The Profanation of the Logos

Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (available online) by the French sociologist and “Christian anarchist” Jacques Ellul is often cited as the go-to book for students of propaganda, although Ellul is probably more widely known for his controversial critiques of the technological system (The Technological Society and The Technological System).

Ellul also authored another book entitled The Humiliation of the Word, a follow-up to his book on Propaganda, that has, unfortunately, been priced out of reach of most budgets. Ellul was the favourite of my supervisor at University, but I was skeptical of Ellul’s more theologically inclined writings. As such, I never got around to reading The Humiliation of the Word. I think Ellul could have benefited greatly from familiarity with Jean Gebser’s cultural philosophy. But what brought to mind, once more, The Humiliation of the Word was the recent discussion of profanation, because that’s pretty much what it means.

So, now I regret not having read the book or securing a copy earlier, particularly at a time when propaganda and advertising now aspire to become a theology in the present form of “brand religion” or “holistic branding”. It seems Ellul anticipated that from his study of the general thrust and trend of propaganda and the progress of technology.

“The Profanation of the Logos” could just as easily be substituted for “The Humiliation of the Word”. In that respect, I think Ellul probably has something very important to say about the commercial or political exploitation of the human spiritual, or the usurpation and expropriation of those themes previously left to the realm of theology or mysticism.

Profanation and mystification are probably interchangeable terms. At least, for William Blake they were. State, Religion, Commerce were all profane as far as Blake was concerned because they were all alike mystifications that distorted or obscured the truth — the works of his false god “Urizen”.

Since coming upon this apparent innovation in branding called “holistic marketing” or “Marketing 3.0” I’ve felt a need to return to my propaganda studies, as it appears to mark a shift from an emphasis on the “psychological” to an emphasis on the spiritual, and my need to situate this development and its meaning within the 100-year long development of advertising. I turned to a book by American historian Stephen Fox called The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and its Creators, an excellent history of advertising that has sat unread on my bookshelf for over a decade. Fox’s book is an historian’s attempt to answer the question of whether advertising is “mirroring or mindbending”, and it provides a wealth of useful information for any student of propaganda or advertising.

One of the things I was surprised to learn from Fox’s book is that religious themes, motifs, or influences have always played a more or less implicit role in advertising. It’s surprising how many of the early pioneers in developing advertising technique were lapsed preachers or otherwise men destined for the pulpit who were diverted into advertising, and how the language and idiom of Gospel and Scripture becomes part of the in-group jargon of the advertising trade, raising the question, of course, of what it is about advertising as a career choice that attracts the religious and arouses such enthusiasm, even when, in private, they had real misgivings about it. One of the early pioneers of advertising technique, Bruce Barton, even wrote a book entitled The Man Nobody Knows (1925) in which he recast Jesus as the world’s greatest salesman and advertising man (and followed that up with another book entitled The Book Nobody Knows (1926), which apparently recasts the Bible as the world’s greatest advertising guide and manual — or how to sell anything to anybody). But, like a lot of admen, Barton in private life was quite conflicted about it all.

There is even a saint for advertising and advertisers — Saint Bernardino of Siena, noted for his missionary zeal and described as the “patron saint of advertisers and problem gamblers”. (I’m unsure if that was intended humourously).

We have to recall, too, that the word and practice of “propaganda” began as the handmaid to theology — with the founding in 1622 of the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide: the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith or, presently, “The Congregation for the Evangelisation of the Peoples” charged with “spreading the good news” or Gospel. And it is in such terms of “spreading the news” that commercial advertising justified itself. In those terms, then, theology has always been an influence in the practice of propaganda, commercial or otherwise. It’s always had the same ends — to enthuse, arouse, inspire, motivate. But with increasing secularism, advertising simply took over this role from the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide. Advertising is the glue that holds commercial or economic society together and is its main form of public discourse or, as McLuhan once put it, the main outlet for most intellectual and artistic endeavour in our time.

So, in that sense we can ask the pertinent question: what’s really new about “holistic branding” or “Marketing 3.0”? It seems to be a cycling back to propaganda’s original roots — the spreading of the “faith”. Only, what has changed is the meaning of “news” and “faith”, so that when adman David Ogilvy speaks of advertising’s “articles of faith”, or Fox refers to an advertising “catechism”, we’re in some kind of strange, surreal semantic landscape.

