The Mechanical Bride
Few people know that Marshall McLuhan's first book, published in 1951, is completely devoted to the phenomenon of advertising. Although popular in the 1960s, The Mechanical Bride is difficult to obtain nowadays, in contrast to the Mythologies Roland Barthes wrote five years later. On the back cover of the 1973 Granada edition of Mythologies a blurb actually cites Barthes as the McLuhan of signs. ...and like McLuhan's most engaging book, The Mechanical Bride, Barthes''' Mythologies has its penetrating gusto. (Sunday Times'').
Since McLuhan has been promoted to patron saint of Wired magazine, it would be fitting for the West Coast New-Edge firms to see to it that the complete works plus a critical study edition roll off the presses on the double. If McLuhan is so worshipped these days, it must be worth something; the digicash should be forked over. No cheap cd-rom indulgences, please, but a first real Gutenberg edition of his complete works. After which, as far as I'm concerned, McLuhan can sink into digitality forever.
The Mechanical Bride consists of sixty separate commentaries on magazine advertisements which McLuhan tore out in the late 40s and classified to the best of his abilities. He must have amassed an enormous collection of folders full of clippings and notes. The final selection seems to have been arbitrarily and hastily made (his wife typed the manuscript - see F. Kittler Grammophon Film TypewriterBerlin '86). The collection has no structure or division. In each chapter McLuhan analyses the content of an advertisement photo, which in the late 40s always came accompanied by a sensible caption. The textual
character of commercial messages must have made analysis considerably easier for the literary scholar McLuhan. He clearly did not wish to stoop to the unravelling of the vulgar libido. Instead of the obvious Freudianism McLuhan looked for ways to revalue 'information folklore' to the extent that it could be compared to science, literature and art. McLuhan ponders a Time advertisement (A nose for news - and a stomach for whiskey): Where did you see that bug-eyed romantic of action before? Was it in a Hemingway novel? For McLuhan, literature is more than a fine art; it is a specific method of organizing perception. Why does the Hearst press attempt to organize the news of every day into a Victorian melodrama? Now we know where Arthur Kroker got his phrase about watching mtv with Nietzsche on your lap: McLuhan read Look and Life with Joyce at his elbow (You like Capp? Then you'll love Finnegans Wake). McLuhan had no desire to wage a campaign against the media, as seems to have been in vogue during those days. Moral indignation, according to McLuhan, was a very poor guide. He wanted, not to criticize, but to penetrate to the centre of the revolving pictures in order to see through the strategies of the tyrant who shepherds his flocks in the ways of unity and comfort. He presents Poe's maelstrom motif as his method of getting inside the collective public mind. The Mechanical Bride refers to the sensation experienced by the sailor who's lost his way in the maelstrom.It was this sensation born of his rational detachment as a spectator of his own situation that gave him the thread which led him out of the labyrinth. For McLuhan the goals of the mechanical agencies are clear: manipulate, exploit, control in order to keep everyone in this helpless state by prolonged mental rutting. To escape this, he inverts the situation. Why not use the new commercial education as a means to enlightening its intended prey? McLuhan sees himself in the service of the audience which must be made aware of the unconscious mechanisms. In that respect he's a sixties guy avant la lettre. Though with no fixed point of departure; McLuhan swears by the circulating point of view.
One searches in vain in The Mechanical Bride for a sensational description of the hidden laws exploited by this dynamic industry. For that, we must turn to Vance Packard. McLuhan was a scholarly recluse and the period in which he wrote this book seems to have been anything but flashy. American 1940s design exudes a narrow-minded, parochial aura. It is as if the new world power has returned to the stuffy 19th century (Macy's little shop revives the cape of '68). Nothing remains of 1930s streamlining, and the modernists of the 1950s evidently have yet to burst on the scene. Everything is about simplicity and mass production. This is not just an historical assessment; McLuhan himself adjudges the period an extraordinarily conformist one. The woman is forced back into the family sphere and the man must play the old-fashioned gent trying to look as Neanderthal as possible. I'm tough reads the line next
to a drawing of a stressed-out businessman in a suit with a cigar (Bond clothes wear like iron). About this advertisement McLuhan remarks: There's something quaintly pre-industrial about this. It is so porous, so biological, so self-consciously self-congratulatory. The ad denies that real toughness today has shifted from the personal Darwinian melodrama to the abstracts of logistics, cybernetics and consumer research. Confronted with an Esquire advert featuring a man in a hat, entitled The Bold Look, McLuhan muses, ''Does The Bold Look mean that the crooner and his tummyache are
finished? Are prosperity and male confidence the fruits of war? ''The us is simply an archconservative, Calvinist society. Cosmopolitan flair is no more than a Hollywood hallucination stubbornly clung to by Europeans.
