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Subject: AEJ 96 MooreR CTM A dialogue with the State
From: Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Mon, 23 Dec 1996 05:48:05 EST

text/plain (558 lines)

            A Dialogue with the State-
            A Dialogue with the State:
            An Ellulian Conception of Media Hegemony and Human Agency
            Rick Clifton Moore
            Department of Communication
            Boise State University
            Boise, ID   83725
            (208) 385-3562
            [log in to unmask]
            Recent writings on the media have questioned the continued use of
hegemony theory as a way of understanding the relationship between the state,
the press, and the citizen. This essay proposes examination of the work of
Jacques Ellul as a way of reconceptualizing these relationships. Ellul's
tendency to focus on a technological state and a mass mediated society makes his
thought a powerful alternative to Gramsci's when analyzing the environment of
the 1990s.
                Two years ago Celeste Michelle Condit (1994) stated that the term
hegemony "has now passed from status as a buzzword for the academic left into
everyday usage in the political lexicon" (p. 205). Yet just as the broader
community is embracing the term, the scholarly community appears to be more
circumspect.  Both Condit (1994) and Barker-Plummer (1995) have recently
investigated "hegemony theory" to judge its continued usefulness to the study of
mass communication. Both argue that it is time to move beyond the framework of
the last two decades and add new life to the study of ideology and the media.
                In this paper, I propose that one way to add new life (at least new
dialogue) to the field of hegemony and the media is to pay closer attention to
the prolific writings of Jacques Ellul. Ellul's theoretical perspective offers
fresh alternatives to some of the problems that have been noted with earlier
views of the relationship between the media, the state, and the individual.
            Difficulties with Hegemony Theory
                Condit offers a very insightful description of the origins of
hegemony theory and its historic permutations. She asserts that since the
introduction of the concept by Antonio Gramsci, two distinct trends have
developed (Condit, 1994, p. 207). One trend sees hegemonic communication as
emanating from a single controlling entity. Condit claims that such an approach
to the subject is closer to classical Marxism than to a Gramscian understanding.
The other trend is more humanistic and suggests a multi-vocality in the modern
state, but that multi-vocality is found in a milieu which guarantees that
preferred readings will always rise to the top.
                Though Condit sees much more explanatory power in the second trend
than in the first, her goal is to note the problems with hegemony theory as a
whole. In her view, the most important problem is a lack of historicity in the
application of Gramsci. Gramsci wrote in a very specific historical,
geographical, and cultural environment. The contemporary social setting in the
United States looks vastly different from Italy before World War II. Most
specifically, there is a noticeable difference between the industrial world of
Italy in Gramsci's time and the technological world of 1990s America.
                In spite of these differences, Gramscian analysis has seen great
use in media studies. One oft-cited use of the approach is Todd Gitlin's book
The Whole World Is Watching, which chronicles the rise and fall of Students for
a Democratic Society. Gitlin (1980) tells the story of the sixties radical group
and its interactions with the news media. In doing so, he tries to gain an
understanding of how social movements live and die in the light of press
coverage. His conclusion is that the SDS story has a message for any social
movement that wants to bring about fundamental change in society.  In a
presentation that seems to split the difference between the "classical Marxist"
branch of Gramscian analysis and the "humanistic" branch, he suggests that the
modern mass media systematically suppress critical voices and squelch social
                This is an important point for Barker-Plummer's (1995) study which,
like Condit's, suggests that the traditional notions of hegemony are not
advancing our understanding of the mass media. She sees Gitlin's work as
representative of an approach that is shortsighted.
                Perhaps the most limiting aspect of a closed hegemonic model such
as Gitlin       suggests, is that it seems to deny the reflexivity or strategic
agency on the part of   social movement actors themselves to learn about and
strategically use dominant      systems and discourses--in this case journalistic
routines and practices--as      resources in themselves. (p. 309)
            Human agency is thus the factor that this form of hegemony theory
leaves out. And for Barker-Plummer, the absence of that important component in
the communication process is a major factor in our lack of understanding of
social movements and their rise and fall.
                In the end, both Barker-Plummer and Condit propose new models for
the relationship between the media and various groups within the public.
