11.0158 mediology

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 9 Jul 1997 20:17:10 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 158.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Wed, 09 Jul 1997 20:11:32 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: mediology

Those of you who read the TLS will already know that the latest issue, 4918
for 4 July 1997 on Information Technology, has many items of interest for
us. Were there world enough and time I'd summarise the lot for you, but all
I can manage is to quote from the most important item, Re/gis Debray's
review of Dan Sperber's <cite>Explaining Culture</cite>, "A plague without
fleabites: The failure of Dan Sperber's 'epidemic' model to take account of
our cultural milieu" (pp. 14f). Those of you whose French is in good
condition will be able to read the original article online, in "Travail
me/diologique" (a publication of AD.REM, Association pour le De/veloppement
de la Recherche en Me/diologie,
<http://www.ina.fr/CP/Mediologie/travaux.htm>), and Sperber's very
interesting book in the original, <cite>La Contagion des ide/es</cite>.

Sperber's project is in brief, as Debray notes, to develop a naturalist
viewpoint on culture. "He aims to close the divide between the natural and
human sciences, removing psychology from its myths of interiority and
enthralment to ego." He does this by modeling the spread of culture on the
transmission of infectious diseases. Debray's review is more of a
contribution to the subject in its own right, and it is that aspect of it
which I recommend to your attention. Short of reading Sperber, one can get
more of a summary of his argument in the TLS review one or two issues back.

Where Debray touches on our field is in his remarks on the externalisation
of knowledge. These, I take it, could serve as a rough adumbration of the
field of mediology, of which he is the founder. Quite a bit of work on
externalisation seems to be going on these days. At the recent ALLC/ACH in
Kingston, Ontario, for example, Merlin Donald (Queen's) gave a talk on the
topic, "Symbolic Technologies: Challenges and Dangers for the
Humanities", which is now available online at
Such work suggests to me the beginnings of a theoretical basis for
humanities computing. Comments on such a rash statement are welcome from
Humanists who have already read Debray and are more familiar with the
directions of his thinking than I am.

In any case, here's a bit of what Debray says in his review article.

"The act of transmitting words and symbols and pictures first requires
organised matter before organised people. Objective traces have to be
accumulated in material memory either by recording (encoding, transcribing,
symbolising), gathering or collecting (concentrating, summing, unifying
marks), or preserving and reproducing. It is at this cost of effort, this
series of externalising operations, that interiority survives beyond the
place and moment of its passing. What is called a culture is the survival of
a past in a present. Handing down and passing on memory presupposes a social
setting and structure anchored in a collective heritage, and in certain
procedures of memory-recording. Writing is but one such procedure, developed
late in the day (extra-cerebral memory having begun with the tool-making
biface hand axes and flint scrapers). Exteriority constituted the interior,
and technology gave human beings their sense of time.

"We must examine the material genesis of memory itself, if we do not want to
go on in a vacuum about disembodied 'memory' -- as does the psychology of
faculties restyled 'modules' by Jerry Fodor. To reflect, for example, on
geometry and mathematics is to reflect on the history of writing. We have
known this since Husserl and Derrida, and the idea was all but advanced by
F.M.Cornford in his 1935 essay, 'The Invention of Space'. One cannot speak
of the same unified, timeless 'memory' irrespective of its setting down in,
and dependence on, either, first, a technology of letters (the linear
alphabetic writing that Eric Havelock has studied for what can be called the
early period of the Logosphere, coincident with Greek literacy and idols),
or second, an analogical technology (of photography, phonography,
cinematography, radiophony, etc), or third, the digitalized technology of
today. The substrata of transmission modify its functioning and condition
the nature of its contents. Passing from one mnemotechnology to the other
alters the horizon, the community, the laws of patrimony, the dominant
standards of knowledge and learning. The 'within' of mental phenomena cannot
possibly be corralled, unless the 'without' of material devices is taken
into account. Our regimens of belief, which today tend toward visibility,
vary as a function of the techno-material bases of communication, in the
same way that psychological individuality varies as a function of group
identity and collective beliefs. Ideological support structures and
mentalities change no less in accordance with the age of technological
reproduction than do works of art....

"A pecularity of homo sapiens... is its irreducibility to the genetic coding
of the species. We have a competence that is innate for biologically
programmed speech but not for the skill of writing. Writing is a
technological prosthesis transmitted in accordance with unpredictable and
variable procedures. Precisely because it is technologically conditioned,
cultural transmission operates under no biochemical guarantee and remains
intrinsically fragile.... unable to benefit from permanence of programmes
inscribed in our DNA.... What calls for explaining is the cumulative powers
of the inheritance, which is *not* the same thing as the repetitive powers
(with variation, of course) of heredity...."

Debray's most recent book, translated as <cite>Media Manifestos: On the
technological transmission of cultural forms</cite>, was published last
year. See <http://www.amazon.com/> for more exact information. A Web search
on "regis debray" turns up a number of interesting items.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk