The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul
Jacques Ellul was Professor of Law and Sociology and History of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux. He has published several hundred articles and over thirty books. This book was published by Williams B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 6: The Image-Oriented Person
At this point we come to the greatest mutation known to humankind since the Stone Age. The delicate balance between seeing and hearing, word and gesture, was broken in favor of signals and sight. Western people no longer hear; everything is grasped by sight. They no longer speak; they show. Nevertheless, we are inclined to consider contempt of discourse -- the hatred of the word and language that has gripped us so -- as a problem only for intellectuals.
Isn’t this just a clerical controversy? A matter for those who abused the word, exhausted language, vainly tried to find a new phrase, and who, out of spite, despise and hate that which has served them so well? They are intellectuals, poets, politicians, churchmen, professors, and lawyers, but also scientists and philosophers -- all a bit like the doctors satirized by Molière. They are people for whom the word has become a doormat on which they could always wipe their feet; it is made of something soft, always pliable, which could be abused in all sorts of ways.
Everything had been said and then some, so that each time it seemed possible to advance, a hand was raised at the back of the lecture hall to remind us that Lu Xun or Hippodamus had already said that. The result is an infuriated rejection. We needed to get out of this cage and these repetitions; we needed to enter the real world where at last everything was not identical to everything else. We had learned such fine lessons from science.
Is this an issue for intellectuals that bypasses the common person? Not at all. First, we must not forget the incredible influence of intellectuals on society and today’s public opinion, at least in France. We live in an era that is completely different from those that preceded it, when it might have seemed that intellectuals carried no weight and that their ideas had no repercussion on society. Although this was never really accurate, the repercussions of the intellectual revolution made themselves slowly and progressively felt. At present intellectuals have had a direct hold over the public since they began to have access to the mass media. Intellectuals are no longer scholars in a little heated room, like Descartes, writing for a few specialists and showing only their absentminded professor’s look in public. Now they speak on the radio and are seen on television. They are part of the ordinary person’s view of things. Even the intellectual who is not "committed", promotes more formulas and opinions than systems or complete doctrines, and this is exactly what is called for. We find him speaking "live" for the public on whatever the subject may be, just slightly beyond what the public can comprehend, but in any case giving the public what it expects.
These words spread because they belong to an image: the death of God; the death of humanity. These things are spoken: the class struggle, imperialism, structures, systems, desire, sexual freedom, machismo, phallocracy.... We do not much know what they mean, but these terms involve in themselves a kind of magic that makes us feel good when we use them. By means of these terms the ordinary person becomes part of a trend or fashion. But such image-formulas, which are at first used at random, settle in our subconscious in successive layers, repeatedly feeding our minds, so that in the end they determine our convictions and the positions we take on issues.
Today’s intellectuals are extraordinary shapers of public opinion, provided they have access to television and can at the same time express themselves just a bit beyond what the average person feels and expects. Thus when people see and hear intellectuals massacre the language, hold the word up to ridicule, and endlessly state their hatred of reasoned expression, the public soaks it up. How could people fail to welcome eagerly what coincides so perfectly with their own convictions (for example, that intellectuals are useless quacks, that only efficacious action matters, etc.) After all, even intellectuals are saying it! The word is more suspect and ridiculous than ever! This great intellectual controversy has in effect moved to the popular level; thus the hatred of the word has won over even the humblest people.
1. The Consumer of Images
"The hatred of the word has won over even the humblest people"; but at the same time the common person has experienced a mutation that gives him access to the world of images. This mutation took place not because people reflected and chose it (consciously preferring sight and this imaged universe) but as a result of the change in environment and circumstances. No deliberation or conscious choice was made. Artificial images became profuse, and thus the environment we live in changed. We have involuntarily chosen these artificial images.
We prefer looking at our pictures to looking at the landscape, and when we do happen to look at a landscape, we look at it as if it were a photograph: "Pretty as a picture!" We are better at grasping the beauty of a work of art in reproduction than in the original. We have changed without noticing that anything was happening to us! As usual, when the technical world changes, it seems to all of us that these are just neutral tools that are placed at our disposal, while we remain sovereign and unchanged. I am still myself. The things that are multiplying are at my service, but I remain intact. This is the naive claim of the ordinary person (I use this expression, "the ordinary person,,’ a good deal. It comes from the Italian: uomo qualunque, on which I wrote a rather careful study to show that it could be a scientific sociological category, and an indispensable one at that: "La Notion d’homme quelconque en tant qu’hypothèse de travail sociologique," Revista de Sciencias Sociales, 1964.) who does not even ask himself this question; the scholar considers the question and remains sure of his ground. Yet, generally, we are completely changed by our means, and in particular by our image-laden environment.
This change was all the more complete because we were in complete accord with it. That hatred of language proclaimed by intellectuals coincided perfectly with the inadequacy of everyone’s language. And the rash of images harmonized quite well with all modern human tendencies, since we were already influenced and changed by the general working of techniques. We had already become different, and in order to be comfortable with our new selves we needed images, both for distraction and because of their usefulness. Thus there existed on the one hand the technical possibility of an indefinite production of images, and on the other the ordinary person’s desire to receive them.
I have an unquenchable thirst for more and more of the images that are so dear to me. Why should this be? First, because of my laziness and the ease afforded by images. Everything becomes so simple when transformed into images. When a Beirut building caves in, I see it. I am more involved than if I had read an account of the fighting. The rapid flow of images gives me a direct grasp of the event, and of many others like it. I do not have time to linger over them. I want to see so many things.... And furthermore, I have to keep learning more and more. Not only is there in an objective sense a lot to learn, but I must learn it. For this reason images are essential.
Thanks to images I will learn directly the new techniques of my trade and the information I need to know. I have total and direct contact with things that would be terribly complicated if I had to go the slow route of discursive analysis, then synthesis, progressing from stage to stage by intellectual assimilation.
