Introduction to Mediology:
An Overview of Theory and Method

Martin Irvine



Regis Debray's major work on mediology, which he asserts is not a field, or a new discipline, but an approach positioning itself as an inter-discipline, finding what's been missed.

Mediology and the interdisciplinary study of media technologies, communication, and mediation

Mediology is a synthesis and critique of received media and technology theory that opens up a larger network model of mediation by focusing on social, political, and economic institutions of transmission and the cultural embeddedness of all technologies.

Mediology asks questions in parallel interdependent ways: how does an idea become a material force, and what are the social and institutional mediations that give media and communication technologies their cultural power?

Regis Debray and others in the "mediological circle" in France and Europe assume, and have worked through, the main intellectual movements (the history of media theory, the sociology of media, semiotics and post-structuralism, critiques of ideology, social history, actor-network theory), but try to find what has been missed in the ordinary institutional partition of disciplines, fields, and in larger social domains like science, technology, and culture (see Mediologie.org).

Mediology is an approach or method for uncovering the invisible network of institutions in which our media technologies are embedded, and through which they become visible to us as technologies capable of conveying messages, information, and their own authority.

The "medio" in the mediological approach signals the attempt to uncover what is "in between" technologies, communicated messages ("content"), and social beliefs and practices: the interconnected social/political/technological milieu as a mutually dependent environment, through which "media" have power, influence, or authority.

Mediology is also an enemy of technological determinism and naive views of agency (what has power to produce effects): technologies can't be usefully described as having "effects" on cultures or societies, because technology is culture and only empowered in culture.

What is most powerful about media technologies is not visible as properties in the media themselves because the whole networked milieu in which they are empowered makes the media possible per se.

 

 

 

 

Background and context for Media Manifestos

  • Essays were originally part of Debray's Doctoral defense at the University of Paris, and assumes familiarity with current French thought in philosophy, politics, linguistics, and media studies.
  • Debray founded Les Cahiers de médiologie, the journal of mediology, and a series of publications by other media philosophers.
  • Mediology: "the discipline that treats of the higher social functions in their relations with the technical structures of transmission" (Debray, Media Manifestos, 11).
  • Emphasis on materiality of media, the multiple functions of mediation, the intersection of media with institutions, politics, and economics.

 


Book cover, Candida Höfer, Libraries.

What has made books, paper, and print powerful? The material properties of the medium and the technologies of production?

Mediology shows that the library is a medium, a system of mediation formed of material technologies and sustained by institutions, communities of practice, ideologies, and political-economic regimes over long time spans. Current models for "digital libraries" must also consider both legacy institutions and newer ones, like intellectual property regimes, user communities, defining Internet data and publishing in a digital environment.

 

Major viewpoints and breakthroughs:

Viewing the social, culture, and material form of media technologies and the contents or messages transmitted as an inseparable, mutually implicating, and interdependent system, rather than isolating "meanings" or "content" as an abstraction separable from technological form.

Importance of studying transmission over time in/through social and cultural institutions with changing material forms of media, not simply viewing communication and media as occurring in one social moment.


The Institutional Means of Transmission always precedes the content of what is communicated.

 

Example: the Internet became powerful because the institutions for computer use, digital data storage, and telecommunications were in place before Internet technologies received wide adoption.

Example: the so-called "digital divide" is not technological but institutional.

 

The power of the institutional means of communication--the cultural embeddedness of media, communication, and transmission over time--is what is left out of most theories of media and communication technologies.

Communication and/vs. transmission: communication theories are modeled on the synchronic (present moment communication) and mostly ignore transmission of messages or content over time (diachronic)

Communication models have also been centered on individuals in a sender/encoder-receiver/decoder structure and mostly ignore institutions that support transmission over time.

Real-time communication using existing media: One-to-one, One-to-many, Many-to-many, Many-to-one (short, contemporaneous timeframe).

Transferal of communication over time through institutions and transitions in media media technologies: transmission.

All media require a situatedness or given position of the communicator or interpreter in an institution of meaning for meanings or contents to be transmitted.

Without transmission over time there would be no human memory, traditions, values, ideologies.

Examples: schools, professions, religions, museums, libraries, media structures (book and magazine publishing, news media, advertising, fashion, movies, TV)


Theories that create dichotomies of "culture" and "technology," as quasi-autonomous spheres, are wrong. Technology is what culture produces: technology is culture, the product of culture, embedded in culture, not an autonomous force or agency outside of culture.

 

Technologies provide a "support" or transport mechanism for other social forces and content; institutions and the social organization give media, and what is mediated, a cultural force.

Media are an interdependent combination of cultural materiality and political/social/economic institutions.

 

The function and social meaning of a message or communicated "content" is inseparable from its materialization in a medium. The materiality of media is already culturally encoded prior to specific content being transmitted.

 

For examples, books, movies, television, computer software and digital content, Web and Internet media are already culturally encoded and institutionally empowered as media technologies per se, and convey a level of institutional validation before any message is interpreted through them.

One aspect of "the medium is the message" (McLuhan) not fully examined is the pre-encoding of media technologies as conveyors of social meaning prior to their use in transmitting information or content.

Media form a system of interdependent nodes in a network, not individual technologies functioning independently (the model of "mediasphere").

A new medium or technology does not replace or substitute a prior technology, but creates a new configuration of the entire media system with the inclusion of the new.

The system forms a media ecology as well as a social hierarchy of technologies and mediated content.

Examples: "As seen on TV," "this just came in from Twitter," "Google it."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Our entire built environment and cities themselves are mediums, structures for communication and transmission.

The mediological approach opens up a larger view of our multiple media systems across technologies, time, and space.

