Brian Rotman

  • 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alone in such an enterprise: this sort of mediality goes back to Victor Hugo’s recognition that the printed Bible superseded the cathedral as the defining medium of Christianity.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.

But the God of the promise to Abraham and the God of the Ten Commandments is not yet the one and only Yahweh. Monolatry, the worship of one god above all rivals – ‘Thou shalt have no other god before me’ – is evidently not monotheism; whereas Isaiah’s ‘There is only one God, there is no other God’ certainly is. Here and elsewhere the biblical account has two different beings referring to themselves as ‘God’: an older one, essentially a tribal appropriation of the Mesopotamian El (whence Israel, Gabriel etc), and a newer monobeing. What are we to make of this? What is the status of the Bible, as a historico-religious text?

Two centuries of biblical hermeneutics and more recent epigraphical, historical and archaeological scholarship furnish answers at odds with the customary view. Though presented as a single narrative with a unified meaning, to be understood as a continuous itinerary of the Jewish people founded by Abraham, and authored by Moses, the chosen prophet and conduit of Yahweh’s word, the five books of the Pentateuch are nothing of the sort. Rather, the Hebrew Bible is a skilfully wrought assemblage of diverse and at times contradictory texts by different hands, in different milieus, with different agendas, dating from 1000 to 500 BCE. These were rewritten and altered (the ‘two tablets of the law’, for example, replaced in the Ark the statuettes of El and his wife Asherah) by priest-scribes during and immediately after the sixth-century Babylonian exile.

Monotheism, then, was a politico-theological construction with a long run-up. What occupies Debray the mediologist is not the Bible’s historical ‘truth’ per se, but its performativity as a written text: the manner in which its interfolding of history and theological intent created a ‘nomadic psycho-object’ and a nation that cohered around the belief of being chosen by the God who lived inside it. What establishes this cohesion is the mental sharing of a beginning and an end. The Bible has ‘magnificently fulfilled its role as a communitarian matrix by fabricating an origin in order to invent a destination’. For this to work, for the psycho-object to continue to deliver the future, the text must not only invent what it claims to convey, but must authenticate itself by ‘effacing its very act of utterance’. Writing (like all media) always conceals itself as the condition of its performance, and the Bible never refers to the fact of its having been written.

More than alphabetic writing as a pure medium is at play here. A mediology of the birth of the one and only God will insist on folding it into a larger set of material factors: from the role played by writing’s substrate (the different qualities of clay and papyrus) to the interactions between the physical environment and the ecology in which its users operate, to the psycho-theological work it performs in engendering a disembodied, invisible Being. It will be interested in why asceticism is antagonistic to woodlands, being instead a ‘pathology of the desert’: why, Debray asks, quoting Renan, has ‘Arabia always been the boulevard of the most exalted monotheism’? It will be interested in modes of transportation, and the need of pastoral nomads for a portable altar in order to worship their God. It will be interested in food practices and the animal distinctions related to them, in burnt offerings and sacrifices to Yahweh, and the climate’s role in the ‘natural selection of memories’. All of which, Debray demonstrates, are mediologically pertinent elements in the coming into being of the assemblage called Yahweh.

And then, ‘around the first century of our era, Yahweh had a son, and it caused a scandal.’ God the Father was set to replace the God of our Fathers. ‘Through what practical mediations was a Jewish sect, one among many others, able to leave the orbit of Judaism and form its own galaxy’ to produce around two billion present-day Christians and thirteen million Jews? Debray’s response is a dense, at times dauntingly learned and iconoclastic tour through the history of Christianity, which subverts conventional narratives by foregrounding its means of communication, propagation and rhetorical consolidation.

