Debray on Technology

An interview by Andrew Joscelyne for Wired magazine

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. Creating a discipline he calls "mediology," Debray has investigated how it is that abstract ideas can end up as world-changing ideologies. Today, he is developing a new theory of the transmission of ideas through history, to grasp how words become flesh, ideas ideologies. Wired tracked him down in Paris to find out more about the brave new science of mediology.

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.

Mediology tends to take a very long and very broad view of how technologies might influence the transmission of ideas. What can it tell us about our own preoccupation with the impact of technology today?

Giuseppe Verdi once said, "Looking back at the past is a real sign of progress." In my opinion, futurologists such as Alvin Toffler tend to overemphasize the thread of technological determinism in history and then project it into the future. The technologies of transmission - writing systems, printing presses, and computers - do not necessarily drive changein a predictably specific direction. It wasn't the invention of the mechanical clock that modified the medieval conception of time; monasteries needed a timekeeper for their religious rituals, so the clock became a plausible technology. In the same way, a given technology can lead to very different effects in different mediaspheres, as the invention of printing attests. Although wood-block printing first developed in China, it did not evolve into moveable type, presumably because it was more appropriate to a calligraphic tradition. In Europe, however, wood-block printing appears to have led almost inevitably to our Gutenberg culture of typesetting and print shop. There is no fatality about the given effects of what appears a natural advance to any specific technology.

What, in your view, is missing from the manifold debates on the history of technology development today?

What I call the jogging effect. When the automobile was industrialized, futurologists said that people would develop atrophied legs from sitting cramped in their cars all day. What happened was commuters put on Lycra shorts and started running on their lunch breaks. Each technical step forward means a compensating step backward in our mind-sets. Islamic fundamentalists don't come from the traditional universities deeply rooted in a literary educational system; they graduate from engineering schools and technical colleges. Last century, some futurologists foresaw the end of national wars under the influence of spreading railroad lines and electrical telegraphy; others believed that industrialization would wipe out religious superstition. In fact, an imbalance in technologies tends to provoke a corresponding refocusing on ethnic values.

France has taken much flak over GATT and its "cultural exception" clause for film production. You waged a friendly, if uncompromising, duel with the free-marketeering Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, over what is at stake in this issue of media dominance. How does a mediologist view the high-culture-versus-pop-culture issue?

Just as the concept of biodiversity seems to be developing into a general concern for nature, so I think we should negotiate a contract for mediodiversity in a mediosphere that is continually threatened with increasing uniformity of content because of the spread of global networks. The contrast between commercial entertainment product and cultural artwork reveals two competing world views. Commercial entertainment products meet consumer needs, whereas cultural objects create their own audiences, often against the grain of current taste. The Nielsen ratings not only spell the demise of filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini or John Cassavetes, they also write the coda to an essentially Enlightenment vision that puts the quality of artistic mind over the quantity of box-office matter. Simply put, movie studios like Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers might be good for the US, but there is no reason why they will be good for humanity as a whole. As Thomas Edison said a century ago, "whoever controls the film industry will control the most powerful influence over people." And today that means everyone on the planet. Images govern our dreams, and our dreams drive our actions. Seeing Easy Rider or Mourir à Madrid (To Die in Madrid) or Citizen Kane can change a kid's life. But 320 different types of cheese or wine won't, however much the studio bosses suggest that America makes movies and France sticks to gastronomy. Political dominance always means that you kill off other ways of seeing things. By transforming three-quarters of the world into a cultural proletariat, you will make people of this class into more determined rebels in the 21st century. Far more determined, in fact, than the economic proletariat has been in the 20th century.

You don't seem particularly excited about the potential for liberation offered by the technologies of intelligence as we see them developing today. Why not?

The machine offered Descartes a model for thinking about the human body. It later provided British mathematician Alan Turing with a model for intelligent behavior. But machines will never be able to give the thinking process a model of thought itself, since machines are not mortal. What gives humans access to the symbolic domain of value and meaning is the fact that we die.

Preserved for posterity from the original here just can't trust these goddam commercial magazines to retain their cultural capital... got a problem, email the editor (he is currently on holiday in Bolivia).

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