Preface to The Mechanical Bride: “provisional affairs for apprehending reality”

One of McLuhan’s persistent questions: how is it that we know so much about the exterior landscape and so little about the interior one?  Isn’t the mind’s relation to reality the same in both cases?  So why should the first be subject to progressive illumination and the second stuck in seemingly intractable confusion? (“Just the fog from a confoosed brain…”, Mechanical Bride, 5)

Part of the answer, he knew, had to do with our seemingly irresistible recourse to the rear-view mirror1. Instead of trying out new approaches (the sort of flexibility that established investigation on new bases in a whole series of physical sciences), we cling to old ones.2 Indeed, a good part of our attachment to old approaches lies in the habitual use of them to dismiss new suggestions out of hand. Hence McLuhan’s acute observation towards the end of his short (2 page) preface to The Mechanical Bride:

Those readers who undertake merely to query the ideas [presented in MB] will miss their use for getting at the material. (vi)

The aim of “getting at the material” is one McLuhan shared with the phenomenologists: back to the things themselves! But in modern times, he saw, the problem was not only philosophical confusion. Deflected perception was first and foremost the result of sophisticated manipulation:

Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat not light is the intention. To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment alike.3 (Mechanical Bride, v)

the folklore of industrial man (…) stems from the laboratory, the studio, and the advertising agencies.  (Mechanical Bride, v)

symbols have been employed in an effort to paralyze the mind (Mechanical Bride, vi)

It is observable that the more illusion and falsehood needed to maintain any given state of affairs, the more tyranny is needed to maintain the illusion and falsehood. Today the tyrant rules not by club or fist, but, disguised as a market researcher, he shepherds his flocks in the ways of utility and comfort. (Mechanical Bride, vi)

Therefore McLuhan’s goal to investigate the questions: how did this situation come about historically? how does it perpetuate itself? what are its effects today? how might it be reversed?

Since so many minds are engaged in bringing about this condition of public helplessness, and since these programs of commercial education are so much more expensive and influential than the relatively puny offerings sponsored by schools and colleges, it seemed fitting to devise a method for reversing the process. Why not use the new commercial education as a means to enlighten4 its intended prey? Why not assist the public to observe consciously the drama which is intended to operate upon it unconsciously? (Mechanical Bride, v)

Where visual symbols have been employed in an effort to paralyze the mind, they are here used as a means of energizing it. (Mechanical Bride, vi)

But before getting down to the business of mental “energizing” in The Bride itself, McLuhan’s preface sets out the conditions of possibility for this.  They turn out to be familiar from the physical sciences but are somehow left aside as soon as human experience and behavior are in question.

Just as in physics or chemistry, where it is necessary to differentiate between the space-time of physical events and the space-time of their explanatory laws and elements (so that, for example, the space-time in which any particular body of water is situated is never the same space-time as that of the relation of hydrogen to oxygen in chemistry which is always the case, aka “arrested”), so here:

these objects and processes  [in MB] (…) are unfolded by exhibit and commentary as a single landscape. A whirling phantasmagoria can be grasped only when arrested for contemplation. And this very arrest is also a release from the usual participation. (Mechanical Bride, v)

And just as the “arrested” table of chemical elements provides a constant background to the “whirling phantasmagoria” of physical events in the world around us (and, indeed, in us), so McLuhan will direct our attention to a “single landscape” that is always in place:

But amid the diversity of our inventions and abstract techniques of production and distribution there will be found a great degree of cohesion and unity. This consistency is not conscious in origin or effect (…) The unity is not imposed upon this diversity, since any other selection of exhibits would reveal the same dynamic patterns. (Mechanical Bride, v)

The object is to expose a constant background of “the same dynamic patterns”; but it is not hoped to reveal these completely and all at once through some kind of impossible “matching”5.  Partiality is the very motor of science since where something is not the case, this is a sign that a new  discovery is waiting to be made.  This is so, however, only on the basis of some “making [that] comes before”6, some “device (…) for getting at the material”, that has revealed some “degree of cohesion and unity” for our focus. As McLuhan would later (1975) put the point:

Any kind of acquired knowledge naturally creates, or opens up, new vistas of ignorance. Any scientific breakthrough points directly at situations that have been hereto ignored; these situations, in turn, remind us of new worlds to be explored. (At the Flip Point of Time)

Thus it is that McLuhan insists in his preface to The Mechanical Bride that actually “getting at the material” is to be achieved and that the means of doing so will inevitably be partial7:

it is the procedure of the book to use (…) exhibits merely as a means of releasing some of their intelligible meaning. No effort has been made to exhaust their meaning. The various ideas and concepts introduced in the commentaries are intended to provide positions from which to examine the exhibits. They are not conclusions in which anybody is expected to rest but are intended merely as points of departure. (…) Concepts are provisional affairs for apprehending reality; their value is in the grip they provide. This book, therefore, tries to present at once representative aspects of the reality and a wide range of ideas for taking hold of it. The ideas are very secondary devices (…) for getting at the material. (Mechanical Bride, v-vi, emphasis added)

This meeting of finitude and truth lies at the heart of McLuhan’s work.

  1. Cf Beckett in Proust (1930): “the necromancy that sees in each precious object a mirror of the past”. 
  2. If the fundamental nature of human beings were not the very opposite of this, namely, adopting new approaches exactly against the old, language could never be learned and scientific discoveries would never be made. So how is it that humans constantly contradict their fundamental nature? 
  3. In an “age of advertising”, McLuhan insisted, ads and entertainment engulf education, business, news, politics, even war. None of these can be understood in isolation from the others. 
  4. MB has a typo here — “to enlightening”. 
  5. McLuhan would soon come to adopt E.H. Gombrich’s ”Making comes before matching” from his 1956 Mellon Lectures, Art and Illusion
  6. See note 5. 
  7. Attentive readers have rightly pointed out the constant presence of satire in McLuhan’s work. But they have usually done so at the extreme expense of missing its role in the service of intelligibility and truth.  It is as if a chemist were to be asked: ‘is chemical analysis limited or unlimited?’  ’Unlimited of course, our analysis never ends.’ ‘So you never get anywhere?’ ‘On the contrary, this is exactly how we somewhere — how we get our results.’