Jean Gebser on Technology and Technics

One of the principal manifestations of the “deficient mode” of the current “mental-rational consciousness”, according to Jean Gebser, is that the human sense of responsibility is not commensurate with the increasing power of human technology, which produces a very dangerously unbalanced situation. Today, we will examine that particular deficit in the sense of power and responsibility.

Decades ago, the French sociologist Jacque Ellul made a name for himself critiquing, not so much technology per se, but the technological system, or what he called “technique” in general or the “ensemble of techniques” which produces the “technological system”. We would translate “technique” as he uses it as “technics”. This “ensemble of techniques” that generates the “technological system” is what Lewis Mumford would call “the Megamachine”, and this is the real meaning of the “Matrix” of the film by that name.

What especially concerned Ellul as the chief theme of his books on the subject is what he called the pursuit of “the one best way”, and one supposes that by that he means one best political system or one best economic system, or any “system” whatsoever. As Nietzsche also once put it, “the will to a system is a lack of integrity”, which is something we must bear in mind also when reflecting on Gebser’s “integral consciousness”. Nietzsche’s remark could very well be taken as the overall theme of Ellul’s books on technology.

It is, then, not the physical machinery or technologies that Ellul is critiquing so much as the metaphysics of the technological system itself — its underlying assumptions of philosophical mechanism that he refers to in another book as his “Critique of the New Commonplaces”.

By “technics”, then, Ellul wants to be understood as any “means” whatsoever. You can have a technics of parenting, a technics of management (managerialism), a technics of education, a technics of economy, a technics of transportation, a technics of marketing and a technics of psychotherapy (psychological technology) and so on. All these and much more comprise what Ellul calls “technique” and when they converge, interlock and conspire together, as it were, they produce the “ensemble of techniques” that makes for the “technological system” or Mumford’s “Megamachine” (in mythical terms, the old god “Moloch”). What Ellul is critiquing, then, is the totalising thrust of technique itself, its will to power and drive to consolidate itself as a “system”, as it were, so that it comes to constitute the primary environment in which we live, move, and have our being, and in such a way as to fulfill its drive towards prediction and control, and to eliminate anything spontaneous or “irrational”.

One of the major techniques upon which he focussed much attention was propaganda, and he wrote what some consider the definitive book on the subject, “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes“.

Propaganda, in Ellul’s understanding, arises as an implicit technical necessity of the technological system itself — the metaphysics of that system. (It is of interest to note that the words “technology”, “propaganda” or “utility” and so on were first used in Chrisitian theology before they became “secularised”). Even contemporary education or pedagogy Ellul refers to as “pre-propaganda”.

What this “metaphysics” of the technological system is, or what the “Megamachine” is, is what Gebser would call “the mental-rational consciousness structure”, so any prospect of transformation of the Megamachine depends crucially on the transformation of the implicit consciousness structure. This is, in effect, what William Blake called “the dark Satanic Mill” of “Single Vision” or Urizenic mind. It wasn’t the factory system per se, which scarcely existed at all in Blake’s time.

Ellul’s critique of the technological system can be understood in the same terms of Jean Gebser’s own critique of the “deficient mode” of the mental-rational (or perspectival) consciousness structure. It is simply approached by a different avenue, but both deal with the artefacts of a particular civilisational type as revealing of the implicit consciousness structure that underlies them (Marshall McLuhan did the same with his critique of “media”). It is profitable, then, to read Ellul or McLuhan with Gebser’s own phenomenology of consciousness structures in mind (that is, is book The Ever-Present Origin).

The Protestant theologian Harvey Cox once wrote a book entitled “God’s Revolution and Man’s Responsibility“. Alas, I think Cox will be misunderstood in his meaning without some familiarity with Gebser’s own views on “consciousness mutations”. It will not bring comfort to the fundamentalist. What Cox means by “God’s Revolution” is what Gebser means by “evolution” — certain “leaps” in the evolution of consciousness connected with his notion of “irruptions” (the German term he uses is “Einbruch” which actually means “a breaking-in”). “Man’s responsibility”, as Cox understands it, corresponds to Gebser’s radical “openness” to being remade as a new being — to actually respond to this “Einbruch” in the affirmative. What Cox means by “God’s Revolution” is what Sri Aurobindo refers to as the descent of the spiritual “Supermental consciousness” on Earth.

It all ties together very nicely including Rosenstock-Huessy’s own writings on man’s reponsibility in speaking (and listening) that we find (especially) in his books Speech and Reality and in I Am An Impure Thinker (the latter being available online. The first essay in the book “Farewell to Descartes” is especially worthwhile taking in as it pertains also to what Gebser calls the “deficient mode” of the “mental-rational consciousness structure”).

This is quite crucial to understand — unless you really realise what it means for the present consciousness structure to have lapsed into its “deficient mode” there won’t be any receptivity for the possibility of a new mutation in consciousness or to be lured into false pathways by following the proverbial “false prophets”. Only your own insight into what makes for Charles Taylor’s “Malaise of Modernity” can prepare you to make the Gebserian “leap”.

