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MCM at Brown: decoding an abstract concentration

MCM courses have long polarized students with their obscure and theoretical concepts

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, November 22, 2013

Welcome to Alaska: March 1 to 7, 2006. Shadowy conifers mottle the snow-powdered meadows. The graceful crags of white-capped mountains behind the village inject the quintessential, everyday majesty one expects of this northern state. But save for a single plume of smoke billowing from a mustard-tinged ranch house, nothing moves.

Suddenly, a voice crackles — liltingly robotic but distinctly female.

“How to sleep with snoring husband.”

“How to kill mockingbirds.”

“How to flirt with a man.”

This is user No. 711391, one of over 650,000 AOL users whose private search histories — containing three months’ worth of keywords — were accidentally published on the search engine’s website. The 13-part minimovie “I Love Alaska,” — told through her AOL searches and voiced over images of Alaska — tracks three months in the life of an obese, menopausal woman, known as user No. 711391, as she has an affair and her lover promptly leaves her.

“I Love Alaska” is a staple of the introductory course MCM 0110: Introduction to the Theory and Analysis of Modern Culture and Media.

“Apparently it’s critically acclaimed,” said Eddie Mansius ’17, who is currently enrolled in the course. “But I want that hour of my life back.”

Gus Longer ’15, an MCM concentrator, said he fondly remembers watching the film in another introductory class. “It’s amazing the way that some people use the Internet!” he exclaimed.

“Watching it was an incredible, humanizing experience,” said Edward Brown ’17, also currently enrolled in the course. “It teaches us how the things we do and actions we take define us.”

The strange, evocative “I Love Alaska” epitomizes the polarizing effects of Brown’s MCM department — inspiring curiosity and passion on one end and confusion or even vehemence on the other. MCM is often considered Brown’s most enigmatic, parodied and misunderstood department.

 

Unclarity

The department evolved out of two insurgent programs in the 1970s — semiotics and modern literature and society, said Phil Rosen, professor of modern culture and media.

It emerged at a time of growing interest in critical and cultural theory in academia, said Lynne Joyrich, graduate studies director of MCM. The University was one of the first colleges in the nation to offer a program that analyzed the intersections and operations of multiple media forms, she added.

“We were a leader,” Rosen said. “There was nothing like us.”

Rosen admits the MCM department is not as distinctive as it once was, as many colleges across America either have already developed or are currently developing similar programs. But Brown’s department continues to innovate, he said.

MCM offers two tracks: Track I, which is grounded in theory, and Track II, which is grounded in production.

“There’s a misperception that theory is pie in the sky, airy verbiage, just making up words or changing what old words do,” Rosen said. “But a lot of what we teach is very crude, very practical.”

Many students at Brown either dismiss or do not entirely understand the MCM department, said Blake Beaver ’14, an MCM concentrator.

“They probably study stuff about culture,” guessed Alfie Subiotto-Marques ’16, a computer science concentrator. When asked to elaborate on the kind of culture the department studies, he responded, “modern culture … and media.”

The MCM department is difficult to define in part because of its amorphous sets of objects and texts, Longer said.

Last semester, the MCM department released a commencement video featuring students answering the question, “How do you explain your MCM concentration to family and friends?”

Longer said he has gone through different phases in his attempts to explain MCM to his family and friends outside of Brown, from cultural theory to film and literature. He now explains the department like this: “You have to be very careful about the way you think about things.”

 

Originary

MCM 0110 has earned its reputation for its difficult, abstract coursework, Joyrich said.

Formerly divided into a two-semester-long introductory sequence, the new, condensed class is ambitious in scope, Beaver said.

Joyrich said MCM coursework in the introductory classes may seem simple at first. “It’s like the air you breathe. If you study air in chemistry, it’s a whole lot harder,” she said. “It’s a whole new way of seeing.”

This engagement with the larger cultural implications, perspectives and frameworks of the fully mediated world can overwhelm students.

“At times we go into theoretical freefall,” Beaver said.

While some students enjoy the challenge, others feel deluged by the unfamiliar, a phenomenon Longer attributes to the “steep learning curve” of MCM. He said he remembers sitting in his  introductory class’s conference section, mostly composed of first-years. “We’d all sit there and say, ‘Man, I don’t even know.’”