Between 1622 and today, what has changed? I’ve often said that Late Modernity is turning round and devouring its own roots, living off its past capital, as it were, and “markeing 3.0” looks like a reactionary return to the past as much as neo-classical economics. But what seems to typify both is rampant cynicism. It’s the one common mood that seems to stand out so completely in Fox’s history of the advertising profession, and cynicism, as Nietzsche pointed out, is just another form of nihilism. Fox reports a rather remarkable statistic in that regard: In the 1950s, when the average American life expectancy was 67 years, that of the average advertising man was only 59 years. Advertising, it seems, is very bad for your health.

One thing is becoming clear, though. Advertising is an essential and crucial part of the system of production and consumption and the present economic system could not exist in its present form without it. It’s the “middle man” between production and consumption, systematically organising both demand and the supply. It is, in those terms, the principle form of communication for the mass consumption society, and preserving and sustaining that structure relationship is the number one message of all advertising — i.e., we live in the best of all possible worlds.

In that respect, Stephen Fox quotes another early pioneer in industrial advertising:

“The chief economic problem today,’ said Stanley Resor, ‘is no longer the production of goods, but their distribution. The shadow of overproduction, with its attendant periods of unemployment and suffering, is the chief menace to the present industrial system.”

Therein lies the fundamental rationale for advertising and its self-consciousness (in its more sober moments) of its function in mass society. It must motivate consumers to consume, even to consume beyond their means, in order to preserve the present mode of production against the threat of surplus and over-production. It must keep the machine running. And for that big business is prepared to pay very big bucks — enough bucks, in fact, for your typical contemporary advertising and public relations agency to staff itself with all the specialists and resources of a university, because “public education” is, in fact, it’s main function. But it is the nature of this “education” that we should be worried about.



20 responses to “The Profanation of the Logos”

  1. davidm58 says :

    I know you’ve discussed Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and his use of propaganda in the development of the “consumer culture.” What I don’t remember is if you’ve discussed that wonderful BBC documentary, “The Century of the Self.” I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    From BBC Publicity:
    “To many in politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly, the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really? The Century of the Self tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?”

    From Wikipedia:
    “Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, changed our perception of the mind and its workings. The documentary explores the various ways that governments and corporations have utilized Freud’s theories. Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in public relations, are discussed in part one. His daughter Anna Freud, a pioneer of child psychology, is mentioned in part two. Wilhelm Reich, an opponent of Freud’s theories, is discussed in part three.

    Along these lines, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of consumerism and commodification and their implications. It also questions the modern way people see themselves, the attitudes to fashion, and superficiality.

    The business and political worlds use psychological techniques to read, create and fulfil the desires of the public, and to make their products and speeches as pleasing as possible to consumers and voters. Curtis questions the intentions and origins of this relatively new approach to engaging the public.

    Where once the political process was about engaging people’s rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs as a group, Stuart Ewen, a historian of public relations, argues that politicians now appeal to primitive impulses that have little bearing on issues outside the narrow self-interests of a consumer society.

    The words of Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in 1927, are cited: “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”[7]

    In part four the main subjects are Philip Gould, a political strategist, and Matthew Freud, a PR consultant and the great-grandson of Sigmund Freud. In the 1990s, they were instrumental to bringing the Democratic Party in the US and New Labour in the United Kingdom back into power through use of the focus group, originally invented by psychoanalysts employed by US corporations to allow consumers to express their feelings and needs, just as patients do in psychotherapy.

    Curtis ends by saying that, “Although we feel we are free, in reality, we—like the politicians—have become the slaves of our own desires,” and compares Britain and America to ‘Democracity’, an exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair created by Edward Bernays.”

    The Century of the Self on Youtube:

    Or to watch each of the 4 episodes individually:

    • Scott Preston says :

      Hi David. Saw the Century of the Self some time ago, but with the newer information I think I should view it again, just because of this apparent shift from the psychological to the “spiritual” in the musings of “marketing 3.0” ie, post-Freudian advertising technique. I think there may be a bigger story here than even the one told by the documentary. Thanks for reminding me about that, too.

      • davidm58 says :

        The section of the documentary (can’t remember if it’s episode 3 or 4) that discusses how alternative culture in the ’60s morphed into the self-discovery and self-help culture, which was then exploited by advertisement and marketing industry to birth the “Me” generation should be relevant here.

