Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#2/3 Lex Wouterloot 1 Jan 1991

Cours de Médiologie Génerale

Régis DeBray, Éditions Gallimard, Paris 1991, ISBN 2-07-072292-9, FRENCH TEXT, PP. 395, FF 120


Cours de médiologie générale -

The cost of re-inventing things which have already been invented is impossible to calculate .
In the business world, where research is not repetitive and free of obligations, but, rather, lays the foundation for claims to future segments of the market, only the strictest standards of efficiency can be applied. On the other hand, chances for large numbers of people of personally inventing the wheel lay the foundation for scientific development which culminates in the race for patents. The difficulties which enterpreneurs occasionally have with the educational system being a refuge where one can be shamelessly mistaken about the evident and amaze with that which is already known has its origins partially in a narrow view of culture. For example. outside of the world of technology, Cervantes' Don Quixote proves that the greatest masterpiece of a decadent genre can come from the last of its followers.
This misunderstanding regarding the suffocating drive for originality was evident in the heading of the review of Cours de Mediologie Generale in Le Monde. Not without irony, the statement was made that Regis Debray had been understood by McLuhan. Understanding media is quite a job and without referring to the voluminous literature which has been written about this area, an intellectual doesn't get very far. Striking in this regard is the infrequency with which this series of lectures published in bock form refers to American literature. Not to mention contemporary German theory. To put the whole thing more crassly: the French have the habit of considering the world an internal. national affair, and thus find French sources to be quite logically the most reliable source of information about it. Perhaps, thematically, Debray is secretly taken with McLuhan, but shows absolutely no signs of any aspirations to the role of media-scientific oracle. It would be more fitting to raise the name of Comte, because it is in the footsteps of the 'inventor' of sociology that Debray wishes to follow. And then certainly not in order to wind up as the nutty founder of a contemporary variation of the Positivistic Church with which Comte spoiled his biography.
While it may have already happened in other languages, it's for a French audience which Debray marks out the domain of a new scientific discipline: mediology. Mediological science stands in relation to ideology as ecology does to economy. Debray uses the inadequacy of four disciplines which are French par excellence, I.e., epistemology, semiology, archeology (as meant by Foucault) and the history of mentality, to defend the claim that a new science is necessary in order to study the material conditions necessary for ideology. Subsequently, he takes issue with four of what he calls misconceptions, which form a hindrance to thinking about media: dualism, spiritualism, humanism and individualism. The tour de force with which he attempts to validate his claims is an analysis of the success of the message of Christianity, namely, by showing through which mediations an idea becomes a force (par quelles médiations une idée devient une force).
Christianity has in a ceertain sense, gotten ahead of its own success by having incorporated the driving force behind it expansion. It is this reflection of the medium in the message itself which makes Christianity the obligatory approach of our discipline. This careful preparate of Christianity as the medial religion par excellence may be ingenious, but seems to me to be a refined form of ethnocentrism. The 'physics of social thought' becomes more convincing when it attempts to leave speculation behind and to demonstrate the revolution in social relationships which is a consequence of the gradual demalerialisation of the bearers of
media, from the clay tablet to CD-ROM. In order to make a periodising of the media possible he introduces the concept 'mediasphere', which is what the concept 'environment' is within ecology. Entirely in the spirit of Comte, Debray distinguishes three periods in the development of media, since the invention of writing: the logosphere, the graphosphere and the videosphere. Debray describes socialism as an aspect of the graphosphere: a medial ecosystem that is borne by typography, printers, books.
If we apply Debray's mediological three-phase system to his own book, we are forced to conclude that what is happening here actually amounts to a counter-revolution within the media revolution. The bock is already a medium from a bygone epoch and the lecture can certainly be called that. Debray exhibits a certain preference for anachronism. In any case, a quote of Guiseppe Verdi's which he uses is applicable to his own medium: Let's concentrate on the past, that will be a great step forward. This fostering of an obsolete medium seems to take on ironic features as he mirrors himself in the example of sociology. In the French national tradition, this discipline was developed by Durkheim into a theoretical framework for the civic science taught by teachers in public schools. Debray attempts to follow in this tradition as he makes a subject out of médiologie civique.
Irony and pathos mingle in Debray's style. Sometimes that can irritate, when the language barrier forms an intellectual horizon as well and erudition refers mainly to the French tradition. This is even true of the clever media-interpretation of Christianity in which the reformation becomes a historical trifle in the light of the millenia-encompassing history of the Roman Catholic church. He hasn't understood very much about American protestantism, let alone the success of the TV evangelists. And one looks in vain for an answer to the question of how the multimedia-regime of Nazism should be interpreted. In this respect. it doesn't distinguish itself from the various sociological traditions.
We don't do justice to the quality of the Cours de Médiologie Génerale by judging it only as the work of the founder of a new science. The book has the character of an introduction to the problems dealt with by mediology. The cycle of lectures was meant for an audience of students. This educational intent has been preserved and is felt clearly in the text. At the same time, each chapter is an intellectual tour de force: a monograph and a thought experiment at once. As Debray says himself, it's not necessary to follow the entire course. Only when placed outside the institutional relations of education and science can justice be done to the bock's content. Only the countenance of a number of splendid essays on Christian theology and the medial power base of the Church of Rome is disfigured by its French imprint.
No less fascinating is the polemic against the political spirit of 'the imagination in power', under the motto: Est-il vrai que les idées mènent le monde? This is no tasteless post-communist conversion pitch. I sincerely recommend his lecture about socialism as a mediological ecosystem of the printed word to those who wish to legitimate a definitive break with the worker's movement. Equally to be recommended is the history of censorship which Debray writes without any shame for a materialistic approach, because la médiologie voudrait étudier les rapports d'interaaction unissant les faits symboliques et un milieu matériel technique.
His principally historical approach in which the dogma of dialectics is absent is also non.contemporary. Yet another reason to look forward with interest to the sequel to this cycle of lectures.