But there is something even deeper: we live increasingly separated from the natural environment (we frantically try to rediscover it when we go on vacation). When we lose contact with this reality, which used to be the essential reality of our lives, we develop an extremely deep need for another reality. Modern people are the only living beings in a nonliving environment. Because they live in a new abstract, theoretical milieu, unrelated to their tradition, they cannot yet conceive of this technical milieu (See Jacques Ellul, The Technological System, on the technique as a milieu.) as reality. The modern person thus considers nature his refuge, but it is a fiction that we still live in nature. And we have extreme difficulty conceiving of ourselves as excluded from nature (or that Nature has been excluded!) and involved in another universe. The fiction is that we are still, as always, in a world of water, wind, trees, and animals. Yet the real universe in which we find ourselves seems unreal to us. Concrete, automobiles, steel, and asphalt seem like "accidents."
At the very moment we sink into this double fiction and refuse reality, we become obsessed by reality and the concrete. All we care about is action on reality; ideas and thoughts are swept aside, leaving only what is concrete: money, machines, my trade. Nothing but concrete issues matters in our beliefs and our choice of life. This is an astonishing contradiction. But then the merciful image comes along to resolve it for us. Images coincide with reality.
We feel relaxed and joyful at continually rediscovering nature through images. We feel right at home again when we see these majestic pictures of the ocean, these clever animal films made possible by the telephoto lens. We never knew nature so well, never saw it so well. Thanks to these images we can drink in the sea breeze and the mountain air. At the same time the image gives us the technical universe in its hypostatic reality.
The mechanical world that so often troubles us becomes magically present and familiar through images. But this familiarity is shown; that is, made majestic, noble, and superior -- it seems to deserve being shown and admired. Mirari: mirage. The image as mirage reconciles contradictions, makes absent nature present and real again, makes the technical milieu familiar and admirable, and quenches our thirst for something concrete and real. Images counterbalance all the abstractions. And they restore to us at last a reality in which we can live: the reality of the world of images.
We are in the process of seeing the fulfillment of Edgar Allen Poe’s prophecy in which the painter, impassioned by his mistressmodel and also by his art, "did not want to see that the colors he spread on his canvas were taken from the cheeks of the woman seated beside him. And when several weeks had passed, and very little remained to be done, nothing but a stroke on the mouth and a glaze over the eye, the mistress’s spirit still flickered like the flame at the base of a lamp. Then he put on the final touch, put the glaze in place, and for a moment the painter stood in ecstasy before the work he had finished. But a moment later, he was struck with panic, and shouting with a piercing voice: ‘It is truly Life itself,’ he suddenly turned around to look at his mistress. She was dead." Nothing ever constrains us to face what is dying when we see it so alive in our images.
Because of all this people themselves have changed a great deal. They are first of all consumers of images.(See all of Jean Baudrillard’s books on the consumption of symbols.) The technical individual belonging to the Western world has been described in many ways: the man of the masses (José Ortega y Gasset), the organization man (William H. Whyte, Jr.), the extrovert, the quantitative man (Bernard Ronze), the technical man, the other-directed man (W. Miles), and many others. Each of these is certainly correct. And each of these analyses enables us to gauge the deep psychological, moral, psychic, spiritual, and intellectual change that has taken place. It is a veritable mutation.
We are not sure we can understand thoroughly what really has happened to each of us, but I believe one of the decisive factors in this mutation is that we live continually in a world of images, that is, in the continual unshadowed presence of all of reality. We live in the present, without fail. The present image erases the past and prohibits expectation by bringing the future into the present. Seeing the present implies the present realization of our desires, without delay. A government that says it needs two years to resolve a crisis is a doomed government. An ethic that teaches us to wait and move patiently toward a goal is automatically rejected. Any promise made for tomorrow converts the one who makes it into a liar. "Everything, right now" is the notion that comes from the presence of images, which in effect get us used to seeing all in a single glance. Thus reality is completely present. Mustn’t reality therefore be completely present? For imaged reality is. But images are reality.
Thus when our experience of reality disappoints us because It does not square with our image of it, this cruel disappointment immediately convinces us of the injustice of the situation. We see marvelous automatic gadgets. They exist! We see incredible surgical heart or brain operations. They are done! Then why aren’t all sick people taken care of in this way? Why isn’t everything automated? Since it is possible, why don’t we reduce the workday to one hour? Why not have everybody on vacation all the time and cared for with the most recently developed machines? Since things are not this way, there must be some dark scheming, Machiavellian calculations, and sordid selfishness involved. Someone is determined to keep the worker alienated and to keep the poor person ignorant and ill. "They" alone -- employers and fascists -- prevent the coming of the marvelous society presented to us by images. The continually reborn belief in the coming of an ultimate era is scandalized that the time has not already come. The entire strength of Marxism is based on this belief (an amazing reversal is involved when Marx, a model person of the word and discourse, inspires a movement that develops and sustains itself only through images and as a consequence of the psychology based on images!).
But the present reality as seen through images, which is only the reality of the technical miracle, is also the menacing and dangerous present. We see birds slimed with oil; and the slow, majestic rising of the fatal mushroom cloud has become the continual vision of our destiny. Here we are faced with a catastrophic present constantly represented before our eyes; a continual menace confronts us through the images we see. This does not involve some hoax we can expose through language; nor can we use words to soften the effect of the threats that surround us: we see them as if we were in their very presence.
And when the threats are not real, images still surround us with the fictional threats of horror films and stress-filled movies. As if reality were not enough! The word never had either this function or this power; certainly it never possessed this continual presence. Real or fictional images make us feel we are witnessing the end of the world. This is a logical consequence of the imaged ends of the world and of civilizations we are continually shown.
Thus we have these two trends: the demand for everything immediately, and the dread of the end of the world, both of which stem from the infinite multiplication of images. These trends work together to produce on all sides apocalyptic and messianic tendencies, or at least the coming of an ultimate era. This is the first of the great changes we undergo. The second is the mutation of our intelligence and intellectual process.
