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Van krag tot kragFrom strength to strength

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Terwyl Mei 1968 se opstande van werkers en studente in Frankryk in volle swang was, en later van figure soos Derrida, Foucault en Lyotard supersterre sou maak, het Régis Debray duisende kilometer van Parys af in ’n Boliviaanse gevangenis tronkstraf uitgedien vir sy sameswering met Che Guevara om die Boliviaanse regering in ’n revolusie omver te werp.
Debray was deel van ’n groep studente wat aanhangers was van die groot Franse vertolker van die Marxisme in die 1960’s, Louis Althusser.
Latyns-Amerika, wat ná die Kubaanse revolusie aan die einde van die 1950’s in ’n politieke stroomversnelling beland het, is deur Althusser en sy studente as die groot laboratorium van die Marxistiese revolusie beskou.
Teen dié agtergrond skryf Debray in 1965 ’n uiters invloedryke boekie van revolusionêre teorie, wat in Engels vertaal is as Revolution within a revolution en ook wyd in die ANC en die SAKP gelees is. Kennis van die boekie bereik Fidel Castro, wat dit in Spaans laat vertaal en derduisende daarvan laat druk en versprei deur Latyns-Amerika. Debray verwerf op 25-jarige ouderdom heldestatus in Latyns-Amerika en bring soveel moontlik tyd daar “op die terrein” deur.
Tydens die ekspedisie met Guevara word hulle gevang en Guevara self later doodgeskiet. Vanselfsprekend word die jong Debray hiermee in ’n krisis gedompel, want “objektief” gesien was al die voorwaardes vir ’n revolusie in Latyns-Amerika in plek. Hoekom het die revolusie dan gefaal? vra hy homself af.
In sy soeke na ’n antwoord wend die jong Marxistiese Debray hom na die geskiedenis van die religie. Hy doen dit teen die agtergrond van die besef dat meer nog as enige moderne politieke beweging, die religie die wêreld verander en bowendien groter duursaamheid as enige politieke ideologie verwerf het.
In die volgende tien jaar begin Debray die grond lê vir wat hy vandag die “mediologie” noem, oftewel die studie van oordrag. Wat moet gebeur voordat idees ’n samelewing verander? is die vertrekvraag van die mediologie.
Debray antwoord dié vraag vanuit sy insig dat enige simboliese stelsel – soos ’n religie of ’n politieke stelsel – ook materieel gesteun moet word, of materieel neerslag moet vind. In Media Manifestos (Engels vertaling 1996) verduidelik Debray byvoorbeeld dat die Franse Revolusie nie soseer deur die filosowe soos Voltaire, Diderot of Rousseau veroorsaak is nie, as deur daardie materiële dinge wat die sirkulering van hul idees moontlik gemaak het: ’n goeie padstelsel, ’n goeie posdiens, drukkers, literêre salons waar die idees bespreek is, pamflette wat onder die bevolking versprei is, ens.
Debray se eerste groot werk waarin sy idees sistematies uitgewerk is, is Critique of Political Reason (Engelse vertaling 1983), met die veelseggende subtitel in Frans, “Oor die religieuse onderbewuste”. Sy basisargument is dat die politiek verstaan moet word aan die hand van die religie. Enige suksesvolle politieke beweging benodig ’n hoër ideaal wat rondom ’n groep tot stand kan kom. Instellings (skole, universiteite, state, partye) is nodig om die idees oor te dra, asook charismatiese vertolkers van die idees wat as leiers kan optree. Debray se insig is dat die politiek, soos die religie, inspeel op die mens se gegewe “onvoltooidheid”, en dat hy “voltooi” word deur die kollektiewe samekoms rondom ’n hoër, bindende beginsel of ideaal.
Waar hy die religie eers as invalshoek vir die politiek gebruik het, ondergaan hy nog ’n wending vroeg in die nuwe millennium, wanneer hy in dieselfde maand as Al-Kaïda se terreuraanvalle op die VSA op 11 September 2001 sy eerste groot werk in die studie van die religie as sodanig publiseer, naamlik God: An Itinerary (Engelse vertaling 2003). Hierin vra hy die vraag hoe die triomfering van die monoteïstiese Godsbeskouing van die Joods-Christelike tradisie aan die hand van materiële geskiedenis eerder as religieuse verklarings verstaan kan word. Byvoorbeeld, hoe is dit moontlik, materieel gesien, dat die Jode se monoteïstiese Godsbeeld, oftewel ’n beeld geglo deur ’n klein nomadiese groepie mense swerwend in die woestyn tussen twee groot wêreldryke, Egipte (wat 35 eeue as ryk bestaan het) en Assirië, oorleef het? Antwoord: die Jode se God is veel “mobieler” as dié van Egipte en Assirië – die ark trek saam met die Jode, terwyl Egipte en Assirië se gode enorme, stilstaande klipbeelde is. Dan ook: die Jode dra hul religie met skrif oor, wat ’n dodelik effektiewe manier in die antieke, mondelinge wêreld was.
Debray se laaste groot werk, wat ongelukkig nog nie in Engels vertaal is nie – Le Feu sacré: Fonctions du religieux (“Die sakrale vuur: Funksies van die religieuse”) – is een van die groot apologieë vir die religie in ons tyd. Trefseker wys Debray dat die afgang van die religie wat vanaf Hegel in die vroeë 19de eeu voorspel is, eintlik net tot Wes-Europa beperk is. Wêreldwyd gaan die religie vandag van krag tot krag, sodat die wêreld vandag voor ’n sleutelvraag te staan gekom het: hoe verseker ons dat die religie die verheffende krag van ’n Pous Johannes Paulus II of ’n Dalai Lama bly, en nie ’n doodskrag soos dié van ’n George W. Bush of ’n Osama bin Laden word nie?