        • Scott Preston says :

          I started viewing Century of the Self again. Glad I did. I see the weakness in Fox’s “The Mirror Makers”. Despite being a pretty good history of advertising, Bernays comes in for a mention only once in the book, and in a completely trivial context (where he’s only referred to as a “publicist”!). For Fox, the mover and shaker in the 20s is someone called “Albert Lasker”, an adman.

          After finishing Fox’s book, I was quite puzzled by his conclusion that advertising merely “mirrors” society (and he’s quite dismissive of psychological theories, especially motivational and psychoanalytics, which he seems to think is hocus-pocus). Yet, halfway through the book, he had already concluded that advertising is BOTH mirror and mindbender. So, in his conclusion he actually contradicts himself by privileging the “mirroring” conclusion (and it makes no sense at all — unless you factor out Bernays, which he did!!).

          In the end, Fox still seems confused about it all.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    It is a sign of intuition on the part of Ellul to speaks more than six decades ago about the terrorism of misleading images and distorted words which we are suffering from at this unhappy time. The disintegration of language which mirrors brilliantly the disintegration of consciousness which Gebser works to overcome. When the culture surrenders to the human desires as expressed in technology and consumerism and no longer surrender to the original source it is expected that all signs of perversions will birth themselves into being. It is the story of all previous civilizations that no longer heed the call of the origin source. There are always Freuds and Bernays across the ages. It is only natural that once the human deprives himself of the source of his internal spiritual tranquility internal terror is the replacement . despite all the attempts to externalize such terror. It is the law of substitution, as they say where your attention goes your energy flows. I think we have had enough of identifying the symptoms and what we need now is to work on ourselves to enter the field of the integral consciousness that is to align our consciousness with the divine consciousness. that is entering the commonality of the divine words, casting off all types of correctness to face the challenges with truth and courage . I do not think politicians are unaware of the manipulating qualities of propaganda, the sister of advertisements in the economic field. I think they use it fully aware of what they are doing. Enslaving the peoples , the calamity is that these people love their enslavement with exception of the few that form the ferment for the new consciousness, and thus the cycles of life continue until the prescribed end which nobody can claim knowledge there off.

    • Steve Lavendusky says :

      Scott – You like David Loy. I also like David Loy. But I like B. Alan Wallace more. Just finished reading his CHOOSING REALITY: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind. Very very good.

    • abdulmonem says :

      After making my comment , the question of why Islam prohibited imagery as cultural tool, emphasizing the importance of the words in the development of the human culture comes to my mind, also comes to my mind the Moses story of lamenting severely his peoples for taking the image of the calf as an idol, It seems that the turning of the culture to imagery as a preferred cultural tool indicate a declining trend in the human consciousness that will lead to destruction as it is well-documented in the march of the western culture that becomes incapable to understand things without charts and graphs, thus moving to what one can call cultural suffocation. Also the question of the difference between truth and reality comes to mind, reality that deals with fixed things that are not prone to discussion and call us to conform, while truth calls us to be open to the vastness of its limitless sphere, calls us to reflect, to relate, to formulate and to dialogue. The road to truth knows no terminal, and this why trying to petrified it in images is a dangerous turn.

      • Steve Lavendusky says :

        It seems to us that there are four great collective sociological assumptions in the modern world. By this we mean not only the Western world, but all the world that shares a modern technology and is structured into nations…. That man’s aim in life is happiness, that man is naturally good, that history develops in endless progress, and that everything is matter.
        The other great psychological reflection of social reality is the myth. The myth expresses the deep inclinations of a society. Without it, the masses would not cling to a certain civilization, or its process of development and crisis. It is a vigorous impulse, strongly colored, irrational, and charged with all of man’s power to believe… In our society the two great fundamentals myths on which all other myths rest are Science and History. And based on them are the collective myths that are man’s principal orientations: the myth of Work, the myth of Happiness (which is not the same thing as presupposition of happiness), the myth of the Nation, the myth of Youth, the myth of Hero.
        Propaganda is forced to build on those presuppositions and to express these myths, for without them nobody would listen to it. And in so building it must always go in the same direction as society; it can only reinforce society. A propaganda that stresses virtue over happiness and presents man’s future as one dominated by austerity and contemplation would have no audience at all. A propaganda that questions progress or work would arouse distain and reach nobody; it would immediately be branded as an ideology of the intellectuals, since most people feel that the serious things are material things because they are related to labor, and so on.
        It is remarkable how the various presuppositions and aspects of myths complement each other, support each other, mutually defend each other: If the propagandist attacks the network at one point, all myths react to the attack. Propaganda must be based on current beliefs and symbols to reach man and win him over.”
        ― Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

