Mud Wrestling with McLuhan Part 2 – Retribalization

So following up on my first piece on the subject, I continue my metaphorical mud wrestle with the outside the box ideas of the coiner of the term “Global Village”, Marshall McLuhan. I almost had the occasion to meet the man in Toronto in 1970, since he was a collaborator and friend of my mom’s best friend Mary Jane Shoultz, one of my “Feminist Aunts”. Though I missed that opportunity, Mary Jane regaled me with his ideas over the years of my older youth, and I must say they resonated with my own emerging view of the world as a kid growing up in the age of electronic media.

What recently rekindled my intimate tangle with McLuhan’s ideas was a link shared with me to his extensive 1969 interview in Playboy Magazine, which I had never read, probably focused at that age on the magazine’s other featured content! In my first piece on the interview, I focused on his ideas on how revolutions in communication technology – particularly, phonetic literacy, printing and now electronic media – have successively transformed human culture.

A key aspect of culture that McLuhan says was lost with the advent of phonetic literacy and its exponential spread with the invention of printing and movable type, is the idea of our human collective connection or “tribal” identity. Before writing with the phonetic alphabet, all communication between people had to be face to face, and even a person of great wisdom and “good with the words” could only speak face to face with a limited number of people. People generally organized themselves in extended circles of family clans or tribes, so even the most gifted communicator was generally “preaching to the choir”. And from anthropological study of these ancient tribal cultures, along with the ones that have survived into the Modern Era, we see the importance of music, song and chants to reinforce the collective experience of life. The closet thing to “mass communication” would be bards and storytellers perhaps retelling great stories or recounting the words and deeds of great people from one generation to the next.

Says McLuhan…

The models of life of nonliterate people were implicit, simultaneous and discontinuous, and also far richer than those of literate man. By their dependence on the spoken word for information, people were drawn together into a tribal mesh; and since the spoken word is more emotionally laden than the written — conveying by intonation such rich emotions as anger, joy, sorrow, fear — tribal man was more spontaneous and passionately volatile. Audile-tactile tribal man partook of the collective unconscious, lived in a magical integral world patterned by myth and ritual, its values divine and unchallenged, whereas literate or visual man creates an environment that is strongly fragmented, individualistic, explicit, logical, specialized and detached.

It may seem counterintuitive to some, but imagine a large close functional extended family today, where you are always seen by other family members not as a separate individual but more a part of the larger collective family organism. But given that, and though each family member loves and cares for each other, there is a different dynamic between each pairing of family members in a complex web of such connections. Connections that define say your relationship with a favorite aunt or cousin, not because that person performs a special function for you or looks a certain way, but for a rich array of reasons including shared experience, insight and/or temperament.

McLuhan provocatively argues that these sorts of unique nuanced connections between people, which were the glue of the preliterate tribal societies, began to attenuate or wither with the introduction and gradual spread of literacy…

Literacy propelled man from the tribe, gave him an eye for an ear and replaced his integral in-depth communal interplay with visual linear values and fragmented consciousness. As an intensification and amplification of the visual function, the phonetic alphabet diminished the role of the senses of hearing and touch and taste and smell, permeating the discontinuous culture of tribal man and translating its organic harmony and complex synaesthesia into the uniform, connected and visual mode that we still consider the norm of “rational” existence. The whole man became fragmented man; the alphabet shattered the charmed circle and resonating magic of the tribal world, exploding man into an agglomeration of specialized and psychically impoverished “individuals,” or units, functioning in a world of linear time and Euclidean space.

McLuhan saw literacy reorienting profoundly how we relate to each other in the world, including “trading and eye for an ear”, giving dominance of our sense of sight over the previous more balanced array of sensory input. He says that sight is the most detached of our senses, giving us a “point of view” that establishes us as individuals and creates an alienation from the collective.

I know a lot of people don’t buy this, but it rings true to me based on my own experience. For me, the act of reading as a kid was often done in the cozy privacy of my favorite overstuffed rocking chair in our living room or in my bed at night. For me it was generally a science-fiction book, but whatever the content, my act of reading was a private and intimate one-on-one with the author, accepting of the thought sequencing of the author devoid from their voice, their physical presence, and all those “unique emotional blends” that make up your interaction with say a stage performer telling you the same story. I sit alone, processing this input into my brain, without any sort of collective “family” helping me reconcile this with my existing values. One can argue that alone you are uniquely vulnerable to a compelling printed “voice”.

After years mostly on the receiving end of this sort of literate input, I am lately more often on the sending end, as in this case, of your intimate experience reading these words I have written. As writing is a very individual and personal experience for me, it is presumably very similar for you as the reader. I have very much a point of view, which has been developed with input from others but represents me alone, rather than say the collective voices of a choir, or the collective hearing of a story by a storytellers audience, with the storyteller maybe adjusting the presentation based on the dynamics of that audience.

Can you see how the collective transmission or receipt of content with all the auditory nuances and non-verbal clues of the spoken or sung word can be a profoundly different experience than the minimalist transmission of phonetically coded speech on the printed page from single author to single reader.

Again… you may see significance in all this or not, but this is my sense, my glimpse, of what McLuhan is talking about, and what my friend Mary Jane coined provocatively as “spliteracy”.