2. The Intellectual Process
Images produce an intellectual process different from the ancient one or the one developed by classical education. It goes without saying that this process is not completely new; of course, since sight existed, and since people themselves chose their images, they also thought by means of images and entered into this kind of thinking. But this was limited and not frequent, because images were not dominant. The new factor in our day comes from the effect of visual reproduction’s triumph over all else, which involves us in the domination of one form of thought. This supremacy is new, even though we are not dealing with a completely new form of thought.
What are its characteristics? First, thought by association and suggestion. But in this case the association is of images rather than ideas. Films and newspapers have filled us with visions. We are inhabited by photographs, so that our subconscious supplies us with them whenever it is stimulated.
But the stimulus is itself an image. When we glimpse a picture, a process whereby images recall one another is immediately set off. These images cause us to go from one idea that is represented in this manner to others that have no necessary relationship between them. Forms, colors, movements, landscapes, and faces associate themselves with each other, then carry us along with them. Furthermore, we feel no need to resist this process, since it is pleasant to let ourselves be led and dominated, up to a certain point. Naturally, sound associations exist as well, and we could speak of similar phenomena in this realm. But we live in a universe of images rather than sounds.
The word, although prevalent in our day, has lost its reasoning value, and has value only as an accessory to images. In turn, the word actually evokes images. But it does not evoke the direct images related to my personal experience. Rather, it calls up images from the newspaper or television. The key words in our modern vocabulary, thanks to propaganda and advertising, are words that relate to visual reproduction. They are stripped of all rational content, so they evoke only visions that whisk us away to some enchanted universe. Saying "fascism," "progress," "science," or "justice" does not suggest any idea or produce any reflection. It only causes a fanfare of images to explode within us: a sort of fireworks of visual commonplaces, which link up very precisely with each other. These related images provide me with practical content: a common truth that is especially easy to swallow because the ready-made images that showed it to me had been digested in advance.
Make no mistake here: this is how modern people usually think. We are arriving at a purely emotional stage of thinking. In order to begin reacting intellectually, we need the stimulus of an image. Bare information or an article or book no longer have any effect on us. We do not begin reflecting on such a basis, but only with an illustration. We need violent visual impact if thought is to be set in motion. When we jump from image to image, we are really going from emotion to emotion: our thought moves from anger to indignation, from fear to resentment, from passion to curiosity. In this manner our thought is enriched by diversity and multiple meaning but is singularly paralyzed with respect to its specific efficacy as thought.
Furthermore, the emotional quality of what we moderns call our thought produces an extreme violence of conviction combined with extreme incoherence in our arguments. I refer here to ordinary people and not to an intellectual elite. We do not involve ourselves in studying the meaning and consequences of a fact calmly and objectively. The fact asserts itself through its image and associates itself in unchallengeable fashion with other images which, in this mode of thinking, are its true context. Emotions justify as well as provoke or command opinions, which still seem intellectual and reasoned.
Prejudice and stereotypes did not originate in our time. Passionate thinking was well known earlier, and Romanticism has furnished us some of its finer types. But it may be that ordinary people had less pretensions to thinking and reasoning in earlier periods. Certainly they were given less systematic visual incitements to set off their emotions. This is precisely what seems to be new: this pretension to information, to a sensible opinion, and to widespread thought among the people is related to a particular form of image association and to passionate reasoning, which is a direct consequence of such images.
We must add to this first characteristic the result of what we have already observed: images cause us to grasp facts in an overall manner. It is thus a matter of intuition. And this is exactly what we observe. Visual means of communication set in motion an overall mechanism of apprehension. We grasp the entirety of a situation or a reality by means of an instantaneous intuition. We can observe in practice the development of this intuitive kind of knowledge in young people. They understand all at once; their perception places them at the very heart of reality.
Such intuition is remarkably efficient. It is a very strange kind of knowledge: it involves a kind of direct communication of knowledge, as if it did not pass through the brain, as if reason were absent and intelligence had nothing to do with it. A mysterious link seems to be established between the person showing the images and the spectator. Images are chosen to produce this sort of secret understanding of reality, and in fact they reach their goal. Sometimes even without being clearly conscious of the fact, we know what a given image meant. A sort of sympathetic vibration of knowledge is established between those who are indwelt by the same images. Sometimes they would have enormous difficulty expressing in words what this means. They could not transpose this certain knowledge into words. They take refuge in adjectives and allusions; gestures compensate for the absence of vocabulary.
Yet this knowledge exists. It can be communicated, but only by means of other overall images. Intuition must again play its role, as communication is established from the entirety of one being to the entirety of another, through the intermediary of something visual. This image carries more meaning than other images received but is devoid of reason.
The words understanding and communication in themselves involve a kind of mobilization of being. And this is what is produced in this kind of reasoning or transmission of knowledge by images. We said above that images transmit reality itself to the spectator, with formidable energy, insistence, and strength of impact. But we also said that images possess emotional force. These elements, when combined, explain why it is that when modern visual means are used, spectators do not remain passive. They participate very quickly in the unfolding of a spectacle and feel personally involved. But an intellectual attitude is also involved; that is, in visual communication the spectator is "in on" what he sees; he clings to what is transmitted (which is why such means are so efficacious in teaching -- because of the spectator’s interest and participation).
But this means that there is no longer any distance between subject and object. This is normal if we reflect on the fact that sight, when used in the context of nature, creates direct communication with reality. It implies that one is involved in this particular reality and quickly leads a person to action. But when the image has become artificial and is purely a means of knowledge, the reaction persists. I feel directly involved in what I see, just as prehistoric people did. And if I am seeing objects or ideas, I am not truly independent; I cannot really take my distance from these objects. From the intellectual point of view, this means I cannot really exercise my critical faculties. The use of images to transmit knowledge leads to the progressive elimination of distance between a person and his knowledge, because of the way we are made to participate when this means is used (this is, of course, in perfect accord with technical civilization, and to be desired by its standards). The critical faculties and autonomy of the thinking person are also eliminated.