  3. abdulmonem says :

    Is this a defence of propaganda or an elucidation of the four false sociological assumptions that of happiness,natural goodness,endless progress and everything is matter and the two myths that of science and history and their offspring that of work,happiness. nation ,youth and hero in order to know what to attack. it is always the admixture tool of the truth and falsity that is used by the ill-intentional to deceive and mislead. I feel it is time to realize that there is a system of descending knowledge from the divine sphere to the human sphere which all prophets came to make peoples be aware off, the system which all schools of so-called enlightenment or self-realization are utilizing and manipulating against the principle of free knowledge and service. The knowledge that the divine has provided to humanity free of charge, like all other free gifts, once they enter the retreat of his presence sincerely and devotedly. There are so many who are utilizing channeling to serve their personal agenda, forgetting the authentic purpose of life, like all the other misled peoples who fell victims to propaganda and advertisements in this narcissistic world of our.

  4. Charles says :

    Good writing. I read the Ellul book Propaganda years ago. Another book that I read years ago is Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture Stuart Ewen Here is a pdf of the beginning

    • Scott Preston says :

      Thanks Charles. I read Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness some time ago. I’ll be re-reading it again shortly as part of my present immersion into brand culture. I also have Ewen’s All Consuming Images to get through here. Branding is a kind of tricky beast — some will insist it’s “art”, some will insist it’s propaganda. The history of advertising goes through such cycles of internal warfare between the “creatives” and the “scientistic” — it swings back and forth between “hot” and “cool”. But, regardless, its ultimate aim is still perception management, and the only real question is whether it enlightens or darkens, and it’s often ambiguous like most other processes. For example, I just ordered a book about how to represent the Jungian “archetypes” in branding — the mythologemes. It will be interesting to see how they approach this.

      • Charles says :

        Scott, I was reading through your article again, covers many ideas, all very insightful. I agree about the religious motivation. I feel that it is in seeking meaning that is the foundational need of a human being and consequently, groups of human beings. Meaning is the root of religion in many ways. It is no accident that advertising is all about meaning and identity. Gebser (in the beginning of EPO) writes ‘the current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an extreme collectivism…” Years ago when one my son was looking at colleges I was in the office looking at curriculum’s and in the one on psychology listed advertising at the top of the list of prospective employment. It is sad.

        • Scott Preston says :

          I just posted a couple of things about that today. I think I’m getting a better grasp on the meaning of “marketing 3.0″/”holistic branding” and how it fits in with Gebser’s cultural philosophy. I’m really pouring through a lot of literature on branding at the moment and trying to correlate what I’m reading there with some of Gebser’s concerns about the condition of human consciousness. Right now I’m just “probing” it, but hope to have something definitive to say about it in future. Having now realised that the brandmeisters are the Tricksters of myth and folklore, I think it’s going to be easier to understand what “branding” really is.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Your comment reminded me — when I was at university, logic was a mandatory course, promoted as “mental self-defence” against the very wiles and tricks of illogic used by advertisers. Now the universities also teach, apparently, how to defeat logic by such tricks as well. Has the university forgotten its mission? Or has it submitted and surrendered to the adman’s conviction that advertising is the chief “civilising” process in modern culture?

          If you read a book like James Twitchell’s “Branded Nation”, you get the sense that the university has submitted to the Trickster. Twitchell teaches English at the University of Florida,. but he’s seemingly made his peace with the corporatisation of the university and “branding”. He seems to be a case of “if you can’t beat em, join em”.

