Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message.” Mic Check offers a tasty example of this.
Marhall McLuhan practically invented the subject of media studies. He is best known for his theory, explored in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, that the medium of communication, be it television, radio or even a light bulb was a message in and of itself. What does that mean, you ask? This means that we tend to focus on the obvious, the content of the message, to deliver useful information, but through this process of transmission, we miss the structural changes in the world that transpire slowly and subtly, or over a long period of time. It’s my proposal that Mic Check represents just such a circumstance. Mic Check is a medium which conveys an important message.
What, Mr. Allen?
Yes, yes, I know. I’m pontificating again. But I think it’s useful pontificating. It may prove interesting to construe the Mic Check phenomenon as a symbolic (in the semiotic sense) gesture best understood not in the content of the message, but in the framework in which it is delivered (i.e. the medium). That’s how I think McLuhan would see it. The content of the message isn’t as telling as the fact that the message is delivered in the form of the Mic Check.
First, let’s look at two examples of the Mic Check phenomenon.
Example 1: Scott Walker
Example 2: Karl Rove
What is Mic Check? Beyond the attempt to communicate a message, it is a fascinating social disturbance. It is a collective gesture of frustration and rage. It’s socially challenging and to the person being “Checked,” it is a confrontation that demands attention. Some “Check-ees” respond by stepping away from the podium in bewilderment or bemusement. Others (like Karl Rove) chose to confront the “Checkers” with taunts of their own in an attempt to regain dominance over the situation. How the subject responds though is not necessarily relevant. The message is delivered the second the Mic Check commences.
What makes the Mic Check so effective can be found in the interruption of the expected flow of the relationship between the speaker on the stage and the audience below. This flow is disrupted and then inverted, social turbulence ensues. The audience becomes the speaker and the speaker must become the audience. Then, as the Mic Check proceeds, the turbulence penetrates the audience and the audience begins shouting at one another, taking sides, some with the “Checkers” and some with the speaker on the stage. This inversion and social disruption are the message of the Mic Check. Generating this liminality is what communicates most viscerally with the participants, both the willing and unwilling, this sense of disturbance, of placelessness. What the “Checkers” actually say is not as important as the manner in which it’s delivered.
We can now take what we know about Mic Check and see if we can deconstruct it further. Let’s explore, a bit, Mic Check as a kind of ritual. Victor Turner was a cultural anthropologist from The University of Virginia who spent the later part of his career studying ritual and the symbols of ritual.
Turner (1967:50-52; 1968a:81-82; 1969b:11-13) inferred the properties of symbols from three levels or fields of meaning: the exegetical, operational, and positional meanings of ritual symbols.
1) Exegesis: The exegetical meaning is obtained from questioning indigenous informants about observed ritual behavior, so that a symbol’s manifest sense (of which the ritual subjects are fully aware) can be revealed. The informants may be ritual specialists or laymen. Exegesis can also be derived through the analysis of myths, through the fragmentary interpretations of separate rituals or ritual stages, and through written or verbally uttered doctrines and dogmas. In exegesis the meaning of a symbol may rest on three semantic foundations: (a) the nominal basis, or the name of a symbol in ritual and/or non-ritual contexts; (b) the substantial basis, or the culturally selected physical characteristics of symbolic objects; and (c) the artifactual basis, or the symbolic object after it has been molded and fashioned as a product of human activity.
2) Operational meaning: A symbol’s operational meaning, revealing its latent sense (of which the subjects are only marginally aware), is derived from observing not only what is said about a ritual, but also what is done with it and how it is used. This includes observation of the people who handle the symbol in ritual activity, as well as inquiries about why certain people are absent on particular ritual occasions.
3) Positional meaning: The positional meaning of a symbol refers to its relationship with other symbols in the total ritual complex and reveals the symbol’s hidden (for the ritual subjects’ unconscious) senses. In a given ritual only one or a few of the meanings of the polysemous symbol may be stressed or become paramount at different stages of a ritual, so that a symbol becomes fully meaningful only in relation to other symbols of different ritual performances.
So how does Mic Check fit into this framework? Is Mic Check a ritual? I maintain that it is, and it’s important to consider it as such.
First, in the form of exegesis, we can look to the actual content of the Mic Check. What is being transmitted? What words or phrases are used to communicate meaning? Messages about the 99%, about income inequality, about war and greed. These are the things that come through the channel of communication. The “Checkers” are concious of this message
Second, the operational meaning of the Mic Check we need to look outside the exegesis and to the framework, the medium itself. This is the “surprise” of the Mic Check, the social disturbance, the turbulence.
Finally, the positional meaning is that which is derived from the inversion of speaker and listener, actor and audience, where the roles reverse and the medium is the message. Beyond the audience in the room, to those of us who view these events through social media, through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we can sense the liminality, the disturbance. But we also sense the emerging normalcy of these events as a justifiable social event. We don’t feel the direct discomfort of the audience members, rather, we, as the remote audience, sense that as more and more of these events are shared, we are changed by the quantity of them. While individual participants experience the liminality, we, through inversion, feel connected.
Mic Check is fascinating…