Barker-Plummer refers to her new vision as a "dialogical" media-movement
relationship. Condit labels what she creates as a "model of concord." Though
there are differences between the two visions, there are also striking
similarities. For our purposes, I will discuss three crucial areas in which the
two authors suggest misconceptions have been made. As this is done, an Ellulian
response to the misconceptions of hegemony theory is possible. The three areas
of misjudgment are: the nature and role of the modern state; the nature of
communication within the environment such a state creates; and the possibility
and role of alternative voices. The purpose here is to suggest that the Ellulian
theory of technique poses alternatives to these misconceptions, alternatives
that have not received proper consideration. Before looking at the three areas
listed here, it is necessary to examine Ellul's overarching concept of technique
so we can see its relation to them.
            Jacques Ellul and the Importance of Technique
                One cannot begin to understand specific applications of Jacques
Ellul's work without first understanding his broader theoretical approach, an
approach that begins and ends with his concept of "technique." Technique, for
Ellul, is the most important factor in the development of the modern social
world. In his own words, it "is related to every factor in the life of modern
man" (Ellul, 1964, p. xxvi). Though American readers might at first think he is
speaking of "technology," such is not the case. Machines and technology are only
a small part of technique (Ellul, 1964, p. 4).  For Ellul, technique is "the
totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a
given stage of development) in every field of human activity" (Ellul, 1964, p.
                Ellul argues that it is this phenomenon that develops the character
of our modern technological society. Though technique has been a part of
civilizations dating to primitive times, modern technique is different from
primitive technique both in degree and kind (Ellul, 1964, p. 62). Up to the
nineteenth century, technique was under human control. It was at that juncture
in history that technique took on a new character. Ellul saw seven
characteristics of technique in modern society. Those are: rationality,
artificiality, technical automatism, self-augmentation, monism, universalism,
and autonomy (p. 79)  George Benello (1981) offers a thorough discussion of the
importance of these concepts. For our purposes, it is important to realize that
in this new period technique begins to run free, and eventually reign over
society. As Richard Stivers (1993) paraphrases Ellul's description of this
historical transition, "Because of an unbounded faith in technology and a
conscious intention to experiment with technology and find a diversity of uses
for a single technique, technology came to dominate culture (p.516). The modern
world of the twentieth century, from an Ellulian perspective, is thus radically
different from the world of the eighteenth century.
                As technique takes hold over the world, efficiency becomes the key
determinant of human affairs. This is why Ellul's thinking applies to more than
just technology.  In the technological society human beings become so enamored
of efficiency that they soon apply the principles of mechanics to all aspects of
life. Clifford Christians (1976, p. 3) aptly suggests that technique "refers not
to machines but machineness." Such machineness is not only applied to material
production, but to social production as well. Not only is the work environment
changed by the growing power of technique, the family, religion, the arts, and
government are also affected. Given his background as a student of history and
law, Ellul is especially interested in this last category. It is the nature of
the state in the technological world which we will examine next.
            An Ellulian View of the Modern State
                Sandra Braman (1995) recently wrote that the field of communication
policy studies has for decades been characterized by "statelessness" (p. 4).
This might be said of the broader field of communication theory in general.
Focusing on other dimensions of social processes, many researchers have tended
to ignore fundamental questions about the nature of the state.
                This is a crucial area of concern for Condit and her critique of
hegemony theory. She goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the state as it
was socially determined in the 1930s in Europe is radically different from the
American state of the 1990s (Condit, 1994, p. 206). Interestingly enough, the
period from the 1930s to the 1990s is the time in which Jacques Ellul did his
writings. He published his dissertation in 1936, and he passed away in 1994.
Moreover, the changes which bring forth the modern state were some of his
greatest areas of interest.
                Like Condit,  Ellul sees the modern state as different from the
state in earlier periods. Whereas Braman suggests scholars from the 1970s to the
1990s have tended toward statelessness in their work, Ellul (1967, p. xviii) was
proclaiming from the beginning of that period that the state must be an
essential part of analysis. He decried the inability of his fellow scholars to
see the necessity of examining the state and also their inability to observe
changes in its nature.
