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Marshall McLuhan 1911-2011
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GINGKO PRESS — The official Publisher of Marshall McLuhan — is preparing new critical works and reprints of Marshall McLuhan’s writings.
Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan
Philip B. Meggs:
Introduction to the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of
The Mechanical Bride — Folklore of Industrial Man
McLuhan: The Mechanical Bride (Hc)
50th Anniversary Hardcover edition. (completely reworked facsimile reprint 2002)
The top-rated television show of 1968-70, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, pushed fast-paced editing to the limits of human comprehension. Each week, one segment featured a joke wall, where cast members opened trap doors in rapid-fire sequence and hurled one-line jokes at the audience. In the midst of one joke blitz, Goldie Hawn, who played the ultimate “dumb blonde,” opened a door and giggled, “Marshall McLuhan, what are ya’ doin’?”
How did a pensive Toronto college professor escape anonymity and achieve a level of notoriety permitting him to be the subject of a one-liner on a television program watched by millions? McLuhan’s fame resulted from his position as oracle of the new electronic information age. As industrial society struggled to understand how it was being transformed by technology; why communications media — especially television — were changing people’s thought patterns; and how the media was being used by politicians and corporations to control public opinion, create mass markets, and steer people along paths beneficial to the message makers, McLuhan offered a comprehensible theory about what was happening, and why.
During the turbulent 1960s, McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, along with two uncommonly visual sequels, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects and War and Peace in the Global Village (both with graphic designer Quentin Fiore) proved widely influential for their interpretation of the turbulent changes occurring in society. McLuhan’s work led a multitude of interpreters to declare the death of print. Actually, he believed existing media were radically changing in response to television, computers, and other electronic media. The rational world of print spawned by Gutenberg’s invention of movable type around 1450, McLuhan thought, would yield to a new world of audiovisual sensation. He warned that new modes of communication were reshaping society. Generations who primarily received information from printed communications were influenced by this medium to sense things one at a time in the logical sequence found in a line of type, while those whose primary communications media are electronic discern multiple communications simultaneously, often through more than one sense. As a result, McLuhan thought, human life was returning to the circumstances of a tribal community, but on a global scale, as new technologies linked the far-flung regions of the planet.

Ironically, far more people knew about McLuhan’s ideas than read his books. His genius for turning a phrase and expressing potent ideas as telegraphic probes enabled the media to turn his verbal spears into sound bites, skimming ideas from the surface of complex, multi-layered thinking. His concepts that have become part of the cultural mainstream include “the global village,” and “the medium is the message.” This conclusion — meaning the nature of a communications media impacts society even more than its content — proved quite controversial.

Behind the public persona, there existed a probing intellect carefully analyzing media and its impact upon citizens. McLuhan began his study of the psychological and social effects of technology and communications media during the 1940s, before electronic media turned The Gutenberg Galaxy (as McLuhan titled his 1962 book exploring the condition of typographic man) upside down. A half-century ago, the world was hardly a kinder or simpler place. Humankind confronted the ravages of World War II, the atomic bomb, and the Holocaust. The communications environment was vastly different from today’s. Television was just emerging, for by 1950 there were only ten million television-owning American households compared to over a hundred million now. Radio and cinema were in their prime, but print media still provided the primary conduit for information, entertainment, and advertising.

The Mechanical Bride was McLuhan’s early effort to assess mass-media culture and the popular arts, analyzing their affect upon people. The techniques of literary and art criticism were deployed onto a new target — the lowly ads, comics, and popular press usually derided and ignored by academicians and analysts of contemporary society. It was published after fifteen years of analyzing and interpreting hundreds of artifacts yanked from the media bombardment. The Mechanical Bride is very straightforward. Fifty-nine sections reproduce printed artifacts, including ads, comic strips, movie posters, and covers of magazines and books, accompanied by a short critical essay analyzing each exhibit (as McLuhan calls these artifacts). Each section has a short title and between three and five introductory questions that act as probes, provoking the reader’s thinking.

McLuhan’s books replaced the traditional linear structure of print media with the fragmentation, flashbacks, and sequences used in film and television. He explodes the tradition of continuity so precious to writers and editors. The organizational techniques are analogous to avant garde films, with disparate information collaged together to make a disjunctive yet interrelated whole. McLuhan explains the need to “use many kinds of positions and views in relationship to the popular imagery of industrial society as a means to getting as clear an over-all sense of the situation as can be done. Using the shifting imagery of our society as a barometer requires range and agility rather than rigid adherence to a single position.”

