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    For years, Jacques Ellul has warned repeatedly that our mod-
ern addiction to images is a kind ot terrorist time bornb ominously
ticking away in the comfortable hotel of free democratic society.
The Humitiation of the Word powerfully and corwmcingly demon-
strates the wholesale abuse of language and this dangerous addic-
tion to images characteristic of modern society. Public ofBcials are
"'electable" in the United States today only if they project an
attractive television image. Reaction to presidential "debates," for
example, depends almost entirely on image, not substance, truth,
or coherent rational argument.
      Similarly, the Church indulges our desire to "feel good" in-
stead of responding to our need to be spiritually challenged and
fed through solid exposition of the Scriptures. The electronic
Church in particular panders to our appetite for entertainment
rather than authentic discipleship and maturity.
      Ellul's response to such incoherent flabbiness is spelled out in
this book, and can be summed up in his words: "Anyone wishing
to save humanity today must first of all save the word." Like most
of Ellul's themes, his view of the problems of language and image
stems from ideas already present in his seminal The Presence of the
Kingdom (1948). One of the key problems fbr modern thinking
Christians at that time, in Ellul's view, was the problem of Com-
munication, to which he devoted one of the book's chapters.
There he confronts his reader with the technically determined
choice of facts made available through the mass media, the distor-
tion of language by the media (with which dialogue is impossible),
and their tendency to distract and entertain rather than to Stimu-
late reflection, Propaganda has replaced the commonly held ideas
made communication between persons possible. Films' destructive
power relates in part to language.
      Ellul's proposed solution to the complex of problems Pre-
sented in The Presence of the Kingdom is the discovery of a new
language. This is the only way understanding can begin to flow
again, so that we can communicate the gospel in such a way that it
      Except for certain changes of emphasis and the addition of
technical and sociological developments since 1948, The Hu'miUa-
ti'on of the Word can be viewed as the development of Ellul's early
concerns about language in The Presence of the Kingdom. He cannot
be accused ofhaving "mellowed with age," however. This volume's
sharp attacks on audiovisual methods, television, souvenir Photog-
raphy, structuralism, and modern art will strike some readers as
overdone. But those familiar with the author's previous works will
recognize in his polemic an ettort to arouse our image-lulled Con-
sciousness and move us to do battle.
      In the interim since The Presence of the Kingdom, Ellul has, of
course, written often about language before finally dedicating an
entire book to the theme. The select subject index in my Jacques
EUuI: A Comprehensive BibUography (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press,
1984) lists major references to sbeech or the word in nine ofEllul's
forty books (others could have been added), as well as in ten oI
his six-hundred-odd articles.
      In Prayer and Modern Man (1970), for example, Ellul exam-
ines the difRculties we experience in prayer stemming from our
present "tragic crisis of language, in which words can no longer
attain the level oI speech." The failure of language produces a lack
of personal relationships and a feeling that words are not only
inadequate (Rom. 8:26) but pointless.
      In Hobe in Time of Abandonment (1972), Ellul devotes a
section to the "Death of the Word," in which he examines briefly
the phenomenon he calls "the disintegration of language." Propa-
ganda, the meaningless딴ultiplication of words, the disassociation
of the word from the person spea◎ing it, and society's increasing
dependence on images-all contribute to the picture Ellul draws
of a world with no solution and no future. These same aspects of
the problem ot language m our day become maIor sections ot I he
HumiUadon of tke WoTcI.
      Before writing his books on prayer and hope, Ellul had al-
ready published Propaganda (1962), which the present volume
complements and updates in several respects. Propaganda was the
first of Ellul's books to isolate one element of The TechnoIogicat
Society (1954) for in-depth study. Later he devoted several V01-
umes to the impact of Technique on difFerent aspects of modern
society. The Humiliation of the Word marks his latest contribution
to this series.
      In the theological sphere, Ellul deals with the relationship of
language and faith in his Living Faith (1980), where he emphasizes
the need for confidence in the words of those who witness to
salvation history if we are to believe. He also mentions the Confi-
dence in Jesus which enables us to believe his words, and the
danger ot separating the words trom the person of Jesus. These
themes undergird the fundamental argument of the present V01-
      Just a year before The HumiUation of the Word Ellul published
his work on art and Technique, L'Empire du non-sens (1981). This
art book refers with extraordinary frequency to language, and the
present book on language often calls on art to illustrate a point. In
fact, the two works overlap considerably, especially in the chapter
entitled "Message and Compensation" in L'Empire du non-sens.
