The subjugation of the human spirit

McLuhan from the CKLN tapes1:

We don’t understand information movement and image making as warfare at all: we call this ‘advertising’. Actually Madison Avenue is a major military operation vastly aggressive and out to conquer empires, territories, within the human heart and human senses. It is a huge military operation of empire building and icon making. If we had the slightest consciousness of social responsibility instead of this sort of a private subconscious totally inadequate to our technology, we would teach our children in our schools how to protect themselves against media fallout and advertising fallout. It is simply fantastic the unconsciousness of our western world with regard to the forces that we release upon it. The little areas in which we permit ourselves any consciousness or responsibility are minute compared to the real areas of impact. Advertising is a vast military operation intended openly and advisedly intended to conquer the human spirit. The critics of advertising miss the bus entirely by complaining about false claims. Nothing could be less important than the false claims of advertising. It is the total icon making activity that matters. (31:16ff)

This was from the 1970s, the last decade of McLuhan’s life.  But he had had something of this view from the beginning. Here he is in 1938 in one of his first published papers:

What sort of motive, what complexion of intelligence is likely to be concerned with the output and control of Little Men? For almost a century now, the intelligence of the ablest men has been systematically bought and set to work to exploit the weakness and stupidity of the rest of mankind. This is the exact reverse of the traditional procedure of all civilizations. Hitherto the ablest men have been selected to govern, to educate, rather than to exploit, the others.2

Or again in the ‘preface’ to The Mechanical Bride, which was written in 1950 at the latest and more probably in the late 1940s:

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 alikeSince 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.3

And again from 1953 in ‘The Age of Advertising’:

The ads are a form of magic which have come to dominate a new civilization. 

  1. For details on these CKLN tapes, see Wakese 2: McLuhan on the “potencies” of language.
  2. ‘Peter or Peter Pan’, Fleur de Lis, 37:4, 1938.
  3. The Mechanical Bride, Preface, p v.