Introduction: Back to Basics

The Humiliation of the Word
by Jacques Ellul

Introduction: Back to Basics

Do not look here for some scholarly study on iconic expression or syntagmatics or metalanguage. I am not pretending to push forward scientific frontiers. Rather, I try to do here the same thing I do in all my books: face, alone, this world I live in, try to understand it, and confront it with another reality I live in, but which is utterly unverifiable. Taking my place at the level of the simplest of daily experiences, I make my way without critical weapons. Not as a scientist, but as an ordinary person, without scientific pretensions, talking about what we all experience, I feel, listen, and look.

Images today are the daily nutrient of our sensory experience, our thought processes, our feelings, and our ideology. When we say ‘’image," the word immediately breaks up into its different meanings: verbal images (why shouldn’t they be considered images as well as the ones I see?); mental images, which can exist only when I am using language to think; and images that feed the imagination or are produced by it, and are therefore inseparable from it.

In this book I will retain the oversimplified distinction between seeing and hearing, between showing and speaking. I am well aware that organized images also constitute a language, and that this distinction is not restricted to speech. Despite all modern advances, however, in this book I will reserve the use of "language" for speech, ignoring the language of gestures, mime, and film. A biased approach? Certainly! At the same time, my desire is to reestablish a measure of clarity in an area filled with confusion, complexity, and misunderstandings.

There is also cinematic language -- I’m well aware! But too often people forget that this sequence of images is not the same thing as the organization of sentences. Defining language by talking about codes, signifiers, the syntagma, semiotics, and semiology does not solve the problem. Always we must come back to simple facts, common sense, and commonplaces as our starting point. Because, whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, "everybody grinds his grain and bakes his bread according to everyday truths and constraints."

"But," you say, "why connect hearing and speaking? I hear lots of things besides speech: music, noise, and the crucial noise that interferes with communication. Noise sometimes gives birth to order, and is sometimes silenced for the sake of meaning. Music can be an image or suggest images to us, just as, on the other hand, the word can be written, and writing is something visual: you can read words. No necessary and exclusive relationship exists between hearing and speaking, or between seeing and image." I’m well aware of what you say, and still I stick with my misleading simplification. I continue to relate hearing and speaking, and oppose them to seeing and image, not in an exclusive sense, but fundamentally. I’m aware that fringes exist, that there is no unmistakable cleavage, and that the visual interpenetrates the auditory. But even admitting all this, we must come back to two dissimilar domains: what I hear constitutes a special universe, different from that other universe composed of what I see.

Far from being a superficial proposal, this distinction corresponds to everyone’s experience, in spite of excessive challenges based on scientific foundations. These scientific studies are undoubtedly useful for the purposes of the research scientist, but my aim is different. And the conclusions we come to will compensate for the oversimplification inherent in this fundamental experience.

I refuse, then, to transform the Word into an image or a sequence of images. I refuse to transform Images into a word, or to consider their sequence a language. I do this even though I understand the relationships between word and image, and the scientific reasons for considering them to be identical. But in reality, we are not suggesting an absolute discontinuity between seeing and hearing. I have spoken of two universes based on the distinction between them, but most of the time, at least, they are not separate universes.

In our common experience seeing and hearing are related, and the proper equilibrium between the two produces the equilibrium of the person, so it is dangerous to favor one, in triumphant fashion, to the detriment of the other. Yet this is exactly what is happening today, as we witness the unconditional victory of the visual and images. Furthermore, the above-mentioned ideas concerning (visual) images as constituting a language, the (printed) word as being reduced to visual images, and the word as evoking only images, are hardly innocent and objectively scientific. These assertions are really simply an indication of the triumphant march of the Visual and (visual) Images in our society and thought.

We should not, however, sever the relationship between seeing and hearing. Each person is made up of the confrontation of what he sees and hears, of what he shows and speaks. These are two different senses, each the door to different universes that perpetually encounter and confront each other. These two universes meet at every level of existence.

Nevertheless, I refuse to follow Oswald Spengler, who considers sight to be the decisive sense. He believes that our two eyes in the forefront of the face, with focused binocular vision, constitute human specificity in relation to the animal world, which has one eye on each side of the face. This arrangement produces two separate views of the world, one right and one left. Spengler considers this disposition of the eyes to be the origin of humanity’s conquering power and its upright position, which places the eyes at the top of our bodies.

In a more basic way I side with the entire current of thought that makes spoken language the basis of human specificity, and here again I relate language and word. I accept, of course, that ants have a tactile "language," and that bees have a visual "language," that is to say, a method of designation, communication, and transmission of information. Their "language," is both codified and learned. But however subtle it may be, it has nothing in common with spoken human language. The only way to identify these methods of communication as languages is by presupposing that language can be reduced to factual information. Speech, however, is not essentially transmission of information. It is much more than that. The word has another domain, another sphere of action. The spoken relationship involves receiving messages other than information; it involves emotions that transcend reflexes.

I am not saying that human spoken language is more complex, perfected, or evolved than bees’ language. I say it is not comparable, because its nature is different. In order to compare them, you would have to begin by eliminating from human language everything that goes beyond visual information, everything that is inaccessible to the code. The result would be not just an amputation, which is the traditional reductionist method of all the sciences, but a surgical excision of language’s very heart.

Human spoken language is characterized precisely by these elements we have mentioned: overflowing of limits, going beyond, and destructuring what can be conveyed in tactile or visual language. Its essential aspects are breadth of meaning, ambiguity, and variation in interpretation. A sign in human language does not correspond to a thing. A word calls up echoes, feelings intertwined with thoughts, reasons mingled with irrationality, motives that lead nowhere, and uncoordinated urges. This specificity is what matters, it seems to me, rather than the common denominator. Taking all that can communicate information and calling that human language seems to me biased (in that same way the social sciences, especially, have made us too accustomed to bias!).

"Difference is what matters." Surely we have heard this formula often enough in linguistics and other disciplines. Well then, let’s apply it! Let’s concentrate most of all on the differentiating factors that distinguish human language: the play between the signifier and the signified. "Play" in this sense can be understood in all three of its meanings! It concerns the changeableness and flexibility of the word in its relationship with meaning.

For me, then, human spoken language cannot be reduced to any coherent collection of signs made understandable through use of a code. The logical sequence of visual images and the coherence of spoken language are the starting point of this study. I realize there are other alternatives. But I consider them to be choices (involving presuppositions also) related to other concerns and other methods of research that are not the same as mine. I do not despise or evade them; they are simply different, and belong to a different area of truth.