Born 200 years ago, Karl Marx’s patron and collaborator is a study in contradiction between socialist ideals and a life...
Hope Beyond Technique: On Jacques Ellul
This essay appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
We are in the midst of a technological panic. The current concern is social media: Facebook and Twitter and their incursions into personal privacy and the democratic process. A couple of years ago the big topic of handwringing was drones. Next year it may be artificial intelligence or virtual reality, depending on which of those in-development technologies gets off the ground first. From the editorial pages of USA Today, The Week, and even Wired—which devoted an entire issue to this topic in 2017—commentators agonize over the societal destabilization caused by the ongoing tech onslaught and grasp at possible solutions: decentralize the Web; create apps to limit our time online or reclaim our lost sleep cycles; improve encryption technology; break up the Big Tech companies or require them to make their algorithms more transparent and/or more racially sensitive; and so on. Tellingly, most of these solutions involve more technology.
Almost entirely absent from these discussions is any mention of Jacques Ellul, once regarded alongside Lewis Mumford as one of the world’s foremost critics of unchecked technological development. This is a significant oversight: to write of the downside of modern technology without referencing Ellul is arguably tantamount to writing about Communism without referencing Marx.
To be fair to the current critics, Ellul did not leave behind an easily summarized philosophy after he died in 1994. Not only is it difficult to explain Ellul’s primary arguments to those who have not read him; it is difficult even for those who have read him to get a handle on what they’ve taken in. Jeffrey Greenman, Read Schuchardt, and Noah Toly—the authors of the 2012 survey volume Understanding Jacques Ellul—describe (and provide a graph for) a conundrum they call the “Ellul Understanding Curve”:
Readers who have successfully traversed the terrain of one work by Ellul often believe that they understand Ellul’s assumptions, methods, and conclusions. However, those same readers are often confounded upon picking up another book in Ellul’s corpus and encountering what seem to be very different assumptions, methods, and conclusions. The fact of the matter is that when one begins to read Ellul, understanding increases. Paradoxically, as one continues to read, understanding decreases for some time until, in fact, the average reader misunderstands Ellul. One must eventually read attentively a great number of pages of Ellul’s writing before finally coming again to a clear understanding of Ellul’s arguments.
If this is the common effect of Ellul’s work on those who actually read it, what hope is there for casual skimmers of blogs and Facebook posts?
To further complicate matters, it becomes apparent when one begins to grapple with Ellul that pigeonholing him as a critic of modernity is itself an oversight. Ellul was a man who defied easy categorization: a legal scholar, sociologist, theologian, poet, historian, and philosopher (though he eschewed that label), his contribution to each of these genres was idiosyncratic. He was a onetime politician who largely disdained politics and did not vote; a hero of the World War II French Resistance who refused in his writings to side with the flawed democracies of his day over the totalitarian regimes that menaced them; an ardent admirer of Marx who had few kind words for socialism or Communism and spent most of his adult life witnessing to a very un-Marxist Christian faith. On the surface, he appeared to be a thinker nearly torn apart by his contradictions, yet the deeper one goes into his writing, the chief quality one encounters is continuity.
* * *
Jacques Ellul was born in Bordeaux, France, in 1912 and lived most of his life in or near the region of his birth. The son of a French-Portuguese mother and a Serbian-Italian father, Ellul came to view his outsider status—both as a product of the melting pot and as that rare French intellectual who eschewed Paris—as a key component of his self-identity.
It is one of the first of many ironies that a man who would so fiercely champion individual autonomy would allow his career path to be steered by his father. Jacques pined for the life of a naval officer, but the elder Ellul insisted his son study law. Jacques complied, completing his doctoral thesis in 1936. Except for an interruption brought on by World War II, Ellul taught in this field from 1937 up to his retirement in 1980, all the while writing an avalanche of books on subjects that often ranged far outside his area of professional expertise. His works on sociology and theology—which earned him some acclaim in English-speaking countries—went largely unread in his native France. (Ellul never set foot in the U.S., the country where he enjoyed his widest readership.)
His was largely an interior disposition, yet he lived in an era that demanded action. In 1939, the Vichy regime removed Ellul from his teaching post at Strasbourg University for allegedly making subversive statements. His foreign-born father was subsequently arrested and died in prison in 1942. Ellul relocated his family to Martres in the French “free zone,” where he became a farmer and a participant in the Resistance. His efforts to smuggle Jews out of the country earned him a posthumous designation of “Righteous Among the Nations” from the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. After the war, Ellul worked briefly for the reconstituted Bordeaux city administration, helping with the rebuilding of local institutions and the meting out of justice to those who had collaborated with the Germans. (“I can safely state . . . that no-one was shot in Bordeaux without being judged,” he later told friend and interviewer Patrick Troude-Chastenet.)
