Wayword by Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy

. . .the process of perception is that of incarnation.

Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Light

‘Wayword’ (available on CDBaby) is a second collection of songs by Mr. & Mrs. Garrett Soucy, a collection of songs with many allusions to both Christian faith and McLuhan’s ideas about media and culture.  I note the artists’ name with curiosity. Why not just Garrett Soucy? Or, why not include his wife’s first name? On the politically correct side, feminists may cavil that the woman has subordinated her identity to her husband’s; perhaps, but we will not know how she feels until we ask her. Perhaps she prefers to remain just that much out of the limelight. Clearly, he has subordinated the customary right to an individual masculine identity to their union, at once signifying her importance to his creativity, and abrogating the usual masculine atomism. She adds a subtle harmony voice to several songs.

The title puns in ways McLuhan would appreciate. ‘Wayword’ misspells ‘wayward’ and hints at wandering and wondering, both words a fine description of the non-discursive tack the songs take toward their subjects. And ‘-word’, of course is also the Logos, the Word of God made flesh, with its always implicit McLuhanesque contrast of the incarnate and discarnate. There is no long explication of concept or scholarship here; these are simple songs, not theses. The lyrics consists of percepts or koans associated with McLuhan, some familiar, some not, some perhaps not McLuhan at all. There are also as many open-ended spiritual references or allusions about the desire and search for a greater, more stable truth than the present media-dominated consumer culture offers.

These two strands of media and faith are also explicit in  The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, the posthumous collection of letters, addresses, and essays by Marshall McLuhan first published in 1999. If you are a person of faith familiar with his more popular works where he down-pedaled or even obscured his Catholicism, and not trying to avoid the issue of his devotion (an educated correspondent of mine once dismissed McLuhan’s thought about the discarnate as a red herring based on medieval Catholic ideology, rather than rational thought”), The Medium and the Light may be one of his most accessible and trenchant books. The harmony and correspondence between the two is so great, I would not be surprised if the book was Soucy’s principal source.

A quick listen to ‘Wayword’ finds Dylan, Milk Carton Kids, and Mumford and Sons as stylistic cousins, if not influences. The once monolithic popular music scene now has an active and independent market (hence ‘Indie’ as a musical category) exploring traditions of folk and popular music, often as a retreat from arena-scaled spectacle, and a retrieval of intimacy.

. . .today’s teens hate bigness. . .That is a peculiarity of electric speed where you have everything happening at once, in the same place. Instead of expansion or explosion, you have a sudden contraction or implosion. ‘Small is beautiful’ is their motto. . .A big church, for them, falls in with big schools, the big this and the big that. . .And they say: “Enough!”  The small group that they long for retrieves the family, a unity founded on relationship or kinship, or on age similarity. Group membership demands a total involvement in each other, and these groups are formed in an auditory context, a musical environment. (McLuhan, p.94)

This was written in 1977, almost forty years ago, and the revolt against ‘big’, the fragmentation of musical taste, and the desire for involvement is even greater today.

And so, the spare style and subtle harmonies of the Soucys are more important to the small ‘message’ than the content of the lyrics.  As the Beatles demonstrated definitively fifty years ago, the rhythm and arrangement in the mass electric age is more important in its appeal to current sensibilities than the meaning of the lyrics. Consider how many Beatles lyrics are memorable without the lyrics having any certain ‘sense’, from Penny Lane to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.  McLuhan thought of popular music as just one more manifestation of the current spoken dialect:

What has not been understood is that the hidden ground, not only of jazz and rock, but of all music, must be the common dialect. Technical innovation in the human environment disturbs all levels of personal perceptual life and must find its resolution through the common measures of speech. Speech. . . is the great corporate and organic medium which digests and orders the chaotic inputs of daily experience (McLuhan, p. 124).

