I am papyrus, parchment, paper, computer screen

John Conomos looks into Regis Debray’s mediology

Regis Dubray, Media Manifestos
Translated by Eric Rauth
Verso, London, 1996

Regis Debray’s Media Manifestos is an intriguing, hybrid book that endeavours to excavate a nonreactive critique of Western looking. It consists of Debray’s doctoral thesis defence at the Sorbonne University during 1993-94 in front of authors like Michel Serres, Jacques Le Goff and Francois Guery, who in their own significant way have contributed to our current understanding of late-twentieth century audiovisuality.

The defence, for many different reasons, became a media event in France. Debray, as we know, has traversed in his notable life many abrupt stages: from gifted philosophy student to professional revolutionary working with Che Guevara and subsequent imprisonment to personal assistant to the French President in the 80s. Since then, Debray has been busy writing books. Media Manifestos is the bold articulation of his new sub-discipline in the sciences humaines called ‘mediology’, yet another addition to the spawning of neologisms which characterise the expanding field of new media studies. (Debray has created a whole glossary of new conceptual and methodological terms in his flawed Marxist-inflected attempt to demolish the scholastic cult of the code and the signifier that still mars contemporary art and media theory.)

What is ‘mediology’ and does it have any critical value for us in our daily lives as we negotiate the world in all of its mediatised materiality? This is one of the critical questions that informs this ambitious, rewarding but frustrating, book. The arguments that the author mobilises (time and again) in his exhaustive anti-semiotic attempt to chart a globalising history of the Western eye and its familiar postmodern corollary of the denigration of vision in twentieth century Anglo-French thought (especially as manifested in Martin Jay’s magisterial Downcast Eyes (1993), have a deja vu quality. Debray’s arguments concerning the elaborate metamorphoses of the image (from the stencilled-in hand on the cave walls at Lascaux to televirtuality) are valuable for their cultural and historical dimensions, but in the main, they leave this reader dissatisfied, because they need further elaboration in terms of convincing detail. Debray argues in very broad and sketchy terms: this may be read as a direct generic expression of the book’s PhD oral defence contents. And yet, as the title indicates, we are reading two interrelated manifestos relating to Debray’s dialectical philosophy of mediation (what, in one of his rare playful moments, he calls—oxymoronically—‘religious materialism’) concerning a history of visual forms as a manifestation of the desacralisation of images, urging us to rethink the role that “perceptual faith” has played in such a history where the West has been “programmed by incarnation, thus representation”.

Therefore, Debray is defensive (pun aside), in arguing the thesis that in charting such an evolutionary history of communication systems, a history that is steeped in the cross-disciplinary legacy of Althusserian Marxism, Foucault’s poststructuralism and Leroi-Gourhan’s neolithic anthropology, that we do not overlook that our gaze (from the idol to the ‘visual’) has been formed by aesthetics, electronics and theology. Debray’s historical anthropology of Western beliefs should not be read as yet another mindless optimistic endorsement of anything that has that viral hollow prefix ‘cyber’ attached to it. On the contrary, his book (despite its Aristotelian tendency to create schematic charts and classificatory systems) has certain worthwhile observations about the contemporary practice of art history (particularly questions relating to ahistorical essentialism, positivism, and humanism), electronic media and society. However, to say as the author does that “the history of the image and of looking is therefore a theory of effects and not values (of truth and beauty)” is hardly news to most of us. And also to aver that the latest communication technologies and innovations do not take place without some kind of socio-cultural mediation is, again, almost axiomatic these days.

Nevertheless, where Debray succeeds is in arguing against the neo-Luddite propensity to produce another inflammatory diagnostic denunciation of 20th century life and media as some kind of mechanical decline and, in the process, reminds us that by overvaluing an aesthetic of disappearance one does not (with today’s computer-inflected media) see “nothing more than a disappearance of the Aesthetic.” Consequently, Debray argues against the ‘either/or’ binarism of logocentric thinking; he sees mediology as a multifaceted approach to the possibilities of connectivity between art, culture and technology. To value (in a non-hierarchical sense) all images—the old and the new.

To see technology as vectors of culture (contra the depth perspective of phenomenology which wishes to contextualise the enigma of the body and its existential relationship to the world) and to analyse the modalities of “seeing” by italicising the cultural practices of visual figuration in their external historical contexts.

To understand the successive regimes of visuality that lie behind the respective artforms, we need not only to multiply connections between the aesthetic and the technological, but to see how the very material techniques of manufacturing, diffusing and projecting visual representations bring changes to the status and nature of the image itself.

Media Manifestos is a rich, scholarly and eclectic survey of the changing status and power of the image: it delineates the relevant collective beliefs and technological revolutions of the image from the ancient times of magic and idols to our era of multiplying cyberspace technologies. Central to Debray’s mediology is the idea that we are now in the so-called ‘videosphere’ of digital screen culture which emanates respectively from the ‘graphosphere’ (that period in history which covers art, printing and colour TV) and the earlier period called ‘logosphere’ (the era of oral culture, the technology of writing and sacred texts). And the key notion is that the birth of the image is connected to death. The image is a symbolic expression of our wish to transcend death. For Debray argues that the image (whether sculpted or painted it does not matter) serves as a significant mediation between the human and the sacred. Therefore, the image is a transcendental ceremony connecting the visible with the invisible.

Debray’s mediology is principally concerned with the transmission of ideas in history, how ideas became flesh and ideologies. His three ages of Western looking—the three pivotal mediaspheres cited above—delineate three particular ecosystems of vision. Crucially, all three mediaspheres do not replace each other, but instead are intricately interwoven. Consequently, as Debray argues, living in the era of the visual as defined by Serge Daney, we can experience the diverse symbols and representational structures from the preceding mediaspheres. As Debray puts it, “I am papyrus, parchment, paper, computer screen”. Media Manifestos, with its boldness of style and vision, is an important book that should be read, but it cries out for more persuasive content and precision of thought.

RealTime issue #17 Feb-March 1997 pg. 18

© John Conomos; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1997