Jacques Ellul and the Empire of Nonsense (i)

I sometimes ask myself what I would miss the most if I left Paris for good. Certainly not the strikes, nor the indescribable but unique odour [read: stench] of the metro, nor stale baguettes – although certainly useful for whacking cockroaches -, nor even the Eiffel Tower (I tend to concur that the best view of it is from the top, as then you can’t see it). Despite all the manifold attractions of the city of light, my vote might well go to the French capital’s wonderful system of public libraries, a dense and extremely well-stocked network from which anyone can borrow up to 40 books, musical score CDs and DVDs at any one time. Without it I would certainly have gone bankrupt long ago, especially given that the price of sheet music has now increased to such an extent that it is advisable to consult one’s bank manager before making a trip to La Flûte de Pan, a mythical music shop near the  former Paris Conservatoire from which it is all too easy and tempting to return euroless.

Jacques Ellul

The Paris library system has a central reserve which I find especially useful for consulting obscure works of theology which have probably been stocked away in a secret bunker somewhere for the rather depressing reason that keeping them on general access in the absence of interested readers is a waste of shelf space. I have however realized that there is one twentieth-century French theologian whose work seems to be in increasing demand among library users, and whose writing provides much food for thought with regard to the dialogue between theology and the arts, among other things: Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), a brief biography of whom can be found here [1]. It is not necessarily his overtly Christian books which are gaining Ellul a wider readership, although in theological circles there are signs that some people at least are beginning to take notice of Ellul’s powerful if disturbing analysis of Church history in titles such as The Subversion of Christianity. [1] Just as the seminal work of anthropologist René Girard (whose thought Ellul in some respects parallels) in relation to the cultural roots of violence has stimulated debate beyond Christian circles, so the force of Ellul’s argumentation in his sociological writing is such as to command the interest of those who may find his Barthian theology puzzling or even alien. Ellul is posthumously becoming increasingly well-known as having been one of the first thinkers to pinpoint the phenomenon of technical progress as the defining mark of modern Western society and to subject it to a penetrating critical analysis, beginning in the 1950s with his landmark study La Technique et l’enjeu du siècle. The recent book by Jean-Luc Porquet entitled Jacques Ellul: l’homme qui avait (presque) tout prévu (‘Jacques Ellul: the man who predicted (almost) everything’) shows how history is tragically vindicating the prophetic voice of the writer who orginated the maxim ‘think global, act local’; latter-day crises associated with climate change, the problem of nuclear waste or the development of genetically-modified organisms can all be regarded as having been foreseen in his work.

In the years following World War II Ellul began to warn that technical progress, conceived by many as humanity’s liberator, has on the contrary become a prison within which Western society is trapped, and which it has become heresy to question. Technological advancement has reached the stage where it develops independently of human needs as a runaway train with a momentum all of its own. There is no longer any point in deluding ourselves by thinking in terms of technology as a multitude of techniques (plural) seen as value-neutral tools for the enhancement of human happiness. What we are dealing with is something far larger and more pernicious, akin to what the New Testament would term a ‘power’ (exousia) [2] – a Technical System (‘le système technique’) not wholly penetrable by rational analysis, which influences every aspect of modern life. We may think that we control it and can direct it to serve our ends, but as Ellul already saw in the 1960s, its dynamic is such that it is actually in control of us and we serve it:

‘A technified world is constructing itself around you at an increasing rate. An organisation which is ever more rigorous, precise, constricting, exact and multiple is enclosing each person and every moment of human life within an ever more densely-meshed net. And we can do nothing about it. Nobody is steering or in charge of this proliferation. The operation set in motion 150 years ago [by the industrial revolution] carries on by itself. Nobody is responsible anymore. Chemists, sociologists, urbanists, engineers, organizers and economists find themselves engaged for a thousand reasons connected with social cohesion, instruction, prestige and money, in an irreversible process which makes them serve technical progress; their connection with everyone else occurs independently of their or anyone else’s will. Technique, in its development and application to humanity, is the most complete mechanism of necessity’ [3]