Ellul's difBcult book on art is best read in conjunction with the
present volume, since they often deal with common problems of
communication and meaning.
      c,uut atso previously expressed some ot the basic arguments
of The HumiUation of the Word in "Notes innocentes sur la 'ques-
tion hermeneutique'" (Published in LEvangiIe hier et awourd'hui:
MeIanges offerts au Pro◎seur Franz ]. Leenhardt [Geneva: Labor et
Fides,1968j). But now at last he has considered the question of
the modern cnsis in Ianguage at length, and we can follow his
thinking in ordered steps rather than in scattered, specialized bits.
      Besides the spirited attacks already mentioned, in this book
Ellul also criticizes icons and images as idols, along with Com-
puters, comic strips, slogans, technical efRciency, the death-of-
God theology, and political and liturgical spectacle. Although Ellul
himself responds in his last chapter to the potential criticism of
this book as sheer negativism, the fundamental positive thrust
here should not be overlooked. He has not written an essentially
negative book, criticizing the preponderance of images. His basic
aim is not to denigrate images but to liberate language as the
fundamental weapon in the struggle for human freedom. Only as
it relates to language does he deal with the problem of imaees.
Ellul deals positively with language: its essence, its value, and its
reladonship to freedom. In this sense The HumiUation of the Word
is a continuation of the author's The Ethics of Freedom (1973-
      Many of Ellul's books can be viewed primarily as efforts to
attack or even demolish something. But Th-e HumiUation of the
Word belongs with Ellul's more constructive books, most ofwhich
are theological. Like many ot his more positive studies, the present
book devotes a heavy proportion of its space to exploring oppres'
sive factors and fbrces in the area under investigation, but its main
thrust is not negative.
      We have heedlessly capitulated to the allure of images, and
thus language has been dethroned from its proper preeminence in
human affairs. Our preference for images has corrupted and dis-
torted language, which has become sound without sense. In a
similar manner, Ellul has shown earlier that we have preferred the
wrong sort of revolution bAutopsy of RevoIution, Changer de revo'
Iution), given ourselves to the wrong sort of prayer (Prayer and
Modern Man), allowed the idolatrous city to dominate our affec-
tions (The Meaning of the City), and substituted facile belief for
vital faith (Living Faith).
      In most ot these situations something good and necessary has
been either corrupted or blown up out of proportion, so that it
dominates what it should be subject to. Such lack of proportion
involves the dialectic between reality and truth, in the case of
images and language. Our attention has focused on the tangible to
such an extent that we no longer consider truth to carry any
serious weight.
      Reality deals with fixed things not open to discussion, things
which one can only observe. It forces us to conform. Truth, like
the word, is intinitely open-ended and invites retlection, response,
relationshiP, and dialogue. Reality refuses to allow us the distance
necessary so that we can be critical of what we are considering. In
modern society we tend to accept truth only if it bears on reaiity-
specifically scientific reality-which has become our ultimate
      In the same vein, we tend to beIieve words only it they have
some visual evidence supporting them. Whatever cannot be ex-
pressed through images seems to us to have no genuine impor-
tance, or even existence.
      Another reason fbr maintaining that The HumiUatio-n of the
Word is not primarily a negative book is Ellul's repeated effort at
synthesis. The dichotomy between word and image and between
truth and reality is a temporary effect of the Fall, and contrary to
God's ultimate purpose for humankind. In the Incarnation and
the consummation of God's Kingdom, word and image are recon-
      In what sense is language "humiliated," according to ElIul?
His title alludes to a book written during 1939 and 1940 by the
novelist and polemist Georges Bernanos, but not published until
 19와9: 코es Enfants hum◎i크 (Paris: Gallimard). Bernanos deplores
the fact that promises made to those involved in World War I
were broken, leading to a second conflagration. In Ellul's book the
problem is not broken promises but rather a broken humanity. He
does not attack images in themselves so much as the imperialism
of images and our .olatrous prostration before them.
