Ellul’s French contemporary, Michel Foucault, argued that knowledge is manufactured through power relations in society. In fact, he spoke of “regimes of truth” that rise and fall as social discourses, which function as what is the case in a particular time and place.
Ellul made some of the same observations in his marvelous book The Political Illusion. People are not the rational, foundationalist thinkers of Descartes or homo-economicus of neoclassical economists. They are thoroughly products of their time and culture, with the world’s ideas flowing in and out of theirs lives in tweets, facebook posts, and conversations.
In a word, everything comes down to the informed person’s ‘capacity to believe.’ But the informed person’s beliefs are fruits of anterior propaganda which creates the prejudices that make people accept or reject information. When the prejudice is established and the stereotypes well set, when a mental pattern exists, facts are put into their places accordingly and cannot, by themselves, change anything. (111)
We are programmed by our parents, social media, and our friends with mental screens that determine what things mean and what constitutes right and wrong. These screens determine one’s “capacity to believe.” (This is why imagination is so important; it is one of the only ways out or beyond these molds.) We see innocent people on YouTube get killed in a foreign democracy; we suppose that the perpetrators must be those who hate American ways of life. The President supports “medicare for all,” so he must care for the poor, or the President supports an anti-abortion bill, so he must care for the unborn. We saw with our own two eyes in front of a screen that children are dying because of a terrorist attack in another country; the U.S. has a moral obligation to respond. And so on and so forth.
This is the nature of the political universe in our day. It is not a real universe, but it is not a universe of lies either. It is first of all a universal subject to psychological reference points and, as far as observable reality is concerned, a fictitious universe. A ‘new’ and relatively independent reality, superimposed on the world of tangible facts is now operative—a reality composed of slogans, black-and-white images, and straight judgments which distract people from observable, experienced reality in order to make them live in a singular universe with its own logic and consistency. It is this universe which is increasingly closing in on people no longer capable of making contact with the tangible world. Yet the contemporary politician must operate in precisely that universe. Political action can no longer be organized according to past principles or even compared with past forms of political action. A decisive factor has been added that must forever be taken into account in connection with any action: the verbal translation of facts operating in a universe of images. (112)
The morass of mass media ultimately creates a false sense of knowledge—just as reading a few Wikipedia articles on a subject magically becomes legitimation in our next conversation with friends: “Well I’ve done my research and…” We really believe that we know Iran is an evil foreign power just waiting to nuke “our allies,” or that “the Russians” are “thugs,” or that the true locus of global power is in the hands of Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Trump, or other “1 percenters” (how could it be otherwise?).
[The citizen[ will say, ‘Political affairs?’ Of course. I’ve seen this important debate in the Assembly, where everybody played his role so seriously. The State? Of course. General de Gaulle or Mendes-France talked to me yesterday over the TV.’ All that is just a spectacle, appearance without root, a game. And precisely because all this is only a game, such a telecast is possible. The real political mechanism—the state structure—remains completely hidden, outside of all control; all the more so as the flickering little screen fixes the individual’s attention on the spectacle, and prevents him from searching deeper, and asking himself questions on the true nature of power. (162)
Phone in hand, armed with FoxNews, RealClearPolitics, the David Pakman Show, Vox, and Vice News, there is no subject that is beyond our comprehension, nor beyond our ability to develop conviction worth talking about.
And engaging this cycle of surface-level, (anti)intellectualism, we are trained to believe, is both our civic duty and our privilege. Democracy is about participation, after all, and through our video comments and ocean of scroll-and-like fury, we are truly “contributing.” And it must happen now, for the moment of “news” is about to pass (who cares about your opinion on a news article from last month? Last year?)
In a society largely penetrated by collective currents, to partake of the news is also an essential means of participation. And the more spectacular the news, the more its bearers and recipients will feel as though they have participated in their society. Alfred Sauvy, for example, thinks it unnecessary for people to participate in depth. In reality, the more superficial, unimportant, and spectacular the information, the more people will be interested in it. Moreover, it is under such conditions that man will not refuse to act. But it is necessary that such action be part of a highly emotional situation in which man sees clearly what is taking place. He will then consent to make an intense and glorious but brief effort; brief as news itself. It is therefore necessary that the latter rejuvenate itself ceaselessly. It must rise again from the ashes in order to regenerate man’s opportunity for action in the present surrounding him. (55)
By being almost purely reactionary, we therefore reinforce the mental screen and symbolic world that holds us captive. “Too many multicolored and infinitesimal touches overload the picture to leave us truly able, I do not say to understand, but to grasp the whole. And news is piled up on more news, and details multiply indefinitely. But if people cannot even grasp political affairs, how much less can they reflect upon them properly?” (59)
We see here the curious changes wrought by the vulgarization of a philosophy. To obey the moment seems like freedom. To participate violently in the latest quarrel is the political calling of the freest citizen!…As radical as it may appear, I am not afraid to reverse the proposition…and to claim that a man who reads his paper every day is certainly not a politically free person. Moreover, by his free pseudodecisions the citizen forces the political powers to act and act again, to act without reflection, without delay, for acts must take place in the immediate present. What an outrage it would be to devote three months to reflection, when the news shouts at us from everywhere that the problem is urgent. (63)
It is almost as if not-thinking and not-reflecting has become so normative that to not do so is viewed as a threat to society. One’s hesitation in signing a change.org petition for an anti-discrimination law could only indicate support for. Criticism of an anti-abortion bill must mean you’re a baby-killer, or criticism of abortion must mean you care little of women’s rights, and so on. The actual facts matter little, as the patterns of discourse have been set, and force a predictable outcome.
Undoubtedly the most remarkable in this situation is that if you try to attract the citizen’s attention to true problems and basic phenomena, they will accuse you of trying to turn them away from what is real, to engage in a diversionary maneuver. These are the aspects under which I see the contradiction between our obsession with current events and true political capabilities. (61)
Libertarians understand this point to some degree, as their views on cannabis, taxation, prostitution, foreign affairs, and otherwise simply do not fit the dominant discourse, and have most scratching their heads. It’s not much different for Christians, with the crucified God being “foolishness to the world” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Both therefore can (and should) transform the discursive landscape so that such patterns can be dislodged, and new possibilities explored – and not for our sake, but for others who have likewise been misunderstood and screened out. As Ellul indicates, this will require new symbols, new conversations that haven’t been had, and new intersections of people and ideas that will likely shock those around us, and maybe even ourselves.