The experience of working in the heart of bureaucracy put Ellul off politics—at least in a public sense—for the rest of his life. When prodded on his personal views by Chastenet, who interviewed Ellul extensively for a book titled Jacques Ellul on Politics, Technology, and Christianity, Ellul stated:
I’m pretty close to being a libertarian, but libertarianism with a great difference: my anarchist friends believe that a libertarian society is possible, whereas I believe it is quite impossible. However, in the present situation it’s the only vehicle with which to fight against an authority which is extending itself into all sectors of society.
That last sentence is key. The threat of this ever-encroaching authority, along with its causes and possible remedies, would consume much of Ellul’s intellectual energy in the postwar years. He wanted his work to have the same comprehensive sweep as Marx’s, even as he recognized that Marx’s proposed solutions of the nineteenth century had contributed to the very problem Ellul was now attempting to address in the twentieth. He approached his task from several angles: sociological, historical, and theological, in a variety of works. No single one provides a comprehensive summary of his conclusions, but the best starting point remains his most famous book, The Technological Society, published in French in 1954 and in English a decade later.
In this sprawling opus, by turns bracing, challenging, and (to this reader) more than a little exhausting, Ellul identifies “technique” as the single greatest threat to modern man. By technique he does not mean technology exclusively, but rather the efficiency-based mindset underlying all technological development: the quest for the “one best way” in all human endeavors. As Ellul argues, technique has taken on a mind of its own; it is “autonomous.” Technique, he writes, is “capable of self-generation. . . . Every successive technique has appeared because the ones which preceded it rendered necessary the ones which followed.” To use one of his favorite examples, the appearance of the automobile necessitated the creation of an elaborate system of roads that necessitated elaborate new systems of maintenance and policing. Inevitably, the implementation of such systems strengthens the central state—the only actor in the process capable of clearing all obstacles to the one best way. What’s more, technique is amoral. All aspects of a new technology—the destructive as well as the productive—will inevitably be used, according to Ellul, and we will often tap into the destructive uses first because it is easier, and more lucrative, to fashion a blunt weapon than a socially beneficial tool. Thus, nuclear power was weaponized before it was ever used as an energy source. In Ellul’s view—one I find hard to refute—human beings in the modern era seem to be living their lives in service to this ever-evolving technique, rather than the other way around.
Ellul sees technique everywhere: at the highest levels of government, in the economy, in our educational institutions, in our media, in our workplaces, in our churches, and even in our kitchens—he devotes a surprising amount of ink to the concerted and entirely successful propaganda campaign by the food industry to soften the public’s views toward industrially produced bread, an innovation that was initially resisted. (Propaganda in all its forms is a major point of interest for Ellul and the subject of one of his other well-known books.)
The Technological Society is at its strongest when it emphasizes the human cost of all this hyper-development. “Man was made to do his daily work with his muscles,” Ellul writes.
But see him now, like a fly on flypaper, seated for eight hours, motionless at a desk. . . . He was created for a living environment, but he dwells in a lunar world of stone, cement, asphalt, glass, cast iron, and steel. . . . Man was created to have room to move about in, to gaze into far distances, to live in rooms which, even when they were tiny, opened out on fields.
Placing technique at the center of our world carries physical, psychological, and spiritual consequences:
Technique worships nothing, respects nothing. It has a single role: to strip off externals, to bring everything to light, and by rational use to transform everything into means. More than science, which limits itself to explaining the “how,” technique desacralizes because it demonstrates (by evidence and not by reason, through use and not through books) that mystery does not exist. Science brings to the light of day everything man had believed sacred. Technique takes possession of it and enslaves it. . . . Technique denies mystery a priori. The mysterious is merely that which has not yet been technicized.
This is an unrelentingly grim picture. We are cut off from our natural surroundings. We are increasingly cut off from our sense of wonder—and with that dies the religious impulse. And even with all the luxuries and tools technique has brought to our work and home lives, we can feel no real security because there is always the possibility that automation or some other aspect of technique will render us redundant. Inevitably, communities are torn asunder. Families break down. Mental illness reaches epidemic levels. And a whole new arsenal of “human techniques”—therapy, pharmaceuticals, mass media—emerges to help us adjust to our ever-increasing dislocation.
We are even denied a human culprit. “Only the naïve can really believe that the world-wide movement toward centralism results from the machinations of evil statesmen,” writes Robert K. Merton, Ellul’s English translator. The villain is technique itself. True, there are the “technicians,” those who cook up and implement these new solutions, but Ellul contends that they themselves are under the control of technique, driven on by the compulsion always to search for that one best way, because . . . well, progress must not be impeded! Ellul seems to anticipate Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and their ilk when he writes of his own era’s tech visionaries: “To wield power well entails a certain faculty of criticism, discrimination, judgment, and option. It is impossible to have confidence in men who apparently lack these faculties. Yet it is apparently our fate to be facing a ‘golden age’ in the power of sorcerers who are totally blind to the meaning of the human adventure.”
