Régis Debray: "The Book as Symbolic Object" (extracts)

Interview with Régis Debray in The Wired (on his concept mediology)

"The dogma of the Incarnation and the belief in the resurrection of bodies predisposed one to consider sacred the body of the Book, Spirit made object. Word become papyrus or parchment. An author's soul made flesh. So too the anxious linearity of Christian time accords well with the austere linearity of the written page, with the educationally guided decipherment of Holy Writ."

- Régis Debray: "The Book as Symbolic Object," p. 142.

"Information technology's manipulation and manipulability of traces are probably going to diminish the auctoritas of authors past and present, to the point, it seems, of putting into play the rather recent function of the unique author (with the legal disarray of copyright, stemming from the commercial proliferation of printed text). We are promised, on the information "library" side, less of the dogmatic and more of the ludic, less of the canonical and more of the festive. Fewer arguments from authority, through more juxtaposition of authorities. Perhaps in fact, the hypertext will be the ultrademocratic, fatherless and propertyless, borderless and customs-free text, which eveyone can manipulate and which can be disseminated everywhere."

- Régis Debray: "The Book as Symbolic Object," p. 146.

Review of Regis Debray's Vie et Mort de l'Image: Une histoire du regard en Occident

More essentially, the aura of the secular book, in our temporal culture, makes its appearance as a legacy of Christianity, and, beyond that, of the Torah. The Pentateuch was surely written on scroll, but the Tables of the Law in Christian iconography have taken on retrospectively the aspect of an open book. Everyone knows that there is a close and necessary relation between the beginnings of the use of the codex and the expansion in popularity of the first Christian writings. The primitive notebook or polyptych of small rectangular wooden pieces coated in wax had until that time been considered of little value in the milieus of literate pagans. The definitiva replacement of votumen by codex corresponds, around the fourth century, to the Christianization of the Roman Empire. A receptacle of the Revelation and privileged bearer of the messianic kerygma, the container benefited over the long run from the contents' sacredness, such that "to believe in the Book" and to believe in God gradually became synonymous.


The primordial book is taken to be edifying because it is an edifice. Illuminated, gilded, carved, locked shut, with its clasp, its hard back, its coppered corners, its intersecting architectonic edges - that archetype issuing from the monastic scriptoria duplicates the closure of the cloister. With its own interpreters as entryway guards, and its page laid out like the blueprint of a basilica. The oversize format, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, retains its vaulting arches, its vestibule, and its frontispiece. The title page sometimes displays a portico, a triumphal arch, a "scaffold." One passes through it like a worshiper in a church or a king in his domain. And right up until the middle of the nineteenth century, the supple cover of the duodecimo or octavo commercially sold book was intended as only temporary, awaiting permanent binding.

And it is perhaps also because the text could take the rigid form of an architectural enclosure, be closed up into an ordered and clearly demarcated rectangle, because it could be held and weighed in the hand, leafed through by thumb and forefinger, be prominently displayed in its place for all to see, become a permanent fixture, be hoarded, incorruptible, spatially delimited that the order of books was able for so long to provide so much emotional security. To serve as a pledge of legitimacy and permanence, a shelter against the flight of time, degeneration, death. Fusing material and symbolic value, the book linked persons together through its virtues as a concrete thing. It was (under
this guise) the literate person's antidepressant, his survival insurance. It could stand in for the land no urbanite could love, a foothold for the man at sea, a church for the miscreant. Let us again read Sartre, a modern archeologist of a late modernity (as in "late classical period") from whom the computer screen could soon separate us with as much restrictive severity as the codex has separated us from the volumen of antiquity.

As a rhetorician, I cared only for words: I would set up cathedrals of words beneath the blue eyes of the word sky. I would build for the ages. When I took up a book, I could see that though I opened it and shut it twenty times, it did not deteriorate. Gliding over that incorruptible substance, the text, my gaze was merely a tiny, surface accident; it did not disturb anything, did not wear anything away. I, on the other hand, passive and ephemeral, was a dazzled mosquito, pierced by the rays of a beacon. I would put out the light and leave the study: invisible in the darkness, the book kept sparkling for itself alone, I would give my works the violence of those corrosive flashes, and later, in ruined libraries, they would outlive man."

(Sartre, The Words, 1964, p. 183)

In the figural rhetoric of the world of substances, the numerized cybernetic transmission of texts suggests a change of element: from the earth to water, the fixed to the fluid. Note the guiding metaphors in the New World of computer screens: navigation, flow, tide or influx, flood, immersion, slippage. "The black, hard words" (Sartre) are deminerallized and washed into the information stream, the "clam" melts away into the aquarium. This liquefaction of traces is of course no deliquescence. Textual dematerialization releases thought from the weight of things, increases its mobility, multiplies its possibilities. From the bookish metaphor to the computational one, the passage is not only, indeed, from heavy to lightweight, rigid to soft, rough to smooth, from argillaceous to agile - if the paronomasia can be forgiven - but from the inert to the animate. With data systems for user interactivity and geometrically variable hypertext, the reader is no longer simply spectator, one who looks at meaning through the page's window in rectangle, from the outside, but coauthor of what he reads, a second writer and active partner. He can enter into the landscape of meaning and modify its architecture as he wishes. Once monologue, the text becomes dialogue. It loses its mass, is privatized. It is no longer a static invariant, a road traveled in a given direction, recorded once and for all. Rather, it is a moving mosaic (text, image, sound), an unpredictable sequence of bifurcations, a nonhierarchical, unpredetermined crossroads where each reader can invent his own course along a network of communication nodes.

Régis Debray: "The Book as Symbolic Object," in The Future of the Book, ed. G. Nunberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 137-51 (quotations 141 and 143-45.