                There is no longer any question of a state in a classic sense. To
think otherwise is      a laughable error on the part of the majority of those who
talk about the state, be        they philosophers, theologians, publicists,
politicians, or professors of   constitutional law. They are speaking of the
state in terms and forms appropriate    to the state of the nineteenth century, or
to that of Napoleon. The situation today is     radically different. (Ellul, 1964,
p. 279).
                The source of the radical difference of which he speaks, is the
integral change of the world brought about by the power of technique. If
technique, as noted above, is the dominant factor in the modern world, then the
modern state is under its power. Yet this does not lead to a decrease in the
power of the state. Others have posited such a weakening of the state (Braman,
1995). In Ellul's view,  as technique takes hold over the world, socio-political
trends accelerate. This acceleration, in Ellul's words, "favors the
establishment of a single political power center" (Ellul, 1967, p. xix). What
should be noted is that Ellul is neither suggesting a unified capitalist
hegemonic entity described by Marx's vision, nor a liberal pluralist political
environment where competing political entities vie for power. On the first count
he feels that Marxists (and this would include "classical Marxist" hegemony
theorists) fail to understand that Marx's theory is adequate for explaining the
19th century, but not the twentieth (Ellul, 1967, p. 9). On the second count, he
is by no means describing an environment of multi-vocality and ideological
competition. For Ellul, the modern state is authoritarian in that its ultimate
goal is uniformity and efficiency (Van Hook, 1981, p.129; Real, 1981, p.
                The reader should note that uniformity and efficiency are not the
outcome of some deep-seated conspiracy on the part of capitalists or dictators.
Many scholars have come to the realization that the modern social milieu does
not manifest a classical capitalist-proletariat dichotomy. Condit (1994, p.
209), for example, states that class is not the "fundamental common denominator"
in modern societies. The modern state is simply serving up what the people have
requested. Ellul, proceeding in many ways from a theological rather than
sociological premise, suggests that human beings have given up their birthright,
the ability to be fully human. In their worship of machineness, human beings
have come to see the machine as the model for all elements of their environment.
Democracy, especially, is expected to become a smoothly functioning system and
takes on technical form. "Technical advance gradually invades the state, which
in turn is compelled to assume forms and adopt institutions favorable to this
advance" (Ellul, 1964, p. 278). Such institutions are dehumanized by their
tendency to see politics as a system whose ultimate goal is efficiency. Given
the ascendancy of technique, which leads society to elevate means over ends, the
state does not make political decisions, it makes technical decisions. And,
since technical decisions are in many ways predetermined, there is only one
route that society can take. The only question left is how politicians will deal
with the fact that the political system is, in reality, getting loose from them.
A useful metaphor would be that they are still on the horse's back, but their
spurs and reins are so minute that politicians undoubtedly understand they have
little or no control over the direction of the animal beneath them. In Ellul's
view, the only way for politicians to maintain some semblance of control is
through mass communication.
            The Nature of Communication in the Technological State
                Condit (1994, p. 208) might pique our interest in the Ellulian
position by admitting two shortcomings in the use of Gramsci's work. First,
Gramsci wrote in a culture that was not technologically motivated. Second, he
lived in a culture that was not saturated with mass media. Ellul lived to see a
world that is both technologically driven and mass mediated and he appears to
have had a thorough understanding of both important aspects of modern societies.
                Writing from his native France, he attempted to play the role of a
prophet, warning of the impending doom of true democracy if technique were
allowed to spread unencumbered. He claimed to have been ignored in his homeland,
and widely read in the USA because his writings helped readers here understand
what had already taken place around them (Ellul, 1990, p. xiv). What had taken
place in the United States was a transformation from a democracy to a
technological society which was artfully maintained through political illusion.
                This maintenance is necessitated by the co-mingling of technique
and politics.
            When the political realm is infiltrated by technique, the state
grows in power. In the process, many of the state's features escape human
control. As suggested above, many decisions become non-decisions because they
are necessitated by efficiency. In the end, politicians turn into "impotent
satellites of the machine, which, with all its parts and techniques, apparently
functions as well without them" (Ellul, 1964, p. 254). Yet these politicians do
not step down from their positions. Ellul claims there is still a need to
maintain an illusion of politics especially in a world where politics has begun
to invade every aspect of social life (Ellul, 1967, p. 8-24). Citizens put up
with this increasing "politicization" because they feel they have some control
over the political machine. To put it in 1990s parlance, the public would balk
if they felt that they were "out of the loop."
