Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Mechanical Bride

Marshall McLuhan The Mechanical Bride (1951)
Back when I were a lad, I asked someone - possibly my mother - about the beat generation, who they were and so on. She told me William Burroughs, Marshall McLuhan, Allen Ginsberg and a few other writers of that vintage. Ginsberg didn't sound that interesting, and it was through reading Burroughs that I had encountered the term beat generation in the first place, which left just McLuhan. I found this in the library of the South Warwickshire College of Further Education, but sadly, despite having pictures, it was a bit too deep and dense for me at the time so I never properly read it.

Thirty years later, I still find it a little chewy in places, but ultimately worth the effort. Of course, it turns out that McLuhan had no coherent association with Burroughs, at least not beyond occasional invites to the same parties and 1964's Notes on Burroughs which he wrote for The Nation - so far as I am able to discern. Nevertheless it's easy to see why they might be mentioned in the same breath, sharing arguably related views about the mechanisms of human society and the role of information therein.

The Mechanical Bride was McLuhan's first published book, a collection of essays inspired by advertising and media images of the day, with each essay dissecting the meaning of a particular subject, then the wider implications within the context of industrialised society. For example, regarding Superman he writes:

The attitudes of Superman to current social problems likewise reflect the strong arm totalitarian methods of the immature and barbaric mind. Like Daddy Warbucks in Orphan Annie, Superman is ruthlessly efficient in carrying on a one-man crusade against crooks and antisocial forces. In neither case is there any appeal to process of law. Justice is presented as a case of personal strength alone. Any appraisal of the political tendencies of Superman... would have to include an admission that today the dreams of youths and adults alike seem to embody a mounting impatience with the laborious process of civilised life and a restless eagerness to embrace violent solutions.

This particular argument may seem a simplistic - although is at least surely preferable to Grant Morrison wibbling on about consciousness being the missing dark matter of the universe - until we take stock of it being no more than McLuhan's starting point and that it was written in 1951. The essays in The Mechanical Bride tend to focus on material culled from magazines of the day because television was not yet quite in the picture, and is mentioned in passing only a couple of times. So this was a very different world, which makes it all the more astonishing, even scary, just how much of McLuhan's testimony remains relevant. For example, and just in case anyone might still be smarting from the above assault on their beloved Clark:

If there is any harm done by the Digest or by any of the related entertainment industries, it is in supplanting better fare. It is the sheer presence of successful stupidity which commonly blocks and clutters the minds of those who might conceivably prefer something better. The Digest is also typical of all these agencies of mass diversion in eagerly creating an aura of intolerance around itself and its readers. Enfolded in its jovial, optimistic, and self-satisfied version of the higher things, the reader soon hardens into a man who knows what he likes, and who resents anybody who pretends to like anything better. He has, unwittingly, been sold a strait jacket. And that is really as much as need be said about any of the effects of commercial formula writing, living, and entertainment. It destroys human autonomy, freezes perception, and sterilises judgement.

He's referring to Reader's Digest, but in 2016 it could apply just as well to any mass-produced entertainment product, and yet we're still mostly holding on because apparently no-one can stand to give up their security blanket or to not take it personally.

Some of The Mechanical Bride may appear to state the obvious, an impression which I would suggest derives mostly from just how much of this material has filtered into mainstream thought, albeit on a generally superficial level. Whilst the text goes into depth, the basics of how advertising plays upon our insecurities and suchlike are immediately recognisable from that which McLuhan either predicted or inspired. In fact, more than anything, The Mechanical Bride reminded me of Mad magazine features from the sixties deconstructing soap powder commercials or whatever Madison Avenue was really trying to sell, because the satire of Mad looked a lot like McLuhan's ideas resurfacing in a mainstream context, perhaps even assimilated by the enemy.

Perhaps not quite the enemy: McLuhan dissects as an aid to comprehension in the hope of society achieving a better understanding of itself. Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle makes a similar effort by entirely different means whilst quite clearly serving as a warning, as is similarly true of the more recent television documentaries of Adam Curtis, notably The Century of Self which begins with an examination of Edward Bernay, the man who more or less singularly responsible for the spectacle which McLuhan would deconstruct only decades later in this very book.

The Mechanical Bride is dated, but only in so much as that I don't immediately recognise the products under discussion, and most of the arguments will remain valid whilst our society continues in its present form. The text is a little dense in places, as I said earlier, and sometimes a degree of re-reading is required in order to get the arguments to connect as intended, but that's it. It would be nice to report that this book has dated because here in 2016, we know it all, but it turns out that knowing is sadly different to understanding.

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