MARSHALL McLUHAN: SOCIAL MEDIA BETWEEN FAITH AND CULTURE: An International Conference, September 21-22, 2012
The University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto
Michael O’Connor September 22, 2012
Most church histories acknowledge the importance of the printing press for the Protestant Reformation. Less attention has been paid to the transformation effected by the microphone in more recent times. For McLuhan, The microphone alters the relationship between speaker and public. We can’t imagine Ghandi, Bing Crosby, or Winston Churchill without the PA system; “That Hitler came into political existence at all is directly owing to radio and the public-address system” (Understanding Media, 300).
In two places, McLuhan reflected on the impact of the microphone on Catholic worship: an article published in The Critic at the end of 1974, entitled “Liturgy and the Microphone”; and in the third interview with Fr Babin (1974-77), which repeats some of the material of the article.
My aim in this paper is to review McLuhan’s remarks, to explore them further especially in the light of his distinction between hot and cool media, and to see if there are any consequences for the use of this technology in the Catholic mass today. I speak from the perspective of an insider, a believer, and a practitioner (a liturgical musician).
For brevity’s sake, I will refer to the vernacular Eucharist of the 1970s (and beyond) as the “new mass,” and the Latin mass before Vatican II as the “old mass.” When I speak of the microphone, I am assuming a PA system such as can be found in virtually every church in the West. I will be focusing on the microphone on the altar—introduced in North American Catholic churches in the late 40s and 50s; McLuhan has things to say about the microphone on the pulpit, the preacher’s microphone, but it is the microphone on the altar that has had the biggest impact on Catholic liturgy.
EXPOSITIONLet’s begin with McLuhan’s remarks on microphones and the Latin mass. Here’s a section from the article in The Critic:
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. (The Media and the Light, 111–12)For McLuhan, technological innovation has had important consequences for Catholic ritual, consequences which were unforeseen and which remain largely unexamined. The old mass included a sacred ritual muttering, carried out by a priest set apart for the task, who stood at the altar and spoke with God and offered sacrifice on behalf of the people. This muttering took place largely out of the sight and hearing of the people—his face and his voice, and therefore his personality, were cloaked. The people did not need to follow all that was being done on their behalf—we might say, just as a patient need not follow the actions of the surgeon to feel the benefit of the surgeon’s work.
The old mass is a cool medium: low-definition, not over-explained, appealing to more than one of the senses—and therefore encouraging attention and mental focus, but also allowing for participants to move in and out, since it includes repetitions, pauses, re-starts, silence. Like a cartoon in a newspaper, it does not explain everything, but works by inviting the participants themselves to join the dots, make connections, to fill in the story. When McLuhan attended the old mass at St Basil’s each day before lunch, he entered for 15 minutes into a cool, meditative ritual.
The microphone changes that. When the priest’s words are amplified through a public address system, the public is addressed: this gives the impression that there is something to be heard, so they should pay attention. But if the words are in Latin, the microphone, “accentuates and intensifies the sounds of Latin to the point where it loses all of its power” (ML 143), “it sharpens and intensifies the sounds of Latin to a meaningless degree” (ML 112). It seems the enchantment of the Latin prayers is lost when they are amplified and broadcast; if the priest is addressing the public, the words he says must be those of the language that all share. And further, if the priest at the altar is now clearly entering into dialogue with the congregation, it follows that he should turn around and face them.
The result is that the new mass is a hotter medium than the old mass—high-definition, conveying a great deal of information, addressing one sense above the other senses—in this case, hearing. A typical daily mass at St Basil’s today lasts longer than the old mass’s 15 minutes; and, with the exception of the time it takes to distribute communion, it is an almost unbroken sequence of amplified speech, nearly all of it from the priest. True, there is some movement and action, but almost always accompanied by the spoken word, broadcast through the mike. And the congregation’s participation is largely a matter of responding to broadcast cues from the priest.