                The point worth noting is that citizens by their nature want some
degree of control over their lives, and given the scenario described above, one
might suspect individuals to react against the technological state. For Ellul,
the primary role of the media in technological societies is to keep the people
from balking. Such a reaction would not be efficient in the eyes of the state.
The French social critic thus uses the term "propaganda" to refer to the process
by which information is controlled with the intent of maintaining efficiency.
Real (1981, p. 110) describes it as "the dominance of technical means over the
flow of information through society." Propaganda, in this use of the term, is
not the dissemination of lies by dictators and despots, it is the management of
ideas with the intent of keeping the system running smoothly. "Propaganda is
simply the means used to prevent these things from being felt as too oppressive
and to persuade man to submit with good grace" (Ellul, 1965, p. xviii).
                The need for such persuasion is clear if the state exists as Ellul
describes it. The state is a finely structured machine that is intended to run
with as little human interruption as possible. As noted above, politicians take
a back seat to bureaucrats who are more attuned to the needs of the machine. In
like manner, citizens must take a back seat to politicians, who are more attuned
than they are. Therefore, while the modern western democracy is thought by many
to operate on the basis of popular opinion, for Ellul this is not the case.
Public opinion is much too unpredictable and cannot be given access to the
political machine. Should the state be arranged to meet the ever-changing whims
of the citizen, it would be paralyzed (Ellul, 1967, p. 134).
                Such an interpretation is appalling to most who live in western
democracies. These cultures have an image of themselves as true democracies
where the free flow of information allows citizens to intelligently take an
active part in the operation of politics. Many of those who do recognize
problems in such cultures, argue that it is the restricted flow of information
(i.e., the fact that there is not, in reality, a free flow) that causes
problems. But for Ellul, the amazing mass of information available is just one
more part of the technological world that overwhelms modern citizens. As
Christians (1976, p. 5) describes it, the information explosion does not create
a democratic person, rather a "crystallized" person, one who eventually can make
no well informed political decisions.
                The state and the media, then, have joined in a relationship where
they can take advantage of the crystallized nature of the citizen. For Ellul,
the link between the state and the media is one of efficiency. The state is
interested in maintaining a semblance of democracy while operating under the
guidance of technique. The media are interested in
            efficiently gathering, processing, and disseminating information.
The state is able to take advantage of the media to improve its efficiency.
While Ellul suggests that the state is not driven by public opinion, he does not
claim that public opinion plays no part in the political illusion. Often the
state uses the media to create public opinion in favor of efficient policies
already determined by the state. Basically, "the government cannot follow public
opinion, opinion must follow the government" (Ellul, 1965, p. 126).
                Clearly this suggests that the state has great power over the media
(a suggestion many in the media would question). But it also suggests a certain
power for the media themselves. Ellul sees this as fitting neatly within the
broader understanding of the social setting. Though the media might at times
seem adversarial toward the state, they benefit greatly from the state's
reliance on them as propaganda channels. Being products of the technical age
themselves, the media have created a tremendous superstructure of organizations
and technology. Once the superstructure was in place, it had to be used, thus
"the need for information arose" (Ellul, 1967, p. 54). The state is an efficient
source for such information. In addition, given the state's desire to deal with
pressing issues in the most efficient manner--which often means diverting the
citizen's attention to other issues--the public must be entertained with a
constant flow of what Ellul (1967, p. 49) calls "the ephemeral." Such ephemeral
information is much easier to disseminate if omnivorous media channels exist in
symbiotic relationship with the state.