Deur Johann Rossouwkrag

While the May 1968 uprising of French workers and stu-dents was in full swing, and would later confer superstar status on figures like Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard, thousands of kilometres from Paris Régis Debray was serving time in a Bolivian jail after plotting with Che Guevara to overthrow the Bolivian government during a revolution.
Debray belonged to a group of students who were disciples of Louis Althusser, the great French interpreter of Marxism during the 1960s. Althusser and his students regarded Latin America, which went into the political rapids following the Cuban Revolution at the end of the 1950s, as the great laboratory of the Marxist revolution. Against this background in 1965 Debray wrote the extremely influential booklet on revolutionary theory, translated into English as Revolution within a Revolution. It was widely read within the ANC and the SACP. Hearing of the booklet, Fidel Castro had it translated into Spanish and distributed thousands of copies throughout Latin America. At the age of 25, Debray enjoyed hero status in Latin America and spent as much time there as possible.
During his escapades with Guevara they were captured and Guevara was later shot and killed, an event that plunged the young Debray into crisis. Seen ‘objectively’, conditions had been perfect for a revolution in Latin America. “Why then did the revolution fail?” he asked himself.
Searching for answers, the young Marxist turned to the history of religion, realising that, more than any modern political movement, religion has changed the world, and it has endured longer than any political ideology.
Over the following 10 years Debray laid the foundations for what he now calls ‘mediology’ or the study of transference. The first question that mediology asks is: “What needs to happen before ideas can change society?”
Debray replies from his understanding that any symbolic system – such as a religious or political system – must be supported materially or show a material result. In Media Manifestos (translated into English in 1996) Debray explains, for example, that the French Revolution was not so much caused by philosophers such as Voltaire, Diderot or Rousseau, but by those tangible things that made the circulation of their ideas possible: a good road system, a good postal service, printers, literary salons where the ideas were discussed and pamphlets distributed among the people.
Debray’s first major work in which he systematically ela-borated on his ideas is Critique of Political Reason (translated into English in 1983) with the significant subtitle: On the religious subconscience. His basic argument is that politics should be understood in the light of religion. Any successful political movement needs a higher ideal around which a group can be formed. Institutions (schools, universities, states, political parties) are necessary to convey ideas, and charismatic interpreters of these ideas are required to act as leaders. Debray’s insight is that politics, like religion, plays on man’s ‘incompleteness’ and that ‘completeness’ is achieved through collective gatherings around a higher, binding principle or ideal.
Where he had initially used religion only as a point of departure for politics, Debray experienced another shift early in the new millennium, and in the same month as Al-Qaeda’s 11 September 2001 terror attack on the USA, he published his first major work on the study of pure religion, God: an Itinerary (translated into English in 2003). Here he questions how the triumph of the Judaeo-Christian tradition’s monotheistic view of God may rather be understood as religious declarations, in view of material history. For example, how is it possible, materially speaking, that the Hebrew monotheistic view of God – an image believed by a small group of nomadic people wandering the desert between two great world powers, Egypt (which existed as an empire for 35 centuries) and Assyria – has survived? The answer: the Hebrew God was far more ‘mobile’ than those of Egypt and Assyria – the ark travelled with the Hebrews, while the gods of Egypt and Assyria were enormous, immobile stone statues. In addition, the Hebrews conveyed their religion through writing, which was extremely effective in the ancient oral world.
Debray’s last great work, unfortunately not yet translated into English – Le Feu sacré: Fonctions du religieux (The Sacred Fire: Functions of Religion), is one of the great apologetics for religion in our time. Debray clearly shows that the decline of religion, predicted since Hegel in the early 19th century, is actually limited mainly to western Europe. Worldwide, religion goes from strength to strength, and the world today is faced with the important question: how do we ensure that religion remains the uplifting power of a Pope John Paul II or a Dalai Lama, and does not become a power of death, like that of a George W Bush or an Osama bin Laden?

By Johann Rossouw

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