In McLuhan’s terms, this heating up of the mass, led by the microphone, with the goal of fostering greater participation, was bound to backfire. In Understanding Media, he claims that hot experiences must be “reduced to a cool state” before they can be assimilated (UM, 24). For the rare few, this might take the form of a serene Wordsworthian moment of emotion recollected in tranquillity, but McLuhan claims that this is not the norm: “For many people this cooling system brings on a lifelong state of rigor mortis, or of somnambulism, particularly observable in periods of new technology” (UM, 24). To draw an analogy: after an intense lecture, say on Hamlet, a group of students meets in the nearby coffee shop for an informal discussion of the play, to process material from the lecture. But most students feel so overwhelmed by the intensity of the lecture that they are unwilling or unable to engage in any kind of seminar of this kind; the hot medium leaves them dazed, or bored, and they sleepwalk into the next activity and give little further thought to Hamlet until the exam comes around. If McLuhan is right that the mike has “heated up” the mass, and that this heating up overloads participants to the extent that they must sooner or later turn on an internal cooling system, and consequently tune out—then we should not be surprised when people say that “mass is boring.” (The old mass may have been boring too, but for different reasons).
McLuhan clearly believes that the mass in its essence is an example of a cool medium: its content is repetitive, non-linear, multi-voiced; it uses typology, symbol, allusion, parable, and silence. He claims that there is more scope for audience participation in a cool medium. Participation for McLuhan is “completion by the audience” (UM, 23). A hot medium, because it is high-definition, and more highly-organized, leaves less scope for completion by the audience.
This might strike us as odd: that the old mass, which was in a language that very few people understood and was celebrated much of the time out of the direct sight and hearing of the congregation, was potentially more participative than the new mass, celebrated in the vernacular with the priest directly engaging the congregation, audibly and visibly. The new mass was designed precisely to foster participation; according to Second Vatican Council, in the Constitution on the Liturgy:The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, may be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved. (SC 50)This is only a paradox, McLuhan explains to Fr Babin, if we have the wrong idea of what matters most. We must not be “hypnotised” by content (ML 147), but must instead attend to the context, the wider, deeper reality of what is going on (i.e., ground rather than figure). Fr Babin voices the reaction of many, saying that McLuhan’s approach would surely mean a neglect of the message. McLuhan replies: “Isn’t the real message of the church in the secondary or side-effects of the Incarnation, that is to say, Christ’s penetration into all of human existence?” (ML 102). The true message is “being plugged into a person [Christ]” (ML 103). The message of the Bible is not the words, but “the effect on us, and that is conversion” (ML 104). So participation in the mass, for McLuhan, is not really about engaging with the content—that is, at best, only half a brain’s work—but plugging into a relationship, entering into the symbolic and mythic realm of ritual, performing it, and being changed by it. In other words, participation in the mass is about engaging with the medium itself. And this somewhat cooler approach seems to have been part, at least, of what Vatican II had in mind:To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. (SC 30)The encounter with the divine takes place in the embodied performance of ritual songs and traditional gestures. McLuhan says: “[…] the formative power in the media are the media themselves” (UM 21). When asked why he was so focussed on this subliminal power of the media, he replied that it was because “grace is subliminal” (quoted in Hungerford, Postmodern Belief, 58).
COOLING DOWN THE MASS?So: if the goal is to foster greater participation, and if it is actually harder to participate in the new mass (a hot medium), than in the old mass (a cool medium), what’s to be done? One solution would be simply to return to the old mass. (Some of McLuhan’s remarks might suggest that this was his preference; I don’t know for sure.) Another would be to try to cool down the new mass. I will close with five brief thoughts on how that might be done (though they are workings out of the principles he put forward, they are probably far too prescriptive for McLuhan himself):
- The first concerns language: Let the liturgical vernacular be a real vernacular (and not a bureaucratic artifice)—that means that it must be genuinely “popular,” arising from oral cultures, having the “oral dimension of colloquial idiom and rhythm” (ML 110). Poetry and song are major means by which a language purifies and invigorates itself (ML 144). For McLuhan, the language of the tribe was purified by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, and T.S. Eliot, as well as by jazz, rock and roll, and Irish folk music (ML 145). In a way, McLuhan sees the cool Latin of the old mass as just such a vernacular: originally a popular language, it is grounded in communities, retaining, even in writing, the cadences of an oral form; it is rhythmic, embodied, and facilitates meditation (ML 110).