 For several years Ellul led public discussions of significant
films in his native Bordeaux. Such activity makes it clear that he is
not flatly opposed to proper use of images. But imaees tend to
neutralize the effects of the word, which becomes a sort of optional
"'footnote" to the dominant images. In this sense the word is
continually humiliated in our society.
      Never have I seen such a strange tragedy as Jean Racine's
Phedre (1677), performed by a French troupe in 1975 for an
American audience. I was astounded at how the words seemed to
have lost all value and meaning. The actions dominated utterly
usually having no relationship whatever with the words, which
were mouthed quickly, without expression. I was stunned. The
play's meaning was utterly distorted, not to say lost. A professor
friend's response to my distress was: "This is the only way Racine
can be presented in our day."
      In the book you are holding, Jacques Ellul has enabled me to
understand the enigma of Phedre divorced from its text. In the
process, Ellul clarifies many other puzzling tendencies in modern
society. Until I read The Humiliation of the Word, for instance I
could not understand why my students in French literature classes
had so much to say and ask about the texts they read but never
had any verbal response whatever when I showed them a Alm.
      Language is further humiliated by intellectuals, especially Cer-
tain structuralists, whose attacks on language that communicates
meaning and whose preference for the "pure" language of the
insane appear to have triggered the writing of this book.
      Most of us now think essentially by association of images,
mmi oeiieves, and can no longer construct or follow a rigorous
logical demonstration, unless this is supported by charts and
diagrams. As schools increase their reliance on images, educational
levels decrease, indicating that images are not the panacea we
presume them to be.
      In theological terms, God's choice of language as the basis of
his contact with humanity signifies that we are free to respond-
or to ignore him if we choose. Reliance on images eliminates the
freedom that is essential to us if we are to respond to God.
      Some of Ellul's sociological books include brief but clear
statements of his Christian hope (Changer de re.voIu.tionb or veiled
references to the Christian faith as the only conceivable way out
of the tunnel his books describe (Autopsy of RevoIution, The New
Demons). But The HumiIiation of the Word is the first book in
which Ellul has intertwined major theological sections with his
sociological analysis.
      It is impossible to say whether this book is predominantly
theological or sociological. In Ellul's latest list of books (at the end
of La Subversion du cHnstianisme), Tke Humiliation of the Word
appears in the sociological category, Presumably at Ellul's request.
But the work is filled with theological reflection and exegesis of
biblical texts (Ex. 32, Isa. 6, John's Gospel, etc.). In a thematic
study, Ellul tries to show that there are no genuine theophanies in
the Bible. According to the author, the modern world's preference
for images stems from the fburteenth century, when the Church
chose to tavor them in preterence to the word.
      The combination of sociological and theological reflections in
this book enables each discipline to hammer away at and refine
the other. Thus rejection of words in favor of action on the
sociological plane is related to the Hebrew concept (doIbar), which
combines words and action.
      Ellul returns repeatedly to the theme of language as our
human distinctive. If we use it thoughtlessly or devaluate it in any
way, we also devaluate God, who chose it for his communication
with us, and ourselves. We become less human when we opt for
images rather than the word. The theological implications of El-
lul's sociological arguments are manifold. Clearly, the Church must
not lean toward visual methods or attractions. Over-reliance on
lavish liturgy or spectacle (common both to liturgical churches
and modern evangelistic campaigns) constitutes a radical distor-
tion of the Christian message.
      Ellul could have chosen to write a sociological treatise on
language and paired it with a later theological work, as he has
previously done (The Meaning of the City explores the theological
implications of The TechnoIogicaI Society; The PoUtics of God and
the PoIitics of Man is the biblical and theological counterpart of
THe PoliticaI lUusion). But m TKe HumiUation of tke WoTd the
author has preterred to integrate sociology and theology into a
single whole, tor reasons he has not yet explained in pnnt.
