Chapter 4: The Word Humiliated
(written by Jacques Ellul, 1984)
The invasion of the verbal realm by images results in role reversal and domination, leading us to another characteristic of our modern reality: the humiliation of the word.
1. Defacto Devaluation
No one consciously tried to bring it about, yet the situation of the word in our society is deplorable. For this situation the people who speak are particularly responsible — not in the moral sense of guilt, but in the sense of lack and failure. The habit of speaking without saying anything has eaten away at the word like a cancer. Such people have spoken other than in poetry, myth, and the minimum necessary for legendary history. Instead of limiting ourselves to what is useful (no more and no less) for exchanging information, news, and teaching, we keep on speaking. In addition to the ritual and mystery that codify the word we insist on speaking. These days we speak without saying anything; we just chitchat.
Scholasticism, at its very origins, was not just chatter; it became chatter. Oddly enough, this chatter invaded the scholarly world and came to provide its security. Molière and François Rabelais bear witness to this chatter, these meaningless words. Then too, there is Shakespeare: “Words, words, words.” Suddenly the tragic discovery was made that words were only words, without power to act. People became acutely aware of the uselessness of mere talk. People were not aware of this during the Middle Ages, when the word was venerated, not only in liturgy but in all its forms. After the sixteenth century, we have an avalanche of talk that is increasingly useless.
This development is easily associated with the bourgeoisie: they reduced the word to the schematic needs of business, or to conceal what people wanted to avoid saying. In this view, the word became insignificant amid the elegance of the court, through Marivaux’s subtle use of it in his plays, and because of everyday triteness that lacks any reference to real life. Mundane and intellectual chatter mixed together (as Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point shows so admirably) finally collapse into wordlessness. Eugene Ionesco’s reputation as a playwright is based on this situation.
The speaker’s error comes from the absence of something “to say,” so that he doesn’t say anything, but (as poet Jacques Prévert puts it) just goes on talking and talking and talking. We have an excess of talk devoid of meaning and veracity. We are satiated with electoral and political speeches (which we are sure say absolutely nothing), with false conversations, and with books paid by the word (some find it necessary to write, and so become writers by trade!). In spite of the lack of anything to say, the speaker continues as if he were a wordmill moved by the wind, and he becomes responsible for the fact that no one can any longer take any word seriously. No word can be taken seriously, because the rush of these words prevents us from discovering the one which, in the midst of the torrent, has meaning and deserves to be listened to.
This devaluation of words can also be the fault of intellectuals, who give us many examples of such usage these days. We will mention only the impenitent chatter of the Henry Millers and the Deleuzes and Guattaris, (To mention only the “greats”!) whose logorrhea conceals the poverty of a few simple ideas under a flood of deceptive verbiage. Their words are mere illusion, completely devaluated because they have said nothing and because of the superabundance of discourse. But this suffices for those who seize upon one glittering word and thereafter explain everything by referring solemnly to “flux” or “desire.” They do this without realizing that they only repeat medieval theories concerning the Impetus, the Impulse, etc., from which Jean Buridan’s successors were to build such beautiful effects based on vain words!
While we have a wasteland of empty verbiage, at the same time we suffer from an excess of information broadcast everywhere about everything, so that its quality is utterly destroyed. We are overwhelmed by a jumble of information: on the latest model of ballpoint pens, the pope’s election, the wedding in Monaco, the Iranian revolution, increased taxes, new possibilities for credit, the conversion of the biggest polluter to the cause of nonpollution — ten thousand words of information in an instant. We would go crazy if we really had to listen to all this seriously, so the flood of words continues, and we let it flow by. After all, whether any words are involved, the result is the same: I listen with half an ear and I catch here and there a snatch of a phrase, or a moving tone of voice, but in any case the word no longer matters to me. I have been exposed to too many words and too much information. I must defend myself against these invasions; my mind closes up spontaneously, to keep me from being torn to pieces. I am like Orpheus turned over to the media Maenads; I am blown by every wind of doctrine and words; I am lured into every trap. I have stopped listening. I refuse to hear (without even realizing it).
