Creating Mediology by Yvette Biro

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

Extracts from Régis Debray's article "The Book as Symbolic Object"

Régis Debray explaining the concept mediologi (French / Swedish)

A Review of Regis Debray's Vie et Mort de l'Image: Une histoire du regard en Occident [Paris] Gallimard, 1992, 412pp.

A little while ago the news of an academic doctoral defense became a real media-event in France: the Sorbonne debate of Regis Debray's thesis on mediology. It was the Debray himself, as well as his topic, that attracted this much attention to the event. The reason for this curiosity is obvious, when we consider the many abrupt changes in his life that Regis Debray had undergone, shifting from philosophy--he was a much privileged "normalien" - to professional revolution, arm in arm with Che Guevara, and being imprisoned for five years - to state politics, as personal advisor to the French president (1981-88) - to a return to philosophy and writing six new books in six years.

However, the real center of interest was focused on the new discipline, called mediology, that Debray has ventured to create in Vie et mort de l'image: Une histoire du regard en Occident, delineating its boundaries and trying to first explore this chosen field. Such an ambitious enterprise necessitates a well-founded methodology. Besides clear concepts and trains of thought, we expect the presence of convincing arguments that support the proposed logic. Are these arguments here? Can we rely on them? This is the big question of Debray's bold theorization. The serious doubts we feel from beginning of this book obviously don't exclude our respect and interest for the impressive amount of footnotes and all the formal signs of scientific research. From the scriptures to the literature of advertisement, from the Greek classics to the last communication technologies, plenty of references are accumulated. Alberti and CD-ROM sweetly meet on the pages of this new book. But in the course of reading this book, our gaze also has to pursue an ambiguous history.

Extensive, rich descriptions fill the unfolding chapters. We are given a whole survey of the metamorphoses of the image. The book follows the collective beliefs and technical revolutions that have constantly changed its status and power, function and impact of the image, from the magical to the artistic, only to arrive at a stage of the merely economic. Wasn't the era of images just a short parenthesis - Debray wonders - between the times of idols and our recent times of the visual, a notion as vague and unfathomable as the vibrating waves and dots on a video monitor? Entering a new epoch, called the videosphere, leaving behind not only the Guttenberg-age, but also such achievements as the cinema, the digital revolution, he suggests, has changed our whole civilization. The moment of farewell has arrived.

Debray starts with the assessment that the birth of the image is related to death. The need or hope to transcend death brings about a substitute for the dead, a kind of embodiment. Whether sculpted or painted, the image substitute serves as mediation between the human and the divine, between the visible and the invisible world. The symbolic linkage happens between these two realms, but relies on the existence of a community. To represent means rendering present what is absent, for many, replacing the disappeared one. The symbol always stands for something, beyond itself. Since, originally, it has been an object of action, of reuniting things for the sake of recognition; it therefore has to be an operation, a ceremony.

Later, through thousands of years, images brought people into a system of symbolic correspondence between social and cosmic orders, transmitting messages before writing could serve them. We all know the iconophobia of the religions and the iconoclasms of the heretics; they are rather understandable. Too much power lay in these presences and irresistible magic calling for adulation, replacing the official icons taught by dogma. The spiritual premise had this ambiguous role: depriving the spectator from free, uncontrolled pleasure, willing to shape it according to its predetermined rules, avoiding the "dangerous" domain of the material. However, the development of imagemaking, the unstoppable force that imbued the object with the spirit of the subject has brought to existence an immense "counterworld" of autonomous, self-contained works of art, where new laws started to govern.

So far, not much novelty can be found in the tracing of this famous history. Debray gives an account, with greater or lesser precision of the subsequent stages. The sudden shift occurs in the moment when his intention to provide a comprehensive, all-encompassing theory, leading him to the murky notion of mediology. He immediately admits that his new interdisciplinary science is a hodge-podge: "Du melange des genres, la mediologie voudrait même faire système: transformer un patchwork en raison.... Ce n'est pas de notre faute si les pratiques de l'image posent, dans le même temps, une question politique." (From the mixture of genres, mediology wishes to formulate a system: to transform a patchwork into order... It is not our fault if in practice, the image presents us, simultaneously, a question of technique, symbolism, and politics." (145 p.) He is right, it is not his fault if various aspects of imagemaking have to be tackled in order to understand its "rise and fall." But is it true that these three notions need be or can be united in one separate "complexe"?--as he calls it.

