Technique and Torpor
November 10, 2017
“Courts for cowards were erected
Churches built to please the priest
A fig for those by law protected
Liberty’s a glorious feast”
From “The Jolly Beggars- a Cantata” by Robert Burns
Don’t mistake Robert Burns here: he’s not anti-justice nor is he anti-Christianity in him saying these things in his verses. He does however point up the fact that civil and institutianal means of justice and of worship, just like all things which over time are formalised and somewhat made fixed as authorities or governing bodies, are able to ‘lose their way’ and so become providers of ancilliary and often irrelevant items, other than those items for which orginally they were set up for and had been planned to do.
Certainly the overthrow of what was seemed to be ‘a losing of The Way’ by The Roman Church was the justification for The Reformation said The Reformers; and likewise a similar overbearingness and a taking to much by industrialists can be claimed to have been historically the reasons for The Chartist Movement of early nineteenth century England which culminated in The Great Reform Act of 1832 which gave for the first time some, but scanty rights, to industrial workers.
In more recent years there has been a body of work written by a Frenchman now deceased and called Jacques Ellul; a professor of sociology and a theologian of some depth and breadth. Jacques Ellul’s body of work has its chief focus on this tendency of institutions social, political, and religious for them to become more rigid and to miss their mark in their doing so, over the course of time.
Jacques Ellul called this tendency - to formalisation and so loss of the spirit within their original impetus - a formation of ‘technique’. Ellul writes in French and his books are translated into English and I read them only in English; so this term ‘technique’ is a translation, generally agreed amongst his translators into English, of the French word he uses for that term.
Ellul considers ‘technique’ inevitable in our mass and complex organised societies; inevitable at least given the way we have set ourselves up presently to do business and to govern and to bear social relations with one another. But nonetheless ‘technique’ is a jailhouse to us; a form of organisation which incarcerates us its creators and enactors. For Ellul, the whole tendency of our societies is towards ‘technique’, more and more of it; and it is used as a means of social control as well as it being a means for production and distribution, for political government and of relating to one another in social forms.
Without us today having to hand a use of this ‘technique’, it would be that such a mass society as ours would become unable to supply and to feed and clothe so many of us so easily as it does right now. In fact very few goods and services would be able to supply the peoples of our Liberal Democracies were it not for this almost ubiquitous usage of ‘technique’ by us to do things.
Perhaps only those few people who have a modicum of real freedom are those with wealth and position in our society. Only these get anywhere near escaping some of the trammels which ‘technique’ ties us up in knots with? These are those few who are those able to afford bespoke made to measure clothing; and who dine at restaurants where the food (madly expensive because it) is freshly killed or shot or picked from a field the previous morning and so on: I think you can fill in the picture yourself?
The ‘rest of us’ are obliged to buy food and clothing which is not specially prepared for us as individual persons but we have no choice other than to buy prepacked, often processed, standardised foods and to wear what is termed ‘off the peg’ clothing. Thus for the assistant in the clothing shop we become for her or him a ‘size’ to be fitted against, and with clothing taken from a range of items made to a general understanding of what that size in UK would represent in a person of flesh and blood whom it suits. We call this mass production. It is just one aspect of Jacques Ellul’s concept of ‘technique’ as it governs us everywhere in our lives.
Whenever we are called on to vote in governmental elections we are become voters; and the persons voted for are become candidates; and we go each to his/her local polling station along with our neighbours and the peoples of our locale and we pass one slip of paper into a ballot box and that’s it – our participation, for nearly all of us, in Representative Government is done and dusted for the following five years. In this way we are herded like cattle to polling stations in one bunch on one day and for the sake of choosing from a set and severely limited choice the exercise of our vote. There is no other way other than outright tyranny which is viable given the way we live en masse presently.
In the main we are directed as a herd and are offered choices to buy or to accept as a herd. Most of our public choices in our daily lives are of this kind; and simply because it is the price we are paying for everyone being able to be fed and watered, governed, and partaking at least at a level necessary for subsistence in those general and pretty standardised benefits of our society. The chief loss we sustain thus is a more actual individual choice, voice, and freedom; a more truly individual choice, voice and freedom.
A nice anecdote in this regard is the story of the very rich and high social class guy who one night found he had to get a bus in London. He had never before been on public road transport. (Now don’t think this is implausible; there is a story which say Winston Churchill himself never took a bus in his whole life! On the other hand there was a dedicated left-wing people’s politician here in UK; a scholar and at one time The Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition,, but now dead, who every day took a London bus from Hampstead where he lived to the Houses of Parliament where he worked. By way of devotion to his cause for social justice – Michael Foot). The guy got on the bus and gave the driver his home address and directions to go there. The driver is said to have replied to him; “You go where the bus goes, my friend.”
In many ways ‘technique’ provides for us; even those items which were we to see more clearly, we would not have asked for or wanted for ourselves. Such items are the hagiographic shibboleths which surround and support our avid yet orchestrated and conditioned responses to sports and to fashion and to exotic holidays and to our clothing and drinking binges; the whole set of unholy sacraments of the present day secular and consumer society of services and entertainments. Were we allowed, by education, and by an opening up of actual and real individual freedom to ourselves and to our minds and deeds, we should be able to see for what they are these shibboleths of sports, fashion, holidays, clothing, booze, and so on: as being hindrances and obstacles to our living real lives, lives in which engagement is more, and is more important, than being a spectator or a consumer, and so of us being as it were placed, relegated to the sidelines of life.