Propagation is obviously amenable to a mediological approach. The two great inventions that propelled Christianity by mobilising God were codices and printing. The introduction of the bound codex in the second century allowed new practices of collating, reading, quoting and comparing texts that were outside the scope of a single indivisible and unwieldy scroll confined to an ark. As a result, the holy word was freed from a place (Jerusalem) – ‘Promised Land, Holy Land, Holy City: the New Testament knows nothing of such expressions’ – and released from the single all-or-nothing text of an elite to allow the possibility of its universal dissemination. More than a millennium later, the introduction of printing allowed the Vulgate Bible to be mass-produced, and individual religious practices, unmediated by a priest, to become the means of supporting belief. The result: Protestantism.

As for rhetoric, a trope Debray returns to repeatedly is causal reversal, already identified as the Bible’s masterstroke: namely, the fabrication of an origin to suit a telos. Christian doctrine is replete with the invention of beginnings tailored to ends, with the manufacture of tradition through the effacing of acts of political mediation, and the dovetailing of precursion to prediction. The crucifix, a medieval innovation, positioned the crucifixion as the principal focus of Christianity, and ‘the crown of thorns, the spear, the dice, the hammer, the sponge and the sign inri, all the paraphernalia of the primal scene, were deposited by tradition.’

One consequence of this reversal of cause and effect is that we can’t enter Christian reality through its texts, since ‘what we regard as source and foundation is already in itself an effect of organisation,’ resulting from ecclesiastical and administrative decisions: a phenomenon that makes it impossible to disentangle, within doctrinal debates, conflicts of interpretation from factional battles. What are presented as revealed dogmas were at the time arbitrary decrees; what were ecclesiastical submissions are transcended to become theological mysteries. Secular power and revealed written truth support each other.

It’s not possible, either, to enter (Catholic) Christianity purely through the doctrinal account of the birth of Jesus. Debray charts how an incarnate son of God, in necessitating a mother, shaped the cult of Mary, whose cascading logic broke with Jewish strictures on the impurity of the womb’s secretions, feminised the angels, authorised images, and encouraged female saints as well as the ‘tender deployment of flesh’. This departure from the unimpeachable masculinity of the Hebrew God of the Fathers, Debray claims, not only fashioned a new paternity of God, but became an effective means of conquering hearts and imaginations, and thereby made Christianity the least misogynist of the three monotheisms.

Whatever their differences, the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant Gods share the Holy Book as their source within a civilisation dominated for 2500 years by the authority of writing. But the book and the written word are not and never will be again what they were. Digital information and communication technologies ‘unsettle simultaneously the mode of reproduction of texts, their support, and our ways of reading’. Courtesy of the internet, we in the West read more electronic messages, on-screen fragments and selected printouts than books, and – most injurious to the transcendence inhabiting the alphabetic text – we are inundated by a sea of images, de-sacralised, present to the senses, commutable, that constitute the ‘new touchstone of reality’.

For Debray, the ‘obsolescence of the media of the alphabetical God’ in contemporary digital culture is marked by a shift from linear narrative and the conquest of time to an instantaneously occupied space, from collective accomplishment within history predicated on future deferment to a here/now culture of personal fulfilment. Thus, the death of the God of letters and the weakening of the religions organised around Him, far from producing a spiritual void or a new rationalist order, is facilitating a resurgence of mysticism, an era of superstition and eclectic spirituality, where pagan ceremonies dedicated to the earth-goddess Gaia mix with ecological science; astral fluids sit happily alongside Zen; kabala blends with witchcraft, yogic meditation and Sufi mysticism; where belief in Buddhist reincarnation coexists with Christian burial; where aliens from the cosmos surround us; where the dead are channelled on a daily basis; and so on. Proliferating ‘traffic jams of meaning’ are ushering in what Debray regards, by no means negatively, as a re-enchantment of the world. Contrariwise, he could have cited Allah, no less a God of the alphabet than his Judeo-Christian relatives, as still alive and kicking because Islamic civilisation has yet to plunge into the videosphere and the textual mayhem of the digital age.

