The theory of Mediation allows a new reading of contemporary art.

Introduction to Mediation

Yann-Fañch Perroches Yann-Fañch Perroches
Year 2000

Theory of Mediation


To speak of art without defining Art is customary, and allows for all sorts of indecencies. As for definitions, when they exist, they are at times poetic, often philosophical, always tautological. To define Art in terms of Beauty doesn’t get us very far. Most of the time these definitions are necessarily wordy: unable to reasonably draw an objective line between “that which is art and that which is not art”, everything ends up becoming art! The example of music is flagrant, when “the art of combining sounds in an agreeable way” has become “the art of combining sounds”, to the point that silence itself, and even the unplayable score, become musical works. So now it’s the intention that justifies the work; change levels, and it’s speech that governs the paintbrush! Such transgressions were acceptable in the previous centuries (in particular the 20th). We can no longer be satisfied with such easy terms, that justify everything and its contrary, and in the vagueness of which numerous charlatans, fools and swindlers rush to take advantage, with complete impunity and often even with the endorsement of the “elites”. We must therefore “tighten up” our concepts, at the risk of losing some illusions, reassessing the status of “Artist” not being the least of our tasks!


We were in need of a theory of Art; we’ve taken up a theory of Man.

The Theory of Mediation (TDM), elaborated by Jean Gagnepain and his team at the Université de Haute Bretagne II in Rennes, France, is that theory. Still known by few – that’s not an accident: it places too radically into question the establishment, whether cultural, scientific or academic – there is no doubt in our minds that it will sooner or later be THE theory of the 21st century, the founding theory of the Human Sciences (which are yet to be created, having nothing scientific about them, as we know, but the name).

Because TDM is a non-philosophical theory of human reason. It looks to the clinic (that is to say the study of pathological cases) for its verification (or invalidation); therefore it is scientific, and we ask the reader to remember this point while reading this introduction.

We can’t hope to summarize in a few paragraphs a theory as rich (its elaboration has required a lifetime, and even if the chapter headings are written, it is far from being completed, there are many areas yet to explore), as complex (a simple theory of man: only fools and those who profit from them, from lounge psychology to astrology, believe that) and as arduous (the biggest difficulty being to rid yourself of common meanings and certitudes deeply ingrained by centuries of civilization; the terms underlined in this text are those used by TDM which often have a different sense or meaning than the usual one).

We must therefore be concise, at the risk of being misunderstood, and above all at the risk that TDM will be viewed as just one theory among many and that its true impact (remember: scientific) will pass unnoticed by the reader.

At the risk of appearing presumptuous we assert, nevertheless, that you can’t be a ‘mediationist’ like you can be a ‘Freudian’ or a ‘Lacanian’. This isn’t a matter of opinion, just as the law of gravity isn’t a matter of opinion: it’s experimentally verifiable. As Jean Gagnepain says, “I am not a mediationist, I cannot be other than mediationist”.

We’re going to tackle here in (a little) more detail only the “artistic” aspect of the theory, the rest being only just hinted at. We will refer readers who wish to know more to the writings of mediation researchers.

But the reader who is curious about a theory of Art will read us with interest: it’s the only theory that responds to the usual questions “what is Art?”, “what is an artist?”, “what is Beauty?” etc., and this isn’t the least of its merits!

“The theory of mediation has infinitely clarified things for us, to the point that we are required sometimes, out of decency, to explain that which has become obvious to us, believing we are breaking down wide-open doors, when most often we find ourselves introducing the listener to the mysteries of an unknown land.”

Philippe Bruneau et Pierre-Yves Balut “Théorie de la médiation et archéologie” in Tétralogiques 2. Presses Universitaires de Rennes II.

The Uniqueness of Man.

Jean Gagnepain doesn’t deny the animal in man. However man, in contrast to the animal, denies nature (others would say “transcends”). Man is a rational animal (endowed with reason) and by his reason he denies his animal nature.

That which distinguishes man from the animal is precisely that man is not only an animal. This difference isn’t progressive, there are not – except pathologically – half-men, just as there are not half-human animals: there is a threshhold that the animal does not cross, and which causes the human animal to become Man.

Perceptions, gestures, bodies and activities (being and desiring) are acculturated (transcended) by Man, in contrast to the animal which experiences them in a literal manner. This acculturation gives birth, in man, precisely to the faculties that the animal does not possess: language, tools, history and society.

