Light Through McLuhan

McLuhan constructs an anthropological argument based upon a distinction between the 'the civilized and the tribal (eye and ear)'.1

The civilized society is an 'open society', individualist, liberal, secular, nationalist, industrial and capitalist.

The tribal society is 'closed', corporate, conservative, religious, pre- or post-industrial, and communist.

McLuhan links the shift from 'tribal' to 'civilized' society with the invention of the phonetic alphabet.

He says that 'the incessant translation of sound into sight and sight into sound' which happens in phonetic reading and writing fosters that 'sense of individual identity' praised by Plato in the Republic and 'that inner dialogue or conscience within, which we rightly associate with the very citadel of civilized awareness'.2

Print, meanwhile, represents 'the extreme phase of alphabet culture'.3

As the mechanism for 'the first uniformly repeatable commodity', the printing press was the model for 'the first assembly-line, and the first mass production', leading to the fixed-price market of 'uniform commodities' with 'uniform pricing'.4

By establishing a paradigm of 'uniformity, repeatability, lineality, individualism and "point of view"', the phonetic alphabet and printing press together created 'what we call Renaissance individualism and nationalism', promoting 'self-set objectives', 'initiative and self-reliance ... inner self definition and inner goals'.5

Any nation based upon the use of these technologies (the Roman Empire, Britain, Germany, France, America, etc.), McLuhan calls 'civilized', stating in The Gutenberg Galaxy that the term 'civilization' must apply strictly to 'detribalized man for whom the visual values have priority in the organization of thought and action.'6