In 1954, shortly following the outbreak of war in Kenya’s Rift Valley, the ethnopsychiatrist John Colin Carothers was called to Nairobi to diagnose the uprising and recommend strategies for pacifying Kenyans amidst the social and economic upheavals caused by the expansion of cash-crop production. In an article abundantly cited by McLuhan, “Culture, Society, and the Written Word,” Carothers argued that “the African mind” was shaped by orality and by its arboreal environment, and that literacy and urban life would radically upset its fragile psychological constitution. Owing to these dangers, he had recommended in his earlier work, Psychology of Mau Mau, that villagization remain intact following the conclusion of war, not for purposes of military detainment but rather as “the whole future of Kikuyu rural life.” The Kikuyu, owing to their innate “forest psychology,” would benefit, he reasoned, from “forest villages,” which, though still arboreal, would provide a stabilizing social fabric.
Carothers’s depiction of the Kikuyu as isolated and arboreal was hardly accurate. Even apart from the Kikuyu’s structures of social and political organization, there was a tendency during the first half of the twentieth century toward urbanization. Having been largely relegated to overcrowded native reserves and thus lacking adequate land for cultivation, many Kikuyu men had relocated to the outskirts of Mombasa and especially Nairobi. The colonial administration believed that Nairobi’s resulting density and high unemployment rates had greatly contributed to the state of political unrest. Kikuyu urbanization was therefore considered as dangerous as Kikuyu literacy. Carothers’s preoccupation with the putative arboreal nature of the Kikuyu (and of Africans in general) was clearly prompted by a colonial imperative to justify the de-urbanization of black Africans by furnishing a cognitive-semiotic rationale for making villagization a permanent fixture of Kikuyu society, even following the conclusion of war.
Subscribing to prevailing colonial notions of the deleterious effects of “detribalization” on Africans, Carothers adduced a psychiatric-environmental cause for Africans’ allegedly nonurban and nonliterate habitus. His central thesis on “the African mind” described how the primordial darkness of Africa’s forests had long occluded visual knowledge of the world, enshrouding Africans in an auditory sensorium that provoked oral rather than written forms of communication. He contrasted the psychological effects of this aural semiosis to those of reading and writing. The physical distance between reader and author dissipated the latter’s authority, dispelling the enchanting power exercised by the spoken word. (It should be noted that Jomo Kenyatta, the KCA’s imprisoned leader, was considered a prodigiously gifted orator.) In liberating readers from unthinking obedience to the magical authority of voice, the written word conferred on them the detached intellectual objectivity required of self-ruling subjects. Carothers concluded that illiterate society remained incapable of self-rule, being inherently beholden to authoritarian magic. He was not, however, advocating universal education as a basis of postcolonial independence, since particular environmental conditions, such as the darkness of Africa’s forests, irrevocably disposed societies to either orality or literacy.
Carothers’s claims were clearly seminal to McLuhan’s renowned thesis on different media’s formative effects on cognitive and cultural disposition and on his related concept of media environments. (A discussion of Carothers’s ideas of literate versus nonliterate cognition consumes roughly the first twenty pages of Gutenberg Galaxy, and appears immediately under his section heading “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.” Carothers is cited again in the first pages of Understanding Media.) McLuhan’s attraction to Carothers’s work seems prompted not only by the latter’s keen interest in the differences between written and aural semiotics but in the political implications of connecting semiotics to race. The overlap between Carothers’s and McLuhan’s concerns can be seen especially in their shared qualms about African “detribalization,” a term McLuhan employs exhaustively in Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media.
Several years prior to publishing those books, McLuhan had been very active in an interdisciplinary group, Explorations, which he cofounded with Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, a British urban planner whose work focused on village planning in the decolonizing world. This connection has been investigated by the architectural historian Olga Touloumi, who argues that the idea of the global village likely was influenced by a modernist exhibition on village planning attended by Tyrwhitt and McLuhan. In 1954, Tyrwhitt wrote to McLuhan of her preoccupation with the processes of detribalization caused by “a self-contained rural tradition being invaded by technology.” To preserve rural culture against such transformations, Tyrwhitt advocated self-help architectures—housing built personally by occupants within certain prescriptive frameworks formulated by international experts. As Ijlal Muzaffar has argued, this self-help architectural movement of the mid-twentieth century worked to instate an intentionally incomplete and impoverished version of “modernity” in the global South amidst decolonization. Planners justified this cost-saving tactic by citing the need to preserve cultural tradition against the detribalizing effects of architectural and economic modernization. For these reasons, inter alia, self-help architecture was considered a crucial and rehabilitative component of Kenya’s villagization.
