An iconographic and text archive related to communication, technology and art.

2008 - 2021
October 31, 2013

Detribalization by literacy and its traumatic effects on tribal man is the theme of a book by the psychiatrist J. C. Carothers, The African Mind in Health and Disease (World Health Organization, Geneva, 1953). Much of his material appeared in an article in Psychiatry magazine, November, 1959: “The Culture, Psychiatry, and the Written Word.” Again, it is electric speed that has revealed the lines of force operating from Western technology in the remotest areas of bush, savannah, and desert. One example is the Bedouin with his battery radio on board the camel. Submerging natives with floods of concepts for which nothing has prepared them is the normal action of all of our technology. But with electric media Western man himself experiences exactly the same inundation as the remote native. We are no more prepared to encounter radio and TV in our literate milieu than the native of Ghana is able to cope with the literacy that takes him out of his collective tribal world and beaches him in individual isolation. We are as numb in our new electric world as the native involved in our literate and mechanical culture.

Understanding Media: The Extension of Man by Marshall McLuhan, New York: McGraw-Hill, [1964]1965, p. 16.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan writes about “technological trauma” (66), “the major trauma of the telegraph” (252), “the trauma of industrial change” (Ibid.) and how “the transition from mechanical to electric technology is so very traumatic and severe for us all” (342). The general idea that there may be a correlation between the introduction of new technologies and mental illness played an important role in McLuhan’s work. This idea was in turn strongly inspired by the work of physician and ethnopsychiatrist John Colin D. Carothers (1903-1989).

McLuhan had also written at length of the traumatic effects of literacy in his previous book The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). In fact, McLuhan acknowledged in a letter of admiration he wrote to J. C. Carothers that the impulse to write The Gutenberg Galaxy came directly from reading his article “The Culture, Psychiatry, and the Written Word.” (quoted in the above excerpt):

St Michael’s College
Toronto, Canada
December 20th, 1963

Dear Dr Carothers:

It was reading your article on “Culture, psychiatry and the written word”, that decided me to settle down and write the Gutenberg Galaxy. It was published in 1962 by the University of Toronto Press and reprinted by Routledge & Kegan Paul Company.

The mosaic form in which I present the Galaxy has baffled some readers. It is a form that permits a considerable degree of natural relating of matters that cannot be presented in ordinary lineal exposition. I was happy to be able to quote your article extensively.

There is really no excuse for my having delayed so long to express my admiration of your work. It was of great use to me, indeed.


Prof. H. M. McLuhan

(retrieved from “Responses to Raymond Prince’s ‘John Colin D. Carothers (1903-1989) and African Colonial Psychiatry’ [TPRR, 33(2): 226-240]” by Raymond Prince, Sunny T. C. Ilechukwu and Jock McCulloch, Transcultural Psychiatry, September 1997, vol. 34, no. 3, p. 410)

The Gutenberg Galaxy indeed offers an exhaustive reading of Carothers’s 1959 article. McLuhan quotes the article at length and borrows from its references in the process. The discussion about the article is in fact longer than the 14-page article itself. The Canadian media theorist summarizes what he found so compelling about the work of the ethnopsychiatrist in the following way:

[Carothers] great contribution has been to point to the breaking apart of the magical world of the ear and the neutral world of the eye, and to the emergence of the detribalized individual from this split. (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1962, p. 22)

McLuhan’s account of Carothers’s work gives him the opportunity to lay down his own theory about the intimate relationship between culture and technology and, therefore, about the significant effect produced when a modification is introduced in the latter, creating a “split” in experience, a “division of faculties”:

The concluding observation of Carothers is that genetic studies of human groups offer no certainty and very small data, indeed, compared to cultural and environmental approaches. My suggestion is that cultural ecology has a reasonably stable base in the human sensorium, and that any extension of the sensorium by technological dilation has a quite appreciable effect in setting up new ratios or proportions among all the senses. Languages being that form of technology constituted by dilation or uttering (outering) of all of our senses at once, are themselves immediately subject to the impact or intrusion of any mechanically extended sense. That is, writing affects speech directly, not only its accidence and syntax but also its enunciation and social uses. (Ibid., p. 35)