Thus we could say without any exaggeration that knowledge transmitted by images leads to a kind of thinking that presents two characteristics (besides those noted above: intuition and association). First, this thinking is based on evidence: the image that creates this thinking gives rise to a feeling of evidence and a conviction that it is not based on reason. This kind of thinking explains the reaction we so often note among our contemporaries: when someone asks them to give the reason for their opinions, they answer: "It’s evident." This thinking, which creates prejudices and stereotypes, is the domain of the unquestionable. Obviously you cannot dispute with an image, and you cannot challenge the hero of a film. But this extends to the mental images produced by the film: there is no criticism or debate possible, because these involve differing methods of thought. What produces immediate assent cannot bear the discussion process. The conviction acquired in this way can only be attacked on its own ground: by other images and other "evidences.’’
But we must admit that in this case we usually have a confrontation of two systems of images that do not coincide and cannot be communicated. Psychologists (especially Americans) have been very aware of a problem that had a great deal of impact about twenty years ago: the growth of prejudices and mental stereotypes (which are the basis of racism, among other things). It is agreed that these are irrational, ready-made images: a person does not construct this image himself from scattered traits he gathers together. But it seems that more attention should be given to examining the following factors: such images are not a transposition of discourse and words, from articles and conversations. They are truly the mental reception of images in the material sense: posters, photographs, etc. Stereotypes are ready-made images received as is, from outside. Such thought based on evidence is always effectively translated into images. Say "progress" to an ordinary person, and he will answer "machine."
The other characteristic of this kind of thought is that it is always "committed." It is, for instance, thought related to action, especially political and social action. Imaged thought, based on and fed by and stirred up by images, is of necessity committed in the social context which creates these images. Such thought refers to the reality that is transmitted to it through visual systems; there is no possible escape from this. For we must not forget that all the images that deluge us refer to the context of our society.
True, there must be agreement between the spectator and the image shown to him. A historical film, for example, can succeed only if the spectator sees himself mirrored in it, or if he can relate his time to the historical period of the film. Excellent documentaries on Auguste Rodin, Honoré de Balzac, and Vincent van Gogh were commercial failures, because they struck no chords in the spectator.
In order to succeed images must genuinely reflect our society. Then they involve the spectator’s thought in judgments and decisions that are related only to technical, economic, and political life. It is certainly not by accident that precisely at the time we were invaded by images, scholars came up with the theory of the need for commitment in thought. This commitment cannot remain independent of what is shown to it; and what is shown is nothing but the politicalsocial context.
Thought based on images can be neither abstract nor critical. Of necessity it is thought related to the milieu. I am not saying whether this is good or bad. I simply note that again in this case intellectuals have worked out theories to justify the inevitable. For unconsciously, they could not avoid being subjected to the enormous weight of billions of images (just like other people). Yet consciously, they were well aware that maintaining the demands of critical and independent thought involves a complete break with the rest of humankind. This would make it impossible for them to play their role as genuine intellectuals. They must think like everyone else if they expect to be at all believed by the masses. Thus their conscious and unconscious minds agree in taking them down the path of thought that involves images, evidence, and emotivity.
* * * * * *
At this point, however, we find ourselves coming to a dangerous turn. Teachers who work out illustrations and make use of films to make knowledge more accessible scarcely concern themselves with such effects. This is because they are convinced that the mode of thinking that involves images and intuition can fit in perfectly with the traditional mode of thinking by reasoning and discourse. An unreasoned and unproved conviction exists that the two kinds of thinking complement each other. Yet it seems clear that the enormous difference between the two keeps them from being complementary. They are opposing mental attitudes, which presuppose essentially divergent capacities and training. This can already be seen rather clearly as early as Descartes.
The word also originates a specific mode of thinking. Experience tends to show that a person who thinks by images becomes less and less capable of thinking by reasoning, and vice versa. The intellectual process based on images is contradictory to the intellectual process of reasoning that is related to the word. There are two different ways of dealing with an object. They involve not only different approaches, but even more important, opposing mental attitudes. This is not a matter of complementary processes, such as analysis and synthesis or logic and dialectic. These processes lack any qualitative common denominator.
The very object of these two thought forms may not be the same. The word necessarily gives rise to a mode of thought by demonstration, following a logical or dialectical process. Here we will omit the word as incantation, since language calls for a logical internal law of construction that presupposes a rigorous relationship among its terms. In the classical order the word trains the mind for demonstration. A correctly constructed, reasoned argument is convincing because it corresponds to the internal law of language and to the rigorous requirements in the very structure of a sentence.
A person must believe in language if he is to be open to the meaning of a reasoned argument. But for a person used to the value of the word, reasoning leads to correct and satisfactory knowledge. Moreover, the word has no meaning if not integrated into this kind of a context. No matter how elementary or utilitarian a demonstration may be, no matter how rudimentary the language, the word nevertheless moves in this domain of reasoning. Always in some way it addresses human reason. The word is the instrument of this reason and can be used only because a common reason attributes a certain construction to the word.
Communication on the basis of the word is primarily the communication of experiences or feelings that can be grasped by the intellect and conveyed by intellectual values. These experiences and feelings undergo an intellectual process and are then addressed to another person’s intellect. The word must pass through this sender and this receiver. An impact value or emotive power of the word may also be added, though these really are not necessary but simply superfluous. The word at first does not involve the whole being, nor involve it directly, but reaches a person only through a more or less lengthy process. It leaves a certain distance between people when they speak to each other.
The word does not belong to the order of evidence. As we all know, a simple rough statement, lacking reasons and context, is always disappointing to the listener. Except in the case of propaganda, a listener expects a demonstration, and is not satisfied with a statement lacking rational proof. The word is inevitably linked to this need for reasons and to this roundabout method, even if we are not conscious of the fact. Evidence and direct comprehension are not language’s strong suit. All spoken communication is a laborious construction by a person who elaborates his demonstration as rigorously as possible, leaving as few lapses as he can. It is also a construction in the case of dialogue, in which a progression is shaped by active exchange.
