- God: An Itinerary by Régis Debray
Verso, 307 pp, £25.00, March 2004, ISBN 1 85984 589 4
Five years ago Régis Debray published an article in Le Monde diplomatique entitled ‘What Is Mediology?’ His aim was to open up a notion he’d introduced in passing twenty years earlier. Neither a science nor a sociology of the media, mediology, Debray explained, is a discipline of the in-between (l’entre-deux): a study of the interactions between technology and culture, between the higher modes of human activity – religion, discursive thought, art – and the lower: transmission, documentation and material production.
What makes an examination of a phenomenon such as religion ‘mediological’, then, is a double understanding of it as both ideal and material, both a thought and a machine, a plan and a physical device. Debray is hardly alone in such an enterprise: this sort of mediality goes back to Victor Hugo’s recognition that the printed Bible superseded the cathedral as the defining medium of Christianity. Other examples include Walter Benjamin’s juxtaposition of mechanical reproduction and artistic ‘aura’; Jack Goody’s attributing to cuneiform writing the deployment of lists and linear thinking; Eric Havelock’s locating the source of Greek abstract thought and Plato’s ideal forms in the advent of writing; Richard Seaford’s rooting of these features in the monetisation of Greek society; and of course Marshall McLuhan’s celebration of the medium’s production of the message. Not to mention (and, curiously, Debray doesn’t) the interconnections between base and superstructure behind the historical materialism of Karl Marx.
For Debray, the goal is to dissolve the conventional barriers separating culture from technology, to think of them not as irrevocable antagonists, but ‘one by the other, one with the other’. One consequence of deliberately interlacing cultural content and technologies of dissemination is an insistence that the higher-level object – message, belief, dream – doesn’t pre-exist the lowly mechanism of its transmission: ‘The downstream constitutes the upstream.’ It wasn’t the Church that transmitted the figure and words of Christ: Christ was elaborated (out of a probable Jesus of Nazareth), along with the Church, over three centuries, through a succession of Jewish, Greek and Roman ‘structuring cultural matrices’. The ‘origin’ is always the product of what it originates.
In God: An Itinerary, Debray presents a mediological narrative of the birth, transmogrification and death of the Judeo-Christian God (Allah is reserved for a possible later work). Better, he presents a succession of different Gods which, without a mediological analysis of their differences, have simply been collapsed into a single self-identical entity called ‘God’.
But first, He who started it all: why did the Eternal One arrive so late? What was He doing during the 1.4 million years since the Acheulean carvings in Africa? Or the half million years since humans harnessed fire? Or the stretch of time since the cave paintings? Or, more immediately, why didn’t He appear earlier in the forty thousand years of human religious practices – of burying the dead and believing in an afterlife? Why did he wait for Abraham to make His covenant with (a portion of) mankind?
The short answer, which Debray spends a hundred pages elaborating, is that God is unthinkable without writing and, more indirectly, without the wheel: innovations which reduce human dependence on time and space respectively. Certainly, oral societies do not have the notion of a covenant or the concept of eternity, which, mediologically, was an invention of writing. Moreover, pastoral nomadism exerts its own mediating demands, both ascetic and technological, on the nature of a supreme being. ‘The All-Powerful did not, one fine morning, on a peak in Sinai, discover an opportunity to reveal Himself in His eternity.’ Rather, it was a political use of technology, a singular appropriation of alphabetic writing in the context of the desert that enabled His appearance. The ‘technogenesis of transcendence’, in other words, has to be situated within the larger, secular technogenesis and ecological matrix of the human race.