Thinking through dialectic

At the very end of Ellul par lui-même (see previous posts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4), Jacques Ellul “goes meta”, with an illuminating discussion not of what he thinks, but of how he thinks; and, indeed, how modern humanity in general thinks:

To conclude, I return to the subject of dialectic. Dialectic is a way of thinking and of understanding reality that has become habitual and standard in the western world as a result of Marx’s influence and the rediscovery of the importance of Hegel’s thought.

Dialectic, he continues, is a way of thinking that “doesn’t exclude contraries, but includes them”. That isn’t to say it can be reduced to a simplistic formula of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis”:

Dialectic is infinitely more versatile and profound than that.

Ellul gives the example of a living organism. Rather than there being a “clear and evident opposition between life and death”, it is now apparent that within any living organism there is an equilibrium between the forces that maintain and renew the organism and those that work to destroy it. The organism develops as these equilibriums between “the forces of life and the forces of death” develop and change.

The same situation is found in our historical situation, which has both “positive” and “negative” features: the one cannot simply eliminate the other, and nor can they be combined into like mixing black and white to make grey. Rather, the synthesis comes in a new historical situation that integrates what had previously been contradictory elements.

That all sounds rather abstract, but we can see how it works in more concrete terms by looking at what Ellul considers to be the origin of modern dialectical thought: not Marx or Hegel, nor the ancient Greeks, but the Bible, in particular the Old Testament and St Paul.

What the Old Testament and the writings of St Paul have in common is:

In these two texts, two contradictory things are always affirmed, which we are told come together to bring about a new situation.

As an example, Ellul alludes to two apparently contradictory statements of Paul: “by grace you have been saved … not as the result of works”, and “work out your salvation by fear and trembling”. “You are saved by grace, therefore save yourself by your works”, as Ellul paraphrases it. He continues:

It is a dialectical thought: from the moment you are saved, you are integrated into a narrative, a process which brings about the salvation which you have been given in advance, but which you have to realise, to accomplish, to take in hand. … This is something contradictory, but it is not contradictory when you live it out. … In the course of your life, it is resolved perfectly.

Similarly, in the Old Testament, the people of Israel are liberated from Egypt, but then immediately put under the direction of God. This is an apparent contradiction: surely it amounts to putting a newly-freed people back into a form of slavery? On the contrary:

The Bible tells us that God, having liberated his people, directs them, while at the same time respecting their initiative and independence. They must constantly reclaim the conditions of their liberation, as the Jewish people have done.

To receive God’s freedom is to accept his direction, something that is “difficult to understand intellectually”, but which we live out concretely. Ellul cites Karl Barth to say:

when it is said that on the one hand there is the liberty of God, and on the other hand the liberty that God gives humanity, it is a question of living our human liberty within the liberty of God.

It seems to me that this same dialectical mode of thought can be seen in the “double causation” – divine and natural – by which I’ve suggested before that Thomas Aquinas can help resolve the supposed conflict between “science” and “religion”. As Ellul puts it:

Logically this is impossible, but dialectically it works.

I found this section of Ellul’s book illuminating and liberating. It seemed to reveal to me more clearly how I tend to think: with a certain willingness to hold apparent contradictions in tension, pending further information or new circumstances. It’s probably also why I find Ellul (among others) so congenial a thinker.

Christian responses to a technological society

I’ve just finished reading Ellul par lui-même, the book based on Jacques Ellul’s 1979 Canadian radio interviews with William Vanderburg (see previous posts 1 | 2 | 3). If you want an introduction to Ellul’s life and thought then this is an excellent place to start. The English equivalent would seem to be Perspectives on our Age: I say “equivalent”, because it seems to be an abridged/rearranged version rather than a straight translation.

In the closing chapter, Ellul bemoans the attitudes he saw around him in the church at that time: of strong personal faith being combined either with ignorance about the world around, or else a wholly superficial engagement, particularly in politics. In late 70s France, the fashion in the church, as he saw it, was to be moralisingly leftist, “full of good sentiments”, but without truly understanding the world in which we live.

Not that understanding Ellul’s perspective on our world comes easily. As William Vanderburg observes in his Afterword:

We are so habituated to the value of efficiency that it is very difficult to understand that that value is contrary to all the values of every other civilisation.

So as we unlearn our unthinking absorption of the “value of efficiency”, what are the responses that Christians should have to the world of technology and efficiency in which we find ourselves? Ellul outlines three.

The first response is that which Christians should have towards technology. Ellul is often regarded as being simply anti-technology, in a way that makes it easy to criticise him (“what about medical advances that save so many lives?”, etc.). In fact, Ellul writes:

It is certainly not a question of rejecting technique, of being anti-technique or holding out judgment against it. For it is not for us to judge: God alone is judge. Human works serve God in the construction of the heavenly Jerusalem. According to the book of Revelation, the glory of the nations will enter into the heavenly Jerusalem, and the glory of the nations includes technique.

