Tag Archives: propaganda

French Propaganda Technique, or Why I Bounced Off of Jacques Ellul

I have just put down Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society and Propaganda. I say that I put them down because I didn’t finish them but I got it. I read enough, I sampled later sections, I read reviews that I could find. To sum up my thoughts, I would say that I do not believe these two works will be truly useful without a thorough critical commentary.

What these two works do, in my opinion, is provide a studious but amateurish observation of the issues they tackle. The problem I have with his attempt at analysis is that he clearly locks himself out of making full analyses. For instance, in Propaganda, he frequently makes sure to say that propaganda cannot really be understood if it is only looked at as a bad thing, then he specifically constructs his definition such that it will be a bad thing. Further, he never actually treats propaganda neutrally, he always views it as something dangerous and to be resisted. He allows that sometimes it may be intended for good things but he does not seem to, for instance, talk about people being happy with the propaganda they’ve imbibed. He does not explain why we have to ignore non-totalizing methods of persuasion, he just disqualifies them. Effectively, he’s not making an analysis as much as explaining why propaganda is bad.

A better attempt to understand propaganda would take seriously the individual/mass duality that he talks about (I use the term “aggregates” or “individuals considered as a group” for this concept). He does observe that propaganda needs to appeal to the individual as well as the mass, but he repeatedly treats propaganda’s effectiveness as a foregone conclusion. In fact, he is almost only considering propaganda as a thing that works; if it doesn’t work, it isn’t propaganda. Seen in that light, the way he figures propaganda as being essentially totalizing, essentially tension-creating, etc. is accurate, but the issue is that he needs to explore why it must be those things. He observes how “total propaganda” will totally consume a person, but it is obvious this isn’t a real state of affairs. Why should we assume that we’ve achieved the full spectrum of possible media? Looked at another way, say that you live in a place where you have access to newspapers, radio, and TV, but no internet; are you now not subject to propaganda just because you don’t have internet access? That doesn’t make any sense. But Ellul doesn’t investigate what “total propaganda” would actually be, what its real constraints are, he merely observes the effects that it has and treats them as definitional.

The Technological/Technical Society has many of the same flaws. For that book, I primarily had issues with the claims he makes about how technique was and was not used in history. Chiefly, describing the European Middle Ages as an age without technique is simply being ignorant, and I think it has a lot to do with Ellul’s Christianity. Again, like in Propaganda, Ellul clearly distrusts is topic (technique, here) and is making an invective against it, despite his protests otherwise. He therefore has a good reason to not locate technique in Christianity, and he explicitly says that Christianity is without technique, almost categorically against technique. Of course, anyone passingly familiar with people like Roger Bacon would know that scientific technique certainly continued, and certainly the Church advanced in administrative technique throughout that period. He gives a good account of technique but he is not as complete as he could be because he is directed to justify his biases before doing anything else.

These works of Ellul are thought-provoking but they are not works of first-rate philosophy. Ellul’s analysis in them is too limited. His observations can be made more useful but they will need someone who can go through his works line by line and elaborate the points that he touches on. As accounts of these phenomena — the technical society and propaganda — the works are illuminative, but they are not much more than accounts. To view these as works of “sober philosophy” rather than as polemics is to be propagandized by them.