Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Medium and the Light

The microphone is inseparable from some form of amplification by which the relation to the public is altered. PA systems attached to microphones have developed such strikingly different characters as Ghandi and Hitler, Bing Crosby and Winston Churchill. The hardware/software complementarity is evident in the fact that the microphone permits us to do more with less. One of the more recent areas in which the mike has made its power of transformation evident is that of liturgy and ritual. Many people will lament the disappearance of the Latin Mass from the Catholic Church without realizing that it was a victim of the microphone on the altar. It is not practical to say Latin into a microphone since the mike sharpens and intensifies the sounds of Latin to a meaningless degree. That is, Latin is really a very cool form of verbal delivery in which mutter and murmur play a large role, whereas the mike does not take kindly to humming indistinctly. Another effect of the mike at the altar has been to turn the celebrant around to face the congregation. By the same token, amplifiers which are placed in the church to create sounds from all directions at once make the church architecturally obsolete.
Marshall Mcluhan, "Liturgy and the Microphone", in The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion.

McLuhan's ideas have fascinated me since I first grappled with them in high school, but I wasn't aware until recently that he was a Christian. Raised an "indifferent Baptist", he read large tracts of Catholic theology as part of the research for his doctoral thesis and was received into the Roman church in his twenties. I was delighted, therefore, to find this volume of McLuhan's writings on religion, which pays particular attention to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and their relationship to changes in the media. McLuhan views both Vatican II and the centuries-earlier Council of Trent as unsuccessful attempts to respond to technological change. In the 16th century, the new technology was the printing press, creating widespread alphabetic literacy and replacing a tribal, auditory society with an individualist, visual society. In the 20th century, a new complex of electric technologies altered our way of thinking, replacing the visual medium of the printed page with the new auditory-tactile media of radio and television. In McLuhan's view, the church bureaucracy failed on both occasions to realize that changes in the media of the time were at the root of social change.

Reading McLuhan address issues of liturgy directly is tremendously heartening for me, as I've used McLuhanian arguments for some time to demonstrate a potential way forward for church musicians. In my view, the future is optimistic. The almost irresistable imperative to replace organ and choral music with vernacular musical styles, starting in the 1950's, was clearly a product of the "hotting up" of the media through the first half of the twentieth century.

McLuhan's identification of media as "hot" and "cool" depends on the density of information they provide. A telephone conversation, for example, is cool; the person on the other end supplies half of a conversation, requiring you to fill in the gaps, and the signal quality is relatively poor. Compare this to a radio broadcast, whose continuous sound makes you a passive listener rather than an active participant, and the difference between the two types of media is clear. The changes of the early twentieth century, with very few exceptions, tended to replace cool media (the printed page, which requires you to translate alphabetic symbols into spoken words, and spoken words into a coherent narrative) with hot media (a movie, which presents a series of images which are designed to form a coherent narrative without this process of translation).

In the face of such a pervasive rise in temperature throughout the media, it was inevitable that the individualism of Western society should be eroded. After all, we must go back to the oral traditions of tribal, pre-literate society to find a time when hot media dominated the social sphere to such an extent. And, as we know, extremely hot things tend to coagulate and meld together; extremely cold things become brittle and shatter. The result was a homogenization and centralization of culture, creating the phenomenon of pop culture as we now understand it. Individual musicians or artists now had a worldwide audience and achieved levels of fame previously impossible. The flip side, however, was that mainstream pop culture eradicated fringe genres and regional variations within the arts. In music, vernacular styles tended to steamroll over the European classical tradition, the traditional folk musics of Western and non-Western cultures, and even previous vernacular styles such as jazz. In the face of such opposition, even intrinsically conservative organizations like the established church felt an imperative to include popular styles in their services - after all, the overwhelming heat of the media made it difficult to sustain any other style. Had this trend continued, any attempt to maintain the traditional church music that I practice would have been staving off the inevitable.

But McLuhan died in 1980, and changes in society since then have reversed some of the changes he identified. The centralization of television networks has given way to an overwhelming variety of channels catering to the narrowest of audiences. More and more consumers choose to stay at home and watch DVDs rather than see the latest Hollywood fare in theatres. The unified popular music scene of the 1960s no longer exists, replaced by a multitude of competing subgenres with audiences of varying sizes. Most radically, the Internet offers a platform to any hack with a computer, creating a place for the most obscure enthusiasms one can possibly imagine. The printed word is back with a vengeance - it is the lingua franca of the Internet, although it now takes the form of a spiderweb of interconnecting links, not a single linear narrative. In other words, the media are cooling back down, and those of us who want to preserve a tradition outside of the popular sphere now have a fighting chance.

The changes should not be mistaken for a decisive reversal. The media are still much hotter than they were at the beginning of the last century. But the change is real; people of my generation to whom I've shown the pipe organ are almost always fascinated and intrigued. Adults of the baby boomer generation often couldn't care less. They grew up with hot media and are convinced I'm irrelevant. Meanwhile, popular styles of church music have ossified. The musical language of most mainstream churches who offer "contemporary worship" is simply a repackaged version of 1970s folk rock, and the seats are filled with nostalgic, aging boomers. When people over twice my age tell me that the organ won't appeal to young people, you know the revolution is officially over.

Expect more intense McLuhan-blogging when I finish the book.

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