Mansius described the current iteration of the class as comprising “athletes, intellectuals, hipsters and people who fall in between the stereotypes.” The class’s diversity defied his preconceived expectation that the class would only attract “artsy” students, he said.

Brown said the class was surprisingly cerebral and abstract.

“It asks a lot of a person for an intro course,” he said. “But it challenges everything you believe about the universe.”

Mansius said he sees the theory he has learned in MCM as concretely applicable to everyday life.

“The signification of the phallus comes up a lot in conversation now,” he said.

 

Reastheticizes 

A widespread antagonism toward MCM seems to exist at Brown, Beaver said. While his family and friends outside of the University are rarely informed about the department, they are always open to his explanation — a mindset he attributes to their lack of exposure to cultural and media theory.

“But people here fundamentally don’t understand it and don’t want to hear about it,” Beaver said.

When Mansius talks about MCM with his friends, he said they either tune him out or dismiss him for being pretentious. “They don’t think I’m a real student,” he said.

At times, Mansius himself questions the discipline, most recently when he read Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto,’ which uses cyborgs as a metaphor for social feminism.

“I wondered what possessed someone to write this bizarre thing,” he said. “But then I’ll go to lecture, and they’ll explain it.”

When Beaver would reveal his intended MCM concentration during his  first year, “people would completely dismiss me, saying, ‘Oh, that’s too classic,’ or ‘Oh, the hipster major,’” he said.

Beaver added that students often assumed his choice of concentration was linked to his family’s income level. These assumptions came from across the board — especially from humanities majors, he said.

Some students devalue MCM as a “useful” concentration, more so than they do the rest of the humanities.

“You mean how the state and the ideological state apparatuses are only trying to valorize some disciplines over others so that we can regain world dominance and American exceptionalism?” Longer said. “It’s not something I think about.”

Longer entered Brown intending to concentrate in classics but chose MCM at the end of his first year. He still has friends who vehemently hate MCM, he said. “I came out to my parents with my proclivities toward the theoretical and mediated,” he said. “But they still love me.”

Longer paused, smiling. “But my father does occasionally look at me and say…‘have you thought about accounting?’”

 

Overinterpretation

Infamous for its tendency to play fast and loose with lexicography, the MCM department has inspired some degree of mockery from students both within and outside the concentration.

The fluidity of MCM’s relationship with language prompted Emma Steele ’15, a student in the introductory course and an MCM concentrator, to create the twitter handle @mcmwords. From “words made up by mcm,” the handle’s official title, Steele tweets words found nowhere in dictionaries but heard in the introductory MCM course, including but not limited to: unclarity, reastheticizes and representament.

“We sometimes need to be better about poking fun at ourselves,” Steele wrote in an email to The Herald.

Mansius said he and his friends check @mcmwords during class to see if anything from the esoteric lecture was added during class.

“When we’re typing up notes, half the page is underlined in red because none of the words the professor uses are real,” he added.

But Mansius acknowledged what he sees as the necessity of these invented words.

“The theory is so dense and difficult to communicate that we have to create our own words to create these ideas,” he said.

“It’s easy to parody, but it’s always been easy to parody advanced intellectual work,” Rosen said.

Joyrich said she found the Twitter  funny but noted that many cultural theory departments in colleges across the nation take similar liberties with coining words for their purposes.

“All of us, as people and thinkers, are mediating through language,” Beaver said. “When people create neologisms, (the Twitter) is actually showing how language is constructed.” He added that he believes the author is unaware of the Twitter’s instructional function, it is nonetheless valid.

“It’s a Twitter trying to be witty, but what it really shows it that nothing means anything,” he said.

Indeed, many students find it hard to articulate what draws them to MCM. For Longer and Mansius, it’s film. For Brown, it’s deconstructing social constructs. For Beaver, it’s one short film he saw in an MCM course — cobbled together from found, damaged film, the movie depicted schoolchildren following a nun around a corner in extreme slow-motion, the image warped “like someone was spilling acid on it.”

“Nowhere else in the world are people so actively engaged with silly and weird and haunting things,” Beaver said. “I knew I had to be a part of it.”

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