The age of the image and the number

Interesting post by Lance Strate on Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, and the Technological Society.

Strate begins with Ellul’s argument that literacy and education make people more vulnerable to propaganda, rather than less:

[L]iterate, well-educated people tend to think they’re immune to propaganda, that it only affects the “ignorant” masses, and he wants us literate elites to know that the reverse is true. Ellul argues that for propaganda to work, the messages have to reach their target, and in the modern world that largely requires literacy.

For Ellul, this all comes down to his fundamental concept of “la technique”, of “the supremacy of efficiency” to which every institution is now in thrall:

For Ellul, it’s modern communication and information technologies that are the key to propaganda, and as the digerati have succeeded the literati, it’s the folks who are online all the time, keeping up with blogs and tweets and the like, who are the most open to propaganda.

As Strate puts it, “the supposedly well-informed news junkie is the most propagandized individual of all” – because we are the ones who expose ourselves most thoroughly to the most technically efficient means of propaganda.

Strate also makes some observations on Ellul’s view of religion in a technological society which I’d love to see unpacked more thoroughly, in particular the way in which, on the one hand, religious institutions are “turned into vehicles for propaganda, along with all other cultural institutions”, while on the other hand local congregations can (or should) function as “the main site of resistance to ‘la technique'”, as “a counterenvironment where we might try to find a way to hold on to or reclaim our humanity in a technological age”.

Finally, Strate discusses the influence of Ellul on Neil Postman (who I really, really must get round to reading one day). Postman was concerned at how “the image culture associated with television has supplanted the language-centered culture of the typographic era”, thus “upsetting the balance” that had been achieved between word and image since the invention of printing: “leading to what Ellul referred to as the humiliation of the word.”

Strate adds to this a very important point: that the triumph of la technique, of efficiency, is a victory of numbers. He concludes from this that:

the postmodern condition is one in which the word, in both its oral and literate forms, is under assault from two different directions, two extremes, the hyperreality of the image, and the hyperrationalism of the number.

I think that’s a hugely important observation. It’s perhaps demonstrated most vividly by the growth in popularity of visualisations and infographics. As it happens, I often find both of these useful, having in many ways quite a “visual” mind – but I’m also very aware of how they reflect the imperative of la technique towards efficiency, to the “one best way” of achieving a desired outcome. And “propaganda” is precisely the efficient deployment of information in order to achieve a particular outcome.

But the supreme expression of this assault on the word from “the hyperreality of the image and the hyperrationalism of the number” is found in the ubiquity of the spreadsheet. When people look back on this era, I suspect the spreadsheet will be seen as one of the most significant and influential developments: a tool which has allowed the “hyperrationalism of numbers” (backed up, at the click of an “insert chart” button”, by the hyperreality of the image) to supplant intuition and the word (and thus personal interrelationship) in ever more areas of human activity.

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6 Responses to The age of the image and the number

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    I love this kind of post.

    I’m glad you didn’t enumerate the points! Ellul’s observations on number make me suspicious of Bible teachers who enumerate things too much. St. Matthew seems to use number as an aid to memory. But modern teachers seem to enumerate to add to the appearance of a certain kind of rationality which probably runs counter to the text. (If we can count it, we can control it.)

    One way of creating an counterenvironment would be to create one that focused more on the ear than the eye.

  2. joel hunter says:

    Enjoyed both pieces. I hadn’t heard of Strate before, but I see that he’s been working on a constellation of figures and ideas that I had put together (more like jammed to be honest) in one of my courses: Ellul (of course!), Postman, Mumford, McLuhan, and one he doesn’t mention, Wendell Berry.

    Question for you: could you expand a bit more on why you think the spreadsheet in particular is the “supreme expression of this assault on the word?” I use them for recording and computing grades (and occasionally charting the results). I do not see how this participates in the postmodern tendency to “to supplant intuition and the word.” Is there a specific context, perhaps more socially influential institutions and positions than my own, that you had in mind?

  3. Chris E says:

    The problem with spreadsheets and with numbers generally is that as the average person isn’t as numerate as they think they are, the over-riding message can often be one of certainty (which proves to be false).

    “As it happens, I often find both of these useful, having in many ways quite a “visual” mind – but I’m also very aware of how they reflect the imperative of la technique towards efficiency, to the “one best way” of achieving a desired outcome.”

    This I have a little more problem with, after all isn’t this simply a visual parallel for trying to express onself well in the spoken/written word? In fact the word would seem to offer more scope for propaganda, as it’s easier to hide the agenda behind a sentence. The graphics chosen, after all, have far less nuance that the works of person X who employs words in the service of some disagreeable political ideology.

  4. John H says:

    Joel: I also find spreadsheets useful. But I had in mind the pervasive use in business – the way in which they have allowed more and more activity in business to be measured, monitored and assessed in quantitative terms.

    Take this story, for example. Setting aside the actual finding in this employment claim, what lay behind it is what strikes me: people’s futures being determined by an Excel formula, on which a score of 27.5 as opposed to 27 is the difference between losing and keeping your job.

    I’m not even saying that that’s an unfair or wrong way to make those decisions: but it is very definitely a different way to make decisions from what would have been done before spreadsheets made it so easy to use a quantitative basis for almost every decision.

    Chris: I agree that the use of images can make the agenda more apparent. But we still shouldn’t underestimate the power of images to simplify and frame complex issues – which can be both a blessing and a danger. Also the tendency we have to see images as showing “the real picture” (such a revealing metaphor!) compared with text. (See also: “a picture is worth a thousand words”, “a camera never lies”, etc.)

    One point I found particularly helpful in Strate’s post was the point about “upsetting the balance” between word and image. It’s not that the word is “good” and images are “bad”, but that the balance has shifted from the former to the latter, and we’re still working through the consequences of that.

  5. John H says:

    One other thing: not having read Postman, I don’t know whether/how he addresses this (I don’t recall Ellul particularly addressing it in The Humiliation of the Word), but I sometimes wonder if we can overlook the deficiencies in the “typographical age” itself: its tendency to privatise and individualise the word (and also to commoditise it), rather than seeing the word as principally something that is spoken from one person to another.

    That’s certainly had a major impact on the church, where the first thing we often think of when we hear the phrase “the word of God” is the printed Bible, whereas I’m pretty sure that when Luther (for example) used the phrase what he was principally thinking of was the preaching of the gospel.

  6. Rick Ritchie says:

    John, one of the things I like is how Marshall McLuhan (Postman was a McLuhan disciple) offers a way of analyzing both strengths and weaknesses of new technologies. One of the things he says a new tool does is to RETRIEVE. It will bring back some older way of doing things, on some level. This is somewhat predictable since any medium is an extension of human ability in an area. So an audio technology will extend the ability of the ear. Which retrieves an older period when the ear had greater focus.

    Luther had some strong statements in favor of the ear over the eye. He saw the ear as more passive, whereas the eye can skip what it doesn’t like and scan until it finds something it does like. Luther said the ear and not the eye is the organ of the Christian. He also said the church should be a mouth house and not a pen house. The preached word and not the written word was the focus.

    Both Luther and Ellul can be given to overstatement. I think this fits verbal communication well. Another word on the subject can always be said later, but they wish to grab our attention now.

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