It seems to me that the staff and all the contributing editors to Chronicles, working together for a year in paradisiacal California on a lavish grant from the MacArthur Foundation, could not possibly produce as pessimistic a work as The Technological Bluff by the French cultural critic and author of more than forty books, Jacques Ellul. For that reason, among many others, I commend it to the attention of our readers. (One of the other reasons is a delicious “Excursion on [Julian] Simon, The Ultimate Resource,” beginning on page 20 and running through page 23: “I have seldom seen a book which is so absurd in the realm of economics . . . and technology. . . . We have here an absolute form of The Technological Bluff. . . . this so-called scientific thinking. . . . these pseudoscientific absurdities. . . . a good illustration of the technolatry that is supposed to be scientific and to be based on facts.”)

Jacques Ellul is professor emeritus of law and of the sociology and history of institutions at the University of Bordeaux, his native city. The examples he uses to concretize his arguments are thus drawn from contemporary French society, yet those arguments themselves raise American echoes from as far back as Henry Adams (“The Virgin and the Dynamo”), the Agrarians of the 1930’s (I’ll Take My Stand), and the writings of Lewis Mumford, whose work Ellul cites. Among Ellul’s earlier books is one called The Technocratic Society, in which he first put forward (in 1954) many of the ideas found in The Technological Bluff—where, however, he has found it necessary to radicalize many of them. If misery truly loves company, American readers should be made to feel very comfortable by Ellul’s portrait of what was formerly the nation of the Capets and the Bourbons, of Racine and Moliere, of Toulouse-Lautrec and French postcards. We are all of us in the West in this catastrophe together, and it is far, far later than most of us, on both sides of the Atlantic, suspect or even fear. Throughout his book, Ellul frequently anticipates that what he is about to write will be found scandalous, but he is never afraid of being dismissed as a nattering nabob of negativism, perhaps because his forty books are already much better remembered (though they are hardly ever heeded) than either the speeches of Spiro Agnew, or Spiro Agnew himself “In fact,” he remarks a quarter of the way into The Technological Bluff, “I think that the game is lost. With the help of computer power, the technical system has definitively escaped from control by the human will.”

Ellul distinguishes between “the technical system” and “the technical society,” which retains nontechnical elements and traditional areas unaffected by the system itself However, he believes that “The Technological Bluff” assures that these redoubts cannot much longer remain unaffected. Here, as in earlier works, Ellul distinguishes also between “technique”—what in common parlance is called “technology”—and technology as it is properly understood, that is to say as “discourse on technique.” It is childish, Ellul insists, to be against technique, as it is childish and absurd to be opposed to “an avalanche or to cancer”; it is infantile—and fatal—both to engage in and to succumb to “The Technological Bluff,” which he defines as “the gigantic bluff in which discourse on techniques envelopes us, making us believe anything and, far worse, changing our whole attitude to techniques: the bluff of politicians, the bluff of the media, the bluff of technicians when they talk about techniques instead of working at them, the bluff of publicity, the bluff of economic models.” The bluff, he says,

consists of rearranging everything in terms of technical progress, which with prodigious diversification offers us in every direction such varied possibilities that we can imagine nothing else. . . . There is bluff here because the effective possibilities are multiplied a hundredfold . . . and the negative aspects are radically concealed. But the bluff is not without great effect. Thus it transforms a technique of implicit and unavowed last resort into a technique of explicit and avowed last resort. It also causes us to live in a world of diversion and illusion which goes far beyond that of ten years ago. It finally sucks us into this world by banishing all our ancient reservations and fears.

A century ago, Ellul argues, technique was in service to economies, which directed them toward the production of industrial goods. Today, technique has taken over direction of the industrial economy in order to produce gadgets—defined by Ellul as products whose utility is greatly counterbalanced by the ingenuity of their designers—that are themselves the direct results of technique, and the profits of which are reinvested in the production of still more technicized gadgets. Whatever technique can do, it must be developed to do, since to refrain would be to deny science or to “stop progress”—which Ellul understands as “the course of technique.” These gadgets, however, do not represent real wealth, nor, increasingly, does the capital invested in them represent real money, that is to say, money based upon a standard of real value: by geometric progression, economics and the societies that support them become increasingly abstract, as the historian John Lukacs has written, or “absurd,” to use Jacques Ellul’s term. Science being powerless without money, and the state being powerless without technique, “The state finally finds its legitimacy in science and technique. . . . The legitimacy of power is no longer religious or democratic. Power affirms itself scientifically. Science validates it because it can do nothing without power. For the public, science is one great goddess which it cannot question and which validates those who serve it. Science and technique thus act upon politics and politics functions as positive feedback.”

Thus, power affirms itself politically as well, and in terms as absolute as it can manage to acquire; it manages very well, since the vast majority of citizens (like the vast majority of politicians) do not comprehend technique, which they must accept first on its works and finally on faith alone. For the state to function at maximum efficiency, it needs to impose standardization upon society, and to encourage a larger ignorance and a lesser independence of mind. In order to do this, it engages in a generalized act of technological bluffing, by informing society that the only solution to mankind’s problem, as well as the only hope for a humanized future in which, for the first time in history, human beings will be fully human, is technique; and by reminding it that in any event, a future wholly created by technique is inevitable and can only be prepared for by recreating traditional culture as the culture of technique (which, as Ellul proves, is a contradiction in terms).

Meanwhile, the technically justified state encourages the transformation of the natural environment into an artificial one—it, far from being “dedivinized,” represents the transferal of the sacred from objects in nature to those of technique—and increases exponentially the risk of natural catastrophe. Theoretically, Ellul believes, the computer might have proved the device by which we could make sense of and control these absurdities; but, with its incorporation into the technical system, it can only serve that system, and it is now too late to reestablish the terms by which it exists among us. Today, consequently, the computer is for the most part a gadget that creates more problems than it solves, that has succeeded in making our economies and our information and defense networks much more fragile and capable of disruption, and that has provided us with far more “data” than we can possibly make sense of—and therefore use. As the idiocies and monstrosities of genetic research prove, our capacities have outstripped our judgment; while a new generation of “fascinated people” has arisen that is devoid of any sense of reality. (“Fascination means exclusive fixation on an object, passionate interest, the impossibility of turning away, a hypnotic obedience, a total lack of awareness, and finally exteriorization of self.”)

Welcome then to The New World Order—which Jacques Ellul calls The Great Design. (Why couldn’t George Bush’s speechwriting team have been as poetic?) Is Ellul too pessimistic in all of this? I don’t believe that he is—descriptively at least, though it may be that the God Who has so far seen fit to provide for fools and the United States of America will take pity on the rest of the West whom Uncle Sam has so effectively Americanized. Meanwhile, Ellul, having invited us to examine technological bluff as a kind of soteriology, offers a possible eschatology as well. “We have reached,” he suggests,

the extreme limit of progress (that of modernity or ultratechnical nature) when the object plays a role by its mere absence, being the fictitious stake of a mimesis (Girard) of appropriation. . . . [I]t is “the presence of the absence” of a purpose in all the [contemporary] conflicts that renders them the more violent. Terrorism is typical.

Is it possible that the “end of history” will be no more than the paralysis of human thought, motivation, and activity by what Jacques Ellul describes as “the internal contradictions of the technical system and society”?


[The Technological Bluff, by Jacques Ellul (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans) 418 pp., $24.95]