The semiotic counterpart to an architecture that buffered Kenyans from detribalization was a mode of communication guarding them from the dangers of literacy while also appealing to their supposed semiotic dispositions. A former Cambridge classmate of McLuhan (mentioned briefly in his notebooks) argued that winning Britain’s war against the KLFA was largely about leveraging native forms of media. A propos of Kenya’s war, he wrote that, in Africa,
the main way in which ideas and impressions and news was spread from tribe to tribe and within a tribe was through the medium of the dance and song. It may be that certain Africans would prefer to get their ideas in a normal European way, but there are an immense number who would get those ideas more quickly and clearly if they were conveyed in what I would call the African medium. I am not in a position, and my colleagues were not in a position, to say what these African media are, but I think they should be studied and . . . we must approach the whole problem of African progression not simply with the eyes and viewpoint of Europeans, but taking into consideration the sort of things which appeal traditionally to the African mind [emphasis added].
McLuhan subsequently likened the effects of radio (the most important vehicle of late-colonial propaganda) to “tribal drums.” It can be readily inferred from Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media that the global-ness of the global village was premised not on equitable universal access to electronic media but on a certain kinship McLuhan drew between the sensoria produced respectively by oral and electronic means of communication. Contrasting the enveloping rhythms of “tribal drums” and radio to the rational, detached experience of reading print (an experience he considered as intellectually liberating as it was sensually stultifying), McLuhan suggested that thanks to the advent of electronic media, “Western man” could now experience both the intellectual autonomy won through centuries of typographic culture and the more direct sensory experience of aurality as practiced by “tribal” societies. However, the “tribal” world—a term that enfolded conceptions of race, semiotic disposition, and agrarianism—was to become subject to electronic media without having first passed through the crucible of typographic culture. McLuhan explained that although “we” now can understand “the native or non-literate experience because we have re-created it electronically within our own culture,” nonetheless, “post-literacy is a quite different mode . . . from pre-literacy.” The distinction was an important one.
Whereas nonliterate societies, according to McLuhan, dwell unconsciously in the habitus produced by aurality, the posttypographic people of the Western world could—thanks to electronic media—freely, consciously move between the two cognitive paradigms of the aural and typographic, effectively experiencing the sensual richness of the “tribal” while keeping one foot firmly planted in the apperceptive episteme born of typography. “For the electric,” writes McLuhan, “puts the mythic or collective dimension of human experience fully into the conscious wake-a-day world . . . While the old . . . cycles had been tribally entranced in the collective night of the unconscious, the new . . . cycle of totally interdependent man must be lived in the light of consciousness.”
Absolutely undermining his hallmark thesis that a society’s dominant medium determines its cultural and political disposition, McLuhan indicates that the cultural effects of electronic audio and audiovisual media would be vastly different in “tribal” versus “post-typographic” societies. We deduce from his arguments that it is not in fact media that shapes cultural-political subjectivity so much as a society’s previous modes of media reception, modes apparently transmitted epigenetically over the course of centuries and across generations, mysteriously persisting even as new forms of media replace the old ones. So long as the psyche of “Western man” had once been formed by typography, a cognitive and cultural difference would continue to distinguish “the West” from societies that had supposedly overleapt print media in their shift from the “tribal drum” to its electronic version, radio. Betraying his seminal claim that “the medium is the message,” McLuhan suggests that “the message” is really preencoded in the racial constitution of the audience or reader.
It seems contextually significant that at the time McLuhan was writing these two major works on media theory, North American civil rights movements were calling attention to discriminatory policies of administering literacy tests to black would-be voters in the United States and Canada. That is, while McLuhan insisted that the cognitive inheritance of typography protected “Western man” from the intellectually infantilizing effects of the West’s new nonliterate media, the “grandfather clause” in the southern United States exempted white voters from the literacy requirements imposed on black voters, implying that literacy—and the political rights based on literacy—were to be acquired not through personal education so much as through racial inheritance. In McLuhan’s work, the hegemonic potentials of electronic media were supported by the belief that “Western man” would retain some inherited cognitive resistance against the “tribalizing” effects of electronic media; that the culture instated by the printed word would outlive print’s obsolescence amidst electronic media. The West’s typographic legacy played, according to McLuhan, “a crucial role in staying the return to Africa.”