From the Electric Tribe to the Digital Polis: Exploding the ‘Doctrine of Logos’ Online
This paper addresses the tumultuous interpersonal clashes characterizing contemporary online assertions of identity by applying core themes in the work of Marshall McLuhan. In particular, I develop the argument that, while the global awareness attributed by McLuhan to the electric age is still a predominant feature of the present cultural environment, the psychic and social qualities of discarnate immersion, robotic adjustability, self-performativity, and corporate managerialism attributed by McLuhan to the “global village” and/or “global theatre” of radio and television have now become obsolesced by the newly evolving psychic and perceptual ground engendered by digital technology. Drawing on the McLuhanian dialectic of figure/ground and of environment/anti-environment, I argue that the multifarious “culture wars” raging on social media spaces like Twitter and YouTube (and, in many cases, having their origin from more culturally isolated spaces such as Tumblr and 4chan) can be understood as embodying the traumatic psychic clash between (1) the enhanced collective awareness of the TV “global theatre” as omnipresent figure and (2) the bourgeoning collective intuition – at different levels of consciousness – of the new digital ground, as it unleashes cognitive and social pressures in the process of obliterating the familiar attitudes inherent to the “global theatre.”
As an environment structured by symbolic languages dynamically inscribed into computer memory, the digital world, I argue, should not be understood under the moniker of “secondary orality” characteristic of the discarnate “electric tribalism” that McLuhan probed so eloquently. Instead, due to the digital in-formation and re-location of globally distributed electric energy, the cultural and psychic environment constituted by digital media is more profitably understood as “secondary literacy” – a mode of human subjectivity that can be gleaned in an incipient fashion by re-tracing McLuhan’s work back to his own grounding in the classical ‘doctrine of the Logos,’ which served, not only as the topic of McLuhan’s dissertation, but also as the method of perception – explicated by McLuhan as “formal cause” – guiding his collected body of insights. Emphasizing McLuhan’s own remediation of the “primary literacy” of Ancient Greek and Medieval manuscript culture – a posture navigating between the extremes of tribal orality and print visuality – provides a significant lens, I argue, to understand the newly emerging online communities and figures, who, probing beyond the collectivist managerialism and identitarian role-playing characterizing left-wing and right-wing online groups, are retrieving a new humanist foundationalism either explicitly or implicitly based on the localized yet universal resonance of Logos.
From a regulatory standpoint, this retrieved individual passion for existential meaning evidenced, not only by the intellectual “centrists” converging in groups such as the “intellectual dark web” and “rebel wisdom,” but also, in a more convoluted fashion, by racial and sexual identitarians spells disaster for attempts by public and private elites to harness the platform economy, and its algorithmically enhanced tools of market research and subliminal suggestion, as the means of managing public affect under the obsolesced program of global theatre consumerism. If, in McLuhan’s view, the electric, and particularly television, age fostered perceptions of global integration through discarnate immersion in, and managerial manipulation of, the “collective unconscious” of myth, the recovery of formal cause, and the high-definition search for origins, in the digital age retrieves the intellectual pursuit and affective hope of theology. Caught in the tumultuous pressure between obsolescent myths and retrieved theologies, the online discourses indicative of the contemporary culture wars – if they are to be fostered peacefully – must not be squashed, but appreciated as the collective working-out by emergent communities of thought (or what I call digital poleis) of this wide scale transition, as new patterns of decentralization and recentralization assert themselves.