The exhibits in The Mechanical Bride can be shuffled without injury to the message, yet a cumulative effect occurs as threads reappear and elaborate upon earlier passages. One need not read his books from start to finish. Each book is a barrage of revolutionary and challenging ideas, alternating between crystal insight and perplexing complexity. Reader participation is required to assemble the parts into a whole.

Evidence of McLuhan’s struggle to coalesce his vision is found in four preliminary manuscripts, now housed in the National Archives of Canada. The first is titled Guide to Chaos, reflecting McLuhan’s perceptions that industrial man now lived in a chaotic society, lacking the rhythmic order of the seasons and harvest found in earlier epochs. The following three are all titled Typhon in America, after the Greek mythological monster with one hundred heads. This suggests the complexity and danger of the blitzkrieg of messages aimed at industrial man. The final title, The Mechanical Bride, echoes McLuhan’s concern about the pervasive commingling of sex and technology in advertising. He feared that “one dream opens into another until reality and fantasy are made interchangeable.” Both the title and McLuhan’s concerns reflect Marcel Duchamp’s large painting on glass, “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.” Like Duchamp, McLuhan was able to observe his society from an outsider’s viewpoint and became troubled by unchecked forces shaping people’s lives.

The subtitle of The Mechanical Bride, “The Folklore of Industrial Man,” causes one to pause. We think of folklore as the beliefs, customs, and values passed down among a people through media such as tales and songs. It is of and for the people. McLuhan concluded the folklore of our society is determined, not by education or religion, but by mass media. The exhibits presented in The Mechanical Bride were aimed at the people, in hopes of accomplishing a goal: buy this brand of light bulb or wear this color of stocking this season. Advertising agencies and Hollywood are “constantly striving to enter and control the unconscious minds of a vast public . . . in order to exploit them for profit.” An anonymous narrator speaks to an anonymous audience. There are no links between the two, except for the mass-media message. The narrator has an agenda, but the recipient is usually a passive observer being shaped and molded like Silly Putty™. Perhaps much traditional folklore has been like this as well, fabricated by tribal chieftains, medicine men, nobility, and religious leaders to control the populace.

McLuhan: The Mechanical Bride (Pb)
Paperback edition (2008)
In the Preface to his earliest hand-written manuscript, McLuhan says the exhibits possess an “invisibility. They are intended to be absorbed through the pores or be gulped in a kind of mental breathing. Taken out of its usual setting and isolated for clinical observation, an ad or comic comes to life at the conscious level. Of course, it was never intended to exist there. Yet at the level of rationality these things are suddenly seen to have a rationale of their own.” The significance of The Mechanical Bride stems from McLuhan’s realization that ads, comics, and movies are not what they seem. This book is a valiant effort to define what the media and its effects really are.
McLuhan was obsessed with the relationship between advertising and the human condition. When discussing books touted as an aid when climbing the corporate ladder, he observes how “the more equality there is in the race for inequality, the more intense the race and the less the inequality which results from the consequent rewards. That means less and less distinction for more and more men of distinction.” Warning how “business and political life will take on mainly the character of diversion and entertainment for the passive public,” he anticipated mass-media hysteria over political sex scandals and product failures.

Popular magazines analyzed in The Mechanical Bride bear the full force of McLuhan’s analysis. Time then claimed to be “organized on a principle of COMPLETE ORGANIZATION” and extolled its virtue of covering the news “as if by one man for one man.” McLuhan asks whether this suggested a “highly colored and selective approach” with a “strong tinge of the totalitarian in the formula?” (After decades of anonymous journalism with the complete magazine edited into a conforming editorial style, today Time magazine features individual writers with prominent photographs and bylines.) The Reader’s Digest is dubbed “Pollyanna Digest” and accused of packaging the “heap of goodness, beauty, and power in everybody and everything” and rushing it to market. The New Yorker is indicted because “snobbery based on economic privilege constitutes the mainstay of its technique and appeal.” When The New Yorker attacked The Reader’s Digest, McLuhan sees it as “a wrestling match between two men, each of whom was locked in a separate trunk.”

Often, an exhibit is a catalyst prompting a discourse about some aspect of society. An advertisement for a one-volume condensation of twenty-five high school subjects, High School Subjects Self Taught, prompted McLuhan to discuss the role of the teacher in America and the relationship between parents and teachers.