All this so far to get at McLuhan’s idea of the “retribalization” brought on by our current immersion in the electronic media of telephone, radio, recorded music, TV and (now in the time after McLuhan’s death) the Internet…

The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems… are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of the old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence — violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial.

Here’s where the wrestling and the muddiness really come in. In the first sentence, McLuhan is talking about a person now being able to “incorporate within himself the whole of mankind” (his whole “Global Village” thing). Yet in the second sentence, he says the consequence is, “decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences”. Unfortunately, the interviewer did not ask for clarification (as I would have).

Okay… McLuhan earlier in the interview talked about how people in the 16th Century began to develop a sense of being part of a “nation” based on their shared experience of reading a standardized version of their language in print (in books and periodicals) and therefor developing a sense of nationalistic connection with all other speakers and readers of that language. This within the somewhat alienated, individualistic context that McLuhan says is fostered by the “point of view” detachment of literacy. So for example, all the speakers of various dialects of the French language, would see a version of their language in a printed text and begin to frame themselves and all others who spoke some variation of this now standardized printed language as members of a common French “nation” with shared interests and a point of view.

Though electronic media may be moving us toward a world consciousness of the “Global Village”, McLuhan is saying it is also breaking down the uniform nationalism into more regional or other affinities based on, as an example, the variations of spoken language or connections with different genres of popular music heard on TV or radio, and the cultural context and shared experience that go along with them. I’m thinking that these affinities are some of the “multitudinous tribal existences” he is talking about. Not truly tribal, in the sense of connection with a clan that shares ancestral genetic roots, but “tribal” in some broader sense of deep commonalities and virtual “kinship”.

And though McLuhan seems at times a cheerleader for electronic media, he does acknowledge that it can have a serious downside. His example is his take on the impact of the radio on inflaming the German public in the run-up to World War II…

Even if Hitler had delivered botany lectures, some other demagogue would have used the radio to retribalize the Germans and rekindle the dark atavistic side of the tribal nature that created European fascism in the Twenties and Thirties.

And just as Hitler used the radio to beat the drums of fascism, Churchill and FDR were equally adept at using the medium to reassure their nations, with all the emotional shadings of the spoken word, to successfully challenge and overcome the tide of fascism.

In my own life, though my imagination has been fired by reading various science-fiction epics, my deepest emotions and passions have generally been kindled around music, mostly recorded music heard on the radio or played on a record (and later tape or CD) player. So as a baby-boomer, I am connected to much of the counter-cultural activism, the “flower power” and “make love not war”, through our shared folk and rock and roll music. For example, deeply connected to a thousand other people (and a larger movement of like-minded people in other places) at a demonstration all singing together, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

We were also connected by moving speeches (heard rather than read) by Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy. There is no way that a silent reading of King’s “I have a dream” speech has the same powerful resonance of seeing him on that podium in front of a crowd of many thousands in DC and hearing the emotional resonances in his voice. It is not the text of the speech alone that could have bound us together as a virtual “tribe”. It took the powerfully modulated and quavering vocal delivery (and knowing those same words are being heard by a million other kindred souls) that played a key role cementing us together in thought, intention and action.

My kids (now young adults age 21 and 25) are way more enmeshed in electronic media than I was at their ages, and if McLuhan is right, the impact of “retribalization” would be even greater. I certainly see our son Eric moved often by music or the spoken word of say John Stewart, but rarely by the written word in the form of either poetry or prose. The Internet application YouTube seems to be his generation’s collective repository of experience and they share links on Facebook and other social networks to various sung or spoken word pieces. And it seems that the levels of connection among his circle of friends, their willingness to come to each others aid as needed, their collective spirit, rises above the level of any circle of peers I had growing up.

Are these examples of a new virtual tribal inclination, rather than a bunch of individuals who might hang out together but have their own unique points of view? I don’t know, but I continue to ponder.

McLuhan in 1969 called out a pretty scary vision of the disruption “retribalization” could cause throughout the world…

All our alienation and atomization are reflected in the crumbling of such time-honored social values as the right of privacy and the sanctity of the individual; as they yield to the intensities of the new technology’s electric circus, it seems to the average citizen that the sky is falling in. As man is tribally metamorphosed by the electric media, we all become Chicken Littles, scurrying around frantically in search of our former identities, and in the process unleash tremendous violence. As the preliterate confronts the literate in the postliterate arena, as new information patterns inundate and uproot the old, mental breakdowns of varying degrees — including the collective nervous breakdowns of whole societies unable to resolve their crises of identity — will become very common.

Again… I don’t know. But it is interesting to see indications that the current challenges to autocratic authority in the Middle East being perhaps “tribally metamorphosed by the electronic media” like Facebook and Twitter, along with regional cable news networks, and causing much violent reaction by the entrenched power structure. There seem to be parallels between what the young people in Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus and other Arab metropolises are doing with what happened in our own country in the 1960s. But what the underlying factors are that are drawing them together into a kinship of rebellion, that still does not seem to be clear to me.

See part 3 of this series.

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One reply

  1. […] de la información y la comunicación e internet, están definitivamente propiciando esa “retribalización” que anunciara Marshall Mcluhan, visionario en este punto donde los haya. La posibilidad que […]

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