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Review: The Mechanical Bride (centennial edition)

Duckworth Publishers' new Mechanical Bride

Duckworth Publishers have brought out a new paperback edition of The Mechanical Bride to celebrate the McLuhan centenary.

With an iconic new cover in black, white and red, and an updated textual layout, it is slightly smaller and noticeably lighter than the original hardcover (great as a coffee table book, or for students) while still remaining true to the spirit of the original publication and (thankfully!) preserving the page numbering of the original.

First published in 1951, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man was Marshall McLuhan’s first book and remains one of the most important for understanding his work. (In fact this was the only book he published as ‘Herbert Marshall McLuhan’, however the new edition drops the ‘Herbert’.) The most pessimistic of his books, it anticipates only War and Peace in the Global Village (1968 – also a post-war book!) in its intent concern with the darker side of human nature.

Some context: the book was compiled from press-clippings (comics, editorials, ads, etc.) McLuhan had collected while teaching undergraduate classes in English criticism, a pedagogical strategy inspired by one of McLuhan’s own mentors, British critic F.R. Leavis. Presenting 59 ‘exhibits’, each consisting of a press clipping and accompanying text, McLuhan ironically reveals to us the ‘mechanical’ culture of industrialized nations, where the ruling paradigm is the ‘assembly line’ of ‘replaceable parts’; where men and women, alienated from their human qualities, interact instead as mechanical, ‘exchangable’ components; and where (sadomasochistic) enjoyment is derived not through sex but through the consumption of violent movies/news and the possession of sexualized, mass-produced items – cars, clothes, coffins – all betraying the same infatuation with the slick, soulless machine world. A humanist ethic informs the book, McLuhan asserting that to inhabit this toxic culture demands ‘greater exertions of intelligence and a much higher level of personal and social integrity than have existed previously.’

There are few precedents for this curiously put together book, but one of its foremost influences was Siegfried Giedion, whose Space, Time and Architecture (1941) McLuhan took as the model for his own project to reveal the hidden ‘patterns’ (or structures) in society. What Giedion does for architecture, McLuhan repeats for the ‘folklore of industrial man’ – the ads and images for consumer products whose fantasies, he says, operate upon us ’subliminally’. There is a decidedly psychoanalytic quality to McLuhan’s reading of ’subliminal’ patterns in the societal psyche, and several scholars have read The Mechanical Bride as a reply to Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930 – again, a post-war book), both texts questioning the future of a species intent upon the pursuit of technological ‘extensions’ that threaten to subsume us and make us over in their image.

I must have read this book at least twenty times, but each time I am struck anew by the crystalline quality of its prose, and by the force of the ideas crammed within its paragraphs and pages. You can’t just read passively; you are forced to work at it, to think. McLuhan, as ever, is teaching us to become both critics of our environment and artists in responding with awareness to it.

Thank you to Duckworth Publishers for the opportunity to review this book.

{ 6 } Comments

  1. michael edmunds | April 7, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    “Interestingly, McLuhan derived the book’s name from Marcel Duchamp’s 1926 work The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass. Duchamp’s hybrid drawing-sculpture depicted an imagined factory run by a literally mechanical bride. McLuhan’s reference to the work was loaded; like Duchamp’s bride and her captive bachelors, postwar America could easily be viewed as a closed system of producers and consumers divided along gender binaries and fuelled by sex.”

    Most consider that McLuhan looked back at his “Bride” as way to moralistic in tone. As he moved on to the Galaxy and UM he became more and more the guy with out a point of view. (At least his public persona.)

    Like you I consider the book a valuable look at the 50’s.

  2. michael edmunds | April 9, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    One of the visitors to McLuhan’s “Monday Nights” was Bill Keys. Keys wrote _Subliminal Seduction_ ( and btw lost his tenure position because of it.) McLuhan wrote the intro to the book. (It happens to be on-line- )

    Of note here: P. xviii of the intro by McLuhan
    “The Playboy’s Plaything
    Things have changed electrically since I published The Mechanical Bride in 1951. The assembly-line love goddess, abstract and austere and inhuman, has been succeeded by hula-hooping, mini-skirted, tribally anonymous jujubes. Utterly embraceable, consumable, and expendable, they expect little, for they know that the fragile ego of the playboy cannot endure the threat of any strain or commitment.

    Thanks to color photography, and then to color TV, the magnetic city has become a single erogenous zone. At every turn there is an immediate encounter with extremely erotic situations which exactly correspond to the media “coverage” of violence. “Bad news” has long been the hard core of the press, indispensable for the moving of the mass of “good news” which is advertising.

    McLuhan’s ref to the “Magnetic City” is a nod to Wyndham Lewis and his Apes of God.

  3. michael edmunds | April 9, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    please add end quotes after …which is advertising.”

  4. Anthony Olszewski | April 10, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    The Svedka female robot is McLuhan’s Logo made metal:

    Gibson’s Pattern Recognition serves as something of a prophet for the brand goddess. And — as luck would have it — the title derives from McLuhan’s intro to Subliminal Seduction:
    “Information overload equals pattern recognition.” Media Ad-vice: An Introduction by Marshall McLuhan

    Though McLuhan cites IBM for the pattern recognition quote, I’ve not been able to find anything pointing to that Online.

  5. Alice Rae | April 10, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful link – I have never found this before! I am going to have to read it through several times…. nowhere else have I seen McLuhan refer to Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge.. a good excuse to read that now! And all the talk of ’seduction’ begs a comparison with Baudrillard… thanks for posting re. the Duchamp connection, good to have it noted here. Also interesting is to read the original New York Times review of MB -
    Re the Svedka robot – makes me think of the cliche-archetype rule – now that we have left the mechanical age for the electronic, the mechanical is being recycled as retro cliche… haven’t read Gibson’s Pattern Recognition but will now!!

  6. Steve Miller | April 4, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Ordered the book/dissertation of McLuhan’s two days ago. It was so easy with the info you provided. Thank you! Regarding Bion, he was one of a kind. He was Beckett’s psychoanalyst. His posthumously published “Cogitations” was his end of day meditations about ideas he was thinking of and “WildThoughts” that he tried to “catch in (his) net.” This document reads very similar to CtA, no center. Many analogies few deliberate metaphors. Strange language with resonant “familiar” intuitions. You can thank me later. Enjoy. I’ll send you a book report on the dissertation with questions for you to answer, if you would be so kind.

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