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.

2 thoughts on “Politics, art, religion: compensations in a technological world”

  1. Man, I just found your blog from googling the Zizek’s “God in Pain” book. And by quickly looking around I’ve met another of my favorites thinkers (Ellul). You have a new occasional reader for sure!
    Greetings from brazil!

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