Tribe, Fossil, Arche: Genealogies of 'The Primitive' in Modern Media Theory
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7/10/2018 at 11:47:08 PM GMT
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Tribe, Fossil, Arche: Genealogies of 'The Primitive' in Modern Media Theory
SCMS 2019 Preliminary Panel Proposal

Convenor: Tyler Morgenstern (PhD Candidate, UCSB Film & Media Studies)



Please email paper proposals, including a title (120 characters), abstract (2500 characters), 3-5 bibliographic sources, and a bio (1500 characters) to Tyler Morgenstern at by August 3rd, 2018. Decisions will be made by August 17th


Panel Description:

Seeking to describe the peculiar perceptual environments then consolidating around an emerging ensemble electronic media and communication technologies, Marshall McLuhan in 1968 famously hypothesized that such technologies—television in particular—would, by restoring a condition of “sensory balance,” herald what he calls the retribalization of man. Immersed in the weirdly scaled “acoustic space” of televisual perception, the epistemic privilege historically accorded to those forms of sight keyed to the printed page would be brought to heel. Man, his sense capacities newly arranged and differently extended into the world, would be restored to a pre-modern, even primitive, state of sensate holism. Strangely, however, this restoration unfolds firmly within the ambit of the modern, capacitated as it is by the methods, objects and precepts of post-War technoscience. Retribalization, that is, takes place absent the threat of any actual civilizational regression. The tribe instead becomes a model for an assumptively shared technological, perceptual, and social future. 


Far from an isolated maneuver, McLuhan’s tribal turn is symptomatic of a broader tendency in mid-Century Anglophone media and communication theory. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, figurations of ‘the primitive’ proliferated in the work of those straining to make sense of an emerging world of electronic mediation. Yet as McLuhan and his contemporaries promulgated their respective riffs on the retribalization theme, the tribe as a lived social formation came under aggressive political assault across the very continent that had made him a singularly unlikely superstar. In the United States, for instance, the post-War years witness the emergence of a coordinated ensemble of tribal termination and relocation policies designed to extinguish what remained of specifically Indigenous land tenure regimes, social orders, and economic models. In Canada, similar maneuvers were afoot, with successive federal governments attempting to either substantially reform or altogether scrap the Indian Act and establish in its place a legislative framework that substituted urban migration, capitalist assimilation, and a decidedly liberal variety of cultural recognition for tribal sovereignty and self-determination. 


This panel attempts to think this convergence as more than banal historical coincidence, considering instead how important shifts in the cultural and political codification of ‘the primitive’—variously figured as the Indian, the tribe, the savage, and so on—may in fact have capacitated a particular set of conceptual maneuvers within media and communication theory. How did mid-Century media theory adopt, adapt, refract, and/or redeploy figures of primitivity, to what particular ends or for what purposes, and to what extent did these recitations draw on the broader itineraries of primitivity—as concept, as marker of racial difference, as visual and textual trope—within the settler colony? How is one to think the relation between the mid-Century proliferation of primitives in media theory and the contemporaneous refashioning of settler state power vis-a-vis the Indigenous? And moreover, how do 20th-century struggles for Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, and varying forms of state recognition differently frame media-theoretical constructs like ‘retribalization?’ By thinking (through) the primitive, might we reflexively theorize the settler-colonial formation of modern media theory? 


Though historical in orientation, such questions engage a number of trends in contemporary media theory. How, for instance, does a reconsideration of the mid-Century moment, informed by the insights of Native American and Indigenous Studies, Settler Colonial Studies, and Postcolonial Studies, resituate such contemporary media figures as the fossil (see Parikka, 2015), which as Kyla Schuller (2016) has observed, first emerges as a media concept (at least in the US context) within the mire of mass Indigenous dispossession in the latter half of the 19th Century? Does a critique of settler colonialism differently inflect archaeology as a theory and analytic of media-historical change? Following the recent work of anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli (2016), to what degree does the current concern with media as a lively, life-like, or even life process (see Kember & Zylinska, 2012) extend or sustain a “late liberal geontopower” that variously constrains and exhausts Indigenous modes of existence? What form(s) of life, exactly, might our media theory be sponsoring, and more important, which may it be helping to extinguish? 


Note: Currently attached to participate is Dr. Kara Thompson, Assistant Professor, English and American Studies, William & Mary University; author of Blanket, forthcoming on Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, and Settler Contingencies, Native Futures, currently under contract with Duke University Press. 



Arindam Dutta (ed.), A Second Modernism: MIT, Architecture, and the ‘Techno-social’ 

Moment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013).


Sarah Kember & Joanna Zylinska, Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process 

(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012).


Gyorgy Kepes, The New Landscape in Art and Science (Chicago: Paul Theobald and 

Company, 1956). 


Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Revised Edition 

(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994). 


Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015). 


Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Durham and London: 

Duke University Press, 2016).


Kyla Schuller, “The Fossil and the Photograph: Red Cloud, Prehistoric Media, and 

Dispossession in Perpetuity,” Configurations 24, 2 (2016), pp. 229-61.


Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth 

Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 


Last edited Monday, July 16, 2018

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