Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society: Technique, Both Left and Right (Ch 1)

okay I’m on to chapter 1 of Jacques
Ellul the technological society probably the hardest thing about this book is
really having a complete grasp of what the rule means by technique notice that
he doesn’t use the word technology but technique and from Chapter one right
away we learn that though technique can
encompass machine or machinery and that kind of technology that is not the same
thing that rule is talking about in other words the machine can be a sort of
subset of technique but technique is larger than that so he distinguishes it
from the machine he says if we were to characterize the relations between
technique and the machine today we could say not only that the machine is the
result of a certain technique but also that its social and economic
applications are made possible by other technical advances and and that gives
you some clue as to where a rule is going to go with the idea of technique
it doesn’t remain in the physical realm but also deals with these systems that
human beings create to manage other physical techniques so technique is is
something that applies to human behavior and how we organize ourselves and how we
motivate people and all sorts of things beyond this but technique I sometimes
use the term method as a sort of temporary substitute for technique
sometimes sometimes it makes sense for me to do that in order to get a full
grasp or but I shouldn’t say full but a more
complete grasp of what he’s talking about he makes the distinction between
technique and machine clear in this statement here he says as long as
technique was represented exclusively by the machine it was possible to speak of
man and the machine the machine remained an external object and man though
significantly influenced by it in his professional private and the psychic
life remained nonetheless independent he was in a position to assert himself
apart from the machine he was able to adopt a position with respect to it and
see little things in modern times these two have not been able to stay as
separate man cannot at least psychologically separate himself from
the machine but has become in a way part of it so the Human Sciences have become
a part of it now I might just take a step back here before going any further
and try to explain the bigger picture of where he’s headed for a little there’s
something different about technique in modern times he does acknowledge in this
chapter that even in ancient times human beings had employed techniques
techniques for using certain tools for instance techniques for low-level
political organization even but something about modern technique it’s
sort of at a certain point he describes sort of like a snowball
there was a snowball effect in modern times where technique was piled upon
technique and at a certain point technique took over and became a sort of
self moving it took over itself in other words and became a sort of self moving
thing outside of human control and I know this is hard to wrap your
mind around believe me I I’ve had my trouble with it as well we tend to think
that our techniques or methods are at our disposal to use for human purposes
and that they always increase efficiency and they aim at you know more
convenience and all the things that we say that we want but he points out again
towards the beginning of this chapter some really glaring examples from the
20th century of how technique kind of on a roll in the case of war and ideological
conflict creates things that that ultimately don’t benefit anybody and
this is further proof that technique stands apart from just it’s it’s not
about economics it’s not about exclusively about human planning as far
as it actually benefiting human beings this further proof of it having a sort
of life of its own he says the techniques which have shown
the greatest development are not techniques of production after all at
all for example techniques in the care of human beings such as surgery
psychology and so on have nothing to do with productivity the most modern
techniques of destruction have even less to do with productivity the atomic and
hydrogen bombs and the Germans v1 and v2 weapons are all examples of the most
powerful technical creations of man’s mind human ingenuity and mechanical
skill are today being exploited along lines which have little reference to
productivity so you know again we tend to think of our techniques being
employed for rational purposes and in the capitalist system but also in
socialist and communist I think productivity is high on the on
the list of leaders of all kinds and societies of all kinds but he’s saying
but in this you know very glaring case of weaponry which does take on a life of
its own called the arms race and you know so it becomes something that feels
inexorable like it can’t be stopped like we’re all victims of it this is a
dramatic case of technique becoming not only unproductive but a danger to human
beings in this chapter Ellul goes into the history of where modern technique
arose in giving it this special characteristic of what I call the
snowball effect he says at one point what really produced the general
movement in favor of technique was special interest and then he goes on to
elaborate what this meant means he says in fact the bourgeoisie has always been
more or less involved with technique they were the initiators of the first
financial techniques and later on of the modern state at the beginning of the
19th century they saw the possibilities of drawing huge profits from this system
especially as they were favored by the crumbling of morals and religion and
felt free felt themselves free in spite of the idealistic smokescreen they
raised to exploit individuals this class put the interests of technique before
the interests of individuals who had to be sacrificed in order that technique