As noise, however, the anonymous word continues to flow. No longer is any kind of relationship established. Henceforth the word is definitively detached from the one who speaks. Nobody is behind it. When language theorists take their analysis to its logical conclusion, they declare that no person is speaking, nor is there any content to communicate. They say we must recognize that in the strict sense, it speaks, or one speaks. They are mistaken, however, when they turn this into a general rule and claim to give us either an objective analysis of language or a new psychoanalysis of the “nonsubject.” They are wrong to present this as something permanent. For our society and our epoch, for our intellectual or bourgeois groups, they are correct, but this is a sociological observation rather than something linguistic or psychoanalytic.
In our day, in this place, a sort of social discourse flows endlessly and is repeated twenty hours out of every twenty-four, expressed by individual mouths. The discourse is completely anonymous, even though it may sometimes be affirmed with force and conviction by a particular individual.(On the intellectual level, of course, l consider the books of Jacques Lacan, Foucault, Jacques Derrida, etc., utterly typical of this anonymous social discourse. These writers constitute in themselves a demonstration of what they say about all individuals who speak.) This corresponds to the speaker’s anonymity. The word has become anonymous and therefore has no importance, since its only reality involved the meaning of two living persons who needed to know and recognize each other and to exchange something. Words are just wind. They pass by and have no importance: as long as no one puts the weight of his entire life behind the word he speaks, how can we take one statement more seriously than any other?
The rupture between the speaker and his words is the decisive break. If a person is not behind his word, it is mere noise. This matter of looking for the weight of truth in philosophical or political phrases (independently of the person who said them) goes back a long way. What do I care if a person lived like a coward, a liar, or a hypocrite, since the words he left are so beautiful! This is the first great vacuum.
In the Bible the word is an integral part of the person. It is true if the person is true. Jesus’ words have no value or importance whatever if they are separated from the person of Jesus. In him there is perfect unity of life, action, word, relationship, and knowledge. The current rupture between the speaker and the word strips the word, but soon it takes on value again. But from where? Necessarily from something nonhuman, so that this value will be related to reason, science, some opinion, a social tendency, or a concept of beauty or truth. A concept rather than the beauty of an experience lived in harmony with itself, or the truth of a person’s unity. Once related only to a concept, the word is at the mercy of all sorts of winds and changes; it loses all weight and meaning. It becomes an instrument, to be manipulated. It does not commit anyone to anything.
When the word is utterly emptied of itself, it becomes mere slogan, at the service of any structure whatever.(See Olivier Reboul’s basis study, most enlightening, on modern devaluation of the word: Le Slogan (Brussels: Complexe, 1975). It becomes propaganda and serves falsehood: (I am not saying that propaganda is not based on falsehoods concerning reality; I have shown elsewhere that propaganda is efficacious only if it refers to accurate facts.) fundamental falsehood, which has to do with the unity of being and the word. The word thus becomes the servant of whatever doctrine, since any political doctrine, considered in itself, is as good as another. The word may be prostituted in any venture. The anonymous word has no name and thus is not really a word. No one has spoken it. It spreads out like liquid across a world with no reference points. All the talk about signs (signifiers and signifieds, the referent and connotations) is utterly empty talk when there is no more word. This is the fault of those who speak.
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The word is also devalued by the very conditions in which it is spoken in our day. The triumph of thought based on images implies a reduction of the word. We are all aware of the remarkable phenomenon that has left its mark on our era, the disintegration of language in various ways. We also see the word used in propaganda and advertising, in which a simple onomatopoeia or the elimination of a word’s meaning is sufficient, since the word is reduced to functioning as a stimulus. This is also clear and significant in contemporary poetry, in the effort to separate meaning from the word (Abraham Moles’s experiment); also in the reduction of the word to a mere conveyer of information and the tendency to analyze everything in terms of communication and information. From all this one concludes that algebra is superior to spoken language, or that images are superior to the word.