So if our attitude is not to be one of outright rejection of “technique”, what is the proper Christian response to a world dominated by technology and the pursuit of efficiency? Ellul continues:

It is a question of having a critical acceptance of technique.

This “critical acceptance” of technique must be coupled with an “iconoclastic” attitude in which we attack, not technique itself, but the “divine and religious character” that technology and efficiency have acquired in our society.

Secondly, Christians must be bearers of hope in our society, a society which (as Ellul argues earlier in the book) the dominance of technique has made the most anxious and neurotic in history. This is not a merely human hope (“éspoir”), in the sense that we “hope” the weather will be better tomorrow, and we “hope” the economy will pick up in the next few years. Rather, it is the deep and certain hope (“ésperance”) founded on the love of God: the hope that is “the presence of a possible love”, even if all else appears lost. “Holding onto this hope gives us the courage to live today.”

Third, Christians must be bearers of liberty in our society. As technique becomes more and more rigorous, human freedom becomes ever more restricted and human action ever more predetermined: we must live or work in this way, because that is the most efficient means of achieving the desired outcome. But, as St Paul says, “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free”: and to be given freedom in Christ is to reject all fatalism.

The Christian ethic is an ethic of freedom, which should lead Christians to work against all forms of determinism, and to recover for all people the possibility of choice; rather than allowing us all to be treated as parts in a machine.

Ellul concludes:

These three observations on the Christian faith don’t represent the sum total of what the Christian is called to do. But they do represent how a Christian must live in a technological society.

Politics, art, religion: compensations in a technological world

Having outlined the development of technique as the driving force of our society (see previous post), Jacques Ellul continues by analysing technique’s effects on politics, art and religion.

He argues (in chapter 10 of Ellul par lui-même) that these each provide different forms of “compensation” for the difficulties of living in a technological universe. A fully technological world is one of cold rationality, foreign to our humanity. “It is as difficult for a person to live spontaneously in a technical milieu as for an astronaut to live spontaneously in space,” Ellul declares. This is mostly down to two consequences of technique: the suppression of the subject, and the suppression of meaning.

As regards the first, the suppression of the subject, technique “is a force for objectivification”, as human individuality is replaced by the correct technical procedure for any activity. Ellul gives the example of driving a car, in which the better a driver you are, the less your driving reflects your personality and the more it reflects an objective standard, the “correct” way to drive. Similarly, technique suppresses meaning by replacing ends with means, and reducing the significance of human life.

Ellul describes various means by which we compensate for the dehumanising effects of technique. In politics, the ability of individual politicians to direct events has shrunk even as the power of the state itself has grown. The increased emphasis on politicians as personalities compensates for this by giving us the comforting illusion that individual politicians are directing events (even if we disagree with them), when the real power lies in technical and administrative forces beyond their or our control.

Modern art, on the other hand, divides between art that replicates technique’s suppression of the subject and of meaning (such as the “new novel” in which mere storytelling is abandoned and dismissed as “retrograde”), and more “vulgar” forms of art (ranging from Pop Art at one end to “erotic spectacles” at the other) which compensate for it.

The final example Ellul gives, one that is “completely compensatory”, is that of religion, and particularly the sudden development of new forms of religious phenomenon in the contemporary world: “spiritualism, sects, pietism” (to which we might add phenomena such as the charismatic movement). Ellul writes:

For my part, I do not believe that this comes (if you are a Christian) from the Holy Spirit. It is a phenomenon that is comprehensible from a sociological point of view, in the light of technique.

Modern religious phenomena help compensate for the “pain and frustration” of living in a technological universe; they are a form of escapism from it. Ellul continues:

If technique must dominate the material world, we will make up for it by spiritual or religious escapism.

As such, these forms of religion are operating in the manner Marx meant by “the opium of the people”, making exploitation bearable and hence perpetuating it. However, it is no longer a matter of capitalists against workers, but of “technical organisation on the one hand, against humanity, all of humanity, on the other.”

Is Ellul being unfair here? Maybe: he certainly has a tendency to paint with a broad brush. But he is not alone in suggesting that a great deal of modern spiritual or religious activity can function as a form of escapism, a way of asserting the “real, inner me” against our outward actions in a world governed by forces beyond our control.

Technique: the universal reign of efficiency

Reading Ellul par lui-même has reminded me how subtle and far-reaching is Jacques Ellul’s analysis of “technique” (his term for what we might call “technology as a social force”). It’s not just a case of “technology is bad, so you’re a hypocrite to read Ellul on your Kindle or iPhone”.

Ellul argues that technique, rather than capital, has become the driving force in our society. He goes on to present his understanding of technique over several chapters.