Images leave everyone in an icy silence that can only be transcended by total, intuitive communication. No interchange is involved. The word, however, is the means of human relationship and dialogue, which is the dialectical exercise of experience. The word requires reasoning and the use of analysis and synthesis, even when these are involuntary. Language is this way because of its very structure. Don’t we use the term analysis precisely to designate the process by which we understand a sentence? Such analysis is not carried out on the basis of some naturally given set of facts, but rather is based on a previously formulated result of synthesis. And synthesis takes place continually on the basis of the results of analysis.
A person who has been trained in rhetoric, in the strict sense of the word, can no longer learn in any other way. His thinking necessarily takes place in the world of reasoning, dialectic, analysis, and synthesis. This is not without its dangers, of course: we are aware that words can be abused. We know how an illusion allows us to take these symbols for reality, and how empty talk sometimes fails to be attached to anything concrete. Sometimes confusion between rhetorical reasons and reason exists. But these abuses in no way affect the authenticity of the intellectual mechanism that is formed by and for the word.
A person who is trained in this way always distrusts intuition and images. Intuition appears to him to be without foundation or certainty. A scientist always distrusts "feminine" intuition. We cannot take seriously the knowledge that the first human beings could have had of plants and animals, knowledge based on their pure "intuition." Psychic and "spiritual" phenomena that do not belong to the domain of reason seem like illusions to us, like stories of ghosts and mediums. On the basis of reason we cannot really accept healers, who are intuitive individuals, even if we consult them.
Nor can an intellectual trained by the word consider images to be accurate and adequate. They are always suspect as far as he is concerned; at best they are accessories that have no meaning apart from the explanations that accompany them. We find exactly the same disposition of mind in the person accustomed to thinking by images and intuition. Since he yields to evidence and needs this evidence, he resists demonstrations. Reasoning irritates and exasperates him without convincing him: what good are such roundabout methods? Why such a slow pace? Why stop at every step to secure one’s position, when he can have the result in one move? Intuition can enable him to grasp the totality in a flash. The most precise demonstration possible will not convince such a person, because he is desensitized to reason. The sequence of the parts of a reasoned argument does not strike him as at all necessary.
I recall a group of young people who were fervent in their political concerns and whose education had been based on images. They listened to a magnificent lecture on Algeria in 1959 -- a lecture astonishing in its documentation, intellectual rigor, fine analysis, and solid synthesis. The practical conclusions of this presentation flowed in a precise manner from its premises. Afterward these young people said to me: "That’s very good. No doubt he’s right. But we ‘feel’ differently." They knew nothing of Algeria, of course, except for images. This anecdote seems typical to me of the misunderstanding between word-oriented and image-oriented people.
The word really cannot reach those who are oriented toward images. To such people it seems utterly empty, like vain talk. A person cannot take seriously what proceeds from the word when he is accustomed to the palpable, concrete, and living aspects of images, The word seems like wind, or like something without life. Thus the problem is not just a genuine inability to think in the two modes, a necessary exclusion of each by the other. It is also a genuine refusal to use both forms of thought. The person who is accustomed to one of the two has only scorn and distrust for the other. This is not surprising, because images are the opposite of demonstration; intuition is the opposite of reasoning; and the association of ideas excludes any possibility of the rigor of logical thought. We must not think that a person is absolutely free to play both games at once, to use two instruments equally, because they condition the whole person so profoundly. We are modified by our own means of expression, and the dominant use of one means prevents our valid use of the other.
* * * * * *
If these hypotheses are correct, we now come to the specific area of the lie. First, audiovisual lies. Audiovisual means mask a series of graduated lies (not deliberate, explicit, conscious lies, of course!). The first is simply the presentation of this method, this pedagogy, this technique, as a great human creation. It is passed off as good, like a sort of new ideal that brings with it all sorts of progress. But no "creation" is involved: it is simply an inevitable de facto situation. Quite simply, we could not have done otherwise. The audiovisual process is imposed on us and is part of the technical world’s necessity.
The lie also has a second stage: the audiovisual method is said to be a successful means of reconciling sight and hearing, image and word. It represents the latest advance in a pedagogy that already had been greatly improved by illustrations. Television is the most highly evolved teaching instrument. Other associations of images and words, such as slides and video techniques, will be grafted onto it. Images enable us to make things comprehensible when no form of discourse could explain them. When a person has seen a flower open on a large screen, or the back of a chrysalis split, or sperm penetrate an ovule, he will never forget what he has seen; it will stay with him permanently. Without words, of course! And this is the first step in the lie: no words are used, whereas we are continually told that this method involves the equal association of images and words, with precise correlation. In practice this is easy to corroborate: ask a pupil to explain what he has seen! "Well, . . . " And here his words end!
We must not make a secret of the fact that students’ increasingly poor examinations stem precisely from this conflict: pupils take in images, and we require that they respond with discourse. Switching from one to the other is impossible. Generations of students that were taught rhetoric and Latin found a way to escape the seriousness of the word by superfluous verbiage and by imposing a purely formal technique on the word. Today we have the same evasion, but now it is aided by the triumphant image and the destroyed word.
In the audiovisual realm, the image is king. The word, practically useless, is in any case a serf, not an equal. At best, the word is used to provide the name of what is seen on the screen but is eliminated for all other purposes. Furthermore, anyone who needs convincing has only to listen to the vain talk and the comments that accompany a series of images: pompous discourse falsely poetic; dead time filled up with pseudo-poetry! This is natural -- what could you possibly add through words that could compare with images?
Of course, audiovisual methods can be useful in learning: for example, foreign languages. It helps to see an image and hear the sound that goes with it. But the word in this case is reduced to exactly that: a sound. What is learned is not the depth and profundity of a language, including its formation and its verbal and syntactical structure; only good pronunciation is involved. Far be it from me to say this is useless. On the contrary, what is learned in this case is something useful, but only that! And useful only at the level of the objects or actions to be shown. For audiovisual methods limit themselves to what can be shown. What is useful at the level of pronunciation has to do with everyday language. What use is the teaching of Goethe’s German or Shakespeare’s English? The answer is obvious. What is the use of teaching a dead language? This agrees exactly with what we said above about visual images. They are related to efficacy, utility, and reality.