It is probably clear from my summary that The Technological Society is vulnerable to criticism from several angles. From a stylistic perspective, Ellul is prone to hyperbole and generalization. Some of the most quotable passages from the book are also its most problematic. For instance:
History shows that every technical application from its beginnings presents certain unforeseeable secondary effects which are much more disastrous than the lack of the technique would have been. These effects exist alongside those effects which were foreseen and expected and represent something valuable and positive.
There is something satisfying in the way Ellul presents his assertion like a mathematical formula. But, of course, life doesn’t work this way: not all technologies are created equal. It’s true that if we take the example of the automobile, Ellul’s claim is borne out: the “secondary effects” include fatalities and planet-threatening pollution, consequences that are arguably more disastrous for the world than the lack of the automobile would have been. But an ancillary development like power steering doesn’t carry much discernible downside. Similarly, nuclear power has well-documented negative secondary effects, but can the same be said for solar power? (The argument that solar is more expensive and less efficient than other power sources is a separate matter.) The Technological Society is crammed to bursting with similar instances of wild speculation masquerading as ironclad certainty.
Another critique worth considering is that Ellul’s definition of technique casts too wide a net. He repeatedly takes Lewis Mumford to task for focusing narrowly on modern technology, which Ellul sees as merely a physical manifestation of the broader concept of technique. But the benefit of Mumford’s approach is that it hones in on something tangible, whereas Ellul’s idea of technique is far more nebulous. If one adopts Ellul’s worldview, it is almost more of a challenge to figure out what is not technique than what is. And since Ellul concedes that technique is, on some level, a natural human impulse, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the benign technique metastasizes into the civilization-devouring, hive-minded epidemic (something akin to the Star Trek “Borg”) he confronts in his book.
But perhaps the strongest critique of The Technological Society is that it seems to be almost entirely devoid of hope. Ellul scoffs at the efficacy of individual efforts to resist technique. “Only two possibilities are left to the individual,” he writes.
Either he remains what he was [prior to the disruptive technological development], in which case he becomes more and more unadapted, neurotic, and insufficient, loses his possibilities of subsistence, and is at last tossed on the social rubbish heap, whatever his talents may be; or he adapts himself to the new sociological organism, which becomes his world, and he becomes unable to live except in a mass society. . . . But to become a mass man entails a tremendous amount of psychic mutation.
A reader could be forgiven for throwing the book down at this point and pining for that blissful time just prior to the discovery of the works of Jacques Ellul.
This is where the so-called Ellul Understanding Curve comes into play. In presenting virtually no solution to the problems he has just spent 436 densely packed pages exploring, Ellul “creates a crisis for the reader,” as the authors of Understanding Jacques Ellul put it. But Ellul never intended for his readers to stop there. The Technological Society is meant to pose questions—questions that can only be resolved in the theological milieu. “Ellul indirectly invokes God . . . in what he does not say,” write Greenman, Schuchardt, and Toly, “by espousing no other hope.” And so, bereft of material solutions, the reader is supposed to turn to spiritually oriented works such as The Presence of the Kingdom or The Ethics of Freedom. In practice, few did. “My attempt seems to have failed,” Ellul wrote in the later essay “On Dialectic.” “No one is using my studies in correlation with one another, so as to get at the heart of our crisis in a conscious manner, based on a Christian understanding of it.”
One reader who definitely did not push through the Ellul Understanding Curve was Theodore Kaczynski—better known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski encountered The Technological Society while teaching mathematics at Berkeley in the late 1960s. Apparently ignorant of Ellul’s Christianity and pacifism, the militantly atheistic Kaczynski came to the conclusion that the only means of overcoming the hegemony of technique was literally to blow up the system. Two decades of bombing and sabotage ensued, culminating in the publication-by-extortion of Kaczynski’s manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future, which contained clear echoes of Ellul’s themes. Obviously, Kaczynski’s actions should not be laid at the feet of Ellul; Kaczynski had a history of mental illness, and in any case Ellul was just one of several technology critics the future terrorist read (others included Rachel Carson and Lewis Mumford). But one wonders what the Unabomber would have made of Ellul’s religious works.