Gebser put the issue squarely. If we do not master the situation by our own insight, it will overwhelm and master us.

And that is not a happy prospect.

37 responses to “Jean Gebser on Technology and Technics”

  1. Steve says :

    Excellent Scott ! Just got through reading Ellus’s, “The Subversion of Christianity.” What is reality in the civilized West? A world of outsides without insides, a world of quantities without qualities, of souls devoid of mobility and of communities which are more dead than alive.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    “Why Are People Acting So Weird?” — from the Atlantic. The Weirding is very noticeable, but while the article is good in pointing it out, it’s pretty unhistorical. The Weirding the experts observe here should be contextualised within the larger framework of history — inasmuch as this is characteristic of Ages in Transition. There is a precedent for this in the Late Middle Ages and the decadence of Christendom, after all. Those were pretty weird times as well.

    On another note, a review of Cynthia Bourgeault’s book “The Corner of Fourth and Nondual” from a mystical Christian perspective. Too much emphasis on the mystery of the Trinity overlooks that of the Tetramorph, for my tastes, though. The title would almost suggest the Tetramorph (although it’s an allusion to Thomas Merton’s vision on the corner of Fourth and Walnut). The “relational field of being” is a good phrase here, though so we are often concerned with the field concept in contemporary thought.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      I’ve no idea how the mystery of the Trinity actually came to be known as the Trinity. Even the sign of the cross has four points. Two of those points, however, “point” to the Holy Spirit — the greatest mystery of all in Christianity and, therefore, the most often overlooked, when not flat-out ignored. The Holy Spirit is the only aspect of the Trinity that hasn’t been personified, for obvious reasons, but is nonetheless referred to as singular. It would appear, then, “the Holy Spirit” has been reduced to a singularity when the sign of the cross itself suggests its “flowing” through all.

      I’ve never thought of Christianity (or Islam, for that matter) as a monistic religion and have noted a few Christian authors’ attempts to make sense of the significance of the Holy Spirit in this supposed Trinity, but all have come off as if casting about for fish in the sea. Our experience of it and the meaning of the concept itself is apparently ineffable, but then there is the stark warning of Christianity that the only “unforgivable sin” is “blaspheming” against the Holy Spirit — not “the Father;” not “the Son;” but the Holy Spirit. If Christianity itself doesn’t know how to relate its own concept of the Holy Spirit, I’m quite unsure how one would know how to avoid blaspheming against “the Itself” unless, of course, the knowledge comes from one’s own sense of consciousness and conscience.

      Much is made in Christianity of the idea that “the Law” has been written on hearts and minds — not papyrus; not paper; not even in the Christian Bible fundamentalists insist is something more like dictation than the inspired work of Art and Literature it is — but in hearts and minds. This is not the same “Law” referred to by Gebser as “the Law of the Earth,” of course, which is utterly unmerciful and unforgiving, but the two concepts may be more related than we might think. In our time, as in Jesus’ own, it’s patently obvious “the Spirit of the Law” has been stripped from “the Law”…of men.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        Correction: the letter of the Law of men.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        Still thinking about this for some unknown reason. What does anyone think about the coming about of “the Trinity” or “triune God” concept in Christianity? Is this is a medieval, “magical consciousness structure” kind of development? I’d seriously be interested in any and all responses.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    An disturbing example of contemporary propaganda and perception management techniques in action. Nothing at all has been learned from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This is a pretty clear example, too, of what Gebser means by saying that man’s sense of responsibility is not commensurate with the power of technology, and so we drive blindly towards social disaster.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      I wouldn’t say nothing at all has been learned from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Surely something has, somewhere. The kind of cut-throat, “hostile takeover” kind of activity being described here is part and parcel of neoliberalism…and the deficient “mental-rational.” I’d have to question how effective it is among the public these days, given we’re all privy to it now.

  4. InfiniteWarrior says :

    They talk of the triumph of the machine,
    but the machine will never triumph.

    ~ D.H. Lawrence

  5. steve says :

    : “To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. … That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”

    William James

  6. steve says :

    A friend just informed me that at his son’s high school there are litter boxes in the bathrooms for those kids who identify as cats. Now I’m angry.

  7. steve says :

    I’ve been in love for long
    With what I cannot tell
    And will contrive a song
    For the intangible
    That has no mould or shape,
    From which there’s no escape.

    It is not even a name,
    Yet is all constancy;
    Tried or untried, the same,
    It cannot part from me;
    A breath, yet as still
    As the established hill.

    It is not any thing,
    And yet all being is;
    Being, being, being,
    Its burden and its bliss.
    How can I ever prove
    What it is I love?

    This happy happy love
    Is sieged with crying sorrows,
    Crushed beneath and above
    Between todays and morrows;
    A little paradise
    Held in the world’s vice.

    And there it is content
    And careless as a child,
    And in imprisonment
    Flourishes sweet and wild;
    In wrong, beyond wrong,
    All the world’s day long.