Debray concludes his grand narrative with a switch from mediology to philosophy. He asks ultimate questions and offers a meditation on the eternal. Yes, God has a history, but does that invalidate His effects or counter the affect he produces? Why, after all, does He continue to resonate so strongly? Might He who hides His face return disguised, as mysteriously unknowable as ever? Should we not in any event be astonished at the sheer durability of a bizarre, far-off narrative of the Being’s supernatural entry into human affairs? Is religious belief in a God or gods an illusion of human infancy to be overcome through reason (Freud)? Or, on the contrary, is belief in the transcendental a human necessity?

To this last, Debray’s answer is a reluctant but insistent ‘yes’. As a modernist and atheist he embraces a universalism of human rights that encapsulates the moral injunctions and ethical precepts of the world’s religions and leaves behind the faith-based beliefs and stories that they rested on. But imagining that this will suffice as a secular religion in our world is, he admits, naive. For it seems an undeniable anthropological fact that human groups rely on mechanisms of exclusion, on maintained differences and the hostilities they generate, to cohere and perpetuate themselves, and religious beliefs are a – perhaps the – principal source of such mechanisms. So while human beliefs vary and change, the disposition to believe doesn’t. ‘Because of an incompletion, which does us great wrong but which eludes our will, we cannot come together with our fellow creatures to construct durable and distinct collective personalities without opening ourselves up to “something that transcends us”.’ Religious faith in an absolute force or supernatural agency might indeed be an illusion, but its placebo effect ministers to the ills of human squabbling, fear and mortality.

The progress of science and technology, Debray believes, will ‘impede neither the vital impulsion to believe nor the concomitant violence’. Society by itself cannot thwart the forces of ‘death and division’. Only by believing in an externality, a point completely outside the social system and incapable of being justified or adequately articulated within it, can we creatures of lack survive. The eternal, it seems, is with us for ever.

God: An Itinerary is a stylistic tour de force, Nietzschean in its seductive rhetoric, lightly worn erudition, aphoristic insights and provocative asides. But the wit and sophisticated aperçus need to be cleaned of explanations and bothersome justifications to work their magic, and they conceal a limited vision. Debray seems uninterested in immersing his understanding of religion and belief in a larger arena. He does not, for example, relate his story of Judeo-Christian belief in the great transcendental monobeing to ‘religious’ credence in general, to the propensity of people in all cultures and times to incorporate a huge variety of gods, goblins, ghosts, demons, spirits, angels, devils and other supernatural entities into their lives. Such a comparative anthropology of belief in quasi-human agencies would have to include empirical research on burial practices, propitiation rites and afterlife narratives, conceptualisations of the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’, as well as the biological and evolutionary bases for language, sympathy and consciousness. All of which, would, I imagine, be foreign to Debray’s ex-Catholic, French intellectual’s suspicion of evolutionary science’s ability to say anything significant about the roots of human behaviour. In any event, Debray, who so brilliantly and gleefully takes apart the long historical mediation of the Catholic Church, ends up offering us a secular version of the Fall, a vision of the human in a state of irredeemable lack needing a transcendental crutch to live with itself and face mortality.

But even in terms of the God story, Debray’s grand narrative falls short. By omitting Islam, he not only leaves out the purest and most abstract form of monotheism but also fails to illuminate just how deeply the Judeo-Christian God – unlike Allah – has been imbricated within capitalism and the nation-state. Certainly, in America, where every dollar bill proclaims the nation’s trust in God, where schoolchildren pledge allegiance each morning to God and the United States, where Jesus rules the patriotic lives of tens of millions, and where the Ten Commandments are engraved in stone in courthouses and state buildings throughout the land, belief in the Almighty and the ongoing maintenance of American national identity are inseparable. Nowhere is this more evident and dangerous than in the fusion of evangelical Christianity and extreme-right imperialism that now controls the levers of American power. In thrall to the Bible and convinced once again of its Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism continues to remake the world in its own image. The Jewish claim to be chosen by Yahweh, appropriated by the Puritan founders, ends up as America’s inevitable – God-ordained – global mission.