In the Beatles’ era, popular music focused on studio production and the rapidly improving quality of recording (Sgt. Pepper was a landmark reprising many styles of music in the then new multi-track studio); now with the recording studio in our homes and even our hands in its new digital format, the taste for local and present is returning once again. McLuhan said about himself:

Marshall McLuhan has never said that the printed page has come to an end. McLuhan has said that the book is obsolescent. So is handwriting. But there is more handwriting done today than there was before Gutenberg. Obsolescence never meant the end of anything – it’s just the beginning. (McLuhan, p. 139)

This desire for quiet in the pre-electric roots of popular music began with the folk revival of the fifties and sixties as a paradoxical reaction against the increasing corporate dominance of the music industry. The traditional, seemingly obsolescent, oral forms of music became the content of the then burgeoning audio technology, retrieved, electrified, and re-imagined as rock. And then rock looked back to its own roots to become ‘unplugged.’

Look at how the experience of popular music has changed in the century-plus since Edison, a not-so-subtle move from physical and local performance to absent distribution and reproduction. The radio created the mass audience for popular music. Sheet music which needed to be performed gave way in rapid succession to wax cylinders, 78s, LPs (for Long-Playing), reel-to-reel tapes, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, mp3 files. Privacy (wanting to hear the music on demand), portability (in cars and running), and profitability (the costs of making and transporting vinyl or plastic were reduced first by CDs, and eliminated by mp3 files) – all played a role in relentless innovative change, in the industry and more importantly in the sensibilities of the audience for popular music. The community sensibility about music has changed from incarnate with sheet music which required a performer to interpret at an instrument to the discarnate, an absent performer who might be anywhere, and a distribution system that comes from nowhere as well.  Every change in technology creates a change in sensibility and requires adjustment in its users. Perhaps without recognizing it, we are hungry for simple songs sung by a man with a guitar, and his wife.

But the man and wife singing simple songs are not what we want. In the context of mp3s and YouTube, Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy are the nostalgic content of a vast, invisible, discarnate empire of production and distribution. Absence creates desire. And this desire for the incarnate is like gazing at an image of an absent lover; the representation is not what we want. The aging boomer stuck in Classic Rock has his favorite songs by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, or the Who-ever; but that is not what he wants. What he wants is the the energy and reckless confidence of that time in his life. What the sensibility attracted to these simple songs sung by a man with a guitar wants is presence, the singers in the room, the sense and involvement of performance, and its community. In that sense, Mr and Mrs. Garrett Soucy are singing from the heart of the Beast. The ability to reach a wider audience in this discarnate form are paradoxically the seeds of retrieving what the technology has obsolesced. Compared to this craving for presence and involvement, the themes of McLuhan and even faith are just content, surely meaningful allusions full of unstated import to the Soucys and their audience, but not doctrine. Mr. Soucy does not get everything ‘right’ in his quick allusions to McLuhan, or for that matter even theology, but I give him credit for trying. His effort to understand and play with the ideas as percepts is valuable for himself and his audience. Besides:

The revelation is of thing, not theory. . . Theology is one of the “games people play” in the sense of its theorizing. But using direct perception and direct involvement with the actuality of a revealed thing – there need be no theology in the ordinary sense of the word (McLuhan,      p. 81).

Let’s look at some lyrics. The song ‘Anachronistic Progress’ contains the repeated line: “If it works, it’s obsolete”.  As it happens, this is not originally McLuhan at all, though he used it often. In a 1970 letter to Frank Sheed from The Medium and the Light (p.139), McLuhan attributes the phrase to ‘an old saying in the business world’. What can that signify in our current age of innovation?  McLuhan offers a clue in a 1935 letter to his mother where he quotes Osbert Burdett from a 1925 book, The Beardsley Period: An Essay in Perspective, about the “origins of predatory laissez-faire commerce”:

Industrialism establishes a state of slavery more corrupting than any previously known in the world because the master is not a man but a system, and the whip an invisible machine. With this it is impossible to enter into any but inhuman relations, and in such an inversion of humanity all the instincts become perverted at their source. ( in McLuhan, p. 18)

