Alan Sheridan

  • Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: The Intellectuals of Modern France by Régis Debray, translated by David Macey
    New Left Books, 251 pp, £11.00, May 1981, ISBN 0 86091 039 3

For most people, I suspect, the name of Régis Debray is still inextricably linked with that of Che Guevara. For many, it still conjures up a blissful time of youthful certainties and heroic purpose. Debray was one of the first to do what many later dreamt of doing. In 1961, as a 20-year-old philosophy student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, he visited Cuba in the aftermath of the Revolution. He travelled widely in Latin America, studying the various left-wing movements. In 1966 he returned to Cuba to take up a chair in philosophy at Havana University. The following year, his Revolution in the Revolution? was published in Havana, where it was regarded as a semi-official exposition of Castroism. It was to become a best-seller the world over. In it, Debray developed the doctrine of the foco, the small guerrilla band that was to be the nucleus of Marxist revolution throughout Latin America. Repudiating the ‘reformist’ policies of the continent’s Communist Parties, this self-proclaimed Leninist rejected, not only the urban proletariat, but also the peasantry, as the motive force of the revolution. For, far from living among the peasants ‘like fish in water’ (Mao), the revolutionary base ought to remain for ever on the move, avoiding the villages and mistrusting the peasants.

The theory of the foco was implemented days after the publication of Debray’s book. It is none too clear why Bolivia was selected for the experiment: one reason suggested by Debray was that it bordered more countries (five) in Latin America than any other (except the vast Portuguese-speaking Brazil) and would presumably, therefore, provide a perfect base for further expansion. In February 1967, a band of 15 Cubans, led by Castro’s deputy, Che Guevara, himself a middle-class Argentinian, was joined by 12 Bolivians to form the foco that was to trigger off the Bolivian revolution. Their numbers dwindled almost at once. Debray, who joined them in April, ostensibly as an observer, was captured within weeks, tried and condemned to 30 years’ imprisonment. Che Guevara was killed. In February 1968, the four survivors escaped across the Chilean border. The adventure had lasted just 12 months. Debray served only three years of his sentence, being released by a new, more liberal military regime. Undeterred, foquismo continued to ignore specific conditions and national boundaries. The Italian Red Brigades and the German Baader-Meinhoff group were directly inspired by Debray’s early writing, and Debray himself returned in triumph to Paris, where he pursued a prolific literary career.

Le Pouvoir Intellectuel en France was published two years ago and now reaches us as Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: The Intellectuals of Modern France. The French title, with its Gallic abstraction, grandiose and menacing at once, promises much; the English, down-to-earth, sociological, depoliticised, is less portentous, but more specific in its promise, and more frustrating for that. What one might have expected from someone of Debray’s training and experience was a thoroughly researched contribution to the burgeoning discipline of ‘media studies’. What he delivers falls tar short of this. On page 2 of his Foreword Debray makes what increasingly looks like a Freudian ‘disavowal’: ‘Our purpose here is not to display ill-temper, indignation or resentment, but to analyse.’ (‘Sehr interessant!’ Herr Doktor muses, reversing the statement.) While agreeing that ‘a polemical situation may be the moving force behind thought,’ Debray declares that ‘the pamphlet is a degrading genre at odds with any ethics of knowledge.’ In the event, Debray pays scant regard to ‘Scientific analysis’, and despite a few, almost decorative statistical tables and some brief, second-hand historical summaries, the book rapidly turns into an impassioned polemic against the mass media in general and certain (named) individuals in particular. The polemic is not in itself a degrading genre: an unsubstantiated claim to scientific analysis in a polemic degrades both genres.

If Debray does reject the charge of polemic, he admits himself that his book is shorn of much of its validating material. It was originally the concluding part of a forthcoming theoretical work, Traité de Médiologie, in which ‘the notions of intellectual, medium and state have been systematically located.’ Meanwhile Debray asks the reader for ‘a limited stay of credit’. This is rather a lot to ask. The justification offered for separate publication is that this book is a study, not of the media themselves, but of the intellectual’s relationship with them. A less charitable hypothesis might be that this short polemical work stood a better chance of getting mass media attention than the two-volume treatise on mediology that is supposed to back it up. If this is the case, it would corroborate the many instances in the book where Debray shows himself to be part and parcel of the very system he is castigating.