might progress so there we have I should say sounding like somebody to the left
of center and that he’s criticizing the bourgeoisie for basically giving free
rein to technique for to make for basically progress of all kinds
even to the point of exploiting individuals but then in the next line or
in the next page or two he then points the finger at the left-wing socialist
communist he says Karl Marx rehabilitated techniques in the eyes of
the workers he preached that technique can be liberating those who exploited it
enslave the workers but that was the fault of the Masters and not of
technique itself ok well I might stop and try to explain this a little bit as
best I understand it you know he’s taken aim at the bourgeoisie and they their
desire to develop technique and to kind of give themselves over to techniques of
advancement advancing and expanding the economy and creating more products and
finding markets to sell those products and creating a demand for those products
on and on and on and then next he points the finger at Karl Marx and the leftists
and he says they have rehabilitated technique in the eyes of the workers
there was you know some movements in the 19th century that were anti technology
and saw technology as the enemy which is closer to the way Ellul actually thinks
but Karl Marx and his brand of socialism / communism was not anti machine or anti
technology at all and this is something that I think people who haven’t studied
Marx very much may get the impression or maybe under the the assumption that Marx
didn’t like factory production because he criticized factory production for
being dehumanizing and alienating but Marx argued that it was the way that it
was being used Marx actually thought that Factory
techniques produced by the bourgeoisie could be used in a very efficient way
and in a communal way to provide abundantly for all people Marx was a
materialist he wanted people to live well he thought that capitalism created
a perverse incentive structure that made some people extremely rich and everybody
else poor and that it was illogical because it would be it wouldn’t have a
market for its goods and he thought that capitalism was going to implode on
itself and then we’d have the communist revolution right but but Marx saw
nothing wrong with the machinery in fact this was the great gift of the
bourgeoisie to the future was the creation of the infrastructure and the
methods of production what he didn’t like was the marketing and the selling
end of things that technique he didn’t like and any thought it needed to be
replaced with a technique of something like what we might call management
notice how I keep using the word technique here basically Ahlul is saying
that the capitalist bourgeoisie and the Marxists are both the same on this score
they both have a huge faith and reliance upon technique the bourgeoisie in favor
of you know private industry and its development of technology and techniques
of organizing the workers and techniques of compensation and techniques of
marketing and all that as I said and and the Marxist thus the Communists in favor
of the techniques of management’s of goods and services you know planning
rational economic planning and distribution and and you know getting
the most of factory production and all of that so in his mind they share this
fundamental thing which is very very modern
it’s this this notion that human beings can develop methods for everything to
exploit and make efficient everything but they become as I said before
something that comes loose from human control that at a certain point when you
see these things develop the techniques that are developed they they appoint the
way to even better techniques or more diverse techniques in different areas
and so pretty soon the technique becomes in a way and end in itself
a rule says that when in the 20th or the 19th and I guess going into the 20th
century when the benefits of techniques were felt by the masses and so this
would be both in capitalist and in socialist and communist countries when
the techniques began to be felt by the masses both because of government policy
bringing them goods and services and because of an expanding economy in the
case of at least the capitalist system more and more people became
beneficiaries of various techniques whether they were about you know
products that they could consume or whether it was you know methods of
medical science or whether it was political governmental service
administration more and more of their lives came under the domain of technique
which ostensibly is more or less under the control of either government and/or
big business but as we keep moving on in this history that he lays out you get
the feeling that even government this big business aren’t really ultimately in
charge of technique that as I said before it becomes its own thing now
here’s something that’s interesting he talks about how agriculture changed
and about how this creates what he calls plasticity which I take to be a sort of
mental quality that makes it possible for people to accept maybe with
discomfort but to accept ever more rapid change he um he says the new
agricultural techniques were plainly so superior that it was not possible to
preserve the old open field system the Commons the pastures and the forests
thus the final blow was dealt to the old organic peasant society the peasant
could not survive as such and with him the whole of society entered into a
state of flux the plasticity we refer to came about in England as a result of
this in evolution in the use of land which furnished the technical movement
with the necessary manpower a pathetic vacant and uprooted not only was this
manpower necessary for the development of Industry the masses thus created were
indispensable to faith and techniques and the spread of techniques okay well I
find that very interesting on multiple levels but probably the most important
is this notion of plasticity ok that as the agricultural techniques changed and