One of the key objections that is made to Ellul’s theory is that human beings have always used techniques, so how is today any different? As one of his critics put it, “the difference between a flint axe and the atom bomb is only one of degree”.

Against this, Ellul argues that, prior to the 18th century, techniques were used for a variety of reasons – cultural, traditional, religious – but rarely out of a concern of efficiency. What has changed since the 18th century is that technique has become a matter of finding the most effective and efficient means of achieving any particular goal, across every area of human existence.

Nor is technique just a matter of “technology” in the sense of machinery or computers. Psychological techniques, such as propaganda and advertising, are also part of the “technical phenomenon”. (Think of how computer games companies now hire psychologists, to help them find ways to make games more compelling and addictive.)
In sport, also, intuition has been replaced by “rigorous methods of training, rest and nutrition” (not to mention le dopage…).

Ellul argues that the industrial revolution should not be studied in isolation, but as only one aspect of a wider technical revolution in which various social factors – increased population, the loss of old social structures, the accumulation of capital and so on – combined to create a society which had very different values from those which had preceded it.

The first of these values is the work ethic – the belief that work is virtuous in and of itself. For all that technology may lighten the burden of any particular task, as a whole the western world has ended up working harder than any previous society. The “double game” of technique, Ellul suggests, is to make people work flat-out while always holding out the prospect that technology will eventually enable us to live a life of leisure.

The second key value for the technological society is happiness – and, in particular, happiness conceived in terms of material possessions and material consumption, rather than in spiritual or intellectual terms.

Technique has transformed our society, destroying the old order which had remained “tribal or patriarchal”. It has resulted in a new division of classes, Ellul argues: no longer between “capitalists” and “workers”, but between those who are skilled in bureaucratic, administrative or scientific techniques (or financial ones, we might add), and those who are not. Neither politics, law, art nor religion has been immune – but that (in particular the last) is for another post.

Ellul: what I learned from Marx

I’m currently reading Ellul par lui-même, which is an autobiographical account of Jacques Ellul’s key ideas, based on interviews conducted by Ellul’s “disciple”, William H. Vanderburg, for Canadian radio in 1979.

Ellul describes the impact that discovering Marx had on him at the age of 17: the insight that Marx’s writings seemed to give into the injustices Ellul had witnessed in his own family (where his father, never rich, had become unemployed in the post-1929 crash). However, when Ellul approached the communist workers he knew in Bordeaux, he was quickly disillusioned: they showed no interest in Marx’s thought, but instead just waited for their orders from the Party.

Disillusionment turned to complete rejection of communism as the Stalinist purges reached a peak in 1936-37, when Ellul was in his mid-20s. As Ellul says:

Contrary to what is said all the time now, I do not think it was necessary to be particularly intelligent, particularly enlightened, particularly clear-sighted, to understand what was happening in the Soviet world.

However, while his experience of what was happening in the USSR “drove me completely from communism”, the thought of Marx himself continued to have an influence, which Ellul summarises as follows.

First, it inspired in him a revolutionary outlook. Even though the communists were wrong (and the Nazis even more wrong), it was clear to him that the world could not continue as it was indefinitely:

The question of revolution was a central question during my youth, and it has basically remained central throughout my life. It is thanks to Marx that I have that conviction that man, whatever the diverse historical situations in which he finds himself, has a revolutionary function in respect of his society.

Second, Marx led Ellul to see the importance of reality. Not in the sense of philosophical materialism, but in the importance which Marx assigns to “the material and concrete reality which surrounds man and which, through intellectual or spiritual thought, he has a tendency to forget, to empty out, until finally that reality can become masked”. Marx’s influence, by contrast, led Ellul:

always to ask on the basis of what economic situation I am talking, on the basis of what context, of what interests.

The third element of his thought which Ellul drew from Marx was “the decision always to be on the side of the poor in this world”. This doesn’t mean simply those who are poor in cash terms, but those who are alienated from the conditions for modern life: what Marx terms the proletariat.

Above all, Ellul understood this in terms of the ability to sustain family life. He argues that, contrary to certain statements in the Communist Manifesto, Marx was not anti-family. Rather, he was hostile towards the fact that the bourgeoisie had turned the family into a privilege. What was unacceptable for Marx was not the existence of the family, but that a majority of people were prevented from enjoying the same family life that the bourgeois minority enjoyed. For Ellul:

The ideal, though unattainable in a capitalist society, is to form a happy and balanced couple and to have happy and balanced children. To be poor is to be unable to have such a family.

Marx had a comprehensive analysis of human life: psychological, sociological and economic. To be lacking in any of those areas was to be poor: so, for example, by 1979 Ellul regarded the elderly as being in poverty, even if they had enough to live on, due to their exclusion from wider society.

