An Essay on The Mechanical Bride (1951)

03Jul14

Twentieth-Century VOX: Marshall McLuhan & the Mechanical Bride (9/2012)

All of which makes McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, a study of advertising published by the distinguished independent house Vanguard Press in 1951, so strong a marker in his own story, and so captivating today: hilarious, threatening, inspiring, scary for the world it depicts and the solutions it seems to propose. By more than a decade, it anticipated both the spirit and the content of such media critiques as Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), and for that matter the Rolling Stones’ 1965 hits “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud”–not to mention Herbert Marcuse’s far less nimble Eros and Civilization (1955) and such works of pop sociology as Vance Packard’s once scandalizing The Hidden Persuaders (1957). For a book by a professor, let alone a first book, it could not be less academic. Even the Roland Barthes of Mythologies (1957), with whom the McLuhan of 1951 shares the most, is hesitant and circumscribed by comparison, and the later Buckminster Fuller, with the likes of Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969) a by-the-numbers utopian.

In fifty-nine short essays, each one illustrated with a newspaper front page, a movie poster, a comic-strip panel, a lurid paperback cover, or, most often, an advertisement, and most often from a mass-circulation magazine such as LookReader’s Digest, or, preeminently, Life, McLuhan unwrites and rewrites what he is certain is the language of a new phase in human history:

No longer is it possible for modern man, individu­ally or collectively, to live in any exclusive segment of human experience or achieved social pattern. The modern mind, whether in its subconscious collective dream or in its intellectual citadel of vivid aware­ness, is a stage on which is contained and re-enacted the entire experience of the human race. There are no more remote and easy perspectives, either artistic or national. Everything is present in the foreground. That fact is stressed equally in current physics, jazz, newspapers, and psychoanalysis. And it is not a question of preference or taste. This flood has already immersed us. And whether it is to be a benign flood, cleansing the Augean stables of speech and experience, as envisaged in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or a merely destructive element, may to some extent depend on the degree of exertion and direc­tion which we elicit in ourselves. [3]

He is insisting on a great crisis, and insisting that it is new: “Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat not light is the intention. To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment alike.” [4]

media critiques

McLuhan creates a sense of high stakes. It is no matter that he writes from Canada, because, really, he doesn’t: The US is his subject, the sea he swims in. Because the American mind is the modern mind, it is that mind that must be read. McLuhan generates such a sense of drama that the reader, or the looker, is pulled through his terrible puns (“from the cradle to the gravy,” “eager to sell their souls for a pot of message”), moments of sourness and fulminating raillery (“Time deals with its readers as a Sultan with his eunuchs”), phrases that sound as if they were clichés even before they were written (“these wondrous totalitarian techniques for mashing the public into processed cheese”), or what feels like irritation parading as judgment (“‘Democratic’ vanity has reached such proportions that it cannot accept as human anything above the level of cretinous confusion of mind of the type popularized by Hemingway’s heroes”). [5] Like any great critic, McLuhan here makes the reader feel as if he or she has embarked with the author on a great adventure. Never mind the readings of ads for long-defunct products in magazines that no longer exist: Whether merely sententious or as gripping as a thriller, hectoring or satiric, the book never reads as dated. And that’s partly because McLuhan, gearing up to slay the dragon of brainwashing, propaganda, and fascist-capitalist mind control, is having so much fun.

This is an excerpt. Read the full essay at https://goo.gl/ig1cAL .

The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man?

Can the feminine body keep pace with the demands of the textile industry?

Are women’s legs getting longer? Is the sun cooling off?

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3 Responses to “An Essay on The Mechanical Bride (1951)”

  1. I found this book in a bookstore when I was 20 and have loved it ever since. That was in 1970. My copy is tattered and torn.


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