Saturday, May 1, 2021

McLuhan Nailed It: "America’s New Post-Literate Epistemology"

 From Palladium Magazine, April 17:

On January 6, a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. Among the most indelible images of that day was of a bare-chested man with bison horns, face paint, and a smattering of strange primal tattoos taking over the Speaker’s podium. Against the classical backdrop, some commentators noted that there could be no more apt image to encapsulate America’s decline and fall.

Beyond the conventional explanations of fascism and white supremacy, many have begun to point to the medium rather than any particular message. One headline claimed that “the internet is a crime scene,” while another asked “can Twitter exist in a democracy?”

Conspicuously missing, however, in this collective agonizing over social media is the guidance of media theorist Marshall McLuhan. After all, McLuhan was a seminal figure in pioneering the whole field of media studies. He defined media broadly as any technology, from the wheel to the woodcut and the washing machine, that might serve as a virtual “extension of ourselves.” He sought to map out or “probe” the totalizing psychological, cultural, and social environments created by any medium.

Alongside the more famous “hot versus cool media” dichotomy, he proposed a division between the “Western” or literate and the “tribal” or non-literate modes of awareness. McLuhan believed that the West was due for a period of “re-tribalization,” but by “tribal” he meant much more than the commonly understood definition.

Yes, there would be polarization: people would by and large become less civil, less rational, touchier, and more defensive about the smallest things. This much, we already know and see every day. But McLuhan went even further in his use of the term, arguing that electronic media—more so than any political ideology—shifts the sensorial basis of Western society away from the visual, the literate, and the abstract and toward the oral, the tactile, and the tribal.

In other words, he saw re-tribalization as a process that will eventually return modern man to the mental and epistemic world of his pre-literate tribal ancestors: the “global village.” Over the long run, this can be quite benign, even sublime: in 1969, McLuhan imagined its endpoint as a society of “mythic integration” where “magic will live again.” Speaking in lofty millenarian terms, he predicted technology would merge humanity “into an inclusive consciousness…a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ…the ultimate extension of man.”

Such a moment of transcendence, however, is reserved for a distant day. For the time being, there is a more immediate challenge: as the growing oral-tribal segments of society brushes up against the old literate structures that govern them, there will be no end of tension, trauma, and misunderstanding. This is because the electronic tribalism McLuhan described, whatever its positive traits when taken on its own, poses a mortal threat to the values and assumptions of the still-dominant literate, liberal civilization.

It is worth revisiting McLuhan’s insights so as to help ensure that society’s road to any future settlement is as peaceful and orderly as possible. Otherwise, given the risk of violence involved in getting it wrong, there may not be much of a society left standing by retribalization’s end. In place of McLuhan’s prophesied universal consciousness, we could instead find epistemic incoherence, stagnation, and terminal de-civilization.

The Return of the Oral World

Citing J.C. Carothers, McLuhan observes in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) that the literate mind and the typographic print world it inhabited were “surrounded by an abstract explicit visual technology of uniform time and…continuous space in which ‘cause’ is efficient and sequential.” This was the long historical era of the written word in the West: of philosophy and theology; the printing press; the Enlightenment; the individual and the private realm; mechanical segmentation and specialism. This was when the novel, the essay or the treatise were the currencies of public discourse; when concepts of modernity, progress, rationality, and objectivity became the norm.

By contrast, the life of pre-literate tribal man was set in “the implicit, magical world of the resonant oral word.” This was the realm of myth and legend; it was organic and communal as well as simultaneous and holistic; it prized the visceral and immediate over the detached and contemplative. In this world, “thought and behavior depend upon the magic resonance of words and their power to impose their assumptions relentlessly.” McLuhan quotes Carothers’s description of the folkways of the Kikuyu of Kenya, for whom “the correct use of magical words and their proper intonations…uttering these words in their ritual order” was of supreme importance.

Speaking at the height of the TV age, McLuhan believed that the oral world was returning via the electronic media’s influence on the young as it rendered them post-literate: “what is happening to our children is we’re watching them become Third World.” 

A society becomes post-literate when electronic media compresses its experience of literacy to such an extreme degree that the simultaneity of the oral replaces the sequentalism of the typographic as the dominant pattern of thought and sense-making.....