McLuhen, MacFarlane, and the Connections between Media and Culture

Monday, April 21st, 2014 by lasu9006

Throughout the semester, I have found myself drawing connections between media archaeological theory and characteristics of The Beatles’ recorded music. Thomas MacFarlane, in his book The Beatles and McLuhan: Understanding the Electric Age, provides a thorough and evocative account of the interplay between the Beatles’ recorded music and McLuhan’s media theory. I would like to use MacFarlane’s line of inquiry (which is sort of MacLuhan’s line of inquiry, only mixed with some Ferrara, Husserl, and Heidegger for good measure) to investigate contemporary music recordings, attempting to unearth hermeneutics about contemporary culture. 

MacFarlane’s trajectory in the book was to use a three-fold “mosaic” approach to analyze The Beatles’ recorded music—an approach he deemed far more appropriate at analyzing pop music than traditional methods of music theory and study. McLuhan himself describes a mosaic approach as one that “takes each problem for itself with little reference to the field in which it lies, and seeks to discover relations and principles that hold within the circumscribed area” (32).  The first element of MacFarlane’s mosaic approach is to analyze the “musical syntax” of the music, or to use conventional analysis of music to describe what the music sounds like. Then, one must employ “descriptive phenomenology,” a method which “avoids the presuppositions and assumptions that are a necessary feature of formal methods” and which attempts “to ascertain what the various sounds … can tell us about space … on the recording” (33; 35). Lastly, one must “attempt to access the dynamic interplay between figure and ground [or space and sound] by using McLuhan’s Tetrad” (35). The Tetrad is pretty cool; it involves asking the following questions in regards to an artifact: “what does any artifact amplify or enhance? What does it erode or obsolesce? What does it retrieve that had been earlier obsolesced? What does it reverse  or flit into when pushed to the full limit of its potential?” (21). Then, once you’ve asked those questions, you draw ontological conclusions about the artifact itself and its relation to its context, or to culture. 

So. All that is well and good for MacFarlane, although I do find some of his methodology to be problematic within the media archaeological context. I decided that The Beatles’ music had been investigated quite thoroughly, and that I was interested in instead potentially applying some version of MacFarlane’s methodology, except in regards to some contemporary medium. I think that doing so would be an interesting way to work with the Tetrad as well, which is concerned with how the past, present, and future, interact. The contemporary work that immediately came to my mind in applicability to MacFarlane’s and McLuhan’s methodology is Green Day’s “American Idiot,” an album which I think (whether you like it or not) provides an interesting insight into contemporary culture, all through the manipulation of new recording media. 

My main problem with all of this, that I am attempting to rationalize in my brain, is that MacFarlane’s technique (or his adaptation of McLuhan’s technique) in confronting The Beatles’ recorded music, involves plenty of interpretation, or inscribing of meaning. I am left wondering, as I have been wondering all semester, how we can actually interpret media artifacts in an Ernst-like manner: with a cold, objective eye; or how can we analyze like McLuhan, without attention to the message itself. And also, as an extension to that, what is the point of such a means of interpretation? If I were to interpret The Beatles’ music that way, I would say things like: “1:37 tambourine shimmies, left center. 1:39 resonating orchestral swell, oscillates between left and right.” And that would be a very boring paper, if I went on and on like that. Instead, MacFarlane describes the recordings with poetic acuity, and then presses his own metaphorical interpretations upon the material. For example, he asserts, “As a result, the spatial environment … of the work is continually reshaped in a manner that suggests a rapidly changing cultural context. The resulting effect is that of a sphere in which the center is everywhere, and the margin is nowhere” (MacFarlane 54). MacFarlane’s technique seems to be too invested in interpreting the “meaning” of the “content” to be truly in line with McLuhan’s ideology, and perhaps in line with media archaeology in general. I am left wondering whether my recreating his line of inquiry with “American Idiot” as my subject would be in opposition to media archaeological principles, and if so, how to write an engaging paper without making any constructive conclusions regarding meaning. Maybe if I just stuck to McLuhan’s Tetrad, that might be a way of navigating that tricky line between humanistic interpretation and objective, archaeological discovery. Obviously, I am still thinking all of this through, so any ideas or criticisms are welcome!

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3 comments on “McLuhen, MacFarlane, and the Connections between Media and Culture

  1. angelarovak says:

    This sounds super interesting, and I am sorry to say I don’t have much to say about your methodological problem. I agree that finding ways to put into practice McLuhan and Kittler’s ideas seems near impossible, especially for the literary analysis trained. But I do have a question that arose from a talk on hip hop by the RAP Lab. Have you thought about the history of music sampling? I think this could play well into your ideas about history and (dis)continuity and temporal interaction. And how music sampling from the time of the Beatles versus now, the digitization of this musical element, may have changed composition. Anyways, I am not sure if this plays into your focus on American Idiot, but I wanted to share my thoughts! Also, any plans to look at the musical?!

    • lasu9006 says:

      Angie, those are some awesome suggestions! I hadn’t thought of looking at music sampling, but I will definitely have to do so. Also, I hadn’t thought of looking at the musical, but it would certainly be interesting, given that it’s a different medium and all. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Lori Emerson says:

    Hi Lauren, this sounds like a great project and I’m eager to read the final product! Just a few suggestions: I hope you’ll say more about why that Green Day album in particular? What about it is so indicative of a particular aspect of contemporary music you want to look at? Also, I think the cold gaze of the media archaeologist comes into inscription…in this case, how was the music recorded? what instruments are being used with or against the way they might traditionally used? what’s the media format of the music? Jonathan Sterne wrote a book called MP3: The Meaning of a Format which is a kind of media studies look at a particular format. So, even though you’ve narrowed your focus to a particular album, it might be even better and more manageable to see if you can do either a media archaeological or a media studies reading a particular song. I can see that easily taking up 12 pages.

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