Saturday, July 13, 2013

An Essay on Retribalization in the Post-Subsistence Age

15 May 2007 (reposted 14 July 2013)

It has now been many decades since
Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian apostle of television-based social change, postulated, among other things, that the “cool” electronic media – at that time represented primarily by television – were exerting a “retribalizing” influence upon post-industrial civil society.

McLuhan’s ideas are complex and often vague, and he addressed issues of far-reaching cultural significance. Additionally, several decades have passed, and the internet has replaced television as the “cool” electronic medium of our era. Nonetheless, broad culturally-related behavioural changes seem to be evident in our population at large, and it may be worthwhile to consider whether the concept of retribalization sheds some light on how our world is changing.

Let us begin by laying down some
fundamental concepts. Modern humans have walked the planet for a scant 200,000 years, and during almost all of that period, our forebears lived a tribal and subsistence-based way of life. About 5000 years ago, the development of agricultural technology enabled the first gathering of peoples into cities, and this era is generally referred to as the rise of civilization, though I prefer the term civil culture, which refers to the cultural developments that occur when humans engage in a trade-based lifestyle in urban centres.

With the rise of civil culture, the influence of tribal culture diminished, and this was particularly true during the interlinked historical eras of imperialism and industrialization.

Until recently, individuals inhabiting civil cultures regarded themselves as unquestionably superior to individuals living within tribal cultures.

A jolting reminder of this smug worldview was afforded me this week when I watched the 51-year-old John Wayne movie,
The Searchers – truly a movie classic (though now strikingly dated) and the original inspiration for Jonathan Lethem's novel, Girl in Landscape, about which I have blogged earlier.

In a “making of” featurette, Natalie Wood conversed with the self-confident narrator, and the two broached the topic of cultural contrasts while discussing the role of the indigenous Navajo people in the making of the film. Without blinking an eye, the two conversants suggested that the Navajo had historically lived a “savage” lifestyle, but had now abandoned this way of life for a peaceful and subsistence-based, and thus still “primitive,” lifestyle.

I could say much more, but what most struck me about this self-satisfied synopsis of recent history from the vantage point of 1956 is the fact that, in my view, the greater change over the subsequent 50 years has not been the continued “advance” of the indigenous peoples (in this case the Navajo), but in fact the retribalization of the dominant culture – and I think that this is an outcome that neither the narrator nor Ms. Wood ever envisioned.

In both the historical and anthropological contexts, we tend to think of tribal lifestyles solely in terms of subsistence, and for the most part, the age of subsistence has passed, at least in the northern hemisphere.

How then can our society have retribalized over the past 50 years?

Interestingly, if Mr. McLuhan is correct, even the making of films, such as The Searchers, might in fact play a role in this process – and this further compounds the irony of my initial observation.

In brief, Mr. McLuhan held that
tribal culture is characterized by ways of life based on interpersonal speech, story-telling, participatory processes, integrating and decentralized social structures, mythic views of the world, village-based lifestyles, and – in particular – tribal identities.

In contrast, the subsequent “mechanical age” was characterized by hierarchical structures, top-down communication, and rule-governed social behavioural structures, creating a way of life that was individualistic, fragmented, nationalistic, centralized, specialized and urbanized.

Perhaps the height of civil culture is represented in the rise of the British Empire in the 19th century. In addition to national pride, this era was characterized by clearly-defined and often exacting social rules and structures, highly-refined and universally-valued basic skill sets (here I would focus in particular on the primacy of literacy and literate communication), and a clearly-delineated and consensually accepted worldview as to the nature of individual and social progress based on rationality and technological mastery of the environment.

How far we have come in our modern era from the consensual views and hierarchically-structured norms of the Victorian Age.

Many of us who are products of the age of text-based literacy have lamented the breathtaking decline in universal literacy that quite clearly characterizes our current era. One need only spend an afternoon in the attic with the correspondence of one's grandparents to observe that literacy in particular has crumbled in response to the onslaught of the age of electronic media.

And this simple observation gives rise to the instinct of curiosity as to what else might be taking place....

If McLuhan is correct, that electronic media reshape our personal and cultural identities, then we have a starting point for thinking about the disorienting global and cultural crosscurrents that typify our fragmented era.

At this point, I would like to present further – though admittedly inchoate evidence – that a very fundamental and correspondingly radical process of change is afoot.
Picasso represented these changes in his introduction of cubism into the world of visual art, and as an exhibit, I present his classic work (a replica of which took its insistent place on the walls of our family’s summer cabin on the James River of Missouri during my childhood), Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.

The shattered perspectives in Picasso’s paintings offer evidence that our ability to perceive the world has somehow become radically disunified, and in an obviously disturbing way. Picasso’s best-known work, Guernica, certainly illustrates this point more profoundly still.
The literary works of the existentialists, emerging in the 19th and early 20th centuries, anticipated similar developments. Here I am thinking of such writers as Sartre, Camus and Dostoevsky, whose novels consumed my attention and interest during my high school years. One cannot read such works without the sense that our personal certainties have become profoundly disrupted by the incomprehensible diversity and disorder of broad human experience.

Ivan Illich, with whom I was fortunate enough to have been invited to spend a weekend almost two decades ago, argued that we should consider returning to a new kind of “subsistence” lifestyle, for the sake not of our economic survival, but of our survival as human beings capable of relationship and collaboration. Illich also shared McLuhan's interest in the human transition from reliance upon oral communication to text-based communication – and beyond that, to electronically-mediated communication (see: ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind (1988) ISBN 0-86547-291-2).
Can we not easily contrast the profoundly intricate literary accomplishments of Shakespeare with the primitive linguistic formulations that characterize the great mass of entries on, the virtual space that you as my reader and I as the writer of this essay inhabit at the very moment of your reading of this text?