The audiovisual lie, however, wants us to believe that one really learns a language this way. But a language is tied to the entire psychology of a people, and to its history and literature. Yet one can know nothing and still be able to carry on a conversation in a given language. Ionesco has shown well the distance between this conversational level and true language. The serious thing is not the use of the audiovisual method but that what is learned in this way eliminates all the rest, which is considered not "useful."
Audiovisual methods extend our entire society’s discrimination against what is not useful and efficacious. Even when the goal is to learn a utilitarian language, the word is excluded. Images render no service to the word, nor to thought. The audiovisual method faces us with the exclusive spreading knowledge of technical reality. Nothing else is involved. And when this method triumphantly extends to everything, we witness, as in the case of computers, the process of excluding everything that cannot adapt to it. We can never emphasize this elimination enough: anything that cannot be dealt with through computers ceases to exist. Whatever is not transmitted audiovisually does not matter.
This exclusion is clearly manifested in certain scientific statements; for instance, that only "reality" can be the object of knowledge. And reality in this case is defined as we described it briefly in Chapter I: what is measurable, quantifiable, defined, noncontradictory, and identical to itself. Only this reality can be known and can thus be the object of scientific research and true knowledge. At this point reality is consciously identified with truth. This is the basis of most epistemological research undertaken since the triumph of images.
To the degree that audiovisual methods are improved, philosophy declines. Philosophy is not of the same order, either in terms of the way its thought develops or with respect to the level of language involved. It is claimed that the audiovisual method is the servant of thought, whereas in reality thought is excluded by the continual invasion of images. Audiovisual methods immerse us in reality alone. And reality takes up all the available space and becomes all-important.
Then in a reversal of the sort in which our age abounds, thought is excluded. This takes place hidden by the insistence on the contrary: the pretension of autonomy and of the individualization of the person who is learning. Such education is said to produce a critical mind and a capacity for judgment, whereas these are precisely what images eliminate. In this way it is claimed that we are enabling people to arrive at the full use of their intellectual powers, whereas this is excluded; we are supposed to be freeing the human mind, but we are merely bogging it down more than ever in the exclusive visual world and the preoccupation with things technical.
The audiovisual method cleverly excludes the word, all the while claiming to integrate it. In this method every word refers to images. We are told that "the word that cannot be visualized is nothing but empty dreaming, soap bubbles, and vain talk, since it lacks reference to reality and therefore to the truth." This process of elimination is powerfully reinforced by the enthusiastic and naive assistance teachers provide. They have no idea what they are doing or of the degree to which they are manipulated -- not by some evil genie but by the working of the technical system.
We are faced here with one of these twisted mechanisms that abound in this system (we are tempted to take them for something conscious, since they seem so clever, but they are unconscious). Audiovisual teaching, which is so efficient, is false not only in claiming to associate word and image equally. It is false also in the sense that it is the smokescreen covering over the mutation in our mode of thinking, as we have just analyzed it. We must not be allowed to realize what we are in the process of losing. The most extreme case can permit no possible choice between what we use as the instrument of thought and our instrument for recognizing reality. We must not feel the depth of the break between these two processes of human intelligence; still less must we feel our break with what has been until now the grandeur of Western thought.
Audiovisual methods utterly obliterate this conflict and this break. They enable us to believe in good faith that we are in the midst of a great reconciliation, and that we can be both Socrates and an engineer working on the computer analysis of fluid mechanics. Audiovisual methods lead us to think that we can successfully associate technique with culture, and even that a more evolved stage of technique will enable us to dedicate ourselves to the blissful joys of purely intellectual, spiritual, and esthetic creation: "The famous idea of a humanistic technical culture is a real possibility -- just look at audiovisuals!" People are scandalized by the sort of analysis I make, showing the increasing divergence of two irreconcilable types of thought that will never come together. They cannot come together, since the evidence of the one excludes the changeability of the other.
That the audiovisual method thus plays an eminently ideological role here should not surprise us. This ideological mask leads us into an awareness of a broader dimension of the problem, in which the audiovisual question is merely one startling aspect rather than the only factor. Things visual give us access to reality. The multiplication of images roots us firmly within reality. When the word is excluded, we lose the sense of truth. But reality belongs to the world of necessity. Everything about it is both necessary and evident. The word is both the locus and the expression of freedom (or, if one prefers, the pretension of freedom, or its intention or illusion, as well as the falsification of freedom). Wherever the word is excluded or subordinated, freedom is eliminated. When a person is subdued by images, he is situated in a necessary world filled with necessities. He sees what he must know, learn, do, and decide. He accepts necessity at the very time he accepts images. But to the degree that evidence is always involved, he never becomes conscious of this necessity.
Thus we find ourselves faced with this double mutation: one is shut up within necessity alone, and it is impossible to become aware of this. But we know, at least since Marx, that the first (and sometimes the only) act of freedom is becoming conscious of necessity. As soon as a person recognizes that he has been conditioned, this means that he has taken a position with respect to this necessity. He situates himself outside it in order to see it. Furthermore, he can define himself as conditioned only if he is free. Unless he were conscious of freedom or willed to be free, he would not even know that he was subject to necessity.
This distance taking, however, can only occur by means of the word. The invasion of images causes us to be not only in a universe of things, but also in an imaged reflection of this world of things and realities. We are locked up in this world because of the many-sided, polyvalent, incessant quality of images, and because of the way images symbolize things. All this affects a person so that not only is he subject to the necessity of reality, but he also becomes incapable of considering this reality as a combination of necessities. He is trapped at the level of his experience and at the same time by the images reflecting this experience. Through the abundance of images this reflection gives him the impression that Everything is possible, that Everything is always new, and that circumstances are so fluid that he can influence or master them. But since all this takes place in a sort of magic-lantern universe, it never goes deeper than an impression. This is all that is required if an individual is to be demobilized and more completely integrated into fictitious battles.