                This is not to say that all of the blame for the political illusion
must be laid at the feet of the state and the media. Ellul's orientation also
suggests the complicity of the citizens themselves. His theological perspective
does not only place guilt on social structure, some of it must go to
individuals. The modern citizen is much too willing to accept the comfortable
route of technique rather than make difficult choices that would require
humanness. In the realm of mass media, this is manifest in the tendency to
attach ourselves to the excitement of the political charade and ignore the more
complex persistent problems of our local world. The citizen is all too ready to
"abandon himself intensely in the human spectacle" (Ellul, 1967, p. 61). This is
a far more pleasant prospect than facing the real problems of the world. The
irony is that what we are doing is attempting to find comfort from the ravages
of technique by seeking solace in the products of technique. Though speaking of
the automobile, Ellul's comments in one of his most recent books might just as
appropriately speak of our attachment to television.
                It is a diversion because it prevents us from looking at ourselves
or meeting our  neighbors of being content with one-to-one relations or
contributing our        personality to everyday life or being responsible at the heart
of our community or     on Sunday having an ultimate encounter with God. The
refusal to do all of these      things acts as a funnel to send us off in our cars.
(Ellul, 1990, p. 375)
            In abandoning those elements or our lives that are truly human,
then, we sense an anxiety or sense of loss. For Ellul, the vicious cycle of the
modern human condition is that this anxiety propels us to the world of technique
and further abandonment of our humanity.
            An Ellulian View of Human Agency
                For both Condit and Barker-Plummer, a principal reason for
questioning hegemony theory is its tendency to discount human agency and thus
lead to despair. As noted above, Barker-Plummer (1995, p. 309) claims that
hegemony theory "seems to deny reflexivity or strategic agency." Condit (1994,
p. 226) offers a similar reading of traditional hegemony theory and offers a
modified version in hopes that such "provides the springboard for a model of
evolutionary social change produced by the interaction of multiple contesting
groups." As we have just seen that Ellul's theory of technique stresses the fact
that the citizen is partly responsible in modern social discourse, it will be
useful at this point of our investigation to analyze his view on the possibility
of human agency. In the previous section we noted that the modern citizen tends
to get caught up in the flow of the technical society. The question to be
addressed now is whether Ellul's orientation leaves any hope for the citizen to
have a positive impact on the political environment.
                The first point to be made is that Ellul's general position on the
modern political state is thought by many to be extremely pessimistic. Given his
view of the power of technique and the overwhelming adoption of it by state,
media, and citizen alike, Ellul tends to see technological societies as
oppressive, if not totalitarian. This totalitarianism "attempts to absorb the
citizen's life completely" (Van Hook, 1981, p. 129). Ellul consistently warns us
that the mechanized world of the technological society can leave nothing outside
of its grasp and that all citizens are compelled to fit into the system.
                Yet the crucial word in Van Hook's assessment of Ellulian theory is
"attempts." The absorption is not guaranteed and Ellul does propose a degree of
human agency. If the inhuman nature of technique is at the center of his
critique, the logical contrast to such is "human" nature. Van Hook (1981, p.
132) himself writes,  "Ellul often does write in a pessimistic vein. But he
intends to challenge people to action rather than to encourage fatalistic
resignation." Though Ellul consistently writes of the manifold deterrents of
human freedom in today's social structure, he does not give up hope. If nothing
else, the human still has the option of negativity.
                I will simply underline the fact  that human life makes no sense if
there is no     possibility of change of some kind, if we ourselves have no role to
play, if there is       no history begun but not yet consummated.  It is in this
respect that negativity         comes to the fore.  In one of my books I thus adopted
the well-known formula of       Guehenno that our first task as human beings is to
say no. (Ellul, 1990, p. 34)
            Though technique pushes humanity toward machineness, Ellul pushes
humanity toward humanness, arguing that there is something infinitely human in
                It may be helpful at this point to explain what Ellul is not saying
about change. Other scholars have recently come to similar conclusions. Ellul
believes that all modern political states (whether capitalist, socialist, or
communist) are being swept into the pattern of technique. Given this situation,
political revolution is no longer likely or advisable. The disbanding of one
state operating with technique would only lead to another state operating within
the same framework. Moreover, the "will to dominate" is illimitable, and Ellul
(1990, p. 25) sees this in all societies. Revolution in this view is futile, and
rebellion is a more appropriate strategy. Stanley (1981, p. 79) links Ellul with
Camus on this account, suggesting that there is no future in which "social unity
is achieved and problems resolved."
