Posted by: Kenn Hermann | December 6, 2007

Jacques Ellul on the Shattering of Medieval Groups and the Rise of La Technique

While recently perusing The Technological Society I stumbled onto Ellul’s intriguing analysis of how the dissolution of existing medieval social groups and traditions in England and France prepared the way for the rise of la technique. In this chapter Ellul puzzles over the conditions that gave rise to the sudden emergence of technical development in the latter half of the 18th c., primarily in these two countries. He narrows those conditions to five: 1) the maturation of a long history of technical know-how; 2) an hospitable economic environment; 3) the growth of population; 4) the emergence of a clear and conscious effort to move society in a technical direction; and 5) the dissolution of the multiple number of social groups that gave medieval society its cohesion. I had failed to notice this important analysis in earlier readings.

Rather than summarize his analysis, I will let you read the beginning of his discussion for yourself. The remainder of the chapter carries this analysis forward. Ellul calls our attention to how the shattering of medieval social groups led to the emergence of modern individualism and its progeny, the totalitarian State and La Technique. Once ‘freed’ from the resistance offered by the dense interlocking network of many social groups and centuries-old traditions, the modern individual was easy prey for the totalitarian State and La Technique that yearned to arrange those atomized individuals into the most efficient economic and technical system. ( Ellul’s critique of Statism is intimately related to his critique of La Technique throughout his corpus.)

One implication of his thesis must surely be that it is no surprise that technical civilization has reached its highest level of achievement in the US, where the individual is exalted, the atomized Self is cast adrift from any ‘natural’ social anchor and, humans are subject only to the iron law of technical efficiency. The Common Good? Mediating social structures? Small town or city that has lost a major manufacturing plant? Lost your job in the global reshuffling of work? The claims of environmental stewardship? Care for the public’s health and well-being? All contrary to the dictates of La Technique.

There are many echoes of this process in late 18th c. and early 19th c. American history in which artisan/craft republicanism vainly resisted the disintegrative forces of the new models of industrial production; similar developments spawned the Chartist movement in early 19th c. England. See an earlier blog on this theme.

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Responses

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