Archives for posts with tag: The Mechanical Bride

Here is another excerpt from The Mechanical Bride by Marshall McLuhan. This chapter is “Education,” accompanied by a “Here’s Your High School Education Made Easy!” home-schooling ad:

More than wealth, more than birth or any other fact, education in America is by far the best means of improving one’s social status today. It is also the best way of improving one’s earning power. Such is the carefully considered view of competent students. On the other hand, less and less do men rise in industry and business by gradually acquired experience. More and more are the top jobs filled by specialists with technical-school training. And in this way, too, fathers are able to hand the reins directly to their sons instead of to those who have worked up from inside the enterprise.

In view of the wide availability of all types of education, the fact that it is also the largest social escalator is a most heartening fact. But the largest group coming off that escalator is still drawn from the top fifth of the economic brackets.

The teacher in America is admittedly in a peculiar position. Educationally qualified to advance himself economically, he or she appears to take a vow of poverty instead. The judgment of the community on the teacher has long been: “He can’t take it.” Assuming a voluntary noncompetitive poverty, the teacher stands as a reproach to the rest of the community engaged in the scramble for monetary reward. He asserts his “nerve of failure.” The community retaliates with a certain degree of distrust and contempt. Distrust of his motives, contempt for his lowly status and lack of gumption.

But there is an even deeper cause for the distrust and resentment. The teacher in America is the appointed instrument of democratic opportunity and enlightenment. Parents entrust children to the teacher so that the children may be changed. The teacher is to make them “better than the parents.” As such, the teacher alienates children from parents. But the teacher has to be “better than the parents” even in their eyes if he is to do his job. So that there is in the parent-teacher relationship a basic violation of the idea of equality even when the parent is much better off economically.

Of much greater import is the fact that education as a status escalator or mobility agent is also a very crude device for insuring that its products will often be mentally narrow to the point of helplessness. Those who submit to training only because it will link them more effectively to a great economic and bureaucratic mechanism are using their best years and faculties as a means of enslaving themselves. They are seizing opportunities in order to have the economic means to be exactly like everybody else.

Modern warfare is another point of vantage which enables the observer to note how the mere logistics of the war machine cause the spread of technological and specialist education. Really in the same order of cause and effect, mechanized or total war fosters prosperity and an economic well-being which is itself an immediate exposure of a situation in which we tend to have lost control and view of our own purposes. As the creator of wealth and opportunity for all, war has put peace to shame in our time. War has provided higher education and higher consumer standards for more people than peace ever did. So it is surprising that a war party has not supplanted present political parties.

This is merely a way of pointing once more to the central reality of our world. Accelerated change and planned obsolescence constitute the basic principle of an industrial power-economy built on applied science. Production for use? Yes. But for the briefest possible use consistent with the rigging of the market for the pyramiding of profits. Whether it’s new books or light bulbs, they must not clutter up the scene for too long. A few weeks is enough for either. And education in this world? Is education for use? Of course. But whose use? And for how long?

That man counts himself happy today whose school training wins him the privilege of getting at once into the technological meat grinder. That is what he went to school for. And what if he does have the consistency of hamburger after a few years? Isn’t everybody else in the same shape? Hamburger is also more manageable than beef cuts. And the logic of a power economy is rigorous but crude. It laughs at political shadings, at Marxist and Fascist, but it frowns at heavy-boned characters who knock the teeth out of the meat grinder. Our education process is necessarily geared to eliminate all bone. The supple, well-adjusted man is the one who has learned to hop into the meat grinder while humming a hit-parade tune. Individual resistance to the process is labeled destructive and unco-operative.

Far from teaching detachment or developing the power of gauging human goals, our higher education is servile and unrealistic. For to develop individuals with powerful minds and independent characters is to create a supply for which there is no demand. Why train men if there is only a market for robots? Most university presidents and deans understand the logic of their world. They are on the band wagon. Why train individuals, if the only available life is the collective dream of uniform tasks and mass entertainment? Why make life difficult? Why be different? Why use your brains to ensure poverty?

To put the whole thing briefly, a power economy cannot tolerate power that cannot be centrally controlled. It will not tolerate the unpredictable actions and thoughts of individual men. That is plain from every gesture and intonation of current social and market research as well as from the curricula from our schools.

But how is this possible? How does it come about? Is there a conscious conspiracy to produce the results we see? Of course not. It comes about very simply. Great physical and industrial power rests on a multitude of powerless individuals, many of whom are deeply resentful of their condition. The smaller and meaner the man, the more he craves to possess not limited human powers, with all the effort of cultivation and all the responsibility that implies, but superhuman powers. The sadistic craving for enormous physical powers to revenge or compensate for human futility will always drive such people to link themselves to vast impersonal enterprises. They will follow automatically any road which promises to bring them to that goal. So that to be a switch thrower in a big plant looks better to them than any lonely task, however human. Such is also the attraction of bureaucratic jobs, whether in great corporations or in government. It is by a fantasy identification with the very big power unit that the very small man obtains his self-realization as a superman. The key to Superman is Clark Kent the useless. Therefore the more we create and centralize physical power, the more we suppress our human nature; and then that human nature queues up all the more to support the big physical power that crushes it. Far from being a conscious conspiracy, this is a nightmare dream from which we would do well to awaken at once. Return again, Finnegan.

There is actually emerging a large number of independent critical minds today. As the nightmare moves to its unwelcome dramatic peak, the sleeper stirs and writhes. It is nice to be enfolded inĀ  a collective dream as long as the comfort is greater than the pain. But we have nearly passed that critical point. Consciousness will come as a relief.


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.