The television drama Mad Men–featuring advertising-agency creative director Don Draper as the hero whose outer cynic is locked in combat with his inner existentialist–was first set in the late 1950s; it has now reached 1966. When the parents of Megan Calvet, Draper’s new wife, arrived in New York from Montreal, it was hard to see Calvet père as anything but a wave to Marshall McLuhan, the ultimate media savant as media celebrity in the mid-1960s. McLuhan was so big that in 1977, years after his moment had passed, he could still offer Woody Allen a great coup, allowing the actor-director to pull him into a scene in Annie Hall to correct a misquoting movie-queue blowhard who’s getting on Alvy Singer’s nerves: “You know nothing of my work,” says the tall, handsome, utterly composed professor of English from the University of Toronto to the comb-over bragging that he teaches “a class at Columbia called ‘TV, Media, and Culture.'” “How you ever got to teach a course in anything,” McLuhan says, “is totally amazing.”
The Calvets are in New York to attend a Cancer Society awards dinner where their new son-in-law is to be honored for writing a cynical attack on cigarette advertising. At the dinner, the tall, handsome Emile, a professor and Marxist cultural theorist, finds himself at the agency table, seated next to the reptilian adman Pete Campbell. “So I manage these accounts,” Pete says. “I don’t understand,” Emile sneers. “What do you do–every day?” “Well, what do you do?” Pete says. “You’re a scholar and an intellectual, right?” Emile is suspicious, but he can’t help preening: “Yes-s-s-s.” Pete, as if confidingly: “From what I hear, you’re a bit of a trailblazer.” Emile, trying to hide the glow in his eyes: “I don’t know if that’s true—” Pete, as if he’s given this a great deal of thought, closes the deal: “I bet the world would be better off if it knew about the work you’re doing.” Emile, at once flattered and impressed with an advertising man who himself understands the ambiguities of his own work: “You’re very kind.” “That, Emile,” Pete says, “is what I do every day.”
The scene is of a piece with the unforgettable story Tom Wolfe told in his 1965 New York magazine profile of McLuhan, catching the already rising star–author in 1964 of Understanding Media, a year later the professor as corporate consultant–in the hands of the San Francisco advertising agent and publicist Howard Gossage. The phone rings: “It is a man from one of America’s largest packing corporations,” Wolfe writes. “They want to fly McLuhan to their home office to deliver a series of three talks, one a day, to their top management group. How much would he charge?”
“What do you usually get for a lecture?” says Gossage.
“Five hundred dollars.”
“Tell him a hundred thousand.”
McLuhan looks appalled.
“Oh, all right,” says Gossage. “Tell him fifty thousand.”
McLuhan hesitates, then turns back to the telephone. “Fifty thousand.”
“Now the man on the phone is appalled,” Wolfe writes–but in a few moments, after an assurance that no new material will be required, $25,000 makes everyone happy.
As a theorist, McLuhan flipped Marx’s maxim “The point is not to understand the world, but to change it”: Trumpeting media as an idea, a philosophical system, a thing-in-itself that in truth already ruled the world, he seemed far ahead of anyone so backward as to merely speak of, say, television, magazines, radio, or advertising. He embraced media, and he saw media whole. He was a catchphrase maker: “the global village,” “the medium is the message,” “hot media,” “cold media.” In six fast years, from 1962 to 1968, he went from The Gutenberg Galaxy, a scholarly history of the revolution in human consciousness brought about by the invention of movable type, to a mash-up book made into a Columbia Records sound-collage LP produced by John Simon–who that same year took the same credit for the Band’s Music from Big Pink and Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills–that featured a crowlike voice squawking out, “The medium is the massage! The medium is the massage!” over and over.
