Sestius's Reviews > Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes

Propaganda by Jacques Ellul
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May 27, 2009

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bookshelves: theory-in-them-thar-hills
Recommended for: Interested people
Read in August, 2009 , read count: 1

Modern readers, especially perhaps readers in the Anglosphere, might face a few hurdles caused by Propaganda's time and place of origin. (I know I did.) Ellul draws on French experiences of the Second World War, of the first decade of the Cold War and of the end of empire in Indochina and Algeria which seem distant now. He is also much less concerned with evidence than I imagine (and hope!) modern theorists of media and politics are. But this only means that reading Propaganda is a chance to step back from and get a bit of perspective on the present.

Ellul doesn't examine the content of various propagandas (he uses a broad definition which includes more than the obvious, posters-on-the-wall propaganda) so much as the beliefs that underpin propaganda, its processes and its effects — on propagandees and on the propagandists who come up with the stuff in the first place. He suggests that the wealth of information available to the modern citizen actually creates a desire and need for propaganda on the part of its recipients, while states and other groups find it necessary to use propaganda if they are to achieve anything. Once propaganda is underway it inevitably alters the citizen's pyschology and the propagandising group's nature for the worse. It is, he says, 'comparable to radium' ('and what happens to the radiologists is well known'). The appendices unpick the problems inherent in attempting to assess propaganda's effectiveness and describe Mao Zedong's propaganda efforts in China.

Ellul displays a knack for ideas which are initially surprising, but also rather plausible, usually because he's busily puncturing some simpler, instinctive thought: for example, he argues that, if being propagandised has certain effects independently of its content, then equal amounts of propaganda from two opposing sides don't cancel each other out but have a cumulative effect on the propagandee's mind.

Propaganda is a thought-provoking, if dry, read for anyone interested in its subject, or in speech's power to change both audience and speaker. It is certainly not the last word on the subject, but it's a good book to bounce against your own ideas, and still a useful corrective to some of the woollier things believed in the world's richer democracies. It is a little old, but its age simply invites us to apply its ideas to more recent phenomena — like the internet on which you're reading this.
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Reading Progress

08/05/2009 page 4
1.14%
08/06/2009 page 17
4.83% "'[media] must *all* be used in combination. The propagandist uses a keyboard and composes a symphony.'"
08/07/2009 page 43
12.22% "'because of the myth of progress, it is much easier to sell a man an electric razor than a straight-edged one.'"
08/17/2009 page 207
58.81% "'the development of the press and radio has considerably reduced the number of people who can express their ideas and opinions publicly'"
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