Ellul on the Unreal Life

This entry is part 24 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing, after an extended break, my read-through of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World; this will be the first of likely several posts here discussing Chapter Four, simply (and somewhat misleadingly) titled “Communications.”

As citizens of the modern world, on any given day we are inundated with thousands of bits of stories and information and data — what we (and Ellul) might call “news” that we “learn” (in his day, of course, he spoke of “newspapers, TV, and radio”). This data is all very sensational, and demands our attention, unlike the humdrum routine of our actual daily experiences.

It is these phenomena — which we only hear about, learn about, see from a distance — that feel “real” to us more than the things we actually do, the people we encounter, what we actually experience. “[M]odern people, caught up in this flood of images that they cannot verify, are in no way capable of mastering them, because these images lack all coordination,” Ellul writes. “One item of news follows another without pause. An issue appears and then disappears … It is replaced by other issues and is forgotten.”

Since our attention is consumed entirely by the appearances of these phenomena, “drawn to facts that have no deep importance and constitute trivial news items … people focus their passions” on “politics, the military, the economy, the democratic system” — all of these things which we become convinced matter, although they only exist as external appearances that we do not actually experience, over which we have no control, which we can only accept as true without any sort of personal verification.

But none of us can exist only as an “unmoving eye” receiving appearances — we require some sort of coherence. And so “the more necessary it becomes to simplify … to provide the explanation and connection for all this trivial news.” These explanations, Ellul points out, “must be at the level of the ‘average reader'” — a bar which is always being lowered.

And so comes the “explanatory myth” that establishes the connections between all of the phenomena with which we are pelted. Ellul says that we usually associate an explanatory myth with an authoritarian regime — he references such explanatory myths for communism (the myth of anti-revolutionary saboteurs, the myth of Soviet-era Moscow control over other countries’ internal affairs) and fascism (the myth that Jews were enemies of the people).

But, Ellul insists, such over-arching explanatory myths are not limited to dictatorships; the explanatory myth is “an essential part of every contemporary kind of politics … It becomes the intellectual key for opening all secrets, interpreting every fact, and recognizing oneself in the whirl of phenomena.”

In our own time, we see some of this in contemporary tribalism: the explanatory myth accepted by a viewer of MSNBC versus those accepted by a viewer of Fox News; the explanatory myth of the NPR listener versus that of the Epoch Times reader.

I’m not trying to assert equivalency between these viewpoints, but only to show that they are, in fact, viewpoints. I accept that the New York Times front page is true, even though I have no way to personally verify anything reported on it. You assert, also without any evidence, that it is false.

Essentially, we have removed our own experience from what we believe to be important. We believe that important things are happening, we believe we know why they are happening, we believe these things somehow have meaning to us — even though they are not happening to us! We are not important, our personal experiences are not important: only the phenomena are important, and the myth that explains those phenomena.

As a result of our society’s requirement of belief in an explanatory myth, we are, Ellul said 85 years ago, completely separated from reality: “the major fact of our time is a kind of unconscious but widely shared refusal to grasp the real situation that the world reveals.”

The “real situation,” unchanged after so many years except for becoming, so to speak, more real, is that we are not individuals, but an audience; not agents, but consumers; not active participants, but data points to be sold and bought.

It’s not as bad as it sounds when you’re actually living in it. As Ellul writes, “This enables everyone to avoid the trouble of thinking for themselves, the worry of doubt, the questioning, the uncertainty of understanding, and the torture of a bad conscience. What prodigious savings of time and means, which can be put usefully to work manufacturing more missiles!”

How did this happen? How did we come to live inside such a “complete unreality” where our conscience is clear, where all our questions can be answered, where everything can be explained by the “countless facts and theories” in which we choose (are required) to believe? And what is the role of the thinking Christian living within this “permanent … realistic dream”?