In 1925, Burdett was talking about the factory and the assembly line; how much greater the perversion of humanity in the post-Industrial digital age and ‘venture capital’ driving the separation of haves and have-nots! The relentless pace of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, ever in search of monetizing a new idea to keep the economic bubble supported, undermines a community that might eventually accommodate to a more stable present. Does the ceaseless change of endless innovation create worker dependency which the corporations count on? Might a purely capitalist economy built on ceaseless growth be a complex global Ponzi scheme?  The ceaseless activity benefits the few at the top, while the rest, ‘the workers’, kept foolish and clueless by the ceaseless anxious propaganda about the market and jobs, play their roles in trading labor for wages, and wages for the things that keep the bubble growing, dutifully slogging on in their dependent roles. Could an economy be built on another more broadly integrated, less avaricious and more ethical model of maintaining and supporting social roles, neighborhoods, and local markets? If these are not entirely rhetorical questions, you need to read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si.

It is surely too much to expect a concise history of the Trivium as it relates to either McLuhan or faith in the opening stanza of a song. In ‘The Thing’, Soucy’s opening couplet reads:

In the first days of grammar / when our minds are like hammers

I appreciate the reach for a rhyme, but it is not fledgling human minds which are like hammers, at the historical beginnings of speech, or at the beginning of any of our lives. Rather, young minds (or for that matter, rhetorical minds) are like sponges or wet clay, absorbing and being shaped by the sensibilities surrounding, while percept and language hammer our minds on the anvil of culture. (Some critics see in this kind of description an argument for calling McLuhan a ‘determinist’. But these overlook that this description is one-sided part of of a complex interactive exchange, that from the start the sponge and clay affect their own growing influence in the constant back-and-forth of every living moment. ) And the stanza ends with:

And then dialectic, as we pass on to rhetoric / and sharpen the teeth of the saw.

In truth, rhetoric is older than dialectic. Rhetoric might be seen as the saw of the Trivium only because the modern mind has reduced it to a weapon for attack and defense in debate or politics. Rhetoric is much richer than that. Rhetoric responds to and shapes the sensibilities of an audience, to ‘teach, delight, or move’ (Cicero, or St. Augustine if you prefer).  It is dialectic, not rhetoric, which cuts like a saw, like Ockham’s razor, or the surgeon’s scalpel. Under the influence of the alphabet, and then print, the perceptual visual bias of dialectic over the ear’s grammar and rhetoric brought fragmentation, scholasticism, a cultural bias for efficient cause, sequential logic, and soon the scientific method, which bores down after ever smaller bits of knowledge, defines each new bit as a concept, and isolates them all from one another. So the sciences were born and became increasingly specialized. Yes, there were great gains in knowledge and material well-being; and great losses we are only just discovering. In philosophy, politics and economics were isolated from ethics, and laissez-faire capitalism was born. McLuhan showed in The Mechanical Bride and Culture Is Our Business that rhetoric is alive in advertising, and well-employed in manipulating the public into becoming a largely passive and uncritical consumer mass.

. . .the “Prince of this World” is a great P. R. man, a great salesman of new hardware and software, a great electric engineer, and a great master of the media. It is his master stroke to be not only environmental, but invisible, for the environment is invincibly persuasive when ignored. (The Medium and the Light, Introduction, p. xxiii)

The force of rhetoric in the electric era has shifted from the spoken and written word to the image, hence the emergence of branding as a new form of corporate identity. And it is not only business taking advantage of the phenomenon. The disenfranchised citizen in an ethnic neighborhood in Detroit or Brussels who becomes a home-grown terrorist does not need to go to Afghanistan or Pakistan for indoctrination; he only needs to put on the media-provided brand identity of Al-Qaeda or Islamic State in his home-town.

