Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Jacques Ellul (page 1 of 1)

Encyclopedia Babylonica 5: a brief hiatus

I just realized that I need to pause this series for a while. Why? Because I’m reading Ellul’s The Meaning of the City and am finding it so provocative, so maddening, so profound, so bizarre, that it will clearly take me some time to process it. I mean, the guys writes things like this: 

And the Christian, like everyone else, is looking for a solution in laws. What should the Christian position be regarding these problems (which we call “the problems of modern life, instead of giving them their permanent name? Arrange things somehow, make city life possible; moralize the city, its leisure time, its work, its dreams. This is how Christians plan. What to do? God has revealed to us very clearly that there is absolutely nothing to be done. God has given us no commands with regard to the city. He affords us no law. For the city is not an inner problem for man. God can say to us, “You shall not commit adultery,” but he has never said, “You shall not live in the city.” For on the one hand we have a personal attitude with a man, which he can modify according to his readiness to obey God’s commandments. And on the other, the city is a phenomenon absolutely removed from man’s power, a phenomenon which he is fundamentally incapable of affecting. For man is not responsible for making the city something other than it is, as we have already seen. There is nothing to be done. And the problem does not change. It is still what it was when, forty or fifty centuries ago, they built up those thick walls of clay whose foundations still subsist. For God has cursed, has condemned, the city instead of giving us a law for it. 

What am I supposed to do with that? Such a bold (and apparently crazy?) argument requires further reflection, and the same is true of the rest of the book. Some books need to be read slowly, with much annotation, or not read at all.

Posting will continue, but for a little while it won’t be about Babylon. (And you know what? As the world’s leading advocate of reading at whim, if I happen to read something else before I get to Ellul then it might be a larger while.) 

forgetting and propaganda

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda:

To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; he is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness — of himself, of his condition, of his society — for the man who lives by current events. Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events. We already have mentioned man’s inability to consider several facts or events simultaneously and to make a synthesis of them in order to face or to oppose them. One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones. Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but he does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man’s capacity to forget is unlimited. This is one of the most important and useful points for the propagandist, who can always be sure that a particular propaganda theme, statement, or event will be forgotten within few weeks. Moreover, there is a spontaneous defensive reaction in the individual against an excess of information and — to the extent that he clings (unconsciously) to the unity of his own person — against inconsistencies. The best defense here is to forget the preceding event. In so doing, man denies his own continuity; to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today’s events his life by obliterating yesterday’s news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented.

This situation makes the “current-events man” a ready target for propaganda. Indeed, such a man is highly sensitive to the influence of present-day currents; lacking landmarks, he follows all currents. He is unstable because he runs after what happened today; he relates to the event, and therefore cannot resist any impulse coming from that event. Because he is immersed in current affairs, this man has a psychological weakness that puts him at the mercy of the propagandist. 

Cf. my comment from a few years ago that “Silicon Valley serves the global capitalist order as its Ministry of Amnesia.”