Jacques Ellul and the Empire of Nonsense (ii) – the modernist cookbook

In Part I of this post I introduced Jacques Ellul’s The Empire of Non-sense (1980) and his reading of the inner logic of modern art in terms of the demolition of content through technique. Here I would like to explore his view of how this despressing situation come about, before asking whether things have improved since 1980 and if so, how.

Edouard Manet, 'Bar at the Folies Bergères' (1881-1882)

Charles Baudelaire

The death of the symbol

Tracing his genealogy of modern art (with particular regard to France), Ellul sees the predominance of form, or rather the act of artistic production, over content as already visible with Manet, whom he contrasts with Baudelaire, who upheld Stendhal’s view of painting as la morale construite and the link between art and metaphysics. [1]  With Manet as Ellul reads him, the relationship between the object painted and the painter is no longer the principal locus of interest.[2] Objects are no longer important as symbols pointing to anything or anyone else; what is important is the autonomous image. It is not difficult to see this tendency towards a concentration on the technique of painting in the various ‘isms’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – impressionism and pointillism being two obvious cases in point as movements defined by their technical procedures rather than their subject matter; a parallel phenomenon of the non-referential use of words can be seen in Mallarmé’s poetry. Ellul bemoans the long-term triumph of the aesthetic stance associated with Manet, leading to a situation in which art in all its branches has been reduced to pure abstraction, nothing more than a formal arrangement of signs without meaning. Ellul here attacks Saussure’s famous statement  that ‘the linguistic sign does not unite a thing and a name, but a concept and an acoustic image’ [3] as an encapsulation of this anti-symbolic shift . The central point of Ellul’s thesis is that, whereas many artists and art theorists have regarded this radical abstraction as artistic liberation, even one with a spiritual dimension (as with Kandinsky, Malevich or Mondrian), it should rather be viewed as the capitulation of art to the all-pervasive empire of Technique which characterizes the modern world.

Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) 'Suprematist Composition', 1916

The symbolic dimension of art has been obliterated, Ellul asserts, by modernism’s obsession with procedures and methods, its abandonment of the desire to communicate. In the field of literature, this can be seen in the French structuralist and post-structuralist debates of the 1950s and 1960s; with the New Novel of figures such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and the theories of Roland Barthes, the author is for example reconceived as ‘a transmitter of orders and a performer of calculations’ [4], generating a ‘textual machine’ which can only be deciphered by a reader equipped with an arsenal of complex interpretative techniques. A century after Manet, modern art and literature have taken the aesthetic which arguably first manifested itself in paintings such as Olympia to its logical conclusion:

‘We all now know that signs (sounds, words, images…) carry quantities of information independent of the meaning of the intended message transmitted by means of them: the task of technique is to improve these signs indefinitely. The task of modern Art is to make the radical break between the independent information specific to the sign, and the message, which in the last analysis must be excluded.’ [5]

Here Ellul notes a paradox: once meaning has been eliminated, what is left is nothing but the means which were invented to convey it, but which no longer relate to any intelligible content. Art is no longer a means of creating human community, since the latter implies commonly shared symbols which have now disappeared:

‘And so we arrive at the final level, that of perfect isolation via what ought to be a means of communication. But the communication of something. This art presents itself as a marvellous network of telephone lines of all colours and capacities, co-axial cables, automatic switchboards, but there is nobody speaking into the mouthpiece, and nobody to listen and reply. The public is simply invited to admire the art of the engineer and the skill of the workers who have been able to produce such beautiful bundles of wires.’ [6]

The irony of this situation – and its logical incoherence – is that the posture of modern art is one that ‘refuses’ meaning, a refusal which mirrors the organizing technical principles of society at large, yet this is a meaning in itself, the communication of an anti-metaphysical stance. But this return of meaning is for Ellul purely negative, since art has given up trying to find anything beyond the technical system to which it has enslaved itself: ‘if one puts oneself inside this art of non-meaning, one there again finds meaning and coherence […] but a meaning which is nothing other nor more than that included in technique itself’. [7]

Once signs have been stripped of meaning, there is only one place for art to go if it is to be consistent with its own nihilistic urge.[8] The suicidal extension of this artistic trajectory is for art to become non-art, the destruction of the  artistic sign itself, the search for pure absence. This Ellul sees as the pathological denial of all that has in human history been associated with the word art, which has always assumed its own de facto participation in an overall context of human and natural meaning:

‘If there is no subject, intention, meaning, transmission of significant information, beyond operation, there is no art. Or at least, what until now has commonly been meant by this word. If this is how things are, the movement that we have just analyzed is the negation of all that has been considered an art since the beginnings of humanity.’ [9]

