America’s New Post-Literate Epistemology

Bry Ulrick/Black Rock City, United States

On January 6, a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. Among the most indelible images of that day was of a bare-chested man with bison horns, face paint, and a smattering of strange primal tattoos taking over the Speaker’s podium. Against the classical backdrop, some commentators noted that there could be no more apt image to encapsulate America’s decline and fall.

Beyond the conventional explanations of fascism and white supremacy, many have begun to point to the medium rather than any particular message. One headline claimed that “the internet is a crime scene,” while another asked “can Twitter exist in a democracy?”

Conspicuously missing, however, in this collective agonizing over social media, is the guidance of media theorist Marshall McLuhan. After all, 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.

The Return of the Oral World

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:

“Make America Great Again!” “Black Lives Matter!” “Keep America Great!” “I Can’t Breathe!” “All Lives Matter!” “Build the Wall!” “Own the Libs!” “No Ban, No Wall!” “Abolish ICE!” “Defund the Police!” “Lock Her Up!” “Resist!” “Silence is Violence!” “Stop the Steal!”

Not unlike the spells of the Kikuyu, the power of these words to impose their assumptions relentlessly lies in their simply being said and repeated. Such incantations can exert their magic both in real life, at a rally or protest, or in the virtual world of social media—which, like the vital but disembodied spirit realm visited by the shaman, often seems to shape and supersede reality itself. In describing the constructs of oral power, McLuhan recalled Joyce: “Rite words in rote order.”

The tendency to analogize every current threat to the literate and modernist industrial totalitarianisms of the last century is a reflexive tic in our politics. But it has impaired our society’s ability to recognize different kinds of threats and new realities.

What McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media (1964) is just as true today: “The threat of Stalin or Hitler was external. The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, blind, and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on and through which the American way of life was formed. It is, however, no time to suggest strategies when the threat has not even been acknowledged to exist.”

What if the threat to the liberal political order is not an illiberal ideology but a pre-liberal and post-literate epistemology?

The heart of the challenge is that liberalism professes to derive truth and meaning from the rational objective world which can be observed, measured, and confirmed; the new epistemic shamanism seeks truth and meaning from the disembodied spirit realm represented by social media and the internet. The latter process is fundamentally extra-rational and subjective and, therefore, “mythical.” To the literate liberal, “I read it on the internet” or “many people are saying” are not valid proofs; to the post-literate, it is perfectly legitimate. The ebb and flow of discourse, separate from any particular work of communication, is itself the reality.

Such a distinction does not necessarily mean that one side is intelligent and the other is idiotic or insane. McLuhan reminds us in The Gutenberg Galaxy that “what is meant by the ‘irrational’ and the ‘non-logical’ in much modern discussion is merely the rediscovery of the ordinary transactions between the self and the world, or between subject and object,” or those modes of awareness that “seemed to end with the [abstracting] effects of phonetic literacy.”

McLuhan notes in a 1965 interview that amidst a visceral unmediated environment of extreme information abundance, such as is found on the internet, mythical understanding becomes a natural and necessary adaptation since:

You tend to go looking for mythic and structural forms in order to manage such complex data, moving at very high speeds, so the electric engineers often speak of pattern recognition as a normal need of people processing data electrically and by computers and so on…It’s a need which the poets foresaw…in their drive back to mythic forms of organizing experience.

The rival epistemology has no partisan affiliation. Just as it encompasses left and right—and therefore blurs the practical distinctions between them—so too will re-tribalization finish off the separation of the most abrasive forms of political combat from the formerly protected—and at least nominally autonomous—areas of “private life” and the “public sphere.” These are two increasingly outdated concepts of the literate age.

From the personal to the civilizational, the global village is subsuming everything. It has upended family life by, for instance, turning generations against one another. The recent rise in Boomer radicalization is a phenomenon that McLuhan observed in the 1960s when this cohort was young. It is now repeating itself in their old age. It has also warped how states and corporations conduct their affairs, enshrining the irony, snark, and pettiness of social media as new norms of public exchange.

All the world has become a Twitter feed, which fits McLuhan’s description of the global village as a place“as wide as the planet and as small as a little town where everybody is maliciously engaged in poking his nose into everybody else’s business.”

Re-tribalization cannot be seen as advantaging one side or another of the ideological divide, but as invalidating the very terms and categories that structure ordered politics in a liberal society. It is fitting that these trends, though global in scope, are most advanced in America, a nation whose origins and history are inseparable from the life of liberalism itself.

