That Kenya’s war should have been so influential to McLuhan’s theories of media stems largely from the significance of communications technologies and semiotic rights leading up to the war and determining its outcome. In its beginnings, the Kikuyu anticolonial struggle was a campaign for rights not only to land—as is generally claimed—but also to literacy. In the 1930s, the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) launched an education campaign largely focused on English language instruction, believing that Kikuyu grievances could be redressed only by appealing to the British in their own terms, through their discourses, laws, and modes of inscription. Colonial settlers forcibly shut down most of these schools, inciting the KCA to embark on a letter-writing campaign to British Parliament. Although the metropole ultimately affirmed the KCA’s right to formal education, settlers continued to wage violence against the Kikuyu schools after they were reopened. Finally, in the early 1950s, factions of the KCA branched off into the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), leading to the outbreak of what the British called the “Mau Mau” war.
British strategies of late-colonial warfare in Kenya construed electronic media as devices for extending soft power across different languages and levels of literacy. As the British had just learned in their war against the Malayan Communist Party in the 1940s and ’50s, winning the war in Kenya would require effective means of disseminating propaganda among dispersed, linguistically diverse, and often nonliterate populations. Much of the scholarship McLuhan cites in Gutenberg Galaxy and its sequel, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, revolved around late-colonial concerns over whether Africans should be allowed to acquire literacy and of the impact film and radio had on Africans’ thoughts and habits. In Kenya, newspapers and pamphlets provided a cheap and fairly effective way of disseminating colonial propaganda, given relatively high rates of literacy. However, the colonial administration perceived that literacy could easily become a device of anticolonial politics, as attested, for example, by Tom Mboya’s newspaper Uhuru, which the British sought to proscribe following the outbreak of war.
The problem of colonial communications was both semiotic and spatial: While literacy was to be discouraged for its dangerous political effects, access to radio receivers was hardly feasible for agriculturalists dispersed throughout the countryside. In answer to this dilemma, villagization—already underway as a method of attrition—provided a ready expedient. By agglomerating Kenyans in these compact camps, detainees could be easily reached by traveling radio and cinema vans, circumventing urban density and literacy as means of facilitating the spread of propaganda. Insofar as villagization appears to have been a model for McLuhan (a point I will come to presently), the global village should be understood as a quasi-urban device for militating against the semiotic—and thus political—power of agrarian societies in the colonized and formerly colonized world.
To excavate this genealogy of the global village is to stress the neocolonial and class-based dimensions of noopolitics, pointing to how nootechnologies (technologies of the mind) have operated through the global division of labor they help produce, through media differentials bound up with constructions of race and with divisions between the rural and urban. This essay therefore pushes dominant critiques of noopolitics, such as Bernard Stielger’s, into the domain of postcolonial critique, identifying a fraught sitewhere noopolitics helped bind together a dense conflux of power. Because various arch-paradigms of power—biopolitics, noopolitics, capital, colonialism, and what I will call “terra-power”—all were implicated in villagization, I will not focus exclusively on any one of these but rather on their interaction as they converged and crystallized into the notion of the global village.
It is often claimed that the advent of electronic communications has caused a dematerialization of many things—of place, of representation, of sociality, and of economic exchange, to name a few. While there is no lack of scholars who, to the contrary, insist on the materiality of media and on its imbrication with other material relations, it is the purpose of this essay to push in a slightly different direction from that body of work, by showing how the power of electronic media was and continues to be enmeshed in a reorganization of a very substratal basis of materiality: a reorganization of land, of its cultivation, settlement, and ownership. Against assumptions that electronic media have been developed first and foremost as instruments of professionalized intellectual labor, late-twentieth-century researchers and scholars of communication technologies frequently pointed toward Third World agriculturalists as ideal subjects for these technologies, a tendency that continues up through the present. Electronic media have been touted as devices for integrating agrarian people into the global market (and making them directly bear the risks of that market’s vicissitudes), in lieu of other communicative media such as print, which had in other parts of the world helped enfold agricultural classes into the cultural and political fabric of nation and empire.