While I was working on this article, I got into a discussion about politics with a visiting friend close to my age. The topic was the Middle-east and Arab unrest. He had misconceptions about historical events earlier in our lifetimes. He thought the Middle-east became a problem only after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, and had no awareness of the Iran hostage crisis or the first invasion of Iraq by George H W Bush, to name only two missing points on his timeline. I started to fill in the gaps, and he responded something like this:

Where do we learn things from: the media. I’ve got my business, my kids, my social life, and I have to keep track of who’s killed who, what’s healthy and not- and when it’s OK again; what’s hot and what’s not, who’s hot and who’s not, product recalls, illness fears, terrorism both real and threatened, endless marketing and ceaseless politicking – and you want me to study history?

I was stunned, turned to stone. Not to know the sequence of significant events in your own lifetime? To think that keeping track of these things requires studying history? He is younger than I, so the 1963 assassination of JFK is not the visceral experience it was for me in fifth grade. But I remember the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobbie Kennedy, and the Chicago Democratic convention – all in 1968; then the Kent State and Jackson State shootings in 1970, Nixon’s resignation in 1973, the end of the Viet Nam war. . .and on toward the present. If I don’t know exact dates or every name, I have an approximate sense of order and significance. This recollection requires not ‘study’, but only some on-going reflection as events unfold. But if the din of the small immediate present is ceaseless, no reflection is possible.

I tried to continue the discussion about the influence of mass media on politics and our perception of world events, and he continued,

It’s the media, all the time, I’m tired of it. It’s too much to keep track of. I’m done. I  don’t listen anymore. I want simple.

In the sudden silence after this last complaint, I heard the bird calls at the feeder outside.  And I heard in his litany the clues to his exasperation. My incredulity changed to sympathy.  I heard in his tirade the frustrations of the many dispossessed and disenfranchised, overwhelmed by an unrelenting present they feel powerless to control. Here’s McLuhan from a 1977 interview:

One of the effects of innovation is somnambulism. When people are under a heavy strain psychically they tend to cave in, to turn zombie. Zombie-ism is a normal mode today for withstanding technological innovation (McLuhan, p. 62)

The majority with their smart phones and ceaseless connectivity lack the literate detachment and critical tools, habits of mind, to limit the input they choose to surround and immerse themselves in. Overwhelmed and shutting down. Or perhaps willfully, purposefully, withdrawing?  Quite apart from what seemed initially to be a retreat from understanding, my new sympathy now saw a desire for a quieter, more local and less hectic way of living redolent of bird calls, wind chimes, and prayer flags. Something spiritual.

Is this desire for quiet and simplicity defeat or escape? Is it burying your head in the sand, covering your ears like a school-child and chanting “I’m not listening”? Or is the desire a move toward recovering freedom? Would you choose the escape, and would it free you? There is no absolute freedom, and there are no pat answers. Americans tend to think of freedom as choice, and the freedom to do whatever they want. They don’t recognize the propaganda in advertising and culture that channels their choice down a prescribed path of commercial dependency. Real freedom begins with understanding. Without understanding, our actions are unconscious, automatic, robotic, and well short of free.  Life inevitably brings inter-related choices which, in the absolute sense, must limit freedom: where you choose to live, who you choose to marry, what you choose to do to support yourself (what used to be called a vocation, from a calling, instead of a job; a calling implies other social and spiritual influences on the decision besides income – a job is just about the buck).  If you want to play the cello, you must discipline yourself to learn, and practice, practice, practice. If you want to learn to pray, you must discipline yourself to learn, and practice, practice, practice. It seems an almost Orwellian, or perhaps Trappist, paradox: Discipline is freedom. And once the chosen discipline has wrought its changes for the musician or the monk, the particular discipline can become a foundation from which to launch explorations into other human territory, as Yo Yo Ma and Thomas Merton, and many other artists and writers have shown.