Orality and Liberalism

The 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology” by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron traced the origins of the ruling orthodoxy of Silicon Valley to a mixing of the hippie with the yuppie: a synthesis between the radical social liberalism of the 1960s with the free market fundamentalism of the 1980s. The essay describes McLuhan as a major influence on that milieu, as futurists like Alvin Toffler invoked his work to claim that the internet would lead to a rebirth of Jeffersonian liberty and individualism: “The twenty-first century information age will be the realisation of the eighteenth-century liberal ideals of Thomas Jefferson: ‘…the…creation of a new civilisation, founded in the eternal truths of the American Idea.’”

It seems quaint, but this was the dominant view of the political and tech establishments as recently as 2015, when a very un-Jeffersonian political candidate came along and disabused them of it. As McLuhan could have told the advocates of the Californian Ideology, “You know nothing of my work!” The reckoning has been a long time coming and it is only now just beginning to play out.

On January 8th, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms banned the president on the grounds that he incited violence. It remains to be seen whether this ban will be permanent. His most vocal allies, enablers, and followers were banned as well. Conservatives cried foul, claiming that this was something that could only happen in places like China, not in the land of the free. Many on the center and the left, on the other hand, simply acquiesced to it. This legitimized the power of the tech monopolies to exercise editorial control over public speech, as long as it had the right political orientation.

America has entered an interregnum. The overthrow of the prevailing assumptions is complete, but there is nothing to take their place: the new digital reality caught the old literate order with its pants down. It made a mockery, not so much of its laws and institutions, but of the sacrosanct principles that supposedly animated them. That was, if anything, a far more grievous offense.

But what if those principles depended on a set of unspoken epistemological premises? And what if those premises are not only outdated by our very own standards, but perhaps irretrievably lost?

In a 1968 Fordham University lecture, McLuhan said: “the liberal world is by definition literate.” The United States was forged in the highly literate typographic milieu of the 18th century. The founders were daily consumed by correspondence that demanded length, depth, and erudition; they buried their heads in Polybius, Blackstone, and the Bible, and traded pamphlets and party gazettes as compulsively and ubiquitously as we scroll through texts and consume social media. As a result, they were every bit as immersed in the slow, patient sequentialism of ink and paper as we are subsumed in the hyperreactive simultaneity of electronic speed.

Being learned gentlemen of the Enlightenment mold, the founders established America’s form of government and enshrined a conception of rights, the First Amendment, and freedom of speech among them, in light of that well-defined historical context. The idea of an informed and educated citizenry weighed heavily on their thinking: Thomas Jefferson saw it as essential to a free society. At the popular level, the literate spirit of Protestantism infused Americans. It was a faith that owed as much to the technological innovations of Gutenberg as to the theological ones of Luther.

But what happens when a political order premised on literacy and Enlightenment rationality finds that increasingly large segments of its citizenry have turned into non-literate mythical tribal people? Such a discrepancy between ruler and ruled, with its potentially grave consequences for the liberal form of government, may be illustrated in two cases.

The first is in the difference between literate and oral ideas of speech and their implications for civil society. McLuhan claimed that tribal man has no point of view. This is all the more true for his contemporary incarnation: algorithmic man, for whom reasoned debate between individuals holding distinct points of view is unknown because he is part of a hivemind.

Most “debate” on social media is merely a simulation: in reality, it is an agonistic ritual—like the Maori haka—whose goal is not to persuade one’s opponent but to reaffirm one’s existing allegiances and demoralize the enemy, never to defend a political argument but always to defend the honor of the political tribe. Even where intellectual discourse does happen, it is not the content promoted by the algorithm since its dominant logic is tribalizing and insular.

How Progress Dies in the Post-Literate Age

The English liberal John Stuart Mill wrote his 1859 essay On Liberty on the foundation of his faith in “man as a progressive being.” Progress is possible for the literate man because history is, to him, linear and teleological: for the oral-tribal man, however, history can only be described either as static or circular. McLuhan elaborated on these different ideas of time in the above-quoted 1969 interview with Playboy:

The world tribe will be essentially conservative…a mythic environment [that] lives beyond time and space and thus generates little radical social change. All technology becomes part of a shared ritual that the tribe desperately strives to keep stabilized and permanent; by its very nature, an oral-tribal society—such as Pharaonic Egypt—is far more stable and enduring than any fragmented visual society.

The oral and auditory tribal society is patterned by acoustic space, a total and simultaneous field of relations alien to the visual world, in which points of view and goals make social change an inevitable and constant by-product. An electrically imploded tribal society discards the linear forward-motion of ‘progress.’ We can see in our own time how, as we begin to react in depth to the challenges of the global village, we all become reactionaries.

Asked in another interview, if this future would represent a type of electronic totalitarianism, McLuhan replied: “No…if left unimpeded, the logic of this sort of electric world is stasis.”