For McLuhan, the development of a genuine liturgical vernacular must be a fluid and ongoing process; it assumes small communities, and it would accommodate plenty of variety. Rome, he says, is “far too tentative,” and resists this, contending that it could not work (ML 148). And Rome is also impatient, insisting “that liturgy become as rigid as hardware, as soon as possible. To me that is exactly what cannot work in an electric world, especially with our adolescents” (ML 149).
(McLuhan would probably have the same complaint about the new translation as he made about the previous one: that it was the fruit of a bureaucratic process led by people who had as much sense of poetry as a computer.)
- The second concerns ritual performance: Say less, sing more, and be silent more often (the cool liturgy is less concerned with information and more with incantation). Words should be few and carefully weighed. I might not go as far as liturgical scholar John Baldovin, who suggests the complete elimination of all ad lib remarks during the liturgy, all off-the-cuff introductions and invitations (Baldovin 152–53). These may seem to be gestures of hospitality, but by demanding the congregation’s direct attention they heat up the liturgy; and on McLuhan’s terms, hot forms exclude, while cool ones include (UM 23). Singing, silence, poetic speech—all these appeal to the both sides of the brain, to the whole self.
- The third concerns the technology itself: Work with the mike to minimize the mike. Musician Thomas Day simply recommends: “turn them down.” The over-loud microphone can take at least two forms:
a. Day calls the first the “command voice,” the super-loud priest or cantor who swamps the people and suppresses their voice.
b. The second we could call the cozy, “fireside chat” voice, getting up close.
Both are hyper-conscious of the microphone, allowing it to provide the sound projection, while the natural voice remains under-developed, or atrophies. Here the influence of popular music is evident—and of TV talent shows. McLuhan speaks of the soul singer who seems to disappear inside the mike (111). And Frank Sinatra said: “the microphone is the singer’s basic instrument, not the voice. You have to learn to play it like a saxophone” (quoted in Tony Schwartz, Media: the Second God, 131). A cool liturgy will take the opposite view, locating the voice in the speaker’s body, aiming for a natural sound on a human scale; the best microphone is one you don’t notice [cf. “A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice” (C.S. Lewis, in Baldovin 98)].
- The fourth is a theological axiom: Receive the liturgy above all as God’s gift, and as a human work only in response to that gift. In the liturgy, the microphone lends authority—just as here today: the person at the mike claims your attention. The priest no longer mutters at the altar while everyone else gets on with their prayers; he is the presider of the assembly, expecting the assembly to pay attention to every word he says. This is not always welcome: “the individual at mass, in private meditation, is irritated by the strident amplified vernacular voice” (ML 113–14). The old mass subdued the priest’s ego by means of rubrics and the customs of reverence, and by hiding his face and subduing his voice. The new mass is a hot medium; it is therefore a more authoritarian medium, and more determined by the personality of the celebrant, who may be tempted to think that the liturgy is his own creation, his own property. The new mass gives the people far less protection from the ego and vanity of their priest than the old mass did. (That’s not to say that members of the congregation are immune from ego and vanity, but simply to recognize that the person with the mike has the much bigger impact.)
- The fifth is a reminder of one characteristic of all cool media: attend to all of the senses: there should be plenty to see as well as to hear; there should be distinctive and evocative smells and tastes, textures and movement.
The liturgical context is now obviously not the same as 1974. If McLuhan were alive, he might take issue with some of these points; but at least I could say that his remarks on the microphone got me started.