McLuhan was no Marxist, but he was equally able to see capitalism as an omnivorous force that would by nature create and enforce its own language, its own psychology, its own values, its own ontology, its own apparatus of communication–in a word, its own medium–to the point where patent absurdities made perfect sense and all other speech, especially anything critical, came across as babble. By 1965 he could sound as if he were the paid spokesman for the future. It was, perhaps, not precisely the future being advertised on TV, in Life magazine, Time, Fortune, Look, the movies, by the government, and in the shaping of the news itself–but close enough. It was as if McLuhan were the head of a purely metaphysical advertising agency, like a church, where wisdom could not be measured in dollars, though dollars allowed for the founding of institutes, the spread of new ideas, the making of a world better off for knowing the work being done. He spoke in oracular pronouncements, prefacing the most grandiose absolutes with Of course, blowing off any questions with Delphic equanimity: “Of course, packages will be obsolete in a few years. People will want tactile experiences, they’ll want to feel the product they’re getting.” “Well… of course, people don’t actually read newspapers. They get into them every morning like a hot bath.” “Of course, a city like New York is obsolete… People will no longer concentrate in great urban centers for the purpose of work. New York will become a Disneyland, a pleasure dome.”  He died in 1980, at sixty-nine, nothing like forgotten, but, Annie Hall notwithstanding, no longer the point of reference–for a time, it had seemed, the frame of reference–he had once been.
All of which makes McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, a study of advertising published by the distinguished independent house Vanguard Press in 1951, so strong a marker in his own story, and so captivating today: hilarious, threatening, inspiring, scary for the world it depicts and the solutions it seems to propose. By more than a decade, it anticipated both the spirit and the content of such media critiques as Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), and for that matter the Rolling Stones’ 1965 hits “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud”–not to mention Herbert Marcuse’s far less nimble Eros and Civilization (1955) and such works of pop sociology as Vance Packard’s once scandalizing The Hidden Persuaders (1957). For a book by a professor, let alone a first book, it could not be less academic. Even the Roland Barthes of Mythologies (1957), with whom the McLuhan of 1951 shares the most, is hesitant and circumscribed by comparison, and the later Buckminster Fuller, with the likes of Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969) a by-the-numbers utopian.
In fifty-nine short essays, each one illustrated with a newspaper front page, a movie poster, a comic-strip panel, a lurid paperback cover, or, most often, an advertisement, and most often from a mass-circulation magazine such as Look, Reader’s Digest, or, preeminently, Life, McLuhan unwrites and rewrites what he is certain is the language of a new phase in human history:
No longer is it possible for modern man, individually or collectively, to live in any exclusive segment of human experience or achieved social pattern. The modern mind, whether in its subconscious collective dream or in its intellectual citadel of vivid awareness, is a stage on which is contained and re-enacted the entire experience of the human race. There are no more remote and easy perspectives, either artistic or national. Everything is present in the foreground. That fact is stressed equally in current physics, jazz, newspapers, and psychoanalysis. And it is not a question of preference or taste. This flood has already immersed us. And whether it is to be a benign flood, cleansing the Augean stables of speech and experience, as envisaged in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or a merely destructive element, may to some extent depend on the degree of exertion and direction which we elicit in ourselves. 
He is insisting on a great crisis, and insisting that it is new: “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.” 
McLuhan creates a sense of high stakes. It is no matter that he writes from Canada, because, really, he doesn’t: The US is his subject, the sea he swims in. Because the American mind is the modern mind, it is that mind that must be read. McLuhan generates such a sense of drama that the reader, or the looker, is pulled through his terrible puns (“from the cradle to the gravy,” “eager to sell their souls for a pot of message”), moments of sourness and fulminating raillery (“Time deals with its readers as a Sultan with his eunuchs”), phrases that sound as if they were clichés even before they were written (“these wondrous totalitarian techniques for mashing the public into processed cheese”), or what feels like irritation parading as judgment (“‘Democratic’ vanity has reached such proportions that it cannot accept as human anything above the level of cretinous confusion of mind of the type popularized by Hemingway’s heroes”).  Like any great critic, McLuhan here makes the reader feel as if he or she has embarked with the author on a great adventure. Never mind the readings of ads for long-defunct products in magazines that no longer exist: Whether merely sententious or as gripping as a thriller, hectoring or satiric, the book never reads as dated. And that’s partly because McLuhan, gearing up to slay the dragon of brainwashing, propaganda, and fascist-capitalist mind control, is having so much fun.