Finally, Soucy makes frequent mention of the medium, the message, and even has a song titled, with the same chorus, ‘The Medium is the Messiah’. At first hearing, this seems strange and even heretical. Clearly, it should not be taken as ‘any medium is the messiah’; and the very idea brings to mind its paradoxical opposite, that ‘no medium is the messiah’ , that no medium should become an idol. Since Soucy clearly took his inspiration from McLuhan, let McLuhan tell us:

Isn’t the real message of the Church in the secondary or side-effects of the Incarnation, that is to say, in Christ’s penetration into all of human existence? Then the question is, where are you in relation to this reality? (McLuhan, p 102)

In fact, it is only at the level of a lived Christianity that the medium really is the message. . .that also applies to the Bible: we often speak of the content of Scripture, all while thinking this content is the message. It is nothing of the sort. The content is everyone who reads the Bible: so, in reading it, some people “hear” it and others don’t.  All are users of the Word of God, all are its content, but only a small number discern its true message. The words are not the message; the message is their effect on us, and that is conversion. (McLuhan, p. 104)

Or to sum up succinctly:

In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message.  It is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same. (McLuhan, p. 103)

In the era of electric, now digital media, the concordance of this evangelical message is as threatened and under attack as ever the Word and the Church have been. The digital medium of mp3 and YouTube distribution which brings the Christian content of Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy belies their audience’s desire for the small and present, and enforces a bias toward the discarnate in the great majority of its users. The Christians must hold firm to resist the tide of a diabolical counter-consensus.

Electric information environments being utterly ethereal fosters the illusion of the world as a spiritual substance. It is now a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ. (McLuhan, p. 72)

If Christ is the Body, the Incarnate Word, and the Holy Spirit is the Discarnate presence of God among the many individual members of the Mystical Body, then the unknowing members of the secular crowd, the corporate and electric mass, whose members have in great part lost awareness of their bodies and their souls, and having formed an anti-spiritual consensus, these are the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ is not an individual like Christ, but an unthinking crowd, a virtual parody, “a highly plausible mock-up of the mystical body” (McLuhan, p. 59).  Or if you prefer to hold to the idea of an individual, it is not the individual, but like McLuhan’s description of the Bible’s message, it is the effect of his or her words, presence, and image (all part of the message)  on the audience, on the users. That message of the electric Anti-Christ is not incarnation. In the corporate electric age, the many who are unconsciously discarnate, without doctrine concerning personal faith and salvation, without awareness of, or desire to search for God, these many merge into a faceless crowd. The Anti-Christ is but the aggregate absence of the Lord.

The World and the Devil have many ways of calling mankind away from healthy incarnation, each way a medium and temptation of its own, and both freedom and resistance paradoxically demand wakefulness and ‘strange’ disciplines of practice and criticism to be healthy, to be whole.

. . .what is needed is a readiness to undervalue the world altogether.

Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Light, Introduction, p. xxiii

The so-called Benedictine Option (BenOpt) of a disciplined ‘monastic’ retreat away from the media into both prayer and physical discipline (the best way not to be discarnate is embracing righteous use of the body; exercising for the health to work for others is righteous; exercising only for yourself is vanity, a sin) may be the best way to recover and preserve freedom.

So, welcome to Mr. & Mrs. Garrett Soucy, who are kicking in a small way against current media trends from within the heart of the Beast. They and others like them represent a turning away from the anonymous, corporate, anti-spiritual mass. The present discarnate form of music distribution may actually drive a reversal and allow an audience hungry for the incarnate to find forms of music that are more intimate than the posed branded masks of the super-stars. As such, Mr. & Mrs. Garrett Soucy may be a harbinger, like bird calls, wind chimes, or the Litany of the Hours of another more intimate, local, disciplined, and paradoxically freer way of living, singing the hope of better things for our present bodies, and after these unregarded, over-mediated bodies are gone.

Purchase Wayword on CDBaby

Works Cited

McLuhan, Marshall, Eric McLuhan, and Jacek Szklarek. The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion. Toronto: Stoddart, 1999. Print.

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About the Contributor

Howard Wetzel

Howard Wetzel
Howard Wetzel has been a hospital-based RN for more than three decades. He was introduced to the McLuhans in the early 70s, and has continued an active dialogue with Eric McLuhan since. He is an independent thinker with interests in health care, arts, theology, and media studies. He is interested in the impact of media on cultures and the Church in history and in the present. 

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