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Régis Debray, Introduction à la médiologie

Régis Debray, Introduction à la médiologie, 2000
Régis Debray, Vie et mort de l'image, 1992 Les Cahiers de médiologie Les Cahiers de médiologie
In the 1990s, Régis Debray coined the term mediology. Is this a new discipline that has emerged in academic circles or simply the whimsy of a philosopher? Not widely discussed in either francophone or Anglo-Saxon milieus, mediology remains fairly unknown and little taught. But by reading Debray's books or issues of Cahiers de médiologie, (1) we can gain a better understanding of what mediology is.

In Introduction à la médiologie, designed as a manual introducing a discipline that is not one, Debray sums up mediology and its aim, often with the use of charts. This aim concerns not only media or a medium as we might suppose (although these are part of the equation), but rather the processes of mediation involved in transmission. Mediology focuses on phenomena of transmission. The transmission of what? Of the one thing important enough to transmit to future generations: knowledge and traditions (in other words, culture). In contrast to the short, immediate time frames of communication, which, paradoxically, cause news events to be quickly forgotten, transmission is founded on the long, mediate time frame of traces and memory. For example, the short time frame of the life of a sect has been transformed, particularly through books and writing, into the long time frame of Christianity; the material object of mediation (here the Bible), the organized matter as mediology calls it, is transformed into an institution and into materialized organization. The interplay of the two temporalities occurs through media, technological instruments for recording the present that are gradually shifting toward their noble role as memory and archiving tools.

Early in his introduction, Debray presents libraries as an excellent medium for transmission. Not only is a library a warehouse for memory incarnate, materialized within books, but it is also the "matrix of a well-read community" possessing its rituals (exegesis, translation, compilation, etc.). The transmission is active and does not concern only the passive supply of books and archives on the shelves of our libraries. There are readers in our libraries and they in return write. "A library spawns writers just as a cinematheque spawns filmmakers." (2) A library is a productive establishment originally created by an act of sovereignty, Debray says in two wonderful pages on libraries. Libraries are always "royal, caliphate, pontifical," (3) whether created by a congress, senate, president's office or foundation. Within this institutional genealogy is the essential part of transmission, of which libraries are the medium but not the driving force. They are the "support for supports, the invisible operator of transmission." It's rather the community established around the library that "transforms the warehouse into a vector." The memory stored in books, which Debray calls external memory, acquires power only through "the internal memory of a group." This leads to an inevitable consequence if we don't want the use of our new networks for transmitting information to be founded on a misunderstanding: mistaking the physical transfer of information for a social transmission of knowledge (the propulsion system). Debray stresses that we mustn't confuse "mnemonics and memorization," in other words, confusing the manipulation of information contained in a database with the assimilation of new knowledge.

Mediology, though it's seldom acknowledged, owes much to the incredible insights of Marshall McLuhan. The second chapter of this introduction is titled "The Medium Is the Message," and Debray explicitly recognizes the vital contribution of what he calls the School of Toronto (McLuhan, Innis and Derrick de Kerckhove, McLuhan's French translator). He writes: "Admittedly, McLuhan, a quick-witted, intuitive, but not very rigorous man, used the term medium a bit too extravagantly, but simplistic thinking isn't necessarily stupid. It can lead to quite complex notions." (4) There is much to be said on this difficult relationship between Debray's mediology and McLuhan's writings, but it is important here to see that the difference between the two men, as always, boils down to style—the skeptical rationalism of the former Marxist and friend of Che Guevara versus the ambiguous aphorisms and other intuitive annotations of McLuhan, a conservative and a converted Catholic. For both Debray and McLuhan, poets provide scientific backing as much as "serious" thinkers do—Mallarmé, Valéry or Hugo as much as Hippolyte Taine, Michel de Certeau, Jacques Derrida (5) or François Dagognet. Debray sees them, together with fine artists, as the veritable forerunners or pioneers of mediology.

Like all authors trying to understand and explain the impact of techniques, technologies and media on the evolution of human culture in its relationships with its environment, Debray proposes a temporal categorization to describe the various media periods or strata, which he calls mediaspheres. "A mediasphere is a dynamic system of complex ecosystems reorganized by and around a (single) dominant medium, generally the most recent." This classification is explained within a chart (6) listing three mediaspheres: the logosphere characterized by the domination of writing; the graphosphere dominated by printing; and the videosphere where audiovisual technologies reign. Note that Debray already addressed issues surrounding the videosphere in 1992 in "Les paradoxes de la vidéosphere," (7) a chapter of his book Vie et mort de l'image : une histoire du regard en Occident. This classification of media periods ends, however, at the dawn of a new sphere we might for the moment call a "cybersphere" to reflect the latest medium: the Internet and World Wide Web.

Debray's rationalism leads him to want to create systems despite his mistrust of them. "We'd do well to step off the beaten path and regard the hostility of universities and academics as a sign of success." Mediology isn't meant to be pure enough to be included within the array of university disciplines. Thus, its "systematic" or "systemic" side is probably an ironic posturing to be taken very seriously, but not literally, which is a postmodern position.

Jean Gagnon © 2004 FDL

(1) Particularly, issue 6 titled "Pourquoi des médiologues."

(2) See pages 7 and 8 on libraries.

(3) Idem.

(4) Op. cit., page 35.

(5) Particularly in De la Grammatologie from which Debray borrows the notion of "trace."

(6) Page 51.

(7) Paris, Éditions Gallimard, Bibliothèque des idées, 1992.