What has been put in place of meaning? Theory. Modern art has surrounded itself with a complex, opaque theoretical discourse, contends Ellul. It has a compensatory role, in that its function is to mask the vacuity of the art itself (which can only be enjoyed by the circle of initiates familiar with the theory), its incapacity to produce meaning (‘the gravity and depth of the theory is only there to veil this incapacity, this impotence’). [10] Paradoxically, the more intellectually and technically accomplished the work, the greater its emptiness: ‘an extraordinary complexity, prodigious means, an unrivalled intellectual and technical prowess, producing negativity. The most perfect organizational theory produces an incredible disorder.’ [11]

Jacques Ellul

The modernist cookbook

The only way in which such art is able to legitimate itself is by re-writing existing aesthetic norms and ‘educating’ the public as to the new canons of art in an effort to show that the Emperor is not naked, despite all appearances to the contrary. But this strategy is misguided and self-deceptive; here Ellul reaches for a strikingly blunt example demonstrating the limits of this kind of revisionism in order to show that his argument is not merely reactionary but possesses an objective basis. There is one art which cannot simply be re-defined arbitrarily according to a logic that says that ‘anything goes’ – cooking! Ellul’s analogy with modern art is consciously provocative and exaggerated, but nonetheless thought-provoking:

‘Apply for example the following recipe: take a glass of paradichlorobenzene, add a big tube of neoprene glue, sharpen it with a touch of ascorbic acid. Cook at a low temperature. Then cut some large slices of expanded polystyrene, heat it up in industrial oil, cover with sauce and serve hot … You can torture the ear and assault the eye, but you cannot taste just any old thing: that is the limit of reality.’ [12]

Ellul is of course arguing with characteristic sarcasm that aesthetics have an objective foundation, which modern art is only able to flout because the human spirit does not react immediately as the throat does to sulphuric acid:

‘Painting, literature, and music – [classed as] modern for their obedience to ‘anything goes’ are of the same order as my cooking recipe, but because their effect is only on the nerves, then the psyche, then it is intellectual, ethical and finally spiritual, and because nothing registers on a seismograph at any of these stages, we don’t care.’ [13]

With regard to music, Ellul clearly follows Adorno’s penetrating analysis (1941) of the inner logic of twelve-tone composition as a system designed to organize the free atonality of the revolutionary (and in my view the finest) compositions of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in their expressionist period. Adorno shows how the dodecaphonic system, intended to provide the composer with the means of total mastery over a raw material become ‘blind’ (since the twelve tones have no innate properties, being essentially equal, undifferentiated from one another except numerically), cruelly turns into a set of rules paralysing the imagination, a compositional straightjacket.[14] Where Ellul is perhaps more remorseless than Adorno is in showing that this mirrors exactly the modern world’s relationship to technology. The dissonances of Schoenberg’s music on one level speak of humanity’s condition in the twentieth-century, of the trauma of alienation in a world where human community has been replaced by machines. Yet on another level the mechanical procedures governing twelve-tone music reflect the extent to which this very music has been invaded by the technical environment, Ellul contends. Even those who protest against it, or try to expose it by replicating it (as in the case of Andy Warhol), end up having to work with this environment’s categories, which places modern art in a terrible bind.

What does Ellul offer by way of a remedy? He concludes by asserting that

‘art can only retrieve its critical force and word if it breaks radically with the system of technique, stops functioning with raw material and permutations, stops being enthused by materials and new machines etc.; there is no avoiding a return to values, ethics and meaning. Herein lies the choice. This does not of course mean repeating traditional values, returning to a meaning already affirmed previously, bourgeois ethics! No, art must precisely be inventive (beyond modernity), but inventive of that [i.e. values, ethics, meaning] and nothing else. The rest is comedy.’ [15]

One may criticize Ellul as being at times excessively pessimistic, cantankerous and unnecessarily confrontational;  his analysis of artistic modernism is undoubtedly one-sided, his treatment of the spirituality of artists such as Kandinsky excessively dismissive, while twelve-tone music is certainly susceptible of other interpretations (it is worth noting that Anton Webern was a key influence not only on the Western European post-war avant-garde, but also on figures such as Pärt and Gubaidulina). Ellul seems too to have overlooked the link between John Cage, roundly attacked in The Empire of Non-Sense, and meditative spirituality, a connection made explicit in American minimalism in the works of figures such as Tom Johnson.

Yet if his work is not immune to the charge of sweeping generalization, the force of Ellul’s cultural reading is such that once you have read him, he is difficult if not impossible to ignore. The  issues which he consistently raises are too serious and urgent to be put to one side, while his recuperation by present-day ecologists, critics of global capitalism and adventurous ‘Jesus Radicals’ of the blogosphere indicate that his analysis is anything but reactionary.

Has anything changed thirty years on? Is the artistic Empire of Technique still intact, or have we reached a time of ‘de-colonialization’? Is meaning making a comeback? These are the questions to which part 3 of this post will turn.