As the English title suggests, the book is structured around the notion that, over the last hundred years, the French intellectual has manifested his power in three forms, corresponding to three historical periods: the ‘university cycle (1880-1930)’, the ‘publishing cycle (1920-68)’ and the ‘media cycle (1968-?)’. Academics, writers and media men (including journalists on mass-circulation newspapers) have existed in all three periods: what the three ‘cycles’ indicate is where, at any one time, the intellectual’s power was concentrated. It is Debray’s case that with each new cycle the intellectual broadened his audience, with a consequent increase in his power, but a ‘degradation of the intellectual function’. The neologism ‘mediocracy’ neatly conveys both notions: at present ‘the mediocracy is the main pillar of bourgeois domination in France.’

Taking his cue from Balzac, with his ‘zoological order’ of the gendelettre, Debray sees the intellectual as a species of animal, a leopard which, though it changes habitat, does not change its spots. This species came into being with the Industrial Revolution: ‘the expansion of education, the extension of the reading public and the subordination of writers to the ruling bourgeoisie go hand in hand and have a cumulative effect’ (my italics). (Few Marxists, still less those purporting to be studying cultural history, could permit so crass a statement, one which would be branded at once as ‘economistic’ and ‘undialectical’. But it is entirely consonant with the thinking that runs through this book.) The foundations of the modern educational system in France were laid in the Napoleonic period, with the establishment of a lay teaching profession to fill the gap left by the priests of the Ancien Régime. The profession reached maturity during the Third Republic, the ‘république des professeurs’, the product of a union between the bourgeois republic and liberal rationalism. In a hundred years the population has risen by 25 per cent, but the number of arts students from 1,000 to 191,600. What does Debray conclude from this rather bizarre statistic? ‘Such numbers lead to devaluation.’

The publisher gradually won his independence of printer and bookseller in the course of the 19th century, but his status as ‘the very pivot of the process of literary promotion’ was consecrated with the founding of the NRF in 1908 and the associated publishing house of Gallimard two years later. World War Two brought a shift of power in the publishing world away from the ‘tribe of Gide’ and the NRF to a younger group of ‘committed’ writers led by Sartre and Camus, but this was internal to the ‘publishing cycle’ itself.

The two chapters on the university and publishing take up 38 pages: they are little more than a pre-historical sketch for what, in effect, is a collection of random thoughts on the mass media. We move rapidly from a world ‘still haunted by the same (puritanical?) notion of redemption through a message in a bottle and the ephemeral as original sin’ to one in which ‘our ability to see the world from our living-rooms condemns us to inactivity and the eternity of the moment, a privilege reserved for rogues, children and poets.’ This is well said, but it is the half-truth of polemic, not the language of ‘scientific analysis’. ‘In May ’68 the media made history “live” for the first time ever; the fate of the country was decided on the radio and acted out on TV ...’ This is not even a half-truth. Debray hates this world, in which those who were once at the bottom of the literary ladder (the journalists) are now at the top.

His most deadly venom, however, is reserved for the figure who represents the interdependence of the three worlds of the university, publishing and the mass media: ‘Our leading light is a tenured professor, a literary adviser, the editor of one or more series, a member of the readers’ committee in a big publishing house, a journalist, critic and leader-writer on a popular weekly or daily. He has a good old-fashioned spread of titles ... two or three TV programmes, and as many radio slots. He has three offices, three secretaries and three telephones, for the various moments of the day or days of the week, three sources of income (salaries, royalties, fees) ...’ This creature inhabits a world in which hell is other intellectuals, a jungle in which ‘survival means killing, climbing means pulling someone else down and making your way means pushing someone else aside’; in which ‘everything is either a best-seller or a flop,’ in which ‘40 mediocrats have the power of life and death over 40,000 authors.’ It is a world bounded by three Left Bank arrondissements, in which the less successful wander up the Boulevard St Germain ‘in an anxious state and with withdrawal symptoms’, bearing within them resentment and bitterness, ‘always torn between a desire to scratch and a desire to stroke’; where the collective heart beats faster on Thursday afternoons (when Le Monde des Livres appears) and on Saturday mornings (the three politico-cultural weeklies), but reaches a peak of excitement at 9.30 on Friday night, when all the beasts of the jungle are either in front of or on a luminous small screen, ‘the darkest spot in modern society’.