                Ellul can also be linked with Condit and Barker-Plummer on this
issue even though some of their earlier assumptions were different. Condit
(1994, p. 210) asserts that the model of revolutionary change held by many
Marxist theorists "is not a necessary one." Barker Plummer (1995, p. 308-310)
questions Gitlin's reform/revolution dichotomy that suggests that ideological
change is an "all-or-nothing process." What both writers leave behind is a view
that some new revolutionary social system will allow for uncoerced discourse and
true democracy. Condit cites Laclau and Mouffe (1985) as an example of such a
                Taking a somewhat Hobbesian approach to political theory, Ellul has
never advocated such a position. Instead, he sees the modern technological state
as a sovereign in need of dialogue. It is through uniquely human agency that
such dialogue must take place. As Stanley (1981, p. 77) describes it: .
                Consequently, Ellul calls for groups to present themselves as
counterweights to       the sovereign power--not as negating the state, which is
impossible, but as "poles       of tension" confronting the state, creating a
condition of equilibrium in which "we   are not trying to absorb one factor by
means of another."
            Given the tremendous power of the technological state, this is
Ellul's only option. Traditional political channels are products of technique.
If citizens form groups that stand outside of the traditional political system,
they can offer a response to the overwhelming voice of the state.
                Such a response reveals crucial elements in Ellul's overall world
view. For example, given his theological and sociological orientation, he sees
this dialogue merely as a means of limiting power. As noted above, no revolution
is envisioned. And, little in Ellul's writing indicates a vision of major
evolution. Rather, Ellul is taking the position of an anarchist. He uses the
term not to describe the lack of order, but the reduction of power.
                The real question is that of the power of some people over others.
Unfortunately,  as I have said, I do not think we can truly prevent this. But,
we can struggle         against it. (Ellul, 1991, p. 23)
            Given that he refuses to assume a Marxist eschatological position,
Ellul sees that this struggle will be constant. He sees no heaven on earth. What
he does see is an eternal struggle for control in society because "covetousness
and the desire for power" are human constants which cross all cultural
boundaries (Ellul, 1991, p. 20).
                As those who work within technique attempt to gain and maintain
power, then, Ellul suggests that small political groups can do nothing but
stymie such attempts. The duty of the political anarchist is to create a
dialogue and bring to the world what it rejects and does not want to talk about.
(Ellul, 1972, p. 39-40). This is a consistent theme of his work and is explained
thoroughly by Stanley (1981).
                This is as far as Ellul takes us on his own. Though he lays out a
solid theoretical foundation (which like all theoretical foundations is open to
challenge from many directions), he does not go into specifics as to how the
citizen's response will be dealt with in the mediated world. It is possible that
fearing the encroachment of technique even into such a dialogue, he purposely
refuses to give clear guidelines on how groups should interact with the media.
Though he offers a general world view to begin analyzing the political
environment, he offers little in the way of practical advice on dialoguing with
the state.
                In concluding, I propose a nice blending can take place between
Ellulian theory and some of the contemporary work on mass media. Writers such as
Condit and Barker-Plummer can gain further insight from taking Ellul into
account in their analysis. Ellulian theory can benefit from taking their
understanding of the specific workings of the media into account. In the former,
Ellulian theory helps to avoid statelessness in media theory. It also offers an
intriguing blend between the power of the media and human agency. As for a
deeper understanding (and questioning) of Ellul's work, it is noted here that it
offers little concrete information on exactly how interaction between political
groups and the state takes place given the intermediary nature of the media.
Continued study by scholars such as Condit and Barker-Plummer can help us better
understand the specifics of this dynamic.
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strategies and political identity in the U.S. women's movement. Critical Studies
in Mass Communication, 12,  306-324.
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understanding modernity. In C. G. Christians & J. M. Van Hook (Eds.), Jacques
Ellul: Interpretive essays (pp. 91-107). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois
                Braman, S. (1995). Horizons of the state: Information policy and
power. Journal of Communication, 45, 4-24.
                Christians, C. G. (1976). Jacques Ellul and democracy's 'vital
information' premise. Journalism Monographs, 45.
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prophecy.  In C. G. Christians & J. M. Van Hook (Eds.), Jacques Ellul:
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