Near all of our holidays are ‘packaged’ flight/hotel/beach/food/trips and when we go to exotic out of the way places we usually reside in a holiday community and go only to the places provided as optional extras by the organising companies. Holidays to places where our levels of material wealth would excite a general jealousy in the populace and so raise up a backlash upon us were we seen in a street in a city downtown, such holidays may well be had by us behind ‘gated communities’ in resorts set aside only for foreign ‘tourists’ who are misnamed because they never leave the enclosure.
Such ‘gated communities’ are a small epitome of how a major part of our commonplace ‘technique’ as nations is deployed in keeping away ‘outside others’ stopping them from enjoying a share of ‘our own’ material wealth and levels of material wellbeing; shameful though this is.
Even our movies are ‘fed’ to us; none of us says to a movie mogul “I’d like to see a movie from you which tackles this ‘x’ topic and its issues”. Instead topics for movies are calculations, often based on a lowest common denominator level of appeal, on what sort of movie is in vogue, has generated cash recently, and which might be in some way idiosyncratically a variation on one of the main themes which generally pull in the cash.
By and large then most of us common folk do not engage in doing life; instead we engage in spectating, watching life being done; that latest movie, last Saturday’s match, that dress or suit in the window; we are thus provided for and kept in order by the policeman and the magistrate of the consumer ethos and rarely we dare to stray out of the lines made for us to run along in smoothly.
We have choices; but our choices are strictly delimited by what is made available in society to us.
Few of us are able really to determine what we would actually like to do and/or what we would really like to obtain from life, let alone us even attempting to obtain these things for ourselves. And this situation is all a part of the mythos of the consumer fairy-story; which tells us all the time how we are ‘special’ and how we shall be the ‘talk of the neighbourhood’ and we shall make “all our friends jealous” because we have bought such and such an item or attended such and such a place.
How often does it have to be said to us that the whole pressure and aim of all marketing strategy is to sell things to customers. The people who run these marketing adventures are not interested in your melting over puppies pulling toilet rolls; or in your delight at cuddly toy meercats; or in your benefiting from a discounted offer or from an optional extra thrown in. All these are so much springes to catch woodcocks and sprats to catch mackerel – and nothing more – an astute business move, a deal, an offer – that’s all.
For a person exposed to marketing and to advertising to suppose the advertiser is in any way befriending or even interested in oneself personally is the very game the advertiser is playing so as s/he is able to play you. That is precisely what is behind his/her advances; for him/her to do business; to make a sale; to increase revenue; that’s all.
Of course most of us scorn such iterations by people such as myself who are admonishing and warning them in this way; since most of us know the be-all-and-end-all behind advertising, the bottom line, is to get a sale. But yet most of us still allow ourselves to be drawn in by below-the-belt attacks on our affections and sympathies which advertising always is presenting to us. We are the guy or gal who says proudly ; “I take absolutely no notice of advertising: I drink Guinness because it’s good for me”
It is about time most of us began discerning; how that story we all believed a few months back is now discredited; and how this same story in a few months time will become rehabilitated; how most of what we say and hear is unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable; that we take too much on a lazy and indolent trust from those who herd us, those in whom we misplace our faith in authority; and it’s about time we should begin to see that by applying just a little careful thinking about a lot of what in idle fashion we hear and what we say, and which we have taken on board as gospel; we will then see clearly that many of these statements and opinions we espouse and pass on as truth cannot be sound.
At present must of us are blown this way and that way like chaff in the wind; by our following the fashion, by our taking up received opinions, by use accepting assumed or putative facts, by our wishes to believe and by our needs to believe in something, whether is true or is not true; and all this eagerness to deceive ourselves is a result of us being ensnared in the toils of what Jacques Ellul terms ‘technique’. We are so far removed psychologically and geographically and communications-wise from the many events, opinions and views we hear about and may be interested in and so are following ‘developments’; we are separated almost entirely from ‘on the ground evidence’ about them by the fact of us being a remote and mass audience, for whom of necessity one size has to fit all, in given opinions as well as in adopted beliefs, so much so that this taking on trust and without evidence means inevitably news and views we hear and see are all, have to be all, standardised, in such a way as to placate us and to preen and so groom us into ‘right thinking’ and ‘proper conduct’. This enforced because inevitable distancing of us is part of the mass application of ‘technique’ and this time in the fields of public news and views broadcasting and reporting.
I do think also that most of us are pretty happy with this arrangement; even when it is that case that some of us know this management via technique is happening to them. All such people who settle for this state of affairs, and especially those who are aware of this state of affairs, are culpable because they are not in earnest enough, not committed to truth enough, and to the Holder of all truth, so as to feel it makes any difference, all the difference - in the first place (in their own eyes) for themselves and in a poor second place (in their own eyes again) for the sake of others and for the sake of the world in general.
And this is sin. To know a thing is right and to shun doing it out of indifference and idleness is sin. To accept what comes your way because you are just not bothered and you think life is about looking after oneself and one’s nearest only, so that what happens in a wider world is irrelevant and dull; this too is sin.
I use the word sin deliberately, carefully. If you feel you are happy to sit back and let all things you consider irrelevant because happening not in your backyard, allow them to pass over you like so much hot air; you have become , allowed yourself to become, acclimatised to ‘technique’ and you allow yourself to be no more of an individual than any ordinary citizen might have been perceived an individual in the mind of a Stalin or a Big Brother or a Pol Pot. You allow yourself to be no more than a counter, a chip, a piece in another’s game; and so you are a defeated soul. Defeated by your own indolence.
How might you expect to obtain any authenticity from your life; any sense of thankfulness and joy in being? How might you stand before God your Maker?