"Notre voeux serait de pourvoir projeter dans l'espace, en relief et en transparence comme sur un ecran d'ordinateur, nos trois plans de reference." (Our desire would be to be able to project into the space, in graphic and transparent form, like on the screen of a monitor, our three planes of reference.)

Fine, noble desire. But how to accept the proposed points of reference as the unique, ideal dimensions that will offer full explanation for such an evolution and for so many revolutions? Why claim that the history of art has been nothing but the "mutation des techniques," that it is semiology that treats the symbolic facet of the image, i.e. "les permanences mythiques," and sociology that deals with the history of mentalities? Odd ensemble! Without denying the necessity of these disciplines, why assign to them these exclusive, arbitrary roles? What about the many other dimensions: psychology, in order to examine the impact of image; aesthetics, the investigation of the "esprit des formes"; art history, etc. What happened to these orphans? Technique, politics, and mystery--they are the roots of mediology, Debray states, and so he reveals the truly mystical nature of his triade.

But his ordering urge pushes him even further. He cannot be satisfied with merely designating these boundaries. A full diagram, divided into fifty-seven categories(?!), illustrates all potential aspects of the three great epochs of human culture, called logosphere, graphosphere, videosphere, charted between horizontal and vertical axes.

Looking at the definitions: logosphere corresponds to the era of idols, extending from the invention of writing to printing; graphosphere, covers the era of art, from printing to color TV; and videosphere, the era of the visual. A few secondary definitions complement the primary ones: first, referring to temporal aspects, he states that the idol is immobile, art moves slowly, and the visual is rotating, haunted by speed. As to their spatial nature: idols are autochronous, art occidental, and the visual mondial. So wildly arbitrary are these definitions, one should not ask, perhaps, about any justification. It is not surprising then that the chosen principles and their encounters become even more vertiginous, with his discussion of theocracy, androcracy, and technocracy as subsequent stages, bringing about piety, geniality, and publicity; being accordingly, solemn, serious, and ironic. How can these notions be brought into relation to a common denominator? What would they reveal? What to make of the idea that each artiface has an aura according to its history, such as: charismatic, pathetic, and ludicrous. If, once again, according to his obsessive grouping, fear, love, and interest characterize this ternary evolution, then this play with systematization can go forever: to give an account of the changes of human history, we only need to find three notions and put them next to each other.

The bottom line of Debray's reasoning is not merely ecclectic. Traces of a strong, vulgar Marxist school of thought can be found in the analysis. The nature and function of the image is explained against the famous direct relationship between economic basis and the superstructure. The mythologized phantom of postmodernism is treated, according to a Baudrillardian vision, in the most flamboyant and unanalyzed fashion, as the total eclipse of the real, in the service of mere pleasure and the regression of history. Theoretical juxtapositions or confrontations appear all over. "The image obeys the logic of totalisation--the diffused image that of fragmentation..." or "To think means to say no. TV says yes..." or "Clip & cut, clash & flash..." sums up Debray's verdict, and not accidentally are English expressions used to emphasize sinful operations.

The book winds up with twelve theses on the new order. It is difficult to see what kind of order is actually being questioned. But Debray definitely intends to judge the power of the image, qualifying it as hollow, manipulative, blind, or deaf, repeating only common places, and functioning as mere prothesis, a "disarticulation," a substitution of the fractal for the global, a decline of narrative. Debray coins a new phrase - extraspective culture - culture that sacrifices complexity, and sacrifices everything that matters: there is no more inference or introspection, and in general, all is inferior. Debased and undignified visuality is Debray's major enemy, a phenomenon that kills the imagination, and therefore the truth as well. If everything can be seen, nothing is distinct or valuable. In the new cyberspace there is no here and there, now then, yesterday or tomorrow, or always and never. So we arrived at nowhere and it really is true that these passionate, biased arguments lead to the gates of the darkest hell, offering a prophecy of doom with an excessive grandiloquence.

Debray said once that communication is fluid, but mediation is hard. He has proven it with this book. Indeed, we have the impression that there are no obstacles in claiming interesting, odd, even wild ideas, and putting them into the largest network of circulation. Even old-fashioned words can serve perfectly. The only question that remains: what is the relevance of these ideas, regardless of the means applied, what do they reveal about the real state of affairs? One can create notions and disciplines: mediology sounds tempting, but it would need more convincing content and construction in order to truly mediate a genuine vision about the world.

Wide Angle 18.1 (1996) 69-73.