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.

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