Towards Post-Literate Retribalized Orality

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= "A reconciliation of oral myth with literate reason will be the hallmark of a new epistemic settlement. The ordered path of technological evolution toward higher states of “inclusive consciousness” and “mythic integration,” along the lines of what McLuhan had envisioned, would be open once again".


The theses of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, explained by Michael Cuenco:

The Return of the Oral World

"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.

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.

The trend toward post-literacy identified by McLuhan only accelerated after his death in 1980. The coming of new iterations of electronic media, such as cable news in the late 1980s, the internet in the 1990s, and social media in the 2010s, ensured the definitive end of literacy’s hegemony over public communication. The laissez-faire attitude of the times encouraged dramatic media atomization, sealing the destruction of the rational, centralized, and well-regulated information architecture of the old literate world. This led to today’s epistemic anarchy and has spurred attempts to re-establish literate-era discipline and the public legibility of online interaction under the guise of making the internet “accountable.”

Though staring at a screen is technically a visual experience and there is reading involved—be it of a Tweet, a Facebook post, or a cable news scroll—the fundamentally dynamic, ever-fleeting, and disjointed character of the content on the screen delivers indigestible volumes of information all at once, without much sequence or structure. In McLuhan’s scheme, that experience means we should categorize these new media as having something closer to an oral nature rather than a traditionally visual or literate one.

Such digital technologies are archetypal “cool media.” They offer “low-definition” sensory content that gives stimulus while requiring involvement, participation, and generative filling-in of meaning on the part of users. This is distinct from the “hot media” of the printed word, which demands sustained concentration on a finished product.

The effect imparted by this media ecology is integrative and associative rather than analytical. It conduces to the formation of collective identities and consciousness organized around memetic information like hashtags, viral videos, and memes. This accomplishes the transformation of what McLuhan called “mass man” into what we might call “algorithmic man.”And just as for mass man, the cultivation of the individual mind—a central goal of Western civilization since Aristotle—becomes ever more difficult for his digital descendant amidst the seismic levels of noise and stimulus on social media.

McLuhan would have described algorithmic man’s signature medium, the internet meme, as “iconic.” It is a low-definition but highly symbolic image that is akin to an Orthodox icon, an African tribal mask, or a cave painting since it “uses the eye as we use our hand in seeking to create an inclusive image, made up of many moments, phases, and aspects of the person or thing.” An Instagram post, a Tinder profile, or a TikTok fulfill the same criteria.

Accordingly, McLuhan described such icons as tactile media, which in sensory terms is adjacent to the oral since both operate on the principle of simultaneity: the oral and the tactile are in turn opposed to the visual, which alone among the senses operates on the principle of focus or linear sequence. The opposite of the icon is the high-definition perspectival Renaissance painting, which has a single point of view and is a properly visual medium: it is complementary to literacy just as the icon is complementary to orality.

The surest sign that this is an oral epoch is the fact that politics is no longer defined by competing ideologies or policies but simply by slogans. Although slogans have always existed, their historic use in the mass movements of the 20th century was as tools to mobilize supporters in service of a real, existing program—one anchored in time and space, and animated by a notion of historical progress, however perverse. The New Deal, National Socialism, Soviet Communism, and neoliberal globalization were all forms of literate politics that fit this scheme. But the slogans we encounter now do not serve as shorthands for a broader program.

Instead, today’s slogans are ethereal and talismanic: they are magic words meant to act as tribal markers and spiritual fortifiers. Rather than advertising an actionable legislative agenda, they are self-enclosed signifiers—that is, advertisements without a tangible product. Even for the slogans that sound like policy objectives, the enactment of actual laws and policies has become quite secondary: if action is undertaken, it is done to satisfy the terms set by the slogan itself. Being primarily symbolic and amorphous, they dwell not in the outer world of institutions but in the inner world of identity and feeling." (

What Policies can avoid conflict in post-literate societies

Michael Cuenco:

"In the 19th century, American life was defined by the frontier. It was a frontier that demarcated the expanding literate empire of the United States from the pre-literate tribal societies of the continent’s native inhabitants. In the 21st century, a new frontier has opened up inside America, and if left unprocessed it could very well be as wild and bloody as the last one. Rather than being an external geographical frontier, it is an internal epistemological frontier separating the core remnants of literate civilization and post-literate tribes who have epistemically seceded and who now in effect inhabit a number of oppositional breakaway realities.

Of course, the difference is that a century and a half ago, literate American civilization was ascendant, while today it seems to be in retreat.

As in any unstable frontier society, relations between the peoples on either side will be characterized by mutual fear and apprehension and the prospect of violence will always just be on the horizon. As McLuhan said about frontier life in one of his final TV interviews, “When you live out on the frontier, you have no identity. You are a nobody. Therefore, you get very tough. You have to prove that you are somebody. And so, you become very violent.”

Managing this epistemic frontier will be critical to the next generation of American leaders. But unlike in the old frontier, it will not be a movement of outward expansion but rather one of internal regenerative state-building: this could take the form of an enlightened program of epistemic reform to balance relations between the literate and post-literate segments of society.

On one level, it involves pulling the country back from the brink of post-literate perdition through a range of Luddite-sounding laws and policies, some of which have already been proposed: banning infinite scroll; repurposing the algorithm to reverse its tribalizing thrust; imposing “social media sabbaths”; and funding a revival of local Lyceums and Chautauquas, which would restore conditions for a literate, real-world, civil society.

On another level, it also involves recognizing that the mythical resurgence unleashed by post-literacy cannot be totally undone and that it will have to be accommodated. The hope may be that a slowed down and delimited internet—and a more literate overall media ecology—will allow for mythic thinking to be preserved while harnessing its energies toward more constructive avenues of expression.

In this case, the objective is to “restrain the medium, not the message,” meaning that America’s political leadership must ensure that followers of differing ideologies and value sets are able to communicate, to plead and to proselytize on electronic media—but in the most sophisticated and socially useful ways possible. This also ensures that the leadership actually understands the populace. Restraining the message would deprive the literate establishment of the means to understanding the sentiments of its post-literate populace or to gauging the depth of their discontent in times of unrest: it would merely invite more intense tribal outbursts later on. Regimes do not permit speech for the sake of discourse per se, but so that they can monitor it, engage it, and take up what is useful.

The state’s role in this agenda is to raise the epistemic common denominator to standards of literacy and rationality fit for a digital era. It is developing a new set of norms for speech and interaction in a world where the old assumptions have failed. Such “civilizing measures” will invite resistance from both the social media-addicted population and vested interests who will have a stake in keeping them addicted.

But once resistance is overcome, it will be possible for the state to reintegrate society’s fractured realities into a new epistemological unity, to generate shared dreams and mythologies once more, to set collective long-term goals and mobilize citizens toward their achievement and in sum, to end the present tribal stasis and restart “the forward-motion of ‘progress.’” The outcome would be a society with the capacity to cultivate mythical thinking while still retaining the baseline of rational lineal awareness needed to have material and civilizational development, and not to mention, to respond more decisively to immediate threats like wars or pandemics.

A reconciliation of oral myth with literate reason will be the hallmark of a new epistemic settlement. The ordered path of technological evolution toward higher states of “inclusive consciousness” and “mythic integration,” along the lines of what McLuhan had envisioned, would be open once again.

Barring that, a future historian may look upon the picture of the Q-Shaman at the Speaker’s podium and conclude: “One hundred and thirty years after the closing of the Western frontier, 2021 marked the point in history when large portions of the United States reverted back to the control of hostile tribes.”" (