Mud Wrestling with McLuhan Part 2 – Retribalization


May 6th, 2011 at 16:06

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. (Playboy Interview, 1969)

– see

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”. …………..

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).

Read the remainder of the article at

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