PURPLE PATCH: Communication and transmission —Régis Debray
Commonly understood, “communicating” is simply making familiar, making known. Its bias of meaning links us immediately with the immaterial, with conventions and codes, with the more narrowly linguistic. One speaks, on the other hand, of “transmitting” physical property as well as ideas. Commercial bills, assets and real estate, a child’s balloon can all be transmitted in the sense of handed over or down, as can orders and instructions or papal power. What is said of forms is also said of forces: in mechanics, the term transmission is applied to power and movement that are carried across — transmitted — by mechanical means, dynamically converted to different forms of motion.
This alloy of material agencies and human actors is well suited to the vast and bustling agitation of infinite motive forces that, in a succession of historical instances, characterises what used to be called “an idea that stirs the masses”. Idea connotes that convocation, mobilisation, jumble of engines and persons, passwords and icons, vehicles, sacred rites and sites. To this day, for example, the gospel’s message makes its appeal to followers via canticles and holy days, the church’s swell of organ notes and glitter of gold, the colours of its stained glass and altarpieces, the perfumes of its incense, the soaring spires of its cathedrals and shrines, the wafer’s placement on the tongue and the foot’s tread on the road to Calvary. These materialisations and exertions, rather than individual or group exegesis of sacred texts, bodily transmit the holy Word. The same holds for civil religion. The idea of the nation is perpetuated by flags and solemn commemorations of the dead, by the entombment of soldiers and monuments to the fallen on the village square, by lists of their names on walls and plaques and pediments, by the domes and pantheons, and not merely by reading textbook summations or preambles of constitutions. Memory’s reinforcements cannot be reduced to sayings and writings. The adventure of lived ideas is hurly-burly and kaleidoscopic.
No tradition has come about without being an invention or re-circulation of expressive marks and gestures. No movement of ideas has occurred that did not imply the corresponding movement of human bodies, whether pilgrims, merchants, settlers, soldiers or ambassadors. And no new dimension of subjectivity has formed without using new material objects (books or scrolls, hymns and emblems, insignia and monuments). The sites where associations are generated weld together the heaven and the earth of faiths and doctrines by plotting the dizzying vertical of their sacred allusions along the horizontal axis of collective consolidations. As Christian or Jew or Arab, I affirm my ties to the community of fellow celebrants by traversing the space separating me from Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem or Makkah. A Marxist in the 1960s, I further my ideological adhesion with pilgrimages to Havana or Hanoi, just as, more prosaically, I might attend the Festival of Humanity sponsored by the French Communist daily newspaper. A committed neoliberal, I am off to communion at Westminster or Wall Street because reading articles by Milton Friedman or works by Karl Popper hardly suffices. The chain of effects that transform mentalities mingles together elements both symbolic and economic, immaterial and concrete, such that a mediologist’s interest will be repaid as much by the minutiae of foreign missionaries as by theologies, the Wall of Jerusalem as by the Kabbah, humble modes of transport as by sublime myths of origin, the highways department as by schools of philosophical thought; by networks of transmission as much as by doctrines, and the material bases of inscription as much as by the etymologies of words. In short, the trivial, peripheral, or basely material incidentals of how any given message, doctrine, or idea is put across mean as much to the mediologist as “exemplary lives” or “great books”.
If communication transports essentially through space, transmission essentially transports through time. Communication prompts an instantaneous response between parties, by synchronising and connecting them like a thread: a communicative network runs its course between contemporaries (sender and receiver present to one another simultaneously at either end of the line). Transmission takes its course through time, developing and changing as it goes. A thread plus a drama, it links the living to the dead, most often when the senders are physically absent. Whether configuring the present to a luminous past or to a salvific future, mythical or not, a transmission arranges the effective force of the actual with reference to the virtual. As far as communications are concerned, time is external to them in the sense of its being only their parameter. But with transmission, time is appreciable internally. Communication excels by cutting short; transmission by prolonging, even if it must condense its ample forms of expression into the emblematic currencies of the motto, the logo, the apologue, the parable, and so on. Religion, art, ideology: these variegated categories of transmission all aim to thwart the ephemeral by the ploy of drawing out, particularly in the Western context, with its grand undertaking of constructions built to last.
(This extract has been taken from Transmitting Culture by Régis Debray)
Régis Debray is a French intellectual, journalist, government official and professor. He is known for his theorisation of mediology and for having fought in 1967 with Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in Bolivia