Victims of our own Enthusiasms
November 30, 2017
Jacques Ellul described his central concept of ‘technique’ as being.
"…the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity."
He was concerned here with organisation – particularly with the organisation of society, of technology and of the ways of doing business we pursue – and the consequent levels of deleterious effect on people like us arising out of these kinds of organisation.
Simply put, Ellul saw rightly that the applications of what he calls ‘technique’ in areas like the means of production and distribution; the financial and economic methods in use; the laws and the regulations we are bound by and subscribe to; all are harmful to our societies and to our lives.
For the most part and in affluent societies most of this harm is in the form of constraints and deprivations of freedoms and abilities. The case for populations in non-affluent societies, regarding how they are adversely affected by technique in use in affluent countries, is less intangible and more pronounced as physical constraint and physical deprivation. Nonetheless – no-one wins out of it; not even the law makers and the captains of industry and of government.
I want to add that technique is used as it is because it has become necessary to be used as it is, in a self-fulfilling inevitability of development arisen out of the paths we chose as nations and persons way back in the beginning of the days of industrialisation. My argument then will be circular, in that the rise of these Shibboleths so to become the standard accepted ways of doing things – open markets, capital and labour, representative democracy, debt, credit and interest and so on – meant that they have locked us into certain consequences arising from these forms of organisation. These consequences include technique being applied and carried out by us in its own right and for its own sake.
The simile I want to use is an item of baggage packed for a trip abroad and locked by a lock at the top when zipped up. The trip is our journey as we and our societies head towards what is to come in the future. Like all trips, it was booked some time back and the arrangements put in place – ticket, seat, destination, departure point, hotel, and so on. The item of baggage was packed previously to the trip also; and its contents zippered and locked up before the trip began.
Now most trips go ahead and pass fairly as much as they are planned to pass these days – lost baggage and in-flight disruptions are largely managed down to a minimum by carriers. Unless there is a serious problem – like in the world at large a global war or a natural disaster of magnitude, our futures in general, like the trip on the airplane, are mapped out fairly well in broad terms as to how they are going to flow.
The baggage is zippered and locked up – there are no changes and no access to its contents whist the travelling is taking place – thus the contents are fixed. Lots of contingent things can happen on the trip – coffee spilt; an engine fails; a diversion; toilet blocked; movie great; a good sleep – are amongst the myriad things all possible. But the contents of the baggage are fixed and shut in the hold isolated and not able to be tinkered with.
This item of baggage includes amongst other things – in our simile – our legacy means of doing technique, of organising ourselves in society, and with this their inevitable consequences and effects that arose inevitably out of these means. Call these consequences attitudes, laws, rights, obligations, regulations, duties, conventions, conformities, traditions, all clustered around and governed by the forms of technique which gave rise to them; the monthly credit card payoff, the monthly visit for a prescription medicine, the daily getting the kids ready for school, the school run in the car; the car’s servicing due soon, and so on. These small daily obligations and routines are shaped and necessitated by the way technique is being applied and so life, our life, is being organised in our localities.
(I was born and brought up in Tottenham, North London. As a youth I would travel by train to work. Every morning for five years I stood on the platform beside a man with a cloth cap a brown mackintosh and a pipe smoking. I then moved away and left the area. Some twenty-five or so years later I found myself on that platform one morning and there beside me in an older version was the cloth cap mackintosh and pipe. Ever-after to my mind the fellow represented to me a symbol of the enslavement of uneducated working persons to an imposed and organised technique.]
The short thesis of this article is: we have built a society on enthusiasms for, on overplus faith in, science, scientific method, technological innovations, market forces, capital, regulation, law, credit, commerce, consumerism, production, even on celebrity and its hero-worship; and historically we have placed unwarrantable faith in these items as being the solutions to problems and issues we face in our lives – the getting of food and shelter, of a job of work and means to live, of entertainment and of recreation, of education and nurturing outlook; and they like a cuckoo in the nest have grown up to rule the roost for us. They are the bedrock we laid down and our everyday activities form the overlying strata upon it and are our bed we now must lay on.
Like Macbeth we cannot easily turn back:
‘I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er’[Act 3]
We have organised our means and amenities of life and their obtaining for our use and consumption so thoroughly that a mass consumerism has been made possible and this consumerism in its turn has been made so as to be dependent on that technique and organisation being kept in place. The upshot, the bill, the price we have been made to pay for this status quo is that our own lives, in unspeakably minute detail and close levels of control have been made themselves objects of ‘technique’ to be lived out. Hence we are, have made ourselves and colluded in making ourselves organised in every detail by way of imposing via technique a coercion, entailing indoctrination, habit, necessity, having no clear alternative, so that we are so far gone we are not aware we are so far gone, and so far out of the way of what is far better, far more human and fulfilled, that we are contained and constrained by our own ‘mind-forged manacles’
Technique then has been hallowed by us; hyped and bigged-up so much that we now believe it as our own propaganda. It is now so firmly and deeply embedded in us in our lives and in how we do things, organise things, that it is almost immovable, and for the most part is unconsciously perceived by us like as a ‘second nature’ – a bad unkickable habit we retain, and think we are clean.
Like all our product on our retailers shelves it is being sold to us, has always been sold to us, as a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey; the apotheosis of ages of striving and venture by our intrepid ancestry – the big payoff for our human ingenuity and invention: Because you’re worth it. We are all labelled winners – but the prizes have feet of clay.
So we find ourselves by ours own means locked into a kind of Bedlam; just as if it were ourselves, our essential humanity and promised life in abundance, which was zippered up in that baggage hold and locked up with a lock on our journey through life.
Be assured there is always a metanioa possible; a turning around; even for mile-long seagoing tankers. Any such change of direction has to do with us being helped to ‘awaken’ (see article) and us thereafter bearing the responsibility thereby laid upon us ‘awoken’ to work for the true good for others.
[There was in recent years a UK Secret Service Agent found dead in a flat in London. He was found zippered up in an item of baggage. No satisfactory enquiry into his death was made and many observers considered this lack of due process by the authorities was deliberately allowed and that his Secret Agent career was involved in the affair. A few ‘semi-official’ putative ‘explanations’ of his demise were passed to the media to broadcast. One was that he had zipped himself in and could not free himself – a failed Houdini. Another hinted at a ‘sex-game’ that ‘had gone wrong’. Murder was never really truly considered as an explanation. The inquest found ‘death by misadventure’]