Marshall McLuhan is one of my favorite critical analysts, thinkers, writers, etc. I’ve had the pleasure of being exposed to. He is, as one critic described him, “akin to a thunderclap”; post-exposure to McLuhan leaves an indelible impact on your psyche, on your perspective. He is by no means infallible, but his verbose wit, his semantically-inclined, almost-presumptuous literary signposts, make me forever indebted to him.

Here is an excerpt from his book The Mechanical Bride. It is from the chapter called, coincidentally enough, The Mechanical Bride. The book itself is a “mosaic” expose of advertising.

‘Trouble is, remarked Cecil B. DeMille , they all look alike, “just as though they were stamped out of a mint like silver dollars. . . . They’ve been coming in one door and going out the other . . . and could keep right on coming in and going out in a continuous circle and I wouldn’t know one from the other.

“The girls themselves have nothing to do with this. Many of them are distinctive-looking and different-looking when they arrive. But they don’t come out that way. The eyes, the lips, the mouth, the hair, all are done in a certain typed way. Their faces look like slabs of concrete.

“Maybe the average Hollywood glamour girl should be numbered instead of named.” ‘

The meaning of this is very different for the student of popular culture, who develops the same sort of eye for morphological conformities as the folklorist and the anthropologist do for the migration of symbols and situations. When the same patterns recur, these observers are alerted to the possibilities of similar underlying dynamics. No culture will give popular nourishment and support to images or patterns which are alien to its dominant impulses and aspirations. And among the multifarious forms and images sustained by any society it is reasonable to expect to find some sort of melodic curve. There will be many variations, but they will tend to be variations on certain recognizable themes. And these themes will be the “laws” of that society, laws which will mould its songs and art and social expression.

A.N. Whitehead states the procedures of modern physics somewhat in the same way in Science and the Modern World. In place of a single mechanical unity in all phenomena, “some theory of discontinuous existence is required.” But discontinuity, whether in cultures or physics, unavoidably invokes the ancient notion of harmony. And it is out of the extreme discontinuity of modern existence, with its mingling of many cultures and periods, that there is being born today the vision of a rich and complex harmony. We do not have a single, coherent present to live in, and so we need a multiple vision in order to see it all.

At first it is only natural that this way of seeing should be put to the service of discovering the proportions and cleavages within one’s immediate time and society, even though that soon proves to be a very provincial affair. And it is here that the ad agencies are so very useful. They express for the collective society that which dreams and uncensored behavior do in individuals. They give spatial form to hidden impulse and, when analyzed, make possible bringing into reasonable order a great deal that could not otherwise be observed or discussed. Gouging away at the surface of public sales resistance, the ad men are constantly breaking into the Alice in Wonderland territory behind the looking glass which is the world of subrational impulse and appetites. Moreover, the ad agencies are so set on the business of administering major wallops to the buyer’s unconscious, and have their attention so concentrated on the sensational effect of their activities, that they unconsciously reveal the primary motivations of large areas of our contemporary existence.

In this respect the ad agencies function in relation to the commercial world much as Hollywood does in respect to the world of entertainment. In his cogent study, The Hollywood Hallucination, Parker Tyler summed it up in a sentence: “The movie theater is the psychoanalytic clinic of the average worker’s daylight dream.” That is, the spectator dreams in the darkened theater. He dreams the dreams that money can buy but which he can neither afford nor earn in the daylight world. In the dark theater he dreams the dreams which tend to keep even his frustrations within a dream world.

So Hollywood is like the ad agencies in constantly striving to enter and control the unconscious minds of a vast public, not in order to understand or to present these minds, as the serious novelist does, but in order to exploit them for profit. The novelist tries to get inside his characters in order to tell you what is happening on the invisible stage of their minds. The ad agencies and Hollywood, in their different ways, are always trying to get inside the public mind in order to impose their collective dreams on that inner stage. And in the pursuit of this goal both Hollywood and the advertising agencies themselves give major exhibitions of unconscious behavior. One dream opens into another until reality and fantasy are made interchangeable. The ad agencies flood the daytime world of conscious purpose and control with erotic imagery from the night world in order to drown, by suggestion, all sales resistance. Hollywood floods the night world with daytime imagery in which synthetic gods and goddesses (stars) appear to assume the roles of our wakeaday existence in order to flatter and console us for the failures of our daily lives. T he ad agencies hold out for each of us the dream of a spot on Olympus where we can quaff and loll forever amid well-known brands. The movies reverse this procedure by showing us the stars–who, we are assured, dwell on “beds of amaranth and moly”—descending to our level.

Yet, had the Hollywood tycoons better understood the function of their own star system, they would not have undermined the system by overcrowding. Floods of new stars and starlets coming off the assembly lines have unconsciously sabotaged then illusion of their being gods and goddesses. Attention is too widely dispersed. The magic is weakening, and many of the dreamers are stirring discontentedly.

Striving constantly, however, to watch, anticipate, and control events on the inner, invisible stage of the collective dream, the ad agencies and Hollywood turn themselves unwittingly into a sort of collective novelist, whose characters, imagery, and situations are an intimate revelation of the passions of the age. But this huge collective novel can be read only by someone trained to use his eyes and ears, and in detachment from the visceral riot that this sensational fare tends to produce. The reader has to be a second Ulysses in order to withstand the siren onslaught. Or, to vary the image, the uncritical reader of this collective novel is like the person who looked directly at the face of Medusa without the mirror of conscious reflection. He stands in danger of being frozen into a helpless robot. Without the mirror of the mind, nobody can live a human life in the face of our present mechanized dream.

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