scientifically studied and dissected for the first time: what is that? What is labor power? That’s his question.

Kluge: And if you take Robinson and Friday: a man on an island who cannot be surveilled, who cannot be coordinated or policed, and who raises his slave as a „better self,“ an object. When man turns himself into an object, the first thing that happens is this explosion of productivity.

Enzensberger: Right, these workers are all Fridays ...

Kluge: Self-exploitation. 

Text: Sir Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun - -

Kluge: There is a second man you write about. As a reminder: Sir Hiram Maxim. What was he up to? 1840, 1916.

Enzensberger [recites]:         

On the way to school in the ditch,

the roar of the fighter-plane swooping down,

little clowds of dust to the left, in front of us,

to the right, soundless, and only a moment later  

the aircraft gun’s hammering.  

We did not appreciate this invention.


                        Later, much later did he emerge

                        from an old encyclopaedia. A country boy.

                        Their farm in the wilderness, harrassed

                        by bears, a long time ago. At fourteen,

                        a cartwright’s apprentice. Sixteen hours a day

                        at four dollars a month. Scraped along

                        as a brass-founder, boxer, instrument maker,

                        shouting: A chronic inventor, that’s me!

                        Improved mousetraps and curlers

                        and built a pneumatic merry-go-round.

                        His steam aeroplane, with a boiler

                        of 1200 pounds, three tons water-supply,

                        broke down under its own dead weight.

                        Neither did his ersatz coffee take off.

                        He had to wait for the Great Paris Exhibition,

                        a fairy-world of arc-lamps and filaments,

                        for the Legion of Honor and for his illumination.


                        Three years later the Prince of Wales

could inspect in the vaults of Hatton Garden

a miracle of precision:

it loaded, cocked, bolted and triggered,

opened the breech-lock, ejected the shell,

reloaded, cocked, again and again, by itself,

and the cadence was fabulous: ten rounds

per second, continuous firing.

The recoil barrel, a stroke of genius!

cried the Duke of Cambridge. Never again

will war be what it used to be!

A weapon of unprecedented elegance!

The knighthood was not long in coming.


Nowadays, of course, with his masterpiece

being available in any school playground,

we fail to feel what he must have felt:

the compulsive joy of a bearded animal

with 270 patents to his credit.

As to us, his juniors by a hundred years,

we lay low as if dead in the ditch.

Enzensberger: The history of the machine gun.

Kluge: The pride of the Boxer Rebellion, so to speak ...  

Enzensberger: …yes, of course ...

Kluge: … during the conquest of Africa. Kipling wrote: We are we / And we have got / The Maxim gun /...

Kluge und Enzensberger [together]: And they have not.

Text:                We are we /

                        And we have got /

                        The Maxim gun /

                        And they have not

Kluge: That’s the difference...

Enzensberger: ...that’s the difference...

Kluge: ...between white and colored.

Enzensberger: Yes, yes.  

Kluge: And this is you in early 1945.

Enzensberger: Yes, that is my memory of how we were shot at ...

Kluge: ...but it’s what happened ...

Enzensberger: ...yes, it was ...

Kluge: [inaudible] they could. And infrared and...

Enzensberger: Yes, and later you want to know: Where did this come from? What kind of people were they?

Kluge: The first mechanical machine gun that really worked.

Enzensberger: Of course it was already used in other wars – in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War for example, it was already decisive, and in the colonial wars, of course. It was a country boy from somewhere in America.

Text: You were born in 1929?

Kluge: You were born in 1929. What do you make of a year that you did not see, so to speak, only as an infant – but it still means something. As for me, the year of my birth ...

Enzensberger: … many things come to mind ...

Kluge: … many things come to mind.

Enzensberger: Yes, sure. And it is – you know, there is a lot of talk about generations, to some extent it’s even part of advertising: Generation X or Generation Golf and so on. But it’s nonsense, because in reality, the year of your birth positions you in within historical experiences. And people who share historical experiences – if the term generation makes any sense at all, then it is the fact that we have all experienced the same things, and others haven’t, and that’s what sets us apart. People today – the 30 year-old who grew up during the long economic boom, and now is suddenly fired after he was hired for a lot of money only five years ago, now he gets kicked out, he doesn’t understand what’s happening, because he doesn’t have any experience. He hasn’t experienced a crisis before, and it’s not his fault. For him, growth was natural – every year a little bit more, a little bit better ... it was normal for him.

Kluge: Age groups ...

Enzensberger: The problem of experience ...

Text: Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s new book has the title „The Elixirs of Science“ / It is about bourgeois characters and the tendency of the modern intellect to taste forbidden fruit - -