[1] ‘Stendhal said somewhere: “Painting is nothing but constructed morality!” If this word morality is understood in a more or less liberal sense, the same can be said of all the arts. As they are always the beautiful expressed by individual feeling, passion and dreams, that is to say variety in unity, or the different faces of the absolute – criticism touches upon metaphysics at every instant‘ (Charles Baudelaire, Le Salon de 1846 in Oeuvres Complètes Vol. 2 (Paris: Michel Lévy, 1868), 83). [‘Stendhal a dit quelque part: « La peinture n’est que de morale construite ! » – Que vous entendiez ce mot de morale dans un sens plus ou moins libéral, on en peut dire autant de tous les arts. Comme ils sont toujours le beau exprimé par le sentiment, la passion et la rêverie de chacun, c’est-à-dire la variété dans l’unité, ou les faces diverses de l’absolu, – la critique touche à chaque instant à la métaphysique.’]
[2] Ellul’s polar opposition between Manet and Baudelaire is borrowed from the work of the French art historian Pierre Daix. As the latter shows in his subtle account of the famous scandal surrounding Manet’s Olympia, the relationship between the two is considerably more complex than Ellul makes out; it is clear that he is using ‘Manet’ and ‘Baudelaire’ as ciphers for two opposed tendencies in art. Daix however makes a point which underlines Ellul’s judgement when he says that Manet’s Olympia, in the deliberately shock of the contrast between the crudity of the subject-matter (which Daix relates to modern pornography) and the virtuosity of Manet’s technique, is a key moment in modern art’s irreligious redefinition of transcendence: ‘Nobody can understand him because the transcendance is not in the subject-matter which the public wishes to read, but in the act of painting alone.’ [dans la seule peinture] (Pierre Daix, Pour une histoire culturelle de l’art moderne (Paris : Jacob, 1998), 204) It is of course worth pointing out that Ellul’s appeal to Baudelaire’s definition of artistic ‘morality’ has nothing to do with bourgeois ethics – Baudelaire famously having been taken to trial in 1857 for obscenity in the case of Les Fleurs du Mal, but rather in the transcendent depth beyond the visible posited by the poet. Although Ellul does not say as much, Baudelaire can be the starting-point for an interesting counter-narrative in French art based on the primacy of the imagination (as in symbolism or surrealism), with Debussy and Messiaen as its most eminent musical representatives. For a study of the powerful interaction between ‘mystic modernism’ and the French intellectual Catholic revival of the first half of the twentieth century, see Stephen Schloesser, Jazz Age Catholicism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), passim.
[3] Quoted in Ellul, L’Empire du non-sens (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1980), 192.
[4] Ibid., 193.
[5] Ibid., 191-192
[6] Ibid., 188.
[7] Ibid., 195.
[8] Here Adorno’s famous statement that ‘modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal’ (The Philosophy of Modern Music (London/New York: Continuum, 2004), 133) comes to mind. However, Adorno still sees a redemptive potential in modernism’s apparent refusal of false meaning in the critique of the meaningless world that it implies. If modern music is the ‘surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked’ (ibid.), it nonetheless constitutes a message. Ellul’s contention is that modern art has abandoned the very notion of such communication.
[9] Ellul, L’Empire, 196.
[10] Ibid., 203.
[11] Ibid., 204.
[12] Ibid., 233/234.
[13] Ibid., 234.
[14] ‘Twelve-tone technique is truly the fate of music. It enchains music by liberating it. The subject dominates music through the rationality of the system, only in order to succumb to the rational system itself […] This technique is realized in its ability to manipulate the material. Thus the technique becomes the designation of the material, establishing itself as alien to the subject and finally subduing the subject by its own force. If the imagination of the composer has once made this material pliable to the constructive will, then the constructive material cripples the imagination’ (Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, 67-68).
[15] Ibid., 282.


One thought on “Jacques Ellul and the Empire of Nonsense (ii) – the modernist cookbook

  1. I admired these two posts on L’Empire du non-sens. I include Ellul in a course I teach at the University of Toronto, and am thinking of including him also in a new one which I may initiate next year. The book’s unavailability in English has me looking for material by which to present it to undergraduate students. I think of it as, really,( though this isn’t widely recognized – or perhaps “admitted” is the more accurate word) as the key book in the whole succession of theoretical books stretching from the initial uptake of Saussure by theory, through Barthes, and to our own moment. Whether or not one agrees with it, it’s unique in throwing into clear and comprehensive relief what is going on and what is at stake; one doesn’t get this from the more prominent theorists, because they are adherents and lack the critical contrast. I’m wondering if I’d be able to get your permission to use your posts in class as an essay on Ellul and his position in this book. I know of course that I can direct anyone I wish to consult your website. What I’d like to do though is to a photocopiable paper version. In any event, let me say again that I’ve enjoyed the first two parts of your essay and I’m looking forward to the third.

    P.S.: I’ve never gotten around to producing a website but if you google “A.F. Moritz” you can get some information about me.

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