Each little section of the book opens with a column of querulous headlines meant to make you laugh, turn your head, do a double take: “The unexamined life isn’t worth living? Yes, but who’s living anyway?” “Why doesn’t somebody write of a last‑minute gamble for happiness in a cattle car headed for Buchenwald?” “Is there anything more tepid or timid or confused than a modern millionaire? Be careful, the answer may be ‘Yes.” And “Watch out, lad; that thing may contain all of last year’s singing commercials” facing an ad for “The pill that took 300 million years to make,” showing a man dropping a capsule into his mouth.  McLuhan will present the cover of number 63 of the comic book Crime Does Not Pay with huge letters for the word CRIME and the rest of the title as DOES NOT PAY in infinitesimal font–as if a moral question were at stake (“Suppose crime did pay?”), but it’s plain he’s homed in on this object of criticism because he loves it, loves the lines of RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRINGGG flying across the cover like a flock of burglar-alarm birds as the hapless bank robber runs down the steps shooting while his girlfriend drives off in the getaway car, thinking, “I was a nitwit to get mixed up with a stumble-bum like him in the first place.  So many of the ads analyzed, poked, prodded, tortured until they give it up and talk in The Mechanical Bride may look funny to us because they’re from another time, because they’re too blatant, because for us, trained by an ever more sophisticated advertising language, they seem so transparent. But to McLuhan, they looked as they appeared: invidious, dishonest, base, corrupt–yes– and even funnier, to him, and in a far deeper way, than they might to anyone looking now.
So the book is fun on its own terms–you turn the pages eager to see what outrage or surprise is coming next. There is a stunning comment that anticipates reality TV, and skewers it with an even more murderous glee than Bobcat Goldthwaite’s recent film God Bless America does. McLuhan reads a story about two condemned murderers, filmed by a TV news show while on death row the day before their scheduled execution, who then watch the show “on a set loaned them by the warden” just hours before they are killed:
“What a thrill these men must have got from being on the inside of a big inside story. Participating in their own audience participation, they were able to share the thrill of the audience that was being thrilled by their imminent death.”  This is the voice of a cynic, a critic, a stand-up comic, a fan, but also a theorist, and it is a key to the strongest insights McLuhan has.
Listening to that voice, we realize that their would be no such thing as media theory as we know it without McLuhan, and that few if any of those who might pretend to have taken the baton from him can really carry it.
In the “folklore of industrial man”–in Marx’s terms, the speech of the commodity; in McLuhan’s terms, the voice that arises somehow naturally or by some unseen command from the advertiser’s thrill in making an inanimate product speak–“there will be found,” McLuhan states at the outset, “a great degree of cohesion and unity. This consistency is not conscious in origin or effect and seems to arise from a sort of collective dream.” As McLuhan pursues this notion, practicing psychoanalysis on the collective dream by looking at what its dreamers say they want, at what they really want, at what they want without knowing it, the idea deepens, and the language loosens up: “Any paper today,” McLuhan writes (though it will soon be clear he could be speaking of any magazine, any TV show, any radio newscast), “is a collective work of art… an Arabian Night’s entertainment in which a thousand and one astonishing tales” a product “FOR THE 1 MAN IN 7 WHO SHAVES DAILY,” murderers as fans of their own deaths “are being told by an anonymous narrator to an equally anonymous audience.” 
Listen to a voice from that anonymous audience–Allen Ginsberg in 1956, say, in “America“–“Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine? / I’m obsessed by Time Magazine. / I read it every week. / Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore. / I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library”  –and the idea comes to life. Page through any copy of Life from the time in which McLuhan did his work–1948, 1949, 1950–and the idea instantly takes on flesh. Read for a moment, and the single issue opens up like a book, and you realize it would take a book to decipher that single issue, to tease out its hidden connections, to describe the world for which it is a map, to read it as a collage entered into, by the anonymous author as much as the anonymous reader, with the trust that discontinuous unities will reveal themselves, that a single picture will come into view, will explain everything. McLuhan walks the reader through a suddenly strange but still completely familiar world, until the reader is at once at home in this world and desperate to escape, and then McLuhan begins to play rough.