      1 believe it is because of the confrontation of the two disci-
plines in this work that Costa Rican graduate students have re-
sponded to it more thoughtfully than to some of Ellul's other
books. Seeing the sociological realities that motivate the author's
theology helps us grasp his emphases. And understanding how
theology can respond to socioIogical probtems enabLes us to view
the future with hope, as Ellul does. As always, however, in Ellul's
thought, this hope is coupled with realism and a spur to thoughtful
      For twenty years I have worked in the Third World, where
the problems Ellul presents in this book have even graver Conse-
quences than in North America. Here we are daily bombarded
with foreign images that crowd out local, "inferior," images and
trample on local culture. Even worse, what you merely see on your
television screen is reality here. You can cheer or be indifFerent
when you see the bullet hit its target, but for us the pain and death
are not "pretend." If Christian churches are ever to become a
prophetic voice they must give serious attention to the fundamen-
tal issues Ellul raises in this book as well as in his previous works
on propaganda in technological societies. We realize that "the eyes
of the world are upon us," but is anybody really listening?
                                          Joyce Main레anks
                                          Universi◎ of Costa Rica
Note: Except where otherwise indicated, the Revised Standard
Version is the basis fbr biblical quotations when accompanied by
a concrete reference to book, chapter, and verse. The major excep-
tions to this are indicated by the letters "bE," which signify my
own translation of Ellul's biblical quotation. He uses various
French Bibles and sometimes his own translations and Para-
phrases. 1 have made no attempt to distinguish his source.
      Publication dates above refer to the first edition of Ellul's
books, usually in French.


 Do not look here for some scholarly study on iconic expression
or syntagmatics or metalanguage. I am not pretending to push forward
scientific frontiers. Rather, 11ry to do here the same thing I do in all
my books: face, alone, this world I live in, try to understand it. and
confront it with another reality 11ive in, but which is utterly Unverifi-
able. Taking my place at the level of the simplest of daily experiences,
1 make my way without critical weapons. Not as a scientist, but as an
ordinary person, without scientific pretensions, talking about what
we all experience, I feel, listen, and look.
      Images today are the daily nutrient of our sensory experience,
our thought processes, our feelings, and our ideology. When we say
"image," the word immediately breaks up into its difFerent meanings:
verbal images (why shouldn't they be considered images as well as the
ones I see?); mental images, which can exist only when I am usine
language to think; and images that feed the imagination or are Pro-
duced by it, and are therefbre inseparable from it.
      In this book I will retain the oversimplified distinction between
seeing and hearing, between showing and speaking. I am well aware
that or르anized im◎트es also constitute a lan은ua유e, and that this distinc-
tion is not restricted to speech. Despite all modern advances, however,
in this book I will reserve the use of "language" for speech, ienorine
the language of gestures, mime, and film. A biased approach? Cer-
tainly! At the same time, my desire is to reestablish a measure of
clarity in an area filled with confusion, complexity, and miSUnder-
      There is also cinematic language-Pm well aware! But too often
people forget that this sequence of images is not the same thine as the
organization of sentences. Defining language by talking about codes,
signifiers, the syntagma, semiotics, and semiology does not solve the
problem. Always we must come back to simple facts, common sense,
and commonplaces as our starting point. Because, whether we know
it or not, and whether we like it or nut, "everybody grinds his grain
ancI bakes his bread according to everyday truths and constraints."
      "But," you say, "why connect hearing and speaking? I hear lots
of things besides speech: music, noise, and the crucial noise that
interferes with communication. Noise sometimes gives birth to order,
and is sometimes silenced for the sake of meaning. Music can be an
image or suggest images to us, just as, on the other hand, the word
can be written, and writing is something visual: you can read words.
No necessary and exclusive relationship exists between hearing and
speaking, or between seeing and image." I'm well aware of what you
say, and still I stidk with my misleading simplification. I continue to
relate hearing and speaking, and oppose them to seeing and image,
not in an exclusive sense, but fundamentally. I'm aware that fringes
exist, that there is no unmistakable cleavage, and that the visual
interpenetrates the auditory. But even admitting all this, we must
come back to two dissimilar domains: what I hear constitutes a special
universe, difFerent from that other universe composed of what I see.
      Far from being a superficial proposal, this distinction Corre-
sponds to everyone's experience, in spite of excessive challenges based
on scientific fbundations. These scientific studies are undoubtedly
useful fbr the purposes of the research scientist, but my aim is
difFerent. And the conclusions we come to will compensate for the
oversimplification inherent in this fundamental experience.
