Insofar as McLuhan’s “global village” seems to have been inspired by theories surrounding Kenya’s detainment camps, we might invoke Giorgio Agamben’s formulation of “the camp” as “the nomos of the modern.” But the camp qua global village suggests a somewhat different nomos than the concentration camp, which Agamben cites as exemplary of biopolitical processes of reducing subjects to “bare life.” The concentration camp is not quite the right paradigm for describing the power latent in the concept of the global village, even despite certain similarities (both being, after all, “camps”). In the case of villagization, biopolitical sovereignty over life was not simply a matter of the right to extinguish life; it was governance over the psychic-social constitution of the individual subject.
By the mid-1950s, many colonial administrators began to view Kenya’s independence as inevitable. The war became less about retaining colonial sovereignty than about safeguarding white settlers’ property in the wake of decolonization and insuring that Kenya remained amenable to Britain’s economic and global military interests in the Cold War. Although Kenya’s villagization has often been likened to the Holocaust camps, by the mid-1950s, British power of administering death in Kenya was increasingly superseded by apparatuses of soft power that sought to convert detainees not into homo sacer’s but into global villagers.
Unlike homo sacer, global villagers were to exercise the rights guaranteed by law but in a manner constrained—shrunken—by semiotic poverty. This form of semiotic disempowerment wouldn’t necessarily be recognizable as poverty, given the semiotic amplitude that often engulfs the subject of nootechnologies. “Bare,” then, isn’t really the term to describe the electronically enchanted life of the global villager, even if the global villager is to be depoliticized, similar to the biopolitical subject of “bare life.” The life of the global villager is to be captured by media, to be deeply, cognitively involved with that media, submerged in a rhythmic sensorium resembling the magical, arboreal semiosis Carothers described as innate to “the African mind.” Through magical captivation by audiovisual media, a “state of exception” promulgated by violence is transformed into a nonexceptional state of popular participation.
Agamben has cited the phrase, “poverty in the world,” used by Martin Heidegger to describe how animals receive and respond to sensory signals without, however, having access to “being.” Heidegger says that being can be disclosed only through human language, relative to which all other semiotic modes are impoverished. Agamben does not explicitly draw any connection between “poverty in the world” and “bare life,” but the former phrasemight be used to connect Agamben’s conception of biopolitics with noopolitics. I use “semiotic poverty in the world” to describe a condition of relative impoverishment, a power imbalance. The global villager is grazed by word and image without possessing equal capabilities to leverage semiotic power toward political transformation. In other words, semiotic poverty is produced by a corollary semiotic affluence in the world—or effluence—which washes over us, precluding reply.
One virulent strain of semiotic poverty in the postcolonial world arose from the persistence of colonial languages as international lingua francas, a tendency that sheds light on another dimension of McLuhan’s thinking. In the mid-1940s Ivor Armstrong Richards, a professor who deeply influenced McLuhan during the latter’s doctoral studies at Cambridge University, devised Basic English and “English through Pictures” as a way to expand the international use of English, believing that a pared-down lexicon was requisite to transparent international communications and, consequently, world peace. Richards’s insistence that a simplified English of merely 850 words would hone and clarify communication (rather than exacerbate the semiotic asymmetries of international power) anticipated McLuhan’s concept of the global village, insofar as both models posited semiotic impoverishment as means of attaining perpetual peace. Conceived in the context of myriad anticolonial wars, the ideal of perpetual peace harbors violence within it, as suggested by the fact that colonial administrators in Malaya during the war against Malaya’s Communist Party took a keen interest in Basic English.
While Richards sought to eschew translation through a simplified lingua franca, McLuhan dreamt of computer technologies capable of circumventing language entirely so as to eradicate the differences between thought and language and the misunderstandings arising therefrom:
Language as the technology of human extension, whose division and separation we know so well, may have been the “Tower of Babel” by which men sought to scale the highest heavens. Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson. The condition of “weightlessness,” that biologists say promises a physical immortality, may be paralleled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace [emphasis added].
It is hard to imagine a greater semiotic poverty than what McLuhan envisions here—essentially a world dispossessed of language, save for computer code. Going a step beyond what Rosalind Morris has called “multilingualism against translation” (describing British language policies in Malaya), McLuhan dreams of a circum-lingualism against translation, which divests language of its semiotic powers and invests those powers within the work of audiovisual coding.
However, the most peculiar dimension to McLuhan’s Pentecostal fantasy is its proximity to his conception of the “tribal” world’s aural semiosis, gleaned largely from Carothers. Carothers’s thesis concerning the “African mind’s” enthrallment to the authority of voice rested on the idea that written language revealed the arbitrary relation between signified and signifier, whereas spoken language produced an illusion of magical unity between words and the things they named. “Western man’s” putative independence of thought was born of his supposed awareness of the fundamental difference and distance between signifier and signified, but it is precisely this distance between words and referents that McLuhan dreamed of eradicating through Pentecostal technologies.
Carothers’s ideas concerning the illusory magic of spoken language likely drew from a much earlier book Richards had coauthored in 1927 with C. K. Ogden, The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism, which had become stock reading for Anglophone scholars of semiotics and psychology. The Meaning of Meaning argued that language had long been linked to magic, insofar as words were believed to exercise a direct influence over their referents. That McLuhan should have so rampantly cited Carothers’s obscure article—published in a professional psychiatric journal—while never mentioning his own teacher’s renowned work on a similar topic might be explained by a key difference in their respective arguments. Whereas Richards and Ogden discussed how Western typographic propaganda had greatly expanded the deceptive magic of the written word, Carothers had, as we know, distinguished sharply between the rational habits of thought encouraged by literacy and the tendencies of magical thought promulgated through orality.
Additionally, Carothers’s fixation on Africans’ alleged orality appears to have drawn from the British wartime obsession with the loyalty oaths the KLFA administered to all fighters and to countless civilians. In this case it appears to have been the British who were dazzled by the magical power of the spoken word, as they went so far as to claim that the Kikuyu oaths had the power to utterly transform those who uttered them, so much as to alter the very color of their eyes and skin. Following villagization, the oaths became the primary focus of British military strategists who were convinced that the war could be won only by countering the oaths’ magical power. Even apart from the issue of propaganda then, the war was a semiotic war, insofar as what was at stake was how words operated socially and politically.