Régis Debray 'Chez Lui'
On the role of the public intellectual & journalism
Régis Debray — as those who know me will be well aware — has been a writer, thinker, and activist I have greatly admired and have kept reading and rereading for forty-plus years. Gathering work for a book of essays, I came across my review of a book of journalistic articles by Debray called L’espérance au Purgatoire, or Hope in Purgatory — published back in 1980 by The New Statesman in London. I thought it worthwhile to post this piece today — in the hope that it might help spark what I perceive as a needed reassessment of how we, poets, writers, and intellectuals working in these Disunited States right now need to (re)focus our attempts to resist and (re)act.
The question of the public intellectual — or rather of his/her absence — in this country has often exercised me. Here we have to rely mainly on journalists and pundits, in print or on TV, who deal with the immediate day-by-day events — in itself an overwhelming task right now, given Trumpian tactics of drowning out/covering up the actual facts and events with a barrage of irrelevant Twitter jabber.
Maybe we can get some inspiration from an old European habit. As Umberto Eco wrote in his preface to the American edition of Travels in Hyperreality: “It is true that along with my academic job, I also write regularly for newspapers and magazines, where, in terms less technical than in my books on semiotics, I discuss various aspects of daily life, ranging from sport to politics and culture … this habit is common to all European intellectuals, in Germany, France, Spain, and, naturally, Italy: all countries where a scholar or scientist often feels required to speak out in the papers, to comment, if only from the point of view of his own interests and special field, on events that concern all citizens … if there was any problem with this it was not my problem as a European intellectual; it was more a problem of American intellectuals, who live in a country where the division of labor between university professors and militant intellectuals is much more strict than in our countries … There is, then, a difference in ‘patterns of culture.’ Cultural anthropologists accept cultures in which people eat dogs, monkeys, frogs, and snakes, and even cultures where adults chew gum, so it should be alright for countries to exist where university professors contribute to the newspapers.”
And here, the Régis Debray review:
Régis Debray Chez Lui
“I detest journalists but revere journalism. I refuse the title of journalist but claim its quality … Journalism is not my profession but my curse … ” Thus Regis Debray in the introduction to his collection of articles entitled Hope in Purgatory, one of two books by him published earlier this year. The book is divided into two main sections: “French Circumstances” and “South American Circumstances.” The earliest piece, “I saw Cuba learning to read,” dates from 1962, when Debray was in his early twenties; the most recent one, published in 1979, is a report on the Sixth Conference of non-aligned countries held in Havana that year. His perennial concern with South America thus frames — and to some extent overshadows, in sheer quantity as well as importance — his French concerns.
Those articles demonstrate once again that Debray is one of the most brilliant, if not the most brilliant, commentator on South American political affairs. The September ’79 article on the aftermath of the victorious Nicaraguan revolution is by far the best analysis of the political situation and of the ideological choices confronting that country I’ve read so far.
The pieces dealing with France were all written between 1973, the date of Debray’s return from South America, and March 1978, when the left-wing parties were defeated in the parliamentary elections. Although less weighty than the South American articles, they are interesting on two counts. Firstly, for his response to attacks from the far left who interpreted his support of the (unhappily short-lived) “Union de la Gauche” as treasonable in view of his revolutionary past. How could the man who had left France to stand at the Che’s side in the Bolivian jungle now sidle up to as dubious a political figure as Mitterand? Debray’s answer is, on the one hand, a caustic castigation of those ultra leftist French salon-revolutionaries who, he says, gloat over a poster of a pin-up, romanticize a dead Che, while dismissing the efforts “of a live Castro, in charge of a country, making alliances, and busying himself — oh shame — with matters of productivity, with cement factories and sugar cane.” On the other hand it is a clear and sharp lesson in Realpolitik: France is governed by “a bourgeoisie which by now has lost even its bourgeois morality and values,” a bunch of adipose paunches it is essential to defeat at any costs (he calls it “a question of human dignity,” “an enterprise of public hygiene”). Given that “revolution is within grasp only once or twice a century,” that “there is presently no revolutionary situation in France” where the only road to power is the electoral road, one’s best bet is to back the left-wing coalition.
This stance certainly does not imply an uncritical allegiance to the left’s “joint program” by Debray, who, among other things, sharply criticizes the Socialist Party and draws on his experience in Chile (where he lived between his release from a Bolivian jail and his eventual return to France) to show how the far left is unable to organize the masses and how a valid strategy for seizing power can only be worked out inside an organized workers’ movement.
All of Debray’s articles backing the left coalition are from 1973 and 1974. The next one is dated 29 September, 1977 — six days after the negotiations on the left’s joint program broke down. Here lies the second point of interest of these pieces, in that the remaining articles foreshadow the direction Debray’s work has followed since then. The first piece is an analysis of what he calls the left’s century-old névrose obsessionnelle with elaborating and signing political programs. He discusses this obsession in quasi-psychoanalytical terms, referring to a “religious phantasm” and to a “juridical phantasm.” Why, he asks, this obsession with the Text? Because the left’s original project wants men to pass from a history inflicted upon them to a history they consciously master, it is in the left’s nature to define that project in an objective, coherent, and verifiable program — something capitalism has no need of. But, he goes on to say, over the last twenty years our society has moved from “It’s true, I’ve read it in the paper,” to “It’s true, I’ve seen it on the telly.” According to Debray, television plays into the hands of the right because the right has understood that TV is “not so much a technique, but an ideology, their own.” But “the left has not yet understood that major phenomenon and still imagines that it can use television without first being used by it.”
Since the writing of those few pieces concerned with television, Debray has completed a two-volume “Treatise on Mediology,” now awaiting publication. He is one of the finest journalists working — even if a reluctant one. In his work there is no sign of the lukewarm, ironic distancing often falsely labeled “objectivity” of so much that passes for reporting. His writing is polemical — from polemos, the fight: “As a journalist I never write about but against — someone or myself.” He acknowledges his deeply ambiguous stance towards journalism: “I don’t like myself as a journalist,” says on the one hand the bourgeois intellectual écrivain, dreaming of Flaubertian seclusion and finely honed prose and despising the hack whose hurried commentaries find a precarious home on that most perishable of cultural commodities, newsprint. And that assessment is echoed by “the sacrificial militant,” who does not like the “witnesses of their times, those impostors,” who always seem to arrive when the fight is over, lost or won, “who live history by proxy,” phoning in their reports between two whiskies without ever leaving the local Hilton. But he is also aware that journalism, “his curse,” fulfills a “cardinal function … in that it implies an instant relation, without filter or safety net, with the empirical event.” The writer, theoretician, or academic critic can indulge in black or white distinctions and attempt to play God, but “there is journalism because there are shady, gray areas and because we are not God … No knowledge is able to exhaust an actual event in advance. Journalism lives precisely from the tension between the attainments of knowledge and the unforeseen of experience.” It is the friction of those two poles that provides the spark of successful journalistic writings, a spark that Debray has ignited on many occasions.