Technique Against Culture
Originally published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society 15, nos. 2–3 (1995) 73–78.
Are technique and culture incompatible? Jacques Ellul has boldly argued this thesis in many of his works. He did not always state it in exactly these terms; his more usual formulation was that technique destroys meaning. Now the most important element of culture is meaning. If culture, defined as a society’s total way of life, both material and symbolic, fails to provide sufficient meaning for its members, is it still a culture?
Why should we be interested in this question? Have not there always been brief periods in the history of a civilization, such as the end of the Middle Ages, when a sense of meaninglessness seemed widespread? Ellul’s argument is that today nihilism (meaninglessness) is not a function of the decline of power as in periods of crisis, when a society begins to disintegrate, but is rather a function of the growing power of technique and the political state. In a sense a technological civilization normalizes meaninglessness. If his thesis is correct, then we face a monumental task: the overcoming of technique’s natural tendency to destroy common meaning. The impact of this on humans is devastating. Except for the few who have the courage to rise to the challenge, the loss of common meaning produces hopelessness, cynicism, and vague idealism (to cover up the former two tendencies) in the face of life’s many problems. And for those, especially the young, who have not managed to repress their hopelessness, self-destructive behavior as with drugs, violence, television, and computer games are forms of escape.
The term meaning is being used here in the sense of ultimate meaning, the meaning of life, the meaning of history. Meaning implies both significance (value) and orientation (direction). That which is of value has to be realized, to be put into practice, resulting in moral prescriptions and proscriptions. Orientation also involves ethical direction set in time. Certain actions and events, which are prescribed or proscribed, become positive or negative models that took place in the past or will take place in the future. The Holocaust, for instance, is a negative model, to be retained in the collective memory, of what to avoid in the future. The American Revolution, on the other hand, has served as a positive model for a number of developing countries. By contrast Communism articulates an imaginary utopia for the future. The future can be defined as an imaginary one, to be realized for the first time, or as a repetition of some ideal period in the past. Such narratives take the form of myth or history, and provide what Willem Vanderburg calls a “project of existence.” Therefore cultural meaning entails some hope for the future.
Related to the question of meaning is that of control or limits. Every culture achieves a certain degree of unity in two related ways: (1) it attributes meaning to certain natural and human activities and relationships so that the negative side of life, such as with suffering and moral evil, can be confronted, and if not overcome, at least resisted, by the positive side as with service, friendship, and love; (2) it places some limitations on the exercise of power—political, economic, technical, personal—thereby preventing a war of all against all, whether at the level of the individual or the group, and allowing societal members to know what to expect of one another. In the following pages, drawing heavily upon Ellul’s work, I wish to explore how technique destroys meaning, unleashes power from its former moral controls, and creates false meaning.
Ellul identified three conditions that in conjunction make it virtually impossible for authentic meaning to be created: (1) human relationships become abstract; (2) human activity becomes trivial; and (3) social action becomes ambiguous. All three conditions are a direct result of technique’s domination of modern society. The first condition is an expression of technique’s mediation of human relationships; the second is a consequence of human powerlessness in the face of technical power; the third condition is a result of the decline of moral communities as technique supplants customs, manners, and morality (shared experiences). After examining how technique has brought about each of these three conditions, we shall turn our attention to how false meaning is created as a compensation for the lack of authentic meaning.
One of Ellul’s strongest contributions to the study of the technique has been his analysis of nonmaterial technique, those psychological and organizational techniques used to manipulate and control others. Advertising, public relations, therapy, bureaucracy, strategic planning, and the plethora of “how-to” books on achieving “success” in relating to others are but a few examples. Just as technique has been used to exploit the resources of nature in the interest of efficiency, so too has it been necessary to use technique to manage the “human resources” whose natural behavior is always a threat to efficiency. I am not suggesting that these nonmaterial human techniques are always as efficient as their material counterparts; in fact many of them function as forms of magic. But magic can work when people believe in it. This is how many forms of therapy work—the patient believes in the power of the therapist.
What is the main implication of the increasing use of human techniques to mediate human relationships? It makes the relationships abstract and thus impersonal. The objectified nature of technique denies the subjectivity of both user and recipient. As a rational, objective method, technique turns the object of technique into an abstraction. For instance, suppose that as a parent I read the book, Parental Effectiveness Training, and decide to rear my children according to this technique. Rather than adjusting my method of child rearing to the individuality of each child and the total context of family relationships, I am now going to use a unitary method, which if applied religiously, will purportedly make each child manageable and thus a standardized product.
The same denial of subjectivity and individuality happens to the user of the technique. Even if it takes substantial effort to learn a technique, once it is learned, the user is relieved of personal responsibility in judgment and choice. In our previous example of the technique of child-rearing, the parent using Parental Effectiveness Training gives up learning about his children and exercising moral judgment: he has become an appendage to the technique. It is essential to Ellul’s argument about human technique to observe that the subjectivity and individuality of each party in a relationship is threatened by the presence of technique. That is, the subjectivity of the parent is denied in part by not taking into account the subjectivity of his child.
How does turning the user and recipient of technique into abstractions or objects affect the creation of meaning? Humans create meaning, spontaneously and interpersonally, because symbolization provides a certain mastery over their environment and a peaceful way of relating to one another. Technique denies both spontaneity and genuine intersubjective relationships; hence, it eliminates the preconditions for the creation of meaning. Culture, which revolves around the question of meaning, has been defined as a total way of life. As technique proliferates and is applied to every domain of life, it becomes itself a total way of life, an ersatz culture.
The second condition that prevents effective meaning from being created is the trivializatio...