In the ’60s, Regis Debray fought beside Che Guevara in Bolivia. Today, his obsession isn’t ideology- it’s “mediology.”
By Andrew Joscelyne
Twenty-seven years ago, French radical theoretician Régis Debray was sentenced by a Bolivian military tribunal to 30 years in jail. He had been captured with the guerrilla band led by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Fidel Castro’s legendary lieutenant. Released after three years, largely because of the intervention of compatriots such as President Charles de Gaulle, André Malraux, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Debray returned to writing. (His 1967 Revolution in the Revolution is considered a primer for guerrilla insurrection.) He spent five years in the early ’80s as a special advisor on Latin American relations to French President François Mitterrand. Wired: “Mediology” sounds like a mix of media and semiology. What does it really stand for?
My starting point was a sense of intellectual astonishment at the mysterious fact that certain signs, certain words and images, get transformed into acts. The parables of Jesus of Nazareth, for example, were reworked by St. Paul into a body of beliefs known as Christianity. The writings of Karl Marx were transformed into a far-reaching political program by Lenin. Powerful ideas need intermediaries. Then I began to realize that these systems of belief – ideologies as we used to call them – are also part and parcel of the material delivery systems by which they are transmitted: if a book like Das Kapital had an influence, then it was because the technologies of print, the networks of distribution, and libraries worked together to create a fertile milieu – what I call a “mediosphere” – for its operation.This fairly modest proposal was aimed against a tradition of viewing ideas as “texts,” as pieces of disembodied knowledge analyzed in terms of signs and codes. In the last analysis, you could rephrase what I’m interested in as a black-box problem. If the input is sounds, words, letters, even photons, and the output is legislation, institutions, police forces, and so on, then inside the black box must be what I call “the act of transmission,” the whole set of technologies and environments that translate the input into the output.
It sounds as if you are trying to smuggle a little hardware into what most people think of as the history of ideas.
I would make an analogy between what I call mediology and the strategy of the neurosciences. While the neurosciences are dedicated to overcoming the inherited duality between mind and brain, mediology tries to view history by hybridizing technology and culture. It focuses on the intersections between technology and intellectual life.
Schematically speaking, you propose three historical ages of transmission technologies: the logosphere (the age of writing, theology, the kingdom, and faith), then the graphosphere (the age of print, political ideologies, nations, and laws) and now the recently opened videosphere (audio/video broadcasting, models, individuals, and opinions). This sounds like Marshall McLuhan. How do you relate to the author of Understanding Media?
McLuhan is obviously a precursor, even though I would qualify him more as a poet than a historian, a master of intellectual collage rather than a systematic analyst. As he himself said, he was an explorer rather than an explainer.Clearly, my classification resembles his in so far as each historical period is governed by major shifts in the technologies of transmission. But in my view, these apparently different historical stages are more like successive geological strata than quantum shifts from one “medium” to the next. For example, I have written a book examining the history of how people have looked at images: traveling “through” images to God in the age of idols (the “logosphere”), contemplating “beyond” images during the age of art (the “graphosphere”), and now controlling images for their own sake (the very recent “visual” age of the “videosphere”).
McLuhan located the primacy of the visual in the age of print, whereas I would say that “seeing” is a constant practice in human history that is differentially influenced by the dominant mediosphere.
I also feel that McLuhan blurred over some fairly complex issues in his famous “the medium is the message” sound bite. The term “medium” can be unpacked into a channel (i.e., a technology such as film), or a code (such as music or a natural language), or a message (the semantic content of an act of communication such as a promise). By reducing medium to a channel-eye view, McLuhan overemphasizes the technology behind cultural change at the expense of the usage that the messages and codes make of that technology. Semioticians do the opposite – they glorify the code at the expense of what it is really used for in a specific milieu.