The word, however, through its very imprecision, involves the freedom of both partners. We have seen that it respects the freedom of the listener, but it expresses and even produces the freedom of the speaker when he chooses to say what he finally says, and chooses to eliminate other things he could have said. The word creates a free space between two people, through the possibility of understanding and misunderstanding. When the word becomes imperative, it places the listener in a situation of free choice. In the last analysis, the imageoriented person has lost his deep freedom by penetrating into this milieu of images produced by technique.
3. Space and Visualization in Modern Art
Today all authors (with one exception, whom we will consider) agree in noting the extraordinary victory of the visual and spatial over the temporal and auditory in the art world. For painters, space has changed its character. Robert L. Delevoy (Robert L. Delevoy, Dimensions du XX siècle, Art, Idées, Histoire[Geneva: Skire, 1965]) provides us with an admirable analysis of this fact: in the classical conception, space was considered the locus of relationships between objects. This idea gives way to the notion of space as a phenomenon: "an unreal milieu, where tectonic values, tensions, articulations, and the sequence of forms" move freely and are self-sufficient. "The spatial virtualities of color are associated with constructive mechanisms, distribution, and the montage of signs" (the terms of this analysis are significant, since they spontaneously evoke technical processes).
Space has become the basic dimension in art -- all art, including music. A nonspatial esthetic representation of the world no longer exists. Yves Bonnefoy feels tragically ambivalent about this certainty: "nothing will take place but the place." Words propose an "abode." Bonnefoy is totally committed to localization; but after this exaltation of space, he says: "I cannot keep myself, however, from reaffirming that impersonal poetry without time is wrong." But after all, we are guilty of this wrong!
At the same time that space wins out over time, the visual replaces the auditory. Schaeffer explains the degree to which the meaning of visual images depends on the word or discourse. The text attests. The image shows the fact and thereby lends itself to a multitude of interpretations. "The universe in constant motion, the phenomenological universe of the course of events, substitutes itself for a whole system of fixed reference points which are in static equilibrium: the world that can properly be called the world of dis-course. This indicates the naïveté of professors who count on the image to visualize the abstract.... In an image-message, misunderstanding ... is the rule."
Yet everyone agrees in proclaiming that we have here a new language and a new art. It wins out over what was only language: the filmed novel replaces the novel. A whole trend develops the idea of writing a novel fragmented like a film.
Such interpenetration is no longer limited to the domain of the comic strip but becomes characteristic of the "best" writers: Marguerite Duras, who dedicates herself to the filmed novel in Nathalie Granger and India Song; Alain Robbe-Grillet, with Glissements progressifs du plaisir. In some cases a film director and a novelist work together to produce the novel for a film, the counterpart of the cinematic transcription of the novel (for example Patrick Modiano and Louis Malle in Lacombe Lucien, Tonino Guerra and Federico Fellini in Amarcord(). We have utterly left behind the old technique: a film based on the novel by.. . ., or the film as simply an illustration of a story. The reason is that translation from one medium to another presupposes difference and opposition, with the result that it is always unsuccessful.
The intertwining of the two is now complete, but to the benefit of image and to story’s detriment; to the benefit of the spatial at the temporal’s expense. Language in visual form unfolding in space replaces verbal language unfolding in time.
Music also has developed spatially since the end of the nineteenth century, with what has been called the victory of pictorial genius over musical genius. It is obvious that painting traditionally has been spatial, but it also has undergone a modification, rejecting all optical illusion, so as to become only "something that is there." The painting is nothing more than itself -- the real space it occupies. The discovery of space by painters and sculptors has been endlessly stressed for a good reason: the objects produced or reproduced matter less than the space between them, the meaning, the concentration of forces, the distribution of the space. The play of light and color serves only to heighten the value of the space.
This development harmonizes to an amazing degree with the impact of Technique. Technique is a conqueror of space and both requires and takes for granted a maximum of space for its development. In this connection Jean Merkado’s sculpture (exhibited at the Bourdelle Museum in 1975), for example, is significant. On the one hand it is purely technical: it consists of geometrical forms held together by mechanical connections, which suggest groups of machines. On the other hand it denotes space. Everything about it constitutes experimenting with space: empty space, volumes, masses, and materials. "The important thing is what happens in the empty space, between the masses.... " The most technical modern sculpture has no meaning or value in itself. Representation counts for nothing; the situation in space and the cutting up of space are meaningful, exactly as in the case of Technique!
Although music involved continuation and becoming, sound is not limited: it leaps beyond its limits. With Claude Debussy "the spatial conception of sound surfaces" begins. And after him follows a veritable atomization of melodic models. Disparate elements are superimposed on one another. Igor Stravinski quite consciously institutes combined space-time (overall, of course, this was a very necessary tendency: a given length of time is the amount of time necessary to cover a given space). Many talk of the impressionists’ influence in this area. Subjective time -- the time experienced in music -- declines progressively as music becomes a collection of objects.
Such music expresses life (duration!) less and less as it becomes, for example, the expression of computation. This would seem to objectify life. Thus music becomes a sort of parasite on painting. Music rejects its temporal depth and precisely circumscribes each bundle of sounds in its specificity. In turn, music itself becomes at each instant "something that is there," without a future.
Moreover, this generalization of space in all the arts, this victory of visualization, is expressed in many guises. For example, consider the influence of the discovery of the universe of the infinitely small and of the strange world of molecules and atoms with their structures that are at the same time spatial and yet never really correctly representable in space. This influence shows up frequently in contemporary painting.
We have the same problem with the influence of speed, which involves a different appraisal of the relationships between things and space itself. Far and near are no longer considered in the same way. Everything is equally present. The modern individual thinks on the basis of isolated facts placed in a relationship governed by speed. Mobility, in all the arts, assumes a "functional role" (Delevoy). This mobility, a determining factor in film as well as in painting or music, is spatial: it integrates the temporal in space in a precise manner.