McLuhan's biographer Philip Marchand dismisses The Mechanical Bride as a failure since it appeared just as television was making all its major points irrelevant. During precisely the period when he was finishing his book, McLuhan began working with Harold Innis. That same year, 1951, saw the publication of Innis' book The Bias of Communication, which would set McLuhan on the track of technology and media as extensions of man. McLuhan then made his breakthrough with the article 'Culture Without Literacy', published in 1953 in Exploration I. The text of The Mechanical Bride
is admittedly less pithy or enigmatic than Counterblast or Through the Vanishing Point. The fact that the book comes out of the era of radio, film and newspaper, however, detracts not at all from its value. The theory presented here is miles ahead of anything else taking place in 1950 around McLuhan. The dynamics of modernity can perhaps be better explored in a period of apparent stagnation. In the Mondo 2000 User's Guide, Robert Anton Wilson says the most important idea McLuhan ever uttered can be found in the first chapter of The Mechanical Bride. The chapter in question is devoted to the collage
aspect of the front page of the New York Times, which McLuhan calls a collective work of art. The paper is a daily 'book' of industrial man, an Arabian Night's entertainment. McLuhan defends discontinuity as a fundamental concept against the critics of the day who saw it as irrationalism. To the alerted eye, the front page of a newspaper is a superficial chaos which can lead the mind to attend to cosmic harmonies of a very high order. Picasso and Joyce were sharp stylists of such coherence. But people are unaware of the rich symbolism of the newspaper page. Industrial man is not unlike the turtle that is quite blind to the beauty of the shell which it has grown on its back. Only several decennia into the future, when the historic gaze
has gained depth of field, will we be able to see the beauty of advertisements, book covers, Wurlitzer phonographs, the Buick Roadmaster for '49 with Dynaflow Drive, the cartoons in Crime Does Not Pay (More than 6,000,000 readers monthly!), those unworried yet helpless Men of Distinction with their rare, smooth, mellow, blended Lord Calvert Whiskey in hand, or the August 1947 Reader's Digesttable of contents ('Marriage Control: A New Answer to Divorce', 'What Price Socialism?', 'Laughter, the Best Medicine').
The Mechanical Bride is a cross between Blondie, Superman, Coca-Cola (A kind of rabbit's foot), Emily Post, Tarzan (an amalgam of the noble savage and the aristocratic sleuth) and a horse opera with John Wayne on one side and Margaret Mead, Sigfried Giedion, Le Corbusier, Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis, Toynbee and Kinsey on the other. This would be brilliant in itself, but we also get a taste of the later, real McLuhan. Not in the main text, but in the theory slogans that he puts in the margins. McLuhan is the philosopher of the one-liner. That ultimately worked to his disadvantage since masses of people never got much beyond stammering the slogan, the medium is the message. Have you had your literary hypodermic today? Mostly, there are questions: How much behaviorism is needed to make a big mental proletariat behave? In the section How to iron shirts without hating your husband he wonders if there is any known gadget for controlling a rampant know-how. In the beginning was montage. How often do you change your mind, your politics, your clothes? Superman or subman? You little culture vulture, you! And finally, in the sectionUnderstanding America, he remarks, Don't run but look again, reader. Find the Mechanical Bride.
But what is the mechanical bride? According to McLuhan, it is the dominant pattern of visual coverage in the popular press, comprising a fusion of sex and technology: Explore and enlarge the domain of sex by mechanical technique and possess machines in a sexually gratifying way. Long, slender ladies' legs are an expression of our 'replaceable parts' cultural dynamics. The industrial mode of production mechanized sex too. In ads the human body is depicted behavioristically as a sort of love machine capable merely of specific thrill, a view which reduces sex experience to a problem in mechanics and hygiene. Conservative Catholic McLuhan is floored by the division which has been made between physical pleasure and reproduction. He refuses in any case to be seduced into analysing the body as a sexual bulwark (Reich). McLuhan's concern is the ever intenser thrills made possible by technology. His later conclusion that advertisement is a modern form of rhetoric and an expression of tribal modernism is already implicitly present here. For McLuhan the headline was the modern equivalent of the aphorism. But who is going to collect contemporary media poetry and, like Barthes, write a worthy successor to The Mechanical Bride?
translation laura martz