* * *
What should we make of them? Ellul had no formal training in theology, but this may have contributed to his originality. A key concept for Ellul is freedom, but not freedom as it is commonly understood. To Ellul, freedom is only possible when one submits wholly to the will of God, which one does by embracing Christian revelation. It is only in the process of giving one’s mind and soul to Christ, according to Ellul, that one is set free from the false gods of the material world—and this includes the god of technique. As summarized by the authors of Understanding Jacques Ellul:
Christians are called to exercise what freedom they have by profaning technology—deconstructing its soteriological myths—and refusing to submit to technological necessity. This does not mean opting out of the use of technology. Rather, it means consciously choosing—knowing both the upsides and downsides of any technique or machine—whether or not to use it, rather than simply saying that we must use it.
Ellul contends that this divinely assisted shift in perspective helps put science back in its proper place among human endeavors. In The Humiliation of the Word, Ellul criticizes “abusive scientism” that “pretends to be the whole truth by limiting and excluding everything that goes beyond it.” Science, for Ellul, is a commendable human pursuit, but in the vacuum created by mystery’s retreat it has taken on religious overtones.
One thing is clear: readers who ignore Ellul’s spiritual writings are missing one of the major objectives of his work. “Without God, my work would have an eminently tragic meaning,” Ellul told Chastenet. “I describe a world with no prospects but I have the conviction that God accompanies man throughout history.” He added: “I believe that what I have to say about Christianity is open to everyone including non-believers. By that I mean that hope is transmissible, even without reference to a given God.”
If Ellul’s proposed solution to the technological problem—to essentially “Get right with God”—comes across as trite and frustratingly vague, it may be because Ellul feared that resistance itself could become technicized and did not want to offer up a point-by-point plan. In any case, Ellul “is better at tearing down than building up,” write Greenman, Schuchardt, and Toly. “We are impressed by Ellul’s critique, yet wish that he had developed more concrete alternatives.” Certainly, anyone who has experienced a dramatic religious conversion (as Ellul did as a young man) is aware of the rapid and decisive reorienting of inner commitments that occurs as part of that process. For such people, Ellul’s recommendation will ring true and is perhaps all that is needed. For others, the great benefit of Ellul’s work—including his theological writings—is that it provokes debate and further inquiry. Few come away from a serious investigation of his writing without at least some aspect of their thinking changed. For those who have been so influenced, it becomes very difficult to examine contemporary questions of technology without applying a kind of “WWJT” (What Would Jacques Think) mental filter.
Some examples: unless I’m seriously misunderstanding Ellul, I believe that he would view the growing calls to reduce global warming via nuclear power with skepticism. This would appear to be a clear-cut case of attempting to solve the problems of technique with more technique, when the questions ought to be: Why are we using so much power? Do we really need our cities to be lit up like Christmas trees every night? Do we need to live so far from our places of employment, or from our extended families, thus necessitating so much travel and energy consumption? Similarly, I imagine he would look askance at Elon Musk’s efforts to put more “green” cars on the road, asking instead: Do we need so many cars on the road in the first place? For that matter, do we need so many roads?
These are wildly impractical questions—impractical because, among other reasons, only a centralized, authoritarian state could compel people to turn off their lights or decrease their car use at a level that would make any difference, and that would be antithetical to everything Ellul stood for. Nevertheless, the constant asking of these questions changes a person, sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes visibly. The further one moves along on the Ellul Understanding Curve, the further one’s existential despair edges over into a subtle but perceptible joy—regardless of whether one is actually making a difference in the world.
Although Jacques Ellul’s name has largely faded from the public consciousness, his heirs are carrying the torch forward. Wendell Berry, who affirms many of Ellul’s ideas in his life and writing, is perhaps the best known. There is also Chellis Glendinning, author of When Technology Wounds, and Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Human Scale and Rebels Against the Future (a history of the original Luddite movement). All three were members of the first Jacques Ellul Society, which met frequently in the 1990s to discuss the implications of industrialization, globalization, and the nascent digital revolution. An International Jacques Ellul Society is going strong, publishing The Ellul Forum and holding well-attended biannual conferences focusing on all aspects of Ellul’s work and their implications for contemporary society.
Despite his daunting prose style, Jacques Ellul belongs in the contemporary conversation. A good jumping-off point for those who wish to venture down the rabbit hole is Chastenet’s collection of interviews (Jacques Ellul on Politics, Technology, and Christianity), which provides a human touch that Ellul denied himself in his writing. Understanding Jacques Ellul is an excellent overview that strives mightily to deliver on its title’s promise, and Jeffrey M. Shaw’s Illusions of Freedom: Thomas Merton and Jacques Ellul on Technology and the Human Condition brings the Frenchman’s ideas into dialogue with one of his most famous sympathizers. Once armed with one (or all three) of these introductory texts, one is well poised to begin wrestling with the genuine item. Many readers will find this a vexing experience. But to them I offer the (sometimes barely discernible) message underlying all of Ellul’s work: Don’t give up. ♦
Robert Dean Lurie is the author most recently of Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years.
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