To speak of language in bees is an abuse of the word language; of that of dolphins or whales a pure fantasy or, if you would, a fine example of anthropocentrism.

The stick used to pull off a bunch of bananas is abandoned by the chimpanzee as soon as it is used, proof that it isn’t a tool but a simple appendage.

One knows well that the “societies” of ants know no revolutions, or even evolutions other than biological or environmental ones.

And finally, man denies his impulses, he doesn’t necessarily eat when he is hungry or drink only when he is thirsty, doesn’t sleep when he is sleepy, and doesn’t copulate only during mating season.

This acculturation of nature by Man, that is to say this faculty to abstract nature, to deny it, is one of the key elements of TDM. In this it distances itself from the “hard” sciences (biology, cognitivism, behaviorism…).

Clinical Basis

Inversely, TDM, unlike numerous schools of psychoanalysis or linguistics, doesn’t content itself to pronounce more or less brilliant assumptions explaining or justifying Man: it looks for experimental proof.

The dissection of a cadaver doesn’t teach anything outside of pure biology, and being unable to use a scalpel on the living, it’s in the pathologies unique to man that TDM tests its theories: aphasias, atechnias (pathologies predicted by TDM and experimentally verified), psychoses and neuroses form the favorite stomping grounds of mediationist researchers (and not with the goal of a cure, which is a different problem).

Human uniqueness, scientific and experimental base; thus TDM is meant to be the true founder of human sciences yet to be invented.

Diffracted Reason

TDM maintains (based on experimental proof) that human reason is quadruple. It currently distinguishes four distinct rationalities of equal importance, none having priority over the others (and the possibility of a fifth, sixth, etc. rationality being identified is not excluded). These distinctions in rationality are not explicitly apparent; just as white light is diffracted into the spectrum by a glass prism, human reason is diffracted into distinct rationalities by the prism of TDM. TDM uses the term plans for these rationalities, which it numbers for convenience and not as a hierarchy:

- the capacity for language (Plan I)

- artistic capacity (we will see that this term is not to be taken in the sense that it is commonly given these days) (Plan II)

- the capacity for history (Plan III)

- normative capacity (Plan IV)

All purely human phenomena, whatever they may be, make use of these four capacities.

The Example of Language

Historically, it is by the study of language that TDM achieved this deconstruction of human reason. That which we commonly call language is thus deconstructed according to these four plans:

- There is of course a purely linguistic capacity (TDM uses the term glossology), which is that of the sign (acculturation of animal perception).

But there is also an independent ergological capacity, which allows us to translate our language into writing: this is the capacity of the tool, which in this case translates into a pencil and paper, but also in stone, the hammer and chisel, the computer keyboard, etc. This capacity is the one that most particularly interests us in the case of art; it is the acculturation of animal activity.

There is equally a sociological capacity that causes the emergence of languages: French, English, Spanish or Breton. (This capacity is also “historic” since language varies not only with space but with time as well.) It is this that causes us to incorporate ourselves into societies and to exist as persons. It is the acculturation of the animal body.

And finally one last capacity, that of the normative, which acculturates our impulses, turns our language into discourse: you can’t just say what you wish, to whom you wish, in the manner you wish! Swear words, euphemisms and innuendo attest to this.

Remember that the four rationalities have been distinguished by studying the ill, and that the observation that one can be “ill in one plan” while having preserved intact the other rationalities was the proof of their independence and non-hierarchical nature.

Thus an aphasic (ill in Plan I) can no longer speak correctly (using the wrong word, for example saying “fish” instead of “hat”, or “loss of grammar” (“agrammatism”), for example saying “tomorrow car vacation”). But he retains the ability to communicate (Plan III) by gestures or by “badly controlled” words. He also retains desire to do so (Plan IV). An agraphic (ill in Plan II) can no longer write but can still speak, etc.

What’s more, this “illness in Plan II” never involves just the loss of writing and/or reading, but equally affects everything having to do with the manipulation of tools as well as the intentional gesture: thus the ill person can’t dress himself correctly anymore, nor light a cigarette, make the sign of the cross or a military salute, etc. It is absolutely astonishing to realize that, other than mediationists, no other scientist has yet been able to isolate purely ergological difficulties from purely aphasic ones. Leading experts continue to speak of, for example, an aphasia with “an associated apraxia in undressing“, when the trouble is purely ergological.Science, Myth and Poem.

