Ellul, Jacques

views updated


Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) was born in Bordeaux on January 6 and spent his academic career as Professor of the History and Sociology of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux Law Faculty and Professor in its Institute of Political Studies. His more than fifty books and hundreds of articles range across Christian theology, ethics, and biblical studies as well as sociological analysis and critique of mass media and communication, bureaucracy, and modern law and politics. He died in Bordeaux on May 19.

Technique: Ellul's Central Thesis

At the heart of his sociological works is his study of technology or, the term he preferred, Technique (la technique). Indeed Ellul initially became widely known in the English-speaking world for The Technological Society (1964). Its intellectual significance and originality derives in part from its argument being conceived twenty years before the original French edition (La Technique [1954]) when, after reading Karl Marx's Capital, Ellul (a law student in his early twenties) concluded that Technique, not capital, was central to modern civilization. This seminal idea was subsequently developed with Bernard Charbonneau in the French personalist movement of the 1930s.

Ellul was adamant that la technique "does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end" (Ellul 1964, p. xxv). He defined it as "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity" (Ellul 1964, p. xxv). Technique is, in other words, a universal category (Ellul compares it to dog rather than spaniel) embracing all the various self-consciously developed means found in art, politics, law, economics, and other spheres of human life. Central to these means is a quest for efficiency that is the defining characteristic of Ellul's account of Technique.

Two theses drive Ellul's analysis. First that "no social, human or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world" (Ellul 1964, p. 3). Second that the contemporary "technical phenomenon ... has almost nothing in common with the technical phenomenon of the past" (Ellul 1964, p. 78). Whereas previously Technique was limited and diverse, social changes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to its dominance and totally changed the relationship between Technique and society.

In addition to its rationality and artificiality, Ellul proposes five more controversial characteristics of modern Technique. First there is automatism of technical choice because inefficient methods are eliminated and the one best way predominates. Second self-augmentation exists as technical developments automatically engender further innovations. Third Technique is characterized by monism as different techniques form an interconnected whole. This means that individual technologies must not be isolated and analyzed apart from an understanding of the wider technical phenomenon. Fourth there is a technical universalism that is both geographic (here Ellul offers an analysis that anticipates globalization) and qualitative (as every area of life is subordinated to technical efficiency). Fifth, and decisive for the novelty and hegemony of Technique, is its autonomy. This means Technique is no longer controlled by economics, politics, religion, or ethics; the common belief in Technique as a neutral means is false.

These five features are returned to in The Technological System (1980) where Ellul argues they characterize an elaborate technical system within society. The characteristic of uncertainty—seen in such factors as the ambivalence of technical progress and the unpredictability of its development—is then added in his The Technological Bluff (1990) that critiques contemporary discourse about Technique.

Technique in Society and Criticisms of the Analysis

Ellul's analysis leads him to conclude that whereas previous societies developed through the dialectical play of different social forces, it is now dominated by Technique. Most of The Technological Society is an account of the society that Technique is creating in relation to economics, politics, law, the state, and human affairs such as education, entertainment, sports, and more. Both there and in such works as Propaganda (1965) and The Political Illusion (1967) the prescience and power of Ellul's analysis remain striking at the beginning of the twenty-first century and explain why some describe him as a prophet. Having initially claimed Technique no longer belongs within human civilization but has established a technical civilization, Ellul later extended this, arguing that the social environment that had earlier replaced humanity's natural environment has in turn now been replaced by a technical milieu: Technique provides humans with what they need to live, is that which now threatens and endangers them, and is most immediate to them.

Most seriously, Ellul believed that Technique was incompatible with a truly human civilization. Technique focuses on quantitative improvements and facts rather than qualitative change based on values. It is a means of power—a central Ellul theme—and not subject to human values. Although it originally enhanced human freedom, building civilization by enabling people to overcome natural and social constraints and necessities, Technique has become human fate and a form of necessity. What used to be a means to freedom for humans has become a condition of slavery. In the terms of Ellul's theological writings, Technique is a contemporary idol that attracts human faith, hope, love, and devotion; a locus of the sacred in a supposedly secular society (Ellul 1975).

The criticism constantly made against Ellul is that he is a technophobe and a fatalist. Although the all-embracing nature of Technique in his work and his often caustic style of writing creates problems, Ellul's desire was "to arouse the reader to an awareness of technological necessity and what it means" and present "a call to the sleeper to awake" in order to challenge the destruction of human civilization. In later writings, Ellul sketched a new ethics of response to the dominance of Technique. This comprises the need for proper recognition of the other person (reflecting Ellul's personalism) and of nature (Ellul was an early environmentalist) and an ethics of voluntary limitation, rejecting the technical mindset that whatever can be done therefore should be done. The practice of such an ethics of non-power is very difficult in a world dominated by technological power and is a central part of Ellul's ethic for Christians that he suggests.

From the early 1930s, Ellul's aim was to help people understand and preserve a sense of criticism vis-à-vis technical civilization. More than half a century after it was written, his Technological Society remains an insightful, even if at times infuriating, analysis of modern Technique and its effects on contemporary society.


SEE ALSO Autonomous Technology;Efficiency;Freedom;French Perspectives.


Ellul, Jacques. (1964). The Technological Society. New York: Knopf. This is Ellul's classic text, written in the late 1940s, which was first published as La technique ou l'enjeu du siecle (Paris: Armand Colin, 1954).

Ellul, Jacques. (1975). The New Demons. New York: Seabury. Ellul's study of the new forms of the sacred in contemporary society.

Ellul, Jacques. (1980a). The Technological System. New York: Continuum. This, Ellul's second major study of technique, first appeared in 1977 as Le systeme technicien (Paris: Calmaan-Levy)

Ellul, Jacques. (1980b). "Nature, Technique and Artificiality." In Research in Philosophy and Technology 3: 263–283.

Ellul, Jacques. (1998). Jacques Ellul on Religion, Technology and Politics: Conversations with Patrick Troude-Chastenet. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press. This important and wide-ranging collection of interviews with Ellul originally appeared as Entretiens avec Jacques Ellul (Paris: La Table Ronde, 1994).

Goddard, Andrew. (2002). Living the Word, Resisting the World: The Life and Thought of Jacques Ellul. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press.