While Carothers’s object of investigation was the “african mind” (see below), The Gutenberg Galaxy significantly increases the degree of generalization by focusing on the impact of literacy on the mind of all human beings. The effects of more advanced technologies, such as electricity, would be the subject of McLuhan next book, Understanding Media:

What will be the new configurations of mechanisms and of literacy as these older forms of perception and judgment are interpenetrated by the new electric age? The new electric galaxy of events has already moved deeply into the Gutenberg galaxy. Even without collision, such coexistence of technologies and awareness brings trauma and tension to every living person. Our most ordinary and conventional attitudes seem suddenly twisted into gargoyles and grotesques. Familiar institutions and associations seem at times menacing and malignant. These multiple transformations, which are the normal consequence of introducing new media into any society whatever, need special study and will be the subject of another volume on Understanding Media in the world of our time. (Ibid., pp. 278-279)

It is worth noting that the “global village”, a concept McLuhan merely mentioned in The Gutenberg Galaxy, is not about the “re-tribalization” of human affairs, quite on the contrary. The global village designates not the uniformity of experience, but rather the globalization of its fragmentation.

The works by J.C. Carothers that had such an influence on McLuhan’s own ideas are available online. Carothers’s monograph The African mind in health and disease: a study in ethnopsychiatry, which was commissioned by the World Heath Organization and was published in 1953, is available in two PDF files on the WHO website (here the same document with OCR: Part 1, Part 2). The article “The Culture, Psychiatry, and the Written Word” discussed in The Gutenberg Galaxy is available on Scribd.

For the analysis of the relation between detribalization by exposition to literacy and mental illness in Carothers’s monograph, one can check the subsection of Chapter 9 titled “Incidence in relation to detribalization” (pp. 130-133). McLuhan more certainly read this section where he found the expression “the furthermost ends of bush, savannah and desert” (p. 130) which he used with minor modifications in Understanding Media (see the quote above).

Although Carothers’s monograph received positive reviews when it was first published (see from 1954 Human Biology, The American Journal of Psychiatry and The Eugenics Review) its theories are today subject to some controversy. In 1995, Jock McCulloch published a book titled Colonial Psychiatry and the African Mind where he explores the issues surrounding the concept of “African Mind”. The author argues that such a concept is “premised on the colonial notion of African inferiority” (Amazon, Google Books with preview). Others have examined the work of Carothers with a critical eye as well:

Here is not the place to investigate throughly the influence of Carothers’s work on McLuhan’s ideas. That being said, two points are worth thinking about in relation to the idea of “technological trauma”.

McLuhan certainly has drawn attention to the intricate relationship between human affairs and technology. Both from an empirical as well as an epistemological standpoint, it seems more and more difficult to separate those two notions. The idea of a neutral technology, for example, appears to be a fallacious one. When McCulloch calls Carothers’s work “colonial science” he his suggesting something similar: as an emergent discipline in the early 40’s and 50’s, ethnopsychiatry was far from being a neutral theoretical field. Thus, the first problem concerns the “politics” of McLuhan’s work: is the concept of “technological trauma” politically informed? If so, how?

The second problem has to do with the process of generalization at work here. Carothers defends the legitimacy of discussing the “African mind” in his 1953 monograph (see “Preface”, pp. 7-10). Others however, whom I have mentioned above, have found this generalization to be overtly reductive and lacking scientific value. What then is to be thought of McLuhan generalization of Carother’s own generalization? Indeed, McLuhan didn’t work on the “African mind” but widened the scope of Carothers’s analysis in order to study the impact of technological progress on the entire human civilization. What is the value of such an approach?

Then again, both those problems are a reminder that McLuhan’s work is, in its own way, also notoriously controversial.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter

Subscribe to our newsletter

This newsletter serves one purpose only: it sends a single email notification whenever a new post is published on, never more than once a day. Upon subscribing, you will receive a confirmation email (if you don’t, check your spam folder). You can unsubscribe at any time.