Ellul’s aesthetics: The Empire of Nonsense

Ellul’s far-sighted pronouncements on the dangers of technology in the twentieth century have lost nothing of their relevance at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first. Indeed they have far many supporters now than in the 1960s. Technology seems to be more of an all-encompassing reality than ever before. At first sight it might seem that art constitutes an oasis of resistance to the power of Technique. This would however in Ellul’s view be an extremely naïve assertion; in 1980 he published a typically provocative book entitled L’Empire du non-sens (‘The empire of nonsense’) critiquing the hollowness of the greater part of modern artistic praxis which was effectively the first serious study in France of the pathologies of the avant-garde in literature, music and the visual arts.  Recouping some of German philosopher Theodor Adorno’s insights into the relationship between art and modern society (if also sharing some his irritating prejudices, for example in the simplistic and ill-directed diatribes found against popular music in the work of both thinkers), Ellul’s compelling and disturbing thesis is that modern artistic production has without realizing it become captive to the same dehumanizing technical forces that have gradually come to dominate the Western world. What these forces demolish is meaning; the growing concentration on technique which characterizes art in the modern era has obliterated art’s symbolic depth and sent it plunging into a metaphysical void, Ellul argues. According to the nihilistic aesthetic canons of high modernism, everything is allowed (echoing Ivan Karamazov’s famous remark that ‘all is permitted’ in a world without God) except the creation of meaning, which officially-approved art in the temples of modern Western culture  will not allow at any costs. Forget notions of art as a search for the Beautiful, the True and the Good. Forget human expression, communion with nature, the desire for the transcendent Other:

‘From now on it will be declared (and this is a new step on the part of theory) that there is in effect nothing ‘to say’. That you must above all say nothing, want to say nothing, because metaphysically there is no meaning. No intentionality is possible any longer. And although this art may be perfectly subjective, there is at least a component of subjectivity which is damned: intention, the quest for meaning, reason, thought. The artist must seek to say nothing. A perfectly negative asceticism. But this implies the final threshold: it is not enough for there not to be a meaning, as in spite of everything something can leak out, meaning might escape like butane out of a poorly-closed canister. Let us be on our guard. For there must be no meaning. Meaning is dead. But perhaps not quite. It therefore has to be killed.’ [4]

What does this look like when put into practice? Anyone familiar with contemporary art having read this far may already have some ideas (Damien Hirst ? Or maybe, on the level of popular culture – MTV videoclips?  Techno?). In part 2 of this post we will take a look at Ellul’s own examples illustrating his thesis.

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[1] A stimulating contemporary retrieval of Ellul’s suggestions for the future of the Church in The Presence of the Kingdom (1948) can be found in The Provocative Church (London: SPCK, 2004) by Graham Tomlin, who directs the St Paul’s Theological Centre associated with Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London; another keen Ellulian is the prominent American pastor and writer Gregory Boyd. Ellul’s reputation during his lifetime was greater in the US than in France, not least on account of Aldous Huxley’s promotion of his work; the Jacques Ellul Papers (1936-1992), the largest extant collection of documentation related to Ellul, can be found in the archives of Wheaton College.
[2] In The Subversion of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986) Ellul describes the New Testament concept of ‘powers’ in systemic terms (very similar to those employed by Walter Wink and Girard in I see Satan fall like lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001)): a ‘power’ is characterized by its supra-personal, seemingly autonomous dimension, one which seems to possess spiritual attributes:
‘The powers add a “plus” and a “different” factor to our history. This is why we speak about exousia relative to some expressions of human activity. This is also why Paul puts us firmly on guard against being deceived by the enemy. We recall that the state is an exousia. There is in it a plus that has to be taken into account after every sociological or political study? We certainly have to analyze the phenomenon of the state, of political power, etc. But when all is said, we perceive a residue, a kind of impregnable core, an inexplicable hardness. Why, after all, does one obey the state? Beyond factors that may be understood and analyzed, not everything can be accounted for, as in the case of the soul that the scalpel cannot find no matter how close the analysis. The residue is a spiritual power, an exousia, that inhabits the body of the state.’ (Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, 175.)
[3] Ellul, Exégèse des nouveaux lieux communs, 173, quoted in Jean-Luc Porquet, Jacques Ellul: l’homme qui avait (presque) tout prévu (Paris: le cherche midi, 2003), 74-75. Translation mine.
[4] Ellul, L’empire du non-sens (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1980), 187. Emphasis and translation mine.

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2 thoughts on “Jacques Ellul and the Empire of Nonsense (i)

  1. Ellul’s book is available in English as of August 2014 as The Empire of Non-Sense, translated by David Lovekin and others, published by Papadakis.

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