Man denies his own continuity.

I’m still in the middle of Jacque Ellul’s great work, The Technological Society, which is really helpful in understanding the way our modern world works. When Ellul talks about technique he does not mean merely the physical machinery or medicine or digital technology, but more importantly, the manner in which so much of our life is managed according to systems and measurements; our activities are prompted and organized according to the primary value of efficiency. Here he explains it himself: “Technique” 

Not bothered by the fact that I haven’t finished that book (or his Humiliation of the Word, which I also loved), I began to listen to another one by the author: Propaganda. Propaganda is just one facet of the technological society. Ellul’s books are so thought-provoking and full of insights, it’s hard for me to pick a few of the best paragraphs to share. But here is one, which I broke up into smaller parts for ease of reading:

“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 a 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.”

-Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, 1965

Image is from the website of the International Jacques Ellul Society.

8 thoughts on “Man denies his own continuity.

  1. A very intriguing writer – must investigate! Thanks for that paragraph. Skimming the surface of Current Things seems to encourage more “shock value” statements made in the course of Current Things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ” 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.”

    Very true. And yet this is something that we, as members of a democratic society, must do.

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    1. Deb, I’m thankful that you’ve taken the time to join in here, because your comment has made me think a lot about this and also more tangential issues. Could you take more time and clarify what you mean? When you say we “must” do something because we live in this particular society, what is the action that you are thinking of? Because the way Ellul puts it, we are more like the ones being acted upon. And would this situation be different if it were another type of society we were members of?

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    2. Reflection on the events of the day is an important duty of being part of a democratic society. We can’t simply passively take in information and opinions presented to us. Instead, we have to look deeply at information and opinions, we have to talk to others about these things, and we have to revise our thoughts and share them again.

      If we lived in another sort of society, if we had a benevolent and wise ruler like Plato proposes, we wouldn’t be as responsible for doing our part in running and guiding the world.

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      1. I do find it really helpful to talk to other people about whatever we have all found when we look deeply, as you say, at the vast amount of current information and opinions. Then there are the treasures of wisdom from the past that we want to incorporate into our thinking. It takes some effort just to decide just what is worth paying attention to.

        Thank you, Deb, for elaborating. I appreciate you giving me yet more to reflect on.

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