McLuhan urges an expanded definition of literacy. Understanding the media that provides our information, and being able to critically evaluate how its form and content changes our lives, is as important as the traditional curriculum. Many now see media literacy as an important part of education, but when The Mechanical Bride was first published, people were befuddled by McLuhan’s approach. He realized how people’s mental habits blinded them to truths hidden behind the facade of surface meaning. The media barrage is a form of unofficial education, and McLuhan thought the only practical way to bring it under control was “uninhibited inspection of popular and commercial culture.”

McLuhan searches for semiotics beneath semiotics — levels of meaning beyond the messenger’s intent or the recipient’s awareness. One can better cope with automobile marketing if one understands the presentation of the vehicle as both womb and phallic symbol, because ads simultaneously sell curvaceous streamlining and comfort along with aggressive power. The monotheistic Gothic Crucifix yields to the industrial age’s cluster symbols, such as the Coca-Cola™ girl, who combines sweet innocence with assembly-line showgirl beauty, and the drum majorette, who blends youthful innocence, sexuality, and militarism. We are made aware of pervasive cluster images combining sex, technology, and death. Superman™, the “comic strip brother of the medieval angels,” is revealed for his “strong-armed totalitarian methods” and “immature and barbaric mind.”

Unlike many philosophers and theologians actively seeking truth, McLuhan understands the fallacy of a fixed and static viewpoint. The vantage point must shift and evolve as one thinks about new problems and seeks new truths. Quantum mechanics, relativity, and Cubism are cited as manifestations of this seismic shift in technology and the social climate.

McLuhan’s facility for throwing out ideas by the bushel provides much insight. It also gives careful readers, who analyze McLuhan’s probes as carefully as he scrutinizes his exhibits, many points on which to disagree. McLuhan endorsed these challenges, believing his works were dialogues rather than dogma.

The tenuousness of democracy is exposed, for McLuhan characterizes newspapers as appealing to the Jeffersonian enmity toward federal centralization and corporations, while being vast bureaucratic corporations themselves. Popular ventriloquist Edgar Bergen is seen metaphorically as the massive and powerful organization controlling his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, who signifies everyman — outspoken and fiercely independent but ultimately powerless without the control of the benevolent Bergen. The appeal of western movies is attributed to their ability to give “people overwhelmed by industrial scale” a glimpse of “the primordial image of the lonely entrepreneur” to “a commercial society far advanced along the road of monopolistic bureaucracy.” The conduit of control becomes concentrated in movies, the press, and radio. McLuhan fears most citizens “will inevitably sink into a serfdom for which they have already been very well conditioned.”

McLuhan is the ultimate phrase turner; wordplay runs throughout his writings. James Joyce is frequently quoted; clearly, McLuhan revered Joyce and learned much from Joyce’s creative and expressive manipulations of the English language. McLuhan’s metaphors are often astounding, as when he tells us that, after a modern painting or prose doesn’t deliver a conventional message, audiences “kick the cigarette machine because it doesn’t deliver peanuts.” Readers who are alert to McLuhan’s subtle word-play will avoid the mistakes of Marvin Kitman, who mistook a paraphrase for a quotation when he reviewed The Medium is the Massage in the March 26, 1967, New York Times. Kitman wrote, “An alert continuity acceptance department (the editor at Bantam) never should have allowed the misquotation from Shakespeare: ‘All the world’s a sage.’ The correct word is ‘stage.’” McLuhan soared right over his reviewer’s head.

McLuhan understands the vast potential of communications media to provide collective experiences. Unintentional byproducts of its techniques include reforming the world as one city. “This planet is a single city” spawned the “global village.” The seeds of many later ideas formed by McLuhan and others pepper the text. Calling the information conduits of 1950 “the superhighways of thought and feeling stretched across the contemporary mind . . . .” anticipates today’s information superhighway.

The exhibits evaluated in The Mechanical Bride are now over fifty years old. For us they are compelling cultural artifacts — wordy, romantic, and pictorial. For mid-century readers, they were part of the environment, surrounding and engulfing their daily life. Readers today will marvel at how McLuhan’s exhibits and text make us aware of accelerated change over a short half-century. Imagine the disdain today if a club called the Seniors League were composed of women “frankly over forty.” What could be more silly to contemporary mores than McLuhan’s quotation from showman Ken Murry, who said, “Overbustiness is on the way out as a feminine ideal,” being killed by television because — unlike movies and the stage — “TV, remember, goes right into the living room where parents, kids, and the old folks all watch it together.” Curiously, this is the only mention of television in The Mechanical Bride. In a few short years, television overwhelmed Murry’s viewpoint and became a focus of McLuhan’s investigations during the three decades after publication of The Mechanical Bride.