Still keeping the example of language because it is probably the easiest to understand, we will become aware of the fundamental consequences of this quadruple negation of nature.

In the case of language, the “word no longer sticks to the thing” since man denies both the word and the thing. Thus a table isn’t necessarily a flat surface with legs, since it can also be a “multiplication table”, “water table”, “database table”…, but it could even be a support of any kind, as long as you take your meal on it, for example.

In short, words and things seem to have lives independent of each other. These are two non-isomorphic universes. This is what TDM calls the impropriety of the sign, which explains synonymy, polysemy, etc.

And yet, to speak necessitates creating an agreement between these two autonomous universes.

This agreement can be made in two ways: one can try to conform the words as closely as possible to the world being spoken of, which is the scientific aim (“the Earth is a sphere”).

On the other hand, one also conforms the world to the words, which is the mythological aim. Thus the nightjar bird (‘engoulevent’ in French) is said to fly with beak open because he “gulps the wind” (‘engoule le vent’). In reality this word is of Gallic origin; it is found in the Breton word “golvan” which means sparrow. In the same way, St. Christopher is supposed to have carried Christ, because that is the meaning of his name in Greek.

Or think about the term ‘collective unconscious’ which many people take for a tangible reality…

But there exists a third manner of expression through language, whose goal is not an agreement between words and world, but the aesthetic. This time language justifies itself, it takes itself as reference: this is the poetic aim. Rhymes, alliterations, wordplay…

Of course, the two aims of agreement and the aesthetic aim are found in each of the three other plans.

art and Art

Because if words aren’t attached to the thing you’re speaking about, tools aren’t attached to the thing you’re doing. Which explains why I can push in a screw with a hammer and write in letters of blood or excrement. In the same way I can paint with a toothbrush and sculpt a slab of butter.

This non-agreement between the tool and the thing to do leads to, just as for language, two aims of agreement, the empiric and the magic.

To choose the right tool, to work on the correct gesture, to develop the good method, these belong to the empiric.

As for magic, crossing your fingers, knocking on wood, certainly. But also putting a cardboard pyramid over a razor blade, spitting in your hand before throwing the dice… The gesture of the pianist on the keyboard once the keys have been depressed has no effect on the sound. And always moving the spoon in the same direction to whip up a successful mayonnaise!

The aesthetic aim of Plan II is called the plastic. You will easily find examples in our societies avidly into “Art for Art’s sake” where it’s no longer the representation that justifies the work, but the material, the technique, the support medium, etc.

You are perhaps beginning to take measure of the repercussions of this plastic aim of Art (and the Artist). Examples are easily found… just take the example of music, which is none other than a plastic aim of sound. Thus if the klaxon could be considered as an empiric aim of an audible signal, nothing stops you from sounding it rhythmically!

Do you understand that there is no difference in nature between the (elegant) movement of the fly fisherman and that of the dancer, between the precision of the furniture laquerer and that of the watercolorist, between the Artist and the artisan?

Art is the exact equivalent of language in another rationality (Plan II). There is no difference in principle between painting a building and painting in oil. Both are art. The difference is not of nature, but indeed of culture (Plan III), which causes our Western societies to overvalue some plastic aims to the detriment of others. Even worse, it often denies the plastic aim under the pretext of efficiency (therefore empirically).

Are the neat, straight furrows of the farmer justified only by the promise of a better harvest? The driver’s well-negotiated curve by road safety? The cursive strokes of the old-time schoolteacher by enhanced legibility?

Artistic beauty is none other than the consequence of the aesthetic aim of our ergological capacity (Plan II). Each plan having it’s own aesthetic aim, there are therefore four beauties. We have seen the poetic and the plastic; Plan III begets the choral, and Plan IV the heroic.

All people, save those afflicted with a pathology, are endowed with ability. There are, of course, greater and lesser talents, and the ability exercised or used to a greater or lesser degree. But it’s only Westerners who believe that not everyone is a musician.

In summary, an artist, in the mediationist sense of the term, is an artisan whose work is self-justifying (that is to say, the empric or mythic aims are not the primary preoccupation), and the ‘work’ becomes that way a ‘Work’, independent of the value that this or that society places on it. It goes without saying that every artist is an artisan; the portraitist seeks to create a likeness, and in every artisan sleeps an artist… a staircase can be beautiful. That the fresco, which is in essence a covering of paint, is classed with the “Beaux-Arts” and that the work of a graffiti artist is not is a matter of society (Plan III).