My grandmother told me stories of neighbourly visiting in her early and mid-adult life. Social visiting was highly formalized, and greeting cards – which she collected and shared with me – were exchanged.

Can anyone argue that tribal warfare remains a force against which our sophisticated and technologized military interventions are virtually useless – or that tribalism has unmade the US adventure in Iraq and is rending much of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia as well?

I pass most of the hours of most of my days in conversations with the Ojibway and Cree people of Northwest Ontario. In most cases, the near-ancestors of these individuals lived a classic tribal lifestyle, and a smaller number of my aboriginal clients have been able to describe to me their experiences of subsistence during their own early years, characterized by living in tents, camping at and walking traplines with their parents, and being raised by their extended family as a “non-nuclear” family unit.

I close here following the above potpourri of examples, because I trust that you can afford your own. And I also wish to reflect on what I have learned and observed through my discussions with individuals whose way of life often continues to express the legacy of many millennia of tribal culture.

My work has caused me to become interested in how tribal people think and behave both similarly to and differently than people with European ancestry, and I have grown increasingly curious as to the factors that characterize the thinking of the individuals who have so kindly shared many of their most personal experiences with me.

Please permit me to summarize briefly a few of my observations

For many of my clients, the self is very much a shared as opposed to an individual reality. How others are impacted by every thought and action is not merely an incidental, but a primary concern. This is an example of the workings of a tribally-acquired identity.

Further, the events of the immediate moment and of the present day very often overshadow concerns as to future expectations, aspirations and consequences. This is not a reflection of anomie or of goallessness – far from it – but of the primacy of immediate circumstances, and of one’s high regard for the importance and needs of one’s present companions.

I believe also that for the tribal person, emotional reality tends to supersede the “rational” worldview. "Sense" is not a construct of logical induction or deduction, but of the interplay of the changing and competing emotional realities of those with whom one is engaged in relationship.

The above are meant to be only a few examples, true to Montaigne's spirit in his penning of his original essays as first “attempts” at the formulation of new ideas through their presentation to others in the form of brief texts.

Let me close by clarifying that I do not regard myself as a tribal individual. I am very much a product of the age of literacy and formalism. But I do perceive that I am surrounded by a retribalizing society and I do not denigrate it – rather I seek to understand it.

Many of the modalities of living that typify the world in which I was raised are literally evaporating before my eyes, and I wish to understand how and why that is occurring, and what it means. The concept of retribalization in the post-industrial era seems to me to be the key to reaching that understanding, though I am only in the early stages of doing so.

Let me close by urging the reader to take some time to watch the classic movie, The Searchers, and don't skip the “making-of” featurettes.

Consider the irony that as Ms. Wood and the narrator converse easily from a perspective of their own presumed superiority, their children and their children’s children have probably become much more similar to the tribal people whom they clearly regarded – only 50 years ago – as less-advanced than themselves.

The children and the grandchildren of the worthy Navajo people who aided in making the film have probably changed much less than have the descendants of the film-makers.

It seems to me that it is now the indigenous peoples of the world who must teach most of the rest of us about how to be tribal, rather than we who must teach them about how to be “civilized.”

It is perhaps only those who still remember the tribal ways who possess the capacity to lead us along the path that we are now following. Further, and perhaps radically, I suspect that human survival itself may depend upon the formation and nurturing of such seemingly inverted teaching and learning relationships.



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  2. Hi there fellas. nice site. I am having research right now to complete my dessertation.
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  3. Alex, Thanks for your comment. I hope your dissertation goes well! I remain convinced that McLuhan was prescient in this, as well as other areas.

  4. I think photography is only a tool, a vehicle, for expressing or transmitting a passion in something else.

  5. Once again, the emotional message is primary.

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  10. As cited by Neale Lundgren: Alfred North Whitehead gave an example of "minor beauty" as the easy harmonies rendered on a piano. The conjoinment of seeming opposites and the ability to see a grander scheme of higher harmony from a transcendent perspective he referred to as "major beauty."

    I would select Picasso's "Desmoiselles D'Avignon" as my exhibit for major beauty. Certainly Picasso is presenting no simple harmonies, but an already fractured world fractured again. Harmony? Hardly, in fact, not at all. But a grander vision? Indeed. Beautiful? To my eye.

    (This is one of three posters that my father brought home from the war, yet another of the fracturing events of that era. Thus, I have studied it all my life, and still seek to understand it.)

  11. We are becoming a nation of financial services companies. This is a recent thing only in the last fifty years or so have we become an office nation or a nation of office workers. I don't know how much this has to do with tribalism. All these poople working for companies doing one thing recycling money. The result is no useful products and services are being produced or sold by anyone who is employed by anyone of the following industries. The idea that the bedrock of the united states economy can be a country of bankers financial planners financial researchers dealing with numbers marketing consultents' lawyers is completly false. I could go on and on but I need not. The intangable economy of sorts must be replaced with a economy that produces or provides useful products and services that are really needed. Otherwise we will end up with a few bright CPA's with master degrees siting behind desks making a good living and everybody else cleaning the carpeting and emptying the waste paper baskets. For three dollars an hour.