For literate man, speech, along with public discourse in general, is a dialectic means to an end: inquiry and experimentation are welcome because the unfettered exercise of reason will allow for rights to be confirmed, wrongs to be discarded, and truth to be arrived at eventually. For oral man, on the other hand, speech is how tales and legends are told and the eternal wisdom transmitted: truth does not need to be arrived at, because it is already here and always has been.

The literate man’s preferred media—say the novel or essay—will have a beginning, middle, and end. They have an argument to make, a plot to follow, and a destination to reach. A Twitter or Facebook feed has neither beginning nor end, only one long middle. Its infinite-scroll feedback loop is the antithesis of the logical order and linearity of the print era. The visual-to-oral transition of speech and thought will have similarly dire implications for the conduct of politics.

Being linear and sequential, literate politics is about doing something and getting somewhere: it is utility or goal-oriented and tends to produce programs, manifestos, Five-Year Plans. Being simultaneous and resonant, oral politics is simply about being something and standing one’s ground: it is icon and identity-oriented and tends to produce symbols, rituals, culture wars.

For instance, literate—but non-liberal—China has a goal: national rejuvenation by 2049. This is a concrete master plan bounded by a progressive notion of time, with numbered steps and specific metrics, and the planners are concerned with the reshaping of space.

Meanwhile, post-literate America has no long-term goals. Identity-slogans like “Make America Great Again” or “Defund the Police” may sound like goals, but they are in fact what McLuhan called “mythical environments,” which “live beyond time and space” and are therefore untethered to concrete linear action in the physical world. By when exactly is America supposed to be great again? Are there any metrics to help us determine if it is on track to becoming great? How precisely do we defund the police? What happens after?

McLuhan’s predictions about West and East switching places as the one abandoned literacy and the other embraced it have been borne out by subsequent history. As he noted in 1968, at the height of both the tribalizing U.S. counterculture and China’s modernizing revolution: “To make the transition from the ‘outer trip’ of the visually-oriented man to the ‘inner trip’ of the audile-tactile world, is to shift from West to East.” The switch illustrates the difference between progress and stasis.

Perhaps this shift is also related to the trend of Eastern spiritual practices like meditation and yoga finding new traction in the West. A shift in the subjective reality towards a stressful chaotic flow of free-floating identity-thoughts would naturally change spiritual demands.

Another case to illustrate the discordance between orality and liberalism is what happens during the direct transference of narratives from the oral world to the literate, which will almost always lead to serious conflict, or at the very least, severe misunderstanding.

Oral epics such as the Iliad are meant to be sung and heard. The moment someone transcribes them into a text or publishes them as Penguin Classics, they cease to be living repositories of social meaning and lose much of their felt power: they become mere artifacts and objects of study for the specialist or the literary enthusiast.

The same deracinating effect exists in conspiracy theories. As the COVID pandemic spread worldwide, social media was filled with various narratives: the whole event was a fake pandemic by secret elites for some or a sinister foreign plot for others. Within those walls, the narrative is true and incontrovertible. But translate such conspiratorial claims into the literate world of the legal system—that is, task a team of lawyers to assemble evidence, draw up briefs and present a case in court alleging conspiracy—and the narrative instantly loses its truth value, sees its power turned into parody and then evaporates into irrelevance.

This is not to say the legal-rational epistemology is inherently in the right. From the new mythic perspectives, the outdated legal system is too literal to cope in a world of chaotic flow of intention, manipulation, and occult coordination. In other words, the software has outgrown the hardware, and as McLuhan said ”It’s the hardware, I think, that is [in] danger under electronic conditions.” Both left and right of the postmodern tribal society advance these kinds of claims, though for different issues and causes. There is not necessarily an error in their thinking: it’s a matter of incommensurable paradigms, rather than right and wrong.

Such conspiracy theories are to post-literate tribal people what myths and legends were to their pre-literate ancestors: forms of truth and meaning and ways to make sense of the world. As McLuhan put it: “For myth is the mode of simultaneous awareness of complex groups of causes and effects” and to “an age of fragmented lineal awareness…mythical vision remains quite opaque.”

Were it not for its extreme incompatibility with the liberal system of laws, the return of myth could have been a most welcome development, at least from the vantage point of a hyper-atomized society that often falls short in supplying people with a larger sense of meaning and wonder of the kind that used to be a given in traditional premodern societies.

Liberalism has made peace with most forms of literate religion through separation of church and state; the mysticism of one’s faith has largely been kept private and abstracted from public life. But it can only deride the new post-literate tribal mythology and the very public manifestations of mysticism it encourages as vulgar superstition at best and as a seditious challenge to its authority at worst. This sets the stage for more destructive uprisings from below and more forceful repression from above: in any event, the results will not be pleasant.

Fear and Loathing on the Epistemic Frontier

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.”

Michael Cuenco is a writer and policy researcher. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.