 

The senses of "medium," "mediation," "milieu" and the materiality of communication media. For Debray, "medium" can mean:

 

1. a symbolic process (writing, image, etc.)

2. a social code (like a natural language)

3. a material transmission device (paper, magnetic storage medium, screen)

4. recording and distribution system (publisher, TV network, information system)

But it also means "milieu" (the lived environment, the social life of media and communication technologies) and "mediation" (the social and material intermediaries that create communication).

the medium may be new, but the milieu is old; communication is always a palimpsest, an accumulation of layers of past and present practices:

"I am papyrus, parchment, paper, computer screen. I am Decalogue, Francois Villon, Lenin, and Macintosh, I am pictogram and alphabet, text and hypertext, manuscript, printed page, and radiating screen" (Debray, Media Manifestos, 16-17).

 

Mediasphere: the model of a Media System.
The social distribution of media into a historical-cultural network configuration, the material means and political/ideological structures that distribute power and authority to various media.

 

Media exist in an ecosystem of uses and social functions: new media do not replace earlier media in any simple way (like exchange or substitution), but new media change the whole social and economic system of media and change the relations among media used in a society.

The adoption of new media entails a reconfiguration of media relationships and hierarchies in a total social system of media.

For example, the Internet doesn't "replace" broadcast media or printed books, but causes the previously existing media systems to be revalued and reinterpreted in a total system of media that includes the Internet and digital media.

McLuhan observed that the "content" of a new medium is a previously existing medium: TV first did radio shows and theatre, printed books reproduced the context of manuscripts, and so on. This is a media ecology view. Today, we say the Web has "pages" and "channels", and we see the content of the Web in terms of print, broadcast, and telecommunications features.

Media convergence in the wake of the convergence of computing and telecommunications, that is, the digitization of all media and the transmission or delivery of this media through digital networks, created a new environment for understanding "media ecology".

For Debray, the whole social system of media at any historical moment is termed a "mediasphere".

What's missing from this model?

Political-economy explicitly? the role of business, markets, capital, consumer demand? the role of innovation and invention, technology adoption as political and economic process?


Extensions of Mediology: medium(s) and information systems

"Technology" can once again appear to include the entire human built environment, and all our domesticated, "naturalized" technologies, which are no longer experienced as technological, reappear as technologies and mediators of technologies (cars, trains, telephones, roads and highways, architecture, the hidden in infrastructure of buildings and cities, etc.): these all convey information in the present and project it into the future.

With the expansive view of the mediological approach, many other technologies and features of the built human environment can be seen in their function as a medium of transmission and communication of information.

Institutions like schools, libraries, religious organizations, political parties, are mediums with both social and material structures for transmission and dissemination.

Example: Cities are a complex medium of communication and transmission. The entire built environment is a symbolic system and means of conveying multiple messages.

Communication networks and the Internet are complex systems of mediation with many interdependent technologies and institutions.

But what gives the Internet its power is not visible as a property of any of the material technologies themselves.


Selected Bibliography

By Regis Debray

  • Debray, Regis. Le Pouvoir Intellectuel en France. Paris: Ramsay, 1979.
  • -----. (English) Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: The Intellectuals of Modern France. London, UK: Verso, 1981.
  • -----. Cours de Médiologie Générale. Paris: Gallimard, 1991.
  • -----. Manifestes Mediologiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1994.
  • -----. (English) Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms. Translated by Eric Rauth. London: Verso, 1996.
  • -----. Transmettre. Paris: Odile Jacob, 1997.
  • -----. (English) Transmitting Culture. Translated by Eric Rauth. New York  NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 2000.
  • -----. “Qu’est-ce que la médiologie?". Le Monde diplomatique, August 1999. http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/1999/08/DEBRAY/12314.
  • -----. (English) “What is Mediology (translation of "Qu’est-ce que la médiologie?" Le Monde diplomatique, 8/1999).” Translated by Martin Irvine. http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Debray-What_is_Mediology.html.
  • -----. Introduction à la Médiologie. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2000.
  • -----. Dieu, un itinéraire. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2001.
  • -----. (English) God: An Itinerary. London, UK: Verso, 2004.
  • -----. Vie et Mort de L’image. Paris: Gallimard, 1995.

 

Articles and sites about Debray and Mediology

  • Feehily, Gerry. “Régis Debray: The writer and philosopher on religion and revolution.”The Independent, April 13, 2007. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/reacutegis-debray-the-writer-and-philosopher-on-religion-and-revolution-444390.html.
  • Irvine, Martin. "Introduction to Mediology." Website, Lecture Notes. http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/WhyMediology.html
  • Joseclyne, Andrew, and Régis Debray. “Revolution in the Revolution: Interview with Regis Debray.” Magazine. Wired Magazine, January 1995. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.01/debray_pr.html.
  • Langlois, Daniel. “Régis Debray, Introduction à la médiologie”, n.d. http://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPage=537.
  • Le site de la médiologie: French website for mediology journals. Journal. mediologie.org. http://www.mediologie.org/.
  • Maras, Steven. “On Transmission: A Metamethodological Analysis (after Régis Debray).” The Fibreculture Journal, 2008. http://twelve.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-080-on-transmission-a-metamethodological-analysis-after-regis-debray/.
  • Papoulias, Constantina. “Of Tools and Angels: Regis Debray’s Mediology.” Theory, Culture & Society 21, no. 3 (June 1, 2004): 165 -170. http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/21/3/165.short.
  • Vandenberghe, Frédéric. “Régis Debray and Mediation Studies, or How Does an Idea Become a Material Force?” Thesis Eleven 89, no. 1 (May 1, 2007): 23 -42. http://the.sagepub.com/content/89/1/23.abstract.

Further: Introduction to Mediology And Actor-Network Theory (How to Hack Black Boxes)