Apocalyptic vision, paranoid delusion, or a Dantesque fantasy conjured up by a spoilt novelist. (Debray’s novel, L’Indésirable, is lacklustre in comparison.) If it extends beyond the bounds of Debray’s own head, he is certainly in it and of it. He even quotes Maurice Duverger with approval: ‘When an intellectual talks about the intellectuals, he is talking about himself.’ He is aware that a ‘drawing up of accounts’ may look to the reader like a ‘settlement of accounts’, but it is Debray who does his best to confuse the two. Thus of an unhappily named television presenter: ‘the unifying point for the symbolic field in France today is the meeting-place known as Bernard Pivot.’ All right, but sixty pages later we read: ‘the concentration of symbolic forces is monarchical ... and the pivot of the system is a pinhead.’ The traditional solution to such a horror vacui has been a withdrawal from the world, to hermit’s cave or monk’s cell. Debray certainly seems to have reached the stage when nothing short of a religious conversion can save him. The trouble is, so many of his fréres-ennemis have themselves gone religious and, far from retreating from the world, are there, night after night, on the ‘luminous screen’. In one tear-jerking passage, Debray contrasts the life of one such religious mediocrat with that of his old philosophy teacher at the Ecole Normale:

Maurice Clavel’s telephone never stops ringing; Louis Althusser’s is much more discreet. The former can introduce me into a number of sanctums, but the latter is still a mediatic cul-de-sac: no contacts in TV, no page in a weekly, no radio slot, just a collection of theoretical works whose clandestinity is preserved by the press, from whom he has received not a single interview in thirty years of activity. What good is Althusser to me? Clavel is my friend.

Anyone who has struggled through a page of Althusser will know that it is not a mediatic prejudice against ‘materialist philosophy’ or Althusser’s membership of the Communist Party that has kept him off the air. Debray sees Althusser as some kind of incorruptible ascetic, a Beckett of ‘theoretical practice’. He himself is neither an Althusser nor a Clavel. But it is not clear which he would prefer to be. Since Debray wrote those lines, Althusser has strangled his wife and been interned in a mental hospital. Would more telephone calls have preserved his sanity? Would mediatic attention have spread its healing balm? One is not used to asking such questions, but Debray’s ad hominem tactics are catching.

Polemics are necessarily manichean: all-or-nothing, black and white, with facts manipulated or ignored. Television, especially in France, can turn good sellers into best-sellers, but it is not true that publishing houses are run on instant successes, or that the middle-selling titles have disappeared. In fact, it is with these that a firm builds its reputation and among them that it finds its true, long-term best-sellers. So obsessed is Debray with the instant, media-created success, and with the book as marketable commodity, that he ignores completely what is perhaps the most important medium of literary communication – the libraries. But then Debray and his friends wouldn’t use the public library, would they? Nor is it true that television has killed the live theatre. On the contrary, the last twenty years have seen an unprecedented expansion of theatre, especially in the provinces, in France as well as in Britain. And there is nothing ‘inevitable’ about this: it is the long-term result of innumerable human decisions, of the state coming to the assistance of local initiative (what Debray sneeringly calls the ‘subsidised iron lung’). Similarly, if the theatre declines, it will be the result not of television – the two have assisted each other in many ways – but of political policy in the face of economic recession. Nor has television killed poetry: the publication and public reading of poetry has never been greater. It is a fact, and a significant one, that ‘one showing of Tartuffe on television gave it a bigger audience in one evening than it had in three hundred years on the stage’; and it is no answer to say that ‘three million viewers were watching TV, not a play by Molière,’ when there are two other channels offering less demanding fare.

Television can actually stimulate reading: when a serial adaptation of a classic novel is planned, the paperback publishers order a huge reprint. The explanation is obvious: with the disappearance of a small, educated reading-public, many people who enjoy reading do not know what to read. A public library is intimidating enough, but if you pick a dud it costs you nothing. If you liked the television adaptation, you’ll risk buying the paperback. Nor does the sale of one author’s book necessarily mean that some other author’s book goes unsold. It may well mean that something other than a book is not bought and that yet another book will be bought later, for reading is an acquired habit that often becomes compulsive. In short, there is no evidence to show that television has diminished activity in any of the older literary or artistic media (except the more recent cinema), rather the reverse. It may have redistributed the incidence of that activity (less reading in educated, middle-class homes, for example), but above all what it has done is to provide a medium where none existed before (among the overwhelming mass of the population).