      1 refuse, then, to transform the Word into an image or a sequence
of images. I refuse to transform Images into a word, or to consider
their sequence a language. I do this cven though I understand the
relationships between word and image, and the scientific reasons for
considering them to be identical. But in reality, we are not suggesting
an absolute discontinuity between seeing and hearing. I have spoken
of two universes based on the distinction between them, but most of
the tirne, at least, they are not separate universes.
      In our common expenence seemg and hearmg are related, and
the proper equilibrium between the two produces the equilibrium of
the person, so it is dangerous to favor one, in triumphant fashion, to
the detriment of the other. Yet this is exactly what is happening today,
as we witness the unconditional victory of the visual and images.
Furthermore, the above-mentioned ideas concerning (visual) images
as consdtuting a language, the (Printed) word as being reduced to
visual images, and the word as evoking only images, are hardly inno-
cent and objectively scientific, These assertions are really simply an
indication of the triumphant march of the Visual and (visual) Images
m our society and thought,
      We should not, however, sever the relationship between seeing
and hearing. Each person is made up of the confrontation of what he
sees and hears, of what he shows and speaks. These are two different
senses, each the door to different universes that perpetually encounter
and confront each other. These two universes meet at every level of
      Nevertheless, I refuse to follow Oswald Spengler, who considers
sight to be the decisive sense. He believes that our two eyes in the
forefront of the face, with focused binocular vision, constitute human
specificity in relation to the animal world, which has one eye on each
side of the face. This arrangement produces two separate views of the
world, one right and one left. Spengler considers this disposition of
the eyes to be the origin of humanity's conquering power and its
upright position, which places the eyes at the top of our bodies.
      In a more basic way I side with the entire current of thought that
makes spoken language the basis of human specificity, and here again
1 relate language and word. I accept, oI course, that ants have a tactite
"'language," and that bees have a visual "language," that is to say, a
method of designadon, communication, and transmission of infor-
mation. Their "language" is both codified and learned. But however
subtle it may be, it has nothing in common with spoken human
language. The only way to identify these methods of communication
as languages is by presupposing that language can be reduced to
factual infbrmation. Speech, however, is not essentially transmission
of information. It is much more than that. The word has another
domain, another sphere of action. The spoken relationship involves
receiving messages other than informadon; it involves emotibns that
transcen◎ re존exes.
      1 am not saying that human spoken language is more complex,
perfected, or evolved than bees' language. I say it is not comparable,
because its nature is ditterent. In order to compare them, you would
have to begin by eliminating from human language everything that
goes beyond visual informadon, everything that is inaccessible to the
code. The result would be not just an amputation, which is the
traditional reductionist method of all the sciences, but a surgical
excision of language's very heart.
      Human spoken language is characterized precisely by these ele-
ments we have mentioned: overflowine of limits, going beyond, and
destructuring what can be conveyed in tacule or visual language. Its
essential aspects are breadth of meaning, ambiguity, and variation in
interpretation. A sign in human language does not correspond to a
thing. A word calls up echoes, feelings intertwined with thoughts,
reasoas mingled with irrationality, motives that lead nowhere, and
uncoordinated urges. This specificity is what matters, it seems to me,
ratb-er than the common denominator. Taking all that can communi-
cate infbrmation and calling that human language seems to me biased
(in that same way the social sciences, especially, have made us too
accustomed to bias!).
      "'Difference is what matters." Surely we have heard this formula
often enough in linguistics and other disciplines. Well then, let's apply
it! Let's concentrate most of all on the differentiating factors that
distinguish human language: the play between the signifier and the
signified. "Play" in this sense can be understood in all three of its
meanings! It concerns the changeableness and flexibility of the word
in its relationship with meaning.
      For me, then, hurnan spoken language cannot be reduced to any
coherent collection of signs made understandable through use of a
code. The logical sequence of visual images and the coherence of
spoken language are the starting point of this study. I realize there are
other alternatives. But I consider them to be choices (involving Pre-
suppositions also) related to other concerns and other methods of
research that are not the same as mine. I do not despise or evade
them; they are simply difFerent, and belong to a different area of truth.