Morally outraged, McLuhan’s view of industrial man was rather grim. McLuhan saw a puppet controlled by forces of commerce and advertising that don’t merely pull the strings that make him dance, but burrow deeply into his consciousness to shape his view of the world.

Given the phenomenal changes in technology, media, and society in the fifty years since The Mechanical Bride was first published, one must ask if this book is still relevant to life in the twenty-first century. The answer is an unqualified yes. The stones McLuhan turned over fifty years ago have grown bigger and heavier; the chaotic mass-media jungle he analyzed has expanded into an information superhighway. But the road map he sketched for understanding and navigating the chaos and manipulation of the mass media still points in the right direction. As an alarmed reviewer, James Scott, observed in The Telegram on October 27, 1951, “Maybe Mr. McLuhan has the answer. At any rate, he points to a situation which the still-thinking member of society cannot any longer ignore . . . . I particularly recommend [The Mechanical Bride] to the attention of every teacher, every parent, every man and woman in any way connected with education. Before we lose another generation, let’s get busy. . . .”

The Mechanical Bride can help people recognize and understand the forces shaping their lives. The importance of understanding the assault of media is crystallized by McLuhan’s observation, “the price of total resistance, like that of total surrender, is still too high.”

Philip B. Meggs

Philip B. Meggs was School of the Arts Research Professor
at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
About the Author:
Philip B. Meggs

Graphic design’s best-known historian and a beloved educator

Philip Baxter Meggs (1942–2002) charted new territory in the field of graphic design history. His authoritative survey A History of Graphic Design was the first attempt at creating a definitive and linear history of the graphic design profession, charting its progress from the marks found in the caves of Lascaux to experimentation with digital media in the late 1990's. The book quickly became standard reading for young designers and for many still, it provides their first introduction to the exciting back-story of their chosen profession.

Meggs’s love for type and letterforms became apparent at age 16 when, in the afternoons after high school in his hometown of Florence, SC, he would hand set metal type.

After college, Meggs worked as a senior designer at Reynolds Aluminum, and then as art director of A.H. Robins Pharmaceuticals, where he designed posters, booklets, packages, a quarterly magazine, exhibitions, annual reports, and advertising campaigns.

In 1968, upon his former teacher’s invitation, Meggs began to teach at the Communication Arts and Design Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. In 1974 he was appointed chair of the department and during his 13-year tenure the enrollment doubled, and the graphic design program was augmented with new majors and courses.

In 1995 Virginia Commonwealth University awarded Meggs its annual faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, Research, and Service. Meggs was an innovative and respected educator who was devoted to his students. He continued to teach, even after the year 2000 when he was diagnosed with acute Myelogenous Leukemia until his death two years later.

During Megg’s first semester of teaching, a fruitless search for information about design history, theory, and creative methodology, convinced him that there was a desperate need amongst design educators for these materials. In 1974 he began teaching a course in the history of visual communications and started to work on his first book A History of Graphic Design. The first edition of this 500-page book was published in 1983. It received an award for excellence in publishing from the Association of American Publishers. A History of Graphic Design has been translated into Chinese, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish.

Since this first book that provided an essential touchstone for all future graphic design history scholarship, Meggs went on to write a dozen books and more than 150 articles and paper on design and typography.

Meggs is survived by his wife, the illustrator and art director Libby Phillips Meggs, and their two children.


“Phil Meggs died last November 24, succumbing to complications resulting from leukemia and, in reviewing his life in an obituary I write for the Times, I realized just how much I, and the profession, are indebted to him. Take away his epochal book and subsequent writings and lectures and there would have been far fewer design history classes, symposia, and books than there are today. How many educators have used "the book" as required reading? How many students have come across Lissitzky, Cassandre, and Rand for the very first time in Phil’s narratives? How many design scholars have cited Phil in their own research? And at how many conferences did Phil bring his special insight to all of us hungry for knowledge? Phil laid more than a groundwork; he built a monument to graphic design’s legacy. Now he is an integral part of that legacy.”

— Steven Heller, Tribute to Philip B. Meggs, PRINT, LVII:I, 2003
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