The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951): Advertising & Pop Culture

27Jul15

Cover of Marshall McLuhan's book entitled THE MECHANICAL BRIDE: FOLKLORE OF INDUSTRIAL MAN, 1967

The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1st Ed.: The Vanguard Press, NY, 1951)[1] is a pioneering study of popular culture by Herbert Marshall McLuhan, treating newspapers, comics, and advertisements as poetic texts.[2]McLuhan’s interest in the critical study of popular culture was influenced by the 1933 book Culture and Environment by F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson, and the title The Mechanical Bride is derived from a piece by the Dadaist artist,Marcel Duchamp.

Like his later 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride is unique and composed of a number of short essays that can be read in any order – what he styled the “mosaic approach” to writing a book. Each essay begins with a newspaper or magazine article or an advertisement, followed by McLuhan’s analysis thereof. The analyses bear on aesthetic considerations as well as on the implications behind the imagery and text. McLuhan chose the ads and articles included in his book not only to draw attention to their symbolism and their implications for the corporate entities that created and disseminated them, but also to mull over what such advertising implies about the wider society at which it is aimed.

McLuhan is concerned by the size and the intentions of the North American culture industry. “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,” McLuhan writes in his preface to the book. He believes everyone is kept in a “helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment alike.”[3] McLuhan hopes Bride can reverse this process.

By using artifacts of popular culture as a means to enlighten the public, McLuhan hopes the public can consciously observe the effects of popular culture on them.[3]

McLuhan compares his method to the sailor in Edgar Allan Poe‘s short-story “A Descent into the Maelstrom.” The sailor, McLuhan writes, saves himself by studying the whirlpool and by co-operating with it.[3] Likewise, the book is not interested in attacking the strong currents of advertising, radio, and the press.

The book argues anger and outrage are not the proper responses to the culture industry. “The time for anger…is in the early stages of a new process,” McLuhan says, “the present stage is extremely advanced.”[3] Amusement is the proper strategy. This is why McLuhan uses punning questions that border on silly or absurd after each visual example.

Origin: Marshall McLuhan’s interest in the critical study of popular culture was influenced by the 1933 book Culture and Environment by F. R. Leavis (with Denys Thompson) and Wyndham Lewis‘ 1932 book The Death of Youth, which uses similar exhibits.[4]

During the 1940s, McLuhan regularly held lectures with slides of advertisements analysing them. He first referred to the present era as the Age of the Mechanical Bride in 1945, during a series of lectures in Windsor, Ontario.[4] McLuhan had planned publishing these lectures and slides since before 1945.[5]

During the thirties and forties, many “exposé” books critiquing the advertising industry were published[6] but McLuhan’s book was different. While critical, the tone of the essays was admirable at times, impressed with the skills of advertisers.[6] In June 1948, McLuhan received an advance of $250 for the publication of The Folklore of Industrial Man from Vanguard Press.[7] The tentative title would later become the subtitle.

Notes 

  1. Reissued by Gingko Press, 2002 ISBN 1-58423-050-9
  2. “McLuhan, Marshall (1911-80)” from Routledge Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, Second Edition. Benson, Eugene; Conolly, L.W. (eds). London: Routledge, 2005.
  3. “Preface to the original edition” by Marshall McLuhan. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. Herbert Marshall McLuhan. 1951. Ginko Press, 2002. pp. v
  4. Marchand (1989), p. 107
  5. Walter Ong says “As long as I knew McLuhan he had been talking about publishing The Mechanical Bride” (Marchand (1989), p. 107).
  6. Marchand (1989), p. 108.
  7. Marchand says $250 dollars was not “outrageously low for a highbrow book.” (Marchand (1989), p. 108)

Advertisements Analyzed in The Mechanical Bride

Freedom – American Style

The Utopia of the picnic inherited from the aristocratic pastoral convention?

Did Whitman give America the poetry of the open road?

What happens when the ad makers take over all the popular myths and poetry?

Are ads themselves the main form of industrial culture?

Click on each image to expand:-

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