    This love a moment known
    For what I do not know
    And in a moment gone
    Is like the happy doe
    That keeps its perfect laws
    Between the tiger’s paws
    And vindicates its cause.

    Edwin Muir

  8. steve says :

    Good Lord, just got through reading, “The Essential Rene Guenon.”
    What can one say about the Traditionalist..Guenon, Coomaraswami, Schuon?
    I can’t go with them on everything but I love the effort and the erudition.
    Can modern people grasp Guenon? Can modern people grasp the writings
    of Thomas Aquinas? Anyway, great book.

  9. steve says :

    Since ancient times, the left side has stood for the side of the unconscious or the unknown; the right side, by contrast, has represented the side of consciousness or wakefulness. Through the late twentieth century, the movement of the Left limited themselves to a materialist understanding of reality- exemplified by Marxism- demanding social justice and economic equality but not the restoration of intuition and the recognition of the hidden, qualitative dimensions of being suppressed by the mental-rational consciousness, narrowly focused on the quantifiable.

    Jean Gebser

  10. Steve says :

    The insanity keeps on going.

  11. steve says :

    In the last two years I have learned so much about humanity. I used to think the spiritual teacher Gurdjieff was way to harsh on life on planet earth, now I think he wasn’t nearly harsh enough. Is there intelligent life on planet earth?

  12. Steve says :

    Even as recently as this year (2021) there has been a well-enough known C.S. Lewis commentator who wrongly states that Owen was “not a Christian.” This is not only factually incorrect, but also quite bizarre. I really feel that I must set the record straight.

    I would have expected him to know that Barfield was baptised, as an adult, into the Anglican Church with C.S. Lewis in attendance.

    As a Christian philosopher and thinker, the breadth and depth of Barfield’s understanding of Christianity are far beyond the ordinary. To quote just 2 reviews of his seminal work, Saving the Appearances: “Basic, profound, original and difficult. Time may seal it as a masterpiece” (Church Times) and “Owen Barfield is a paradigm-busting Christian thinker, and this is a book that will not go out of date” (Richard Rohr, O.F.M)

    The same commentator seemed to be unaware of the long walks that Owen and Jack (C.S. Lewis) took during each Easter period between 1927 to 1939 (when WW2 stopped them). More on the unique friendship between Owen and Jack, which illuminates both their thoughts on Christianity, can be found in Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis

    As Professor David Lavery explains, Christ is central to Barfield’s work and philosophy.
    In ‘Philology and the Incarnation’ — his own version of Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici — Barfield explains how his own thinking on the evolution of consciousness, in particular his study of language as a record of that evolution, eventually required his acceptance of the teachings of Christianity. The raised-as-an-agnostic Barfield had no Damascus, no moment of conversion. The facts of the evolution of consciousness logically required him to become a Christian.

    Throughout his books [Barfield] discusses the pivotal role of Christ in the development of human consciousness.

    For Barfield, Christ is, first and foremost, “the cosmic wisdom on its way from original to final participation.” “In Christ . . . we participate finally the Spirit we once participated originally” Thanks to Christ, Barfield would write in ‘From East to West’, “the human Ego, the true Self, of man descended from the purely spiritual heights, where it hitherto dwelt, to the earth. Had Christ not come to earth, individual human beings would never have been able to utter the word ‘I’ at all”


  13. steve says :

    The Keeper of Sheep VI

    To think about God is to disobey God,
    Since God wanted us not to know him,
    Which is why he didn’t reveal himself to us…

    Let’s be simple and calm,
    Like the trees and streams,
    And God will love us, making us
    Us even as the trees are trees
    And the streams are streams,
    And will give us greenness in the spring, which is its season,
    And a river to go to when we end…
    And he’ll give us nothing more, since to give us more would make us less us.

  14. InfiniteWarrior says :

    Happy Season of Resurrection and Transfiguration, everyone.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Don’t forget the death.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        Resurrection from death is the whole point of the Resurrection, of course. No one’s ever been resurrected from the living. There is, however, a highly toxic fixation on the death making the rounds I’d rather none of my loved ones catch, thank you very much, and we can’t exactly wish everyone a happy crucifixion because there’s nothing happy about it. I see nothing wrong with placing more emphasis on resurrection and transfiguration. How would you do that?

  15. TheOakofNormal says :

    Great video.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes, indeed. Blake’s clear vision is of what we might call the “supersensible Cosmos” in which we all participate unknowingly but which is obscured to our insight by the physical senses, which make us believe it is solid, material and physical and not spiritual. The physical-material aspect of the cosmos is, for Blake, only camouflage or like a “cloud” and far less real for Blake than the spiritual one.

  16. Scott Preston says :

    Article on “liminality” (which used to be called “Limbo”). Pertinent to the state and mood of transition and the transitional phase we find ourselves in presently.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      aka “Purgatory,” aka…. 😉

      Seriously: Where did you come by the skill and talent for nearly seamless tapestry weaving? Your own capacity for insight? Education? Just voracious reading? All or nothing? Not to overinflate your head or anything, but it’s quite impressive, you know. And easier to say and write than practice, of course.

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