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Jacques Ellul, a professor of history and sociology of institutions at the University of Bordeaux and the author of forty books, wrote The Technological Society between 1952 and 1954. Little known until it was published in its English translation in the United States in 1964, the book reflects the twin paths of the author’s life. First, he had a productive scholarly career, with specialities in history, sociology, and law. For a time, he tried to marry his academic interests to political activities. During World War II he was active in the French resistance to Nazi rule. After the war he began a promising political career as deputy mayor of Bordeaux, but he abandoned that to devote his time more fully to teaching and writing. Second, Ellul was an active lay ecclesiastic. Converted to Christianity when he was twenty-two, he became a leader of the Protestant Reformed Church of France. A third of his books have theological themes, as he focuses on the two ideologies that inform his intellectual worldview, Christianity and Marxism. He seeks no synthesis between these two, but instead tries to place them face to face, in order to determine what is real socially and spiritually.

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The Technological Society is the first part of Ellul’s sociopolitical trilogy about contemporary Western society. It was followed by Propagandes (1962; Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, 1965) and L’Illusion politique (1964; The Political Illusion, 1967). In all three of these books, but particularly in The Technological Society, Ellul offered a powerful, if gloomy, analysis of the influence of “technique” in modern society. Ellul’s work, largely an elaboration of his original philosophical and sociological insights, interprets the modern age in terms of a single phenomenon, technique. Technique, according to Ellul, is more than machine technology; it is “the totality of methods arrived at and having absolute efficiency . . . in every field of human activity.” The machine is merely symptomatic of technique. Everything touched by technique, however, assumes a machinelike quality. Thus, technique is exemplified in the General Motors assembly line but also in such varied aspects of human behavior as psychological counseling, dietetics, and media manipulation in American presidential politics.

The Technological Society investigates the phenomenon in three areas: economics, politics (the technique of organization), and human affairs (manipulation of humans through brainwashing, propaganda, advertising, and the like). Basically, Ellul contends that the predominant characteristic of the contemporary human condition is the technique developed by modern industrial society. Unlike premodern technology, technique has pervaded all aspects of life, becoming an autonomous force, independent of the humans who have collectively created it. Technique builds on itself, ceaselessly requiring more technique. Before its force, people are powerless; they cannot choose to ignore technique, let alone reverse it. Their only choice is to go ahead. As a consequence of this technological imperative, the traditional moral content of all societies is overwhelmed.

Not surprisingly, some critics often characterize Ellul’s works as extreme and accept them only with caution. He is not simply a prophet of the apocalypse, for his thought is complex, subtle, and insightful. His profound pessimism, however, has led some critics to see him as a technological determinist, who underestimates the capacity of the human mind to comprehend and surmount the problems of technique.

Others, however, have defended Ellul as a trenchant critic of modern intellectualism, which has unbalanced the relationship between humanity and nature by its overemphasis upon reductionist science. It was precisely this kind of controversy Ellul hoped to provoke with his book, since his purpose in writing was to preserve values founded upon liberty and hope, which are deeper, more traditional, and more basic than rationalism.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 121

Christians, Clifford G., and Jay M. Van Hook. Jacques Ellul: Interpretive Essays, 1981.

Ellul, Jacques. In Season, Out of Season, 1981.

Hanks, Joyce M. Jacques Ellul: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1984.

Holloway, James Y., ed. Introducing Jacques Ellul, 1970.

Lovekin, David. “Giambattista Vico and Jacques Ellul: The Intelligible Universal and the Technical Phenomenon,” in Man and World. XV, no. 4 (1982), pp. 407-416.

Menninger, David C. “Jacques Ellul: A Tempered Profile,” in Review of Politics. XXXVII (April, 1975), pp. 235-246.

Nisbet, Robert A. “The Grand Illusion: An Appreciation of Jacques Ellul,” in Commentary. L (August, 1970), pp. 40-44.

Ransom, H.H. Review in Saturday Review. XLVII (September 26, 1964), p. 48.

Theobald, Robert. Review in The Nation. CXCIX (October 19, 1964), p. 249.

Williams, Raymond. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXIX (October 18, 1964), p. 32.

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