Marshall McLuhan, J.C. Carothers & Technological Trauma

05Nov13

By Philippe Theophanidis

“Detribalization by literacy and its traumatic effects on tribal man is the theme of a book by the psychiatrist J. C. Carothers, The African Mind in Health and Disease (World Health Organization, Geneva, 1953). Much of his material appeared in an article in Psychiatry magazine, November, 1959: “The Culture, Psychiatry, and the Written Word.” Again, it is electric speed that has revealed the lines of force operating from Western technology in the remotest areas of bush, savannah, and desert. One example is the Bedouin with his battery radio on board the camel. Submerging natives with floods of concepts for which nothing has prepared them is the normal action of all of our technology. But with electric media Western man himself experiences exactly the same inundation as the remote native. We are no more prepared to encounter radio and TV in our literate milieu than the native of Ghana is able to cope with the literacy that takes him out of his collective tribal world and beaches him in individual isolation. We are as numb in our new electric world as the native involved in our literate and mechanical culture”. ☛ Understanding Media: The Extension of Man by Marshall McLuhan, New York: McGraw-Hill, [1964]1965, p. 16.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan writes about “technological trauma” (66), “the major trauma of the telegraph” (252), “the trauma of industrial change” (Ibid.) and how “the transition from mechanical to electric technology is so very traumatic and severe for us all” (342). The general idea that there may be a correlation between the introduction of new technologies and mental illness played an important role in McLuhan’s work. This idea was in turn strongly inspired by the work of physician and ethnopsychiatrist John Colin D. Carothers (1903-1989).

McLuhan had also written at length of the traumatic effects of literacy in his previous book The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). In fact, McLuhan acknowledged in a letter of admiration he wrote to J. C. Carothers that the impulse to write The Gutenberg Galaxy came directly from reading his article “The Culture, Psychiatry, and the Written Word.” (quoted in the above excerpt):

St Michael’s College
Toronto, Canada
December 20th, 1963

Dear Dr Carothers:

It was reading your article on “Culture, psychiatry and the written word”, that decided me to settle down and write the Gutenberg Galaxy. It was published in 1962 by the University of Toronto Press and reprinted by Routledge & Kegan Paul Company.

The mosaic form in which I present the Galaxy has baffled some readers. It is a form that permits a considerable degree of natural relating of matters that cannot be presented in ordinary lineal exposition. I was happy to be able to quote your article extensively.

There is really no excuse for my having delayed so long to express my admiration of your work. It was of great use to me, indeed.

Sincerely,

Prof. H. M. McLuhan

(retrieved from “Responses to Raymond Prince’s ‘John Colin D. Carothers (1903-1989) and African Colonial Psychiatry’ [TPRR, 33(2): 226-240]” by Raymond Prince, Sunny T. C. Ilechukwu and Jock McCulloch, Transcultural Psychiatry, September 1997, vol. 34, no. 3, p. 410)

The Gutenberg Galaxy indeed offers an exhaustive reading of Carothers’ 1959 article. McLuhan quotes the article at length and borrows from its references in the process. The discussion about the article is in fact longer than the 14-page article itself. The Canadian media theorist summarizes what he found so compelling about the work of the ethnopsychiatrist in the following way:

“[Carothers] great contribution has been to point to the breaking apart of the magical world of the ear and the neutral world of the eye, and to the emergence of the detribalized individual from this split”. (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1962, p. 22)

McLuhan’s account of Carothers’ work gives him the opportunity to lay down his own theory about the intimate relationship between culture and technology and, therefore, about the significant effect produced when a modification is introduced in the latter, creating a “split” in experience, a “division of faculties”.

Although Carothers’s monograph received positive reviews when it was first published (see from 1954 Human BiologyThe American Journal of Psychiatry and The Eugenics Review) its theories are today subject to some controversy. In 1995, Jock McCulloch published a book titled Colonial Psychiatry and the African Mind where he explores the issues surrounding the concept of “African Mind”. The author argues that such a concept is “premised on the colonial notion of African inferiority” (AmazonGoogle Books with preview). 

Read the rest at http://tinyurl.com/pa8l79k .

Philippe Theophanidis is currently a Ph.D.c with the Department of Communication at University of Montréal where he also taught for five years (Médias et culture populaireThéories de la communicationCommunication médiatique and Innovation et médiation sociotechnique). Prior to his Ph.D., he has completed a M.A. in Film Studies.

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