          • Charles says :

            I would agree that the university has submitted (or been co-opted) for many reasons. Years ago I read the book by Page Smith, Killing the Spirit- Higher Education in America. One could say that the are merely instruments for the larger society. A society that confuses means and ends- subordinates humans and the ecology in the quest for profits is truly barbaric. The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People- Robert Inchausti (1991) is a trenchant analysis Chapter eight is The Modernization of Poverty, Stupidity, and Family Life: Shared Rejections is an insightful expose of the modern wasteland and the market mentality.
            This postmodern wasteland has it sources in three paradoxical developments:
            1. A perpetual revolution of economic life that generates endless new individual needs and endless new poverties-laying waste to the planet’s ecology at the same it generates vast new social wealth (capital)
            2. An increasingly managed information system centered around a mass media that exalts received ideas over direct experience-creating in the process pseudo-environments and modernized stupidity disguised and given credibility through the sheer pervasiveness of their presence…
            3. A disinterested and dispirited family life increasingly powerless to protect its members against the cultural hegemony of an economically driven world-system that sentimentalizes interpersonal values-thereby destroying their revolutionary potential by rendering them the property of alienated individuals instead of the solid ground upon which universal solidarity might be built. P.112
            “The modern economic order regulates this diminishment of being through its assertion of a totalizing naturalistic philosophy that reassures those who live within it that the progress of the whole redeems any personal demoralization that they may be experiencing; it reassures them that their sacrifice of traditional personal virtue, their sacrifice of the past, the heroic, the essential self, is—from a global perspective—not only economically necessary, but politically redemptive. P. 125
            We are in a transition.

  5. Scott Preston says :

    Thanks for the reference to the book. I ordered it. Seems to fit in with my current studies.

    I began reflecting, this morning, on the notion of advertising as exerting “pressure”. It’s common enough term (“sales pressure”) in the industry — the hard sell, the soft sell, and so on. Exerting a pressure is making an impression. And then, there’s the various “directions” pressure or stress can take — impression, expression, repression, suppression, depression, compression.

    Exerting a pressure or a stress (in this case, psychological) for the purposes of impressing or molding, shaping, forming — that’s the idea I’m pursuing here. And whether, in terms of “propaganda of agitation” or as “propaganda of control”, the idea behind that is the exertion of a pressure, corresponding to the notions of the hard and the soft. There’s also a lot of erotica and the language of seduction and courtship in the very lingo of the advertising profession in that sense — hard/soft, market penetration, propositioning, seducing, the “pitch” or “the line”, sexy or unsexy, and so on — what we’ld call “lounge lizard” stuff.It’s a style that is implicitly very sexually aggressive.

    • Charles says :

      Interesting. I am fascinated by the “the idea behind”… What is the dynamic? The metaphoric way of language relates to all this. A book by Richard Stivers -Shades of Loneliness- Pathologies of a Technological Society. So many insights are in this book. It is important to understand the present context of the world. One writer (J Ellul) suggests that there have been three milieus: nature, society and now we live in a technological milieu. The technological context is the background and this mediates all relationships and helps create the human world.
      Stivers writes: “a milieu is an environment, at once both material and symbolic, in relation to which humans face their most formidable problems and from which they derive the means of survival and some hope for the future. the suppression of subject and meaning involves the objectification of the human through and the destruction of common meaning. The technological milieu creates fragmentation and narcissism, which represent a feeling of powerlessness.

      There is tendency to equate the instinctual with the subjective..the ability to make judgments and to exercise critical reason, diminishes.
      You mention erotica – so much has to do with the ‘self as object” Francis Broucek ( Shame and the Self) writes that capitalism has always been based on objectification of workers and consumers and now there is a context of shamelessness. Sex sells as we all know.

  6. Scott Preston says :

    That’s a pretty good description of a “milieu”. Stiver’s book title brings to mind an earlier study by Riesman called The Lonely Crowd. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve made note of it for future reading.

    • Charles says :

      This office is filled with books that articulate the present context. I could make a list. Certain books like the The Lonely Crowd become known to a larger readership. Are you familiar with William I. Thompson? I appreciate his writings. He appreciates the ideas of Gebser and articulates them in his unique mind-jazz.

      • Scott Preston says :

        I’m familiar with William Thompson. Before the present Chrysalis, I had a blog called The Dark Age Blog. Some current readers of the Chrysalis were with the former TDAB. I discussed some of William Thompson’s ideas there, particularly as they pertained to the idea of Dark Age — along with others like Jane Jacobs, Morris Berman, and others who sensed we were in, or entering, a new Dark Age.

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