This situation is simply induced by the invasion of images. Reciprocally, based on this invasion, anything may be called language. We have the language of fashion in clothing, cinematic language, body language, etc. But it is clear that in every case a shift toward visualization and images is involved. As if without intending to, as if it were obvious, people fuse all “languages” — spoken and heard language become only a particular instance of communication. But in reality, we are dealing here with the disappearance of one sort of thinking for the sake of another.
This process confirms our tendency to live only in the present. Again, in this situation it is not by accident that we draw back and refuse to study history, and that historical continuity and significance derived from the past are rejected. This refusal obviously is not consistent with the temporal dimension of the word. On the contrary, it coincides with the fact that visual images belong to the present. An image-oriented person is a person with no past. He lives only on the basis of what images can supply. Each image contains all he needs to know; he has no need to remember or retain what he learns today. Images and the transmission of knowledge through association of images convey all one needs immediately. The uselessness of history as the study of the past coincides with this. Neither is it by accident that education loses its content. Finally, structuralism, with its crushing dominance by the synchronic element, is the method and the philosophical mode that is consistent with visual images. It is not by chance that structuralism reduces language to a relationship of structures.
The word also undergoes the repercussions of the technicalization of everything. We must become basically aware of the fact that the word is strictly contradictory to technique in every way.(I know, of course, that language is also a technique and the object of techniques. Rhetoric is a case in point. But there is no comparison between this technique, which belongs to the most traditional group, and what technique has become today.) Technique’s unconditional triumph empties the word, which becomes a wandering and dispossessed servant. The word is then further reduced within the technical framework to the level of a mere instrument. The word becomes vain because of babblers, and it becomes an instrument because of techniques. The context determines evolution in this case. The word no longer needs to bear meaning; it has been divorced from what it signifies. Once again, the scientific analysts (who refer everything to language structures, since they observe that meaning is useless) give a correct account not of what the word is, but of what it has become here and now.
The word is still used and is not yet entirely emptied, because it retains some of its former prestige. It is indispensable that we go on talking, though meaning and real value no longer exist, and even though we no longer make any reference to truth. After all, we have those ancestral memories according to which the triumphant word dictated God’s laws to the world.
Similarly, everyone holds political language in contempt. We shrug our shoulders at its promises and lyrical excesses, but it is necessary. The politician who did not give himself over to this game would have no chance of being taken seriously. This is true even though we know that this language does not commit him to anything.
Technique makes us live in a world of action, figures, demonstrations, and efficiency. But in this context there is a double effect: the emptiness of words spoken by an anonymous speaker who is not committed to his word, and the triumphant evidence for the efficacy of action — action that is now always technicalized. The word can find a modest place for itself only if it is utterly subordinated to the efficiency and the imperative of technique. The word has become image: the word made for computers, dominated by writing, inscription, and printing, and changed into a thing, into space and something visible. Now it must be seen to be believed, and we think we have finally fathomed all of language when we can apply a semiotic diagram to it.
The word deprived of meaning by the use made of it is thus transformed into something other than itself. This temptation had been great ever since writing began, since unity was the equivalent of an image. The distortion is clearly seen when within a single society one moves from a representative sign to a syllable or a letter with the same meaning. For example, a sign that represented the ocean ends up replaced by a letter or a syllable which has nothing in common with the word ocean. The same sign can thus be read twice: once in pronouncing the word ocean, and again by pronouncing the letter a.
At this point the word becomes uncertain and unstable. But obviously as yet we have no real change in that common use of the word, which remained overwhelmingly dominant. With printing this changed, because so much writing came to be distributed that reading became more important than the ability to speak. The term illiterate is the equivalent of uncivilized. Civilizations based on spoken language are usually not considered to be truly developed…