Technique, Perception, and Friendship

Ivan Illich

Illich on Ellul

In 1993, at a gathering in honor of Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich spoke of Ellul’s influence on his own thinking, particularly through Ellul’s theorizing of technique.  Along the way, Illich gives us this intriguing genealogy of his first encounter with Ellul’s work:

La technique entered my existence in 1965 in Santa Barbara, the day when, at Robert Hutchins’s Center, John Wilkinson gave me a copy of The Technological Society that he had just translated, following up on the strong recommendation of Aldous Huxley.

The author of Brave New World clearly found much to admire in Ellul.  Illich goes on to explain the advantage conferred by appropriating Ellul’s analytical concept:

I have adopted this Ellulian concept because it permits me to identify – in education, transport, modern medical and scientific activities – the threshold at which these projects absorb, conceptually and physically, the client into the tool; the threshold where the products of consumption change into things which themselves consume; the threshold where the milieu of technique transforms into numbers those who are entrapped in it; the threshold where technology is decisively transformed into Moloch, the system.

That, of course, is a rather grim analysis of the imperialism of technique, which for Ellul is not simply equated with technology. In The Technological Society, Ellul defines technique as “the totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”  He goes on explain how “technique enslaves people, while proffering them the mere illusion of freedom, all the while tyrannically conforming them to the demands of the technological society with its complex of artificial operational objectives.”  So the target of Ellul’s criticism was not technology per se, but a society that had reduced human existence to the tyranny of machinic standards of efficiency and production.  In other words, his target was not so much the machines, as the society that reduces persons to machines.

Echoing McLuhan on media as extensions of man, Illich continues in dire vein:

Existence in a society that has become a system finds the senses useless precisely because of the very instruments designed for their extension. One is prevented from touching and embracing reality. Further, one is programmed for interactive communication, one’s whole being is sucked into the system. It is this radical subversion of sensation that humiliates and then replaces perception.  We submit ourselves to fantastic degradations of image and sound consumption in order to anesthetize the pain resulting from having lost reality.

Precisely (and perversely) where we have adopted a tool to connect us with reality, we have lost touch with reality.

It is interesting in the end to note the point to which Illich brings his appreciation of Ellul and his own indictment of technological society:

Therefore, it appears to me that we cannot neglect the disciplined recovery, an asceticism, of a sensual praxis in a society of technogenic mirages. This reclaiming of the senses, this promptitude to obey experience, the chaste look that the Rule of St. Benedict opposes to the cupiditas oculorum (lust of the eyes), seems to me to be the fundamental condition for renouncing that technique which sets up a definitive obstacle to friendship.

One is reminded of the conclusion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in which we are left waiting “not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”  MacIntyre hinged his moral philosophy on the recovery of “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained” — or, with Illich, friendship.

Jacques Ellul

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