Regis Debray Talks to Daniel Bougnoux
The French philosopher, essayist and novelist Regis Debray, who was born in 1941, is one of the most brilliant thinkers of his generation. A graduate of the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, in 1967 he joined Che Guevara's guerrilla movement in Latin America, which led to three years' imprisonment in a Bolivian jail Back in France, he worked on the Committee for Studies on Freedom established by Francois Mitterrand who, after being elected President of France in 1981, appointed him foreign affairs adviser and later assigned him to a post with special responsibilities for the Third World. Regis Debray's students of the world of Images, carried out over the last ten years, have led to the development of a new discipline called mediology. His main works on this theme are Cours de mediologie generale (1991), Vie et mort de l'image, une histoire du regard en Occident (1992) and Manifestes mediologiques (1994), all published by Gallimard, Paris.
* You have proposed a new discipline with a rather enigmatic name - mediology. What exactly is mediology?
- Mediology is a discipline that is still on the drawing board. It seeks to examine the relationship between the higher social functions (religion, politics, ideology and mental attitudes) and the technical structures used for the transmission of information. It therefore looks further than the media that actually carry information. It is concerned first and foremost with symbolic effectiveness: how do symbols - words, writing and figures - manage to produce specific effects and become material forces in a given society? Communication in the modern sense of the term is a specific, if belated, response to a much more difficult and permanent issue, that of mediation. This is a fundamental notion which has been at the heart of Christian theology. After all, Christ is the archetypal mediator: "And the word was made flesh". The mediological assumption is that it is possible for each period in history - from the neolithic or the invention of writing to the electronic era - to establish verifiable correlations between the symbolic activities of a human group, its forms of political organization and its method of recording, storing and disseminating "traces" (ideograms, letters, characters, sounds and images).
* Could you define the field of mediology and its neighbouring areas rather more precisely?
- The field of mediology? All the interactions between technology and culture, even the most tenuous and minor such as newsprint or radio waves but also transport networks, the organization charts of churches and political parties, and so on. The neighbouring areas of mediology? Semiology, but semiology does not take account of material supports and historical discontinuities and is not interested in power, but only in the meaning of signs. Sociology, which does take account of the environments in which ideas and images are received, but disdains technical events and the impact of all kinds of equipment. Perhaps our closest neighbour is the history of mental attitudes, because a problem cannot be analysed without looking at the period in which it occurs. Mediology is built up from a multitude of empirical works centring on the materialities of culture.
* In this context, what is the role of the state?
- The European nation-state is a child of the printed word (without which mass education was inconceivable). In France, the Revolution created a state with a mission to educate, the Republic, based on the ideas of Condorcet. The cult of knowledge and reason, subordination of the individual to the general form of the law, order and progress - all of that presupposed control of images by writing. This system continued to function until around 1968 when it was destroyed by the new video techniques - the videosphere. In the videosphere, the importance of symbolic (written) and institutional (parliament, political parties, trade unions) mediations is diminished, and they are replaced by the emotional immediacy of images and sound. …