there was more for instance maybe more grazing of cattle and sheep maybe there
was more you know use of machinery to cultivate so in in both cases you need a
lot less people than on the land to do the farming so all these people who
lived on the land before although the former serfs the peasants they took off
to try to find some way to make a living in the cities and they were met with
absolutely no plan at that point no technique of social welfare anyway and
and so they were just you know extremely poor they were at loose ends as he says
apathetic vacant and uprooted and he says that this is exactly the type of
people who are able to be swept up in the
technical movement I imagine that he’s thinking of you know
they’re being hired at a daily rate or even an hourly rate into these factories
what Blake called satanic Mills right these factories that that basically use
them like pieces of machinery again kind of sounding reminiscent of Marx in that
case but remember Marx and the communist system that grew out of Marx and Engels
thought didn’t want to disrupt the basic factory production method either so we
go from the pastoral life of relative independence strangely enough even as
serfs I think Ulua would probably say the average serf was more independent on
his little plot of land working under the Lord than he would have been in the
factory wondering if he was going to be hired back for another 12 to 15 hours of
back-breaking labor the next day so this again the psychological state of
plasticity comes about when people are shocked by rapid change and it then
takes on again a life of its own where you have this large pool of people who
can’t think as well have no real groundedness with which to critique or
to analyze what is that’s happening and react and so can be easily taken up into
the machinery and methods of the new modern production in this case right
okay so then out of that debacle came a
renewed effort to try to create techniques of government
and economics that would either put people in a better position within the
capitalist system or make for a more socialized system so you know in other
words a technique made for a problem which then called for another technique
and this is a characteristic of technique technique seems like it solves
one problem maybe or sometimes it just exists because people can do it but if
it solves a problem it then creates at least another problem and then you have
to create more techniques for dealing with that problem
and there is I would say even though ultimately I think a little is saying
this is a very dehumanizing process there’s a very human tendency here to
always say confidently at least since the modernity to save more and more
confidently we can create a technique to solve those problems so if we do happen
to shove peasants off the land and they’re starving in the streets that’s
no reason to go back to the other way of doing things it’s to forge ahead and to
create the welfare state or to you know learn how to manipulate the economy
through the use of technique so that we gain fuller employment and higher wages
or its you know getting somehow creating techniques that transfer wealth from one
group of people to the other and place more ownership of production into the
hands of the state in any case there’s always this the sort of faith and hope
that human techniques are endless and can endlessly solve problems but but you
know reading it will gives you the sense that there’s a certain insanity to all
this because human beings just keep keep up with that faith and and things just
keep happening which are detrimental there’s a great example from the
introduction that I really can’t totally get into without taking a lot more time
but it has to do with DDT and DDT was that you know chemical that was gonna
get rid of mosquitoes was gonna get rid of malaria but it had really bad effects
upon a lot of animals in the environment and got into our food supply and then
caused in in this case rickets in in calves with who drank milk from mothers
with milk containing DDT this gets into our children well then we need to have
medical science and we need to have a renewed technique of you know preventing
this from developing but with every technique again comes even more problems
so anyway I have to stop it at that but I will pick up with next time on chapter
2 of jackals the technological society

5 thoughts on “Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society: Technique, Both Left and Right (Ch 1)

  1. I haven't read this book. I think Ellul maybe painter himself in a corner by thinking of a broad concept like productivity to define what pure technique doesnt concern itself with. One technique I've personally observed would be my conversation with a friend who worked as a contracted engineer for a large oil company. When I asked her what her role was there. She said her team and for the most part the whole engineering wing in her office about 10 engineers were essentially useless supervisors. Another example is the mass lay offs they had during the oil down turn. These jobs were mostly a technique political, financial and Economic for jobs and spending to trickle down to the service sector.
    It's very strange because this maybe a point Wendy Brown overlooked. This strange built in surplus labor to bolster up a local economy. It's very apparent in public sectors, some say it could be as large as 30 percent of the upper middle class.

  2. Just found your channel. Thank you so much for doing this, I just graduated with my BA and entering grad school (hopefully) soon. Ellul's book was recommended to me by my research mentor, and I'm incorporating his work into my writing sample on the presence of Taylorism in the modern University. Your lectures are very high quality and there's no superfluidity or posturing. Thank you so much, again.

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