The one area where Marx had no influence on Ellul was in relation to religion – because at that stage Ellul (later a member of the Reformed Church) was so indifferent to religion that Marx’s critiques made no impact…

George Grant: the “good” vs “values”

The First Principles website has a fascinating profile of George Grant, “incontestably the most important Canadian conservative thinker of the twentieth century”.

What I find most interesting about Grant is his clear-eyed rejection of both what we would now call neoliberalism and US imperialism. On the former, the writer of the profile, Neil G. Robertson, writes:

For Grant, it was a serious confusion to associate conservatism with the ideology of the free market. As he was fond of pointing out, the right to make as much money as you can is the apotheosis of liberalism, not a mark of conservatism. For Grant, conservatism was related not to one side of the modern debate between socialism and capitalism, but rather was rooted in a desire to conserve still abiding instances of an older, pre-modern relation of humanity to God and the world.

Grant contrasted “the older European culture of contemplation, reflection, and higher purpose united with social solidarity” with “the revolutionary individualism of the United States”. Grant’s lament for his own nation was that it was giving up the former for the latter; it seems equally the case that in Europe, and especially in Britain, “revolutionary individualism” has become dominant over any older culture of “contemplation, reflection, and higher purpose united with social solidarity”.

Influenced by Jacques Ellul, Grant argued in his later work that this triumph of individualist modernity was an unavoidable consequence of modern technological society, at the heart of which lies “a conception of the essence of humanity as freedom or as will”, with technology as an instrument “mastery of both human and non-human nature”. For Grant, while technology has undoubtedly “greatly liberated human beings from suffering and the slavery of work”, it has also turned the world “into potential raw material, at the disposal of our ‘creative’ wills.”

This then leads Grant to a fascinating insight into contemporary talk of “values” or “quality of life”, which has almost completely supplanted “the older language of the ‘good'”. For Grant, this is a consequence of our “technological fate”:

The older language implies a given order or set of purposes, and with this, a sense of “nature” as an ordered whole—ultimately, for Grant, a sense of God as the fundamental source and end of this order. But this older language has been replaced with a language that derives worth from a realm of “values” that are posited by human agency.

To Grant, the language of values is a confused language: “Everybody uses the word ‘values’ to describe our making of the world: capitalists and socialists, atheists and avowed believers, scientists and politicians. The word comes to us so platitudinously that we take it to belong to the way things are. It is forgotten that before Nietzsche and his immediate predecessors, men did not think about their actions in that language.”

In other words, “the good” implies a prior order to which we seek to conform, whereas “values” imply that we are ultimately free to choose our own notions of meaning and truth.

Grant’s vision of technological modernity’s destruction of all prior concepts of “Justice” and the “Good” led him a position that could appear (and in many ways was) “deeply pessimistic”. However, against this he insisted that “to be a Christian one cannot be a pessimist”. Even if all that can be achieved in some circumstances is “lamentation and waiting”, and utopian hopes are “folly”, Grant rejected “inaction or cynicism”. As he told student protestors in 1965:

Nothing I have said denies for one moment the nobility of protest. Nothing I have said denies that justice is good and that injustice is evil and that it is required of human beings to know the difference between the two. To live with courage in the world is always better than retreat or disillusion.

The politics we should adopt in the face of technological modernity was one of realism without despair, and of seeking opportunities to express our humanity through our love and intelligence. As Grant told his student audience:

We must face the laws of [technology’s] necessity—its potential to free men from natural necessity, its potential for inhumanity and tyranny. We must not delude ourselves and we must not throw up our hands. We must define possible areas of influence with the most careful clarity. When in this mammoth system can we use our intelligence and our love to open spaces in which human excellence can exist?

A burning Fire shut up in my bones

Apparently the new Kindle Fire ads quote the lines from Voltaire that gave the original Kindle its name:

The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others and it becomes the property of all.

Finding Amazon citing this makes me so angry I could start throwing things around the room. How dare they appropriate a quotation about the benefits to humanity of the free interchange and sharing of books and information, and apply it to a device whose DRM and licensing restrictions mean that Voltaire would now have to say:

The instruction we find in books is a commodity. Our neighbours recommend we buy it, we download it at home, recommend it to others for them to buy too, and it remains at all times the exclusive property of the Content Provider who grants us a non-exclusive right to view such Digital Content solely for our personal, non-commercial use.

The same point was also forcefully made in Monday’s XKCD (especially the mouseover text):

Add to that the destruction that the Kindle, especially in its new expanded range, will cause to book shops, especially independent book shops. Not to mention the loss of the intergenerational transfers of knowledge and enjoyment, often purely serendipitous, that can come just from children reading the books on their parents’ shelves.

The Kindle is clearly a lovely bit of kit. Part of me would, no doubt, get great enjoyment from owning and using one. But in terms of its social consequences (and Ellul’s 76 questions to ask a new technology are worth reading here), a better quotation than Voltaire would have been this:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. [...] All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.