This cultural élitism, this concern that more will mean worse, is as old as the Industrial Revolution. The classic 19th-century instance is Matthew Arnold’ Culture and Anarchy, with its appeal for the preservation, through education, of the values of ‘sweetness and light’ against the threat posed by the advance of ‘philistinism’, it was within this tradition that the Leavises made their narrower, more moralistic, more puritanical contribution. In an informative introduction to Debray’s book, Francis Mulhern compares Debray’s work with that of the Leavises and of the Frankfurt School. For me, such a comparison can only be to Debray’s detriment. Q.D. Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public, though polemical in intent, was a masterly piece of research, which asked serious questions in a serious way and demanded serious answers. Similarly, Adorno and Horkhoimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment operates on an altogether higher level of argument than anything Debray has written.

There is a consistent position to be glimpsed behind Debray’s wildest polemical gestures and his disregard for sociological data. Marxists probably have a word for it. It is a mixture of ‘economism’ (for the masses) and ‘voluntarism’ (for the intellectual vanguard). It is the same position that engendered foquismo fifteen years ago. It springs from a contempt for the very masses in whose name the intellectual claims to speak. In Latin America the ultimate enemy was US imperialism: now, in France, an ‘Americanised intelligentsia’, all ‘smiles, good teeth, nice hair’, is ‘the class that is most dangerous to the people’. Not that one must ask the people for their opinion of this, of course, for they will simply repeat what the intelligentsia, through the mass media, have told them. ‘In politics, spontaneous adhesion to the side of the majority is the act of a collaborator, not a democrat ... In history, it is the resistance and the minorities – and sometimes even the terrorists – who reinvent democracy ... The appeal to the base against and over the heads of the intermediary apparatuses is intellectual Bonapartism’ (my italics). Certainly Debray has an arcane notion of democracy: France, apparently, is ‘one of the least democratic countries in the world’. I would be interested to know which he regards as the most democratic.

Debray contrasts the proliferation of the products of the mass media in the capitalist countries with the ‘surplus of surveillance and the shortage of imaginary and information apparatuses in socialist countries’. Conclusion: omnipresent Party = omnipresent media. ‘In other words, because TV news, L’Express, Marie-Claire and France-Soir each has the fire-power of an armoured regiment, the Ministries of the Interior and Defence can cut their spending accordingly.’ The populations of Eastern Europe must wish that a political system could vanish at the press of a button. Fifteen years ago Régis Debray wrote: ‘The scandalous premise of Leninism – already manifest in the repression of spontaneity in the workers’ movement (in the psychoanalytic sense) – arises from the fact that Marxist theory was introduced from outside the workers’ movement; thirty centuries of strikes, lock-outs and barricades could never have produced that work of genius, Das Kapital ... No workers’ movement can spontaneously generate a theory of capitalism, the theory of the Party and the revolutionary vanguard ... Marxism was created by the revolutionary intellectuals and imported into the workers’ organisations by the intellectuals themselves’ (Strategy for Revolution, 1970). It should be said that the intellectual vanguard has not always been content with psychoanalytic repression of workers’ spontaneity (Kronstadt, East Berlin, Budapest, Prague), and if it is still practising the ‘talking-cure’ rather than the ‘shooting-cure’ in Poland today, it is because there are just too many analysands to shoot – though this may not deter them. One could be forgiven for thinking that Debray’s main grievance is that he himself is not swivelling on the pivot of mediatic power, that the French masses are no more willing to let him interpret the world for them than the Bolivian masses were ready to listen to a college boy from Buenos Aires. Since beginning this review, I learn that Debray is about to join Mitterrand’s Government. No doubt some familiar faces will disappear from French television screens. Will the new government simply replace them with their own or take the opportunity of breaking the direct links between government and the broadcasting networks in France? Perhaps this book has already served its purpose. Perhaps, like the media events it so closely resembles, it will turn out to be a mere trick of the light.

The translation is competent enough, though marred by rather too many gallicisms and undetected faux-amis (as used in the context, solidarité means mutual dependence, not solidarity; colloquisant, taking part in conferences, not colloquising; pathétique, moving, affecting, not pathetic; virtuel, potential, not virtual; délire, delusion, not delirium; pays nordiques, north European, not nordic, countries; emphase, exaggeration, bombast, not emphasis; primaire, simplistic, not primary; ponctuel, specific not punctual). And what are Jean Paul II (St Peter’s successor) and the ‘Palais d’Hiver’ (St Petersburg) doing untranslated? New Left Books may be hazy about the Vatican, but one would expect them to recognise the Winter Palace.