Saturday, April 14, 2012

From Judge Napolitano to Jacques Ellul

Did you catch this YouTube video when it went viral a couple of months ago? It's called, Judge Napolitano.How to get fired in under 5 mins. It's how to get fired from Fox News, to be specific.  You may recall my view on Fox News from my post last October, All Foxxed Up!  Judge Napolitano always struck me as a bit out of place on that channel, especially when he sat in on Fox and Friends, sitting in between the leggy, blonde Republican chicks and the mesomorphic mooks with sarcastic smirks that typically hosted the program.

So, our Foxy friends, owned and beholden to old Murderin' Murdoch, pursued their "fair and balanced" agenda against the "lame-stream" media by departing from the longstanding tradition of journalistic objectivity (an ideal, mind you, something to aspire to and strive for), and mix opinion liberally in with facts, giving us POV (point of view) programming, driven by conservative, Republican ideology.  So, the judge's rant is not only a criticism of Republican primary politics, but also, implicitly, of the Fox News enterprise itself.

Now that the Republican primary season is essentially over with, with the suspension of Rick Santorum's campaign, it's worth returning to this screed.  Ron Paul's candidacy is just a bit outside of the mainstream, just enough to open things up to a more radical point of view.  And it is for that reason that he has gained support from some unexpected intellectual quarters, including my colleague, Paul Levinson.

But while the judge may have crossed the line as far as Fox is concerned, many of us would note that it amounted to not much more than stick a toe just across the boundary, and I'm sure many viewers of this video with more radical views found themselves asking, What if Judge Napolitano didn't go far enough?  You might say, in for a penny, in for a pound, but it's hard to imagine the judge turning to the leftist views of folks like Noam Chomsky, even though there is some substantial common ground with radical views informed by the theoretical context associated with Karl Marx and Marxian theorists (e.g., Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall).

But a better alternative, for the judge, and for me for that matter, comes from the media ecology cannon, specifically from the work of the French social critic Jacques Ellul (1912-1994).

Ellul is perhaps the most radical of media ecology scholars, but rather than arguing that we are being dominated, oppressed, and manipulated by the rich and powerful via the economics of capitalism, Ellul went beyond Marx to argue that it is the technological imperative, what he referred to as la technique, that has been the driving force in the contemporary world.  He put forth a form of technological determinism, but not in the sense that all of history and human affairs is determined by specific technological developments, but rather, that we now have societies in which human beings have surrendered all autonomy to technological approaches.

Ellul's view is not born out of leftist politics, I should add.  It is radical, but has a conservative tinge (are you listening, Judge?) in that Ellul was grounded in Christian theology, based on the French Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination. A lay theologian, Ellul was ecumenical in his approach, and championed faith and religion in general as a form of resistance to the technological society.

It's important to note that it's not just about machines, not even primarily about machines.  The technological imperative is all about efficiency, finding the most efficient means to any given end.  No other factor can seriously be considered anymore.  You cannot effectively argue for a course of action on moral or ethical grounds anymore, only in regard to the efficiency of means in obtaining desired outcomes. 

This forms the basis of Neil Postman's argument in Technopoly, where he specifically identifies Taylorism (out of which came the idea of scientific management and efficiency experts) as the turning point in the transition from a relatively balance technocracy to the complete dominance of technopoly.

In a technopoly, or technological society, government is no longer subject to the will of the people.  Most vital matters (economics, diplomacy, war) are of such enormous complexity that they can only be managed by technical experts.  So elected officials turn to their advisers to guide them on technical matters. Politics and ideology no longer drives government, but instead must be bent and distorted to justify the decisions of technical experts, based on the sole criterion of efficiency.

Consent of the governed is still the sole source of legitimacy, but now has to be manipulated in order to be made to support the decisions of the technical experts.  And elected officials themselves are technical experts, but mainly in campaigning, which they do to get elected, and now do constantly even after they're in office.

This quick précis doesn't begin to do justice to the work of Jacques Ellul in this, the centenary year of his birth, but I would recommend reading his work, if you haven't already, including his early trilogy, The Technological Society, Propaganda, and The Political Illusion, his two follow-ups to The Technological Society, The Technological System, and The Technological Bluff, and his moral critique of image culture, The Humiliation of the Word

Judge Napolitano, now that you have some time on your hands, what if you read some Jacques Ellul? I think you'd find that he asks the kinds of questions that you'll never hear voiced on Fox News, the kinds of questions that you started to ask, the kinds of questions that are vital for an understanding of our contemporary media environment. Be warned that they're the kinds of questions that may get you fired, that is, that may get you fired up!

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