Architecture accentuates this preeminence of space to an astonishing degree. Ricardo Bofill, with his group, "Taller de Arquitectura," declares that "Life is in space, Time is in space; nothing exists but space." "An esthetic which incorporates the contradictory values of duration, change, the simultaneous and the successive, is being elaborated. At the same time the spectator can now participate in the process of the work -- by devouring the optical substance of a spectacle that is destined to have a continuing birth" (Delevoy).
This is possible, of course, only to the degree that everything temporal has become space. And the same influence is at work when we note with Paul Klee that the spectator is himself watched by the painting. No longer is it sufficient to learn to see what the artist offers to sight. The spectator must feel himself integrated into the space of a painting, which is no longer decoration or an invitation to meditation but a place where one is called to live. One is involved in such a place because here, as with television, one is bombarded by strong motivating influences. The spectator becomes himself a part of this space. Thus in art, space becomes everything, just at the exact moment when we are deprived of space by the very development of techniques that absorb and annihilate it.
Last of all, the question of instantaneousness comes up in this context: mechanization in art demands an esthetic experience based on an instantaneous response. (And here we obviously come back to McLuhan: instantaneousness as opposed, for example, to the discovery of a text written sentence by sentence; global understanding; instantaneous introjection. To be sure, a machine can be instantaneous, but aren’t we reducing human beings to machines when we attempt to obtain the same reaction?) Does instantaneousness have an esthetic quality? In his remarkable essay on art ("Technology and the Future of Art," Massachusetts Review, 1966), A. Efron gives a long demonstration of the contrary. In particular, he emphasizes that the instantaneous is not at all an "experience."
It is true nonetheless that instantaneousness is the goal not only in film and modern music but also in painting and sculpture. Painting (armed with psychological and photographical data and chemicals) is supposed to act on our nervous system itself, without going through our consciousness. But is this not, again, the negation of the human being? The spectator must have no past, no future; his whole being must be tied to the instantaneous sensation. This is a strange turn for art to take. It is reduced to a huge ear that can take in torrents of sound but can only vibrate in unison. This music becomes cosmic (.John Cage), and such painting is the expression of fields of force, but the price of this expansion is that humankind is eliminated.
Instantaneousness is really an illusion. Instantaneousness in art is impossible. Efron recalls that Norbert Wiener has demonstrated at length that people and machines operate at two levels differentiated by time -- on two distinct time scales. This opposition sets a decisive limit on the possibility of synchronization (except for the coercion of people into such synchronization, as in the case of industrial "rhythm"; but this can only be done externally). This limit exists because of the qualitative difference between these different time scales.
In the domain of art, this difference implies a radical opposition between art and electronic technology: as long as some relation exists between art and human beings, there cannot be any sort of instantaneous art. With the ideology of instantaneousness and immediacy in art, with the ideology of spontaneous creativity (the happening, etc.), we are in the presence of a clear-cut integration into the technological process and a total denial of everything that has ever been considered art.
In addition to the succession of televised images with no temporal relation between them, Arnold Schönberg and jazz give us an example of the dissolution of time. Their musical elements tend to be frozen; everything becomes an immediate and omnipresent construction. The twelve-tone scale is a static technique which brings the listener continually back to identical material. Time is frozen in all contemporary art. Only space is filled, and it is the area of our genuine activity.
Note that the visual and space are the typical locus of Technique. What we grasp through techniques are dimensions and spatial structures. "Only people living during the era of the airplane could have ensured the development from Edgar Degas’s expression to Maurice Esteve’s. I doubt that either Esteve or Alfred Manessier was an aviation enthusiast, but, more revealingly, they were tempted to imagine the optical reactions of their contemporaries who did fly airplanes.... Why not grant that artists do their utmost to translate not the reality of the mechanical vision of a world crisscrossed by flashing machines, but rather the concept that gave rise to the creation of these machines and that results from their use? This dominance of spatial interest derives from the fact that Technique refers only to reality," and this reality is nothing but space.
For Technique, time is unreal; it is only lived. Of course, there are techniques of time, and we all know the decisive importance attached to the advent of the clock by historians of techniques. But this only adds to our argument, since techniques of time always consist of a cutting up of time, a cutting into sections. This process really amounts to a negation of time, which does not exist on its own but only in its spatial reduction. Time goes by: the hands of the watch move in space.
Technique never grasps anything but space. That is why the famous time-travel machine is a dream of science fiction: the machine is localized. It acts on a given space and has absolutely nothing to do with time, It is even the negation of time in the sense that it always reproduces the same motion. The thousandth time, the product that comes out of a machine or the motion of a piston are identical -- no time has passed. The machine follows a pattern of rigorous similarity, because it deals entirely with immediacy and space.
Technique permits a taking over of space, but as far as time is concerned, Technique can only reject and deny it. By the same token, visualization is apprehension of reality as Technique -- or a machine -- apprehends it. Techniques can teach us to see a thousand times better, a thousand times more. They enable us to see new universes, or an unexpected detail in a familiar face. But space is always involved. Techniques do not teach us to listen or to hear. They never enable us to penetrate meaning. And in the great conflict that we have noted with respect to the denial of meaning, we see an echo of this triumph of visualization.
An object seen can have innumerable meanings. Only language, something auditory, can unravel them. No longer is any meaning left to look for. The object is there, and nothing else. So language disappears. No more additional knowledge exists. The very objects of sight and hearing are possessed, since they are inscribed in a certain space. Just as they are. The artist will have to take possession of these instantaneous realities.
And if he refuses? He will simply no longer be on "the same wavelength." No one will listen to him or see him. As far as the public is concerned, he will not exist.
Experience is no longer interpreted through the flow of time (memory, language, etc.; technical influence also plays a role in the widespread suspicious attitude toward memory!). Instead, experience exists "as is." "Paintings, faces, events are henceforth cracks in reality that are much more effective than the fictions of language!" (Schaeffer). But fiction was the explanation of a given space in a temporalized version. For a century we have been following the directly opposite path. The fact is there, but reason has now vanished.(For a more detailed analysis of art in the technological society, see J. Ellul, L’Empire du non-sens.)
Viewed 118288 times.