“Striving constantly, however, to watch, anticipate, and control events on the inner, invisible stage of the collective dream, the ad agencies and Hollywood turn themselves unwittingly into a sort of collective novelist, whose characters, imagery, and situations are an intimate revelation of the passions of the age”–“but,” he says, “this huge collective novel can be read only by someone trained to use his eyes and ears, and in detachment from the visceral riot that this sensational fare tends to produce. The reader has to be a second Ulysses in order to withstand the siren onslaught.” 
It is clear that this trained person, who appears throughout the book in different descriptions, the one who can crack the code, break the spell, and begin the climb from media slavery to human liberation, is McLuhan himself. The continual references to Joyce are not mere literary allusion: For McLuhan, Joyce is not only the greatest modern artist, the classical oracle who returns speaking a language so modern even his contemporaries are not ready for it; he is also the great liberator of the twentieth century and what Joyce did in the first half of the century, McLuhan will do for the last.
Of course–as he so liked to say, long after The Mechanical Bride (where such a locution does not appear) became flotsam in the great wave of Understanding Media and 1967’s The Medium Is the Massage (a wave of what might be called celebrity theory, where the name it carried–McLuhan!–stood in for whatever its actual content might be) it didn’t work out that way. In the moments in his first book when McLuhan assumes the prophetic mantle, he can begin to sound slick, as if between the lines he’s already writing his own press and has begun to believe it. He’ll anticipate not what T J. Clark called Debord’s “chiliastic serenity”  but the smugness of Adam Curtis in his reductionist 2002 television documentary miniseries The Century of the Self, where Curtis argues that Freud, through his nephew Edward Bernays, was far more important as the founder of modern advertising than as the founder of psychoanalysis. “We do not have a single, coherent present to live in, and so we need a multiple vision in order to see at all,” McLuhan writes, and “it is here that the ad agencies” (expressing “for the collective society that which dreams and uncensored behavior do in individuals”) are “so very useful.”  He can descend directly into the banal, going on to quote the film critic Parker Tyler on the movie theater as “the psychoanalytic clinic of the average worker’s daylight dream,”  so swept up in the glib vision he fails to notice that, through Parker, the assumption of such a fascist “clinic” can lead to its own kind of condescension, a contempt that bleeds into a fascistic commitment to the notion of the supposedly brainwashed masses, those average workers, and not the educated critic, the discerning moviegoer, or even the sophisticated shopper.
There came a point, as I reread The Mechanical Bride years after stumbling on it in a used bookstore at the height of McLuhan’s fame, when I stopped trusting him, when I began to suspect him of bad faith, of manipulating his material. Not to tell a false story–because his arguments at their fullest are both exhilarating and frightening–but to make himself look smart. Speaking of the feature “10 Years of Look,” which ran in the October 29, 1946, issue of the magazine, he focuses on a page about the war so recently over, centered on a photo of “a wounded man coming home ‘to face it all another day down another death-swept road.’ Flanking him was a sprawling pinup: ‘Half a million servicemen wrote in for this one.’ And underneath him in exactly the same posture of surrender as the pinup girl was a nude female corpse with a rope around the neck: ‘Enraged Nazis hanged this Russian guerrilla.'”  If only “for increased reading pleasure,” McLuhan said, “readers should study these editorial ghoul techniques–conscious or not as they may be–and their poetic associations of linked and contrasting imagery.  This felt gleeful–caught ’em in the act!–gleeful, cold, and exploitative. I couldn’t believe it was an honest account of a moment of media shock, rather than a faked description in the service of a preordained analysis. I couldn’t believe the murdered woman was in a “posture of surrender.”
Googling the Look caption, I easily found the picture. It is one of the most individual and least generic atrocity photos of World War II. As I looked at it directly, McLuhan’s use of the picture to make his point about the manipulation of images, their effect on our subconscious, and the need of the trained reader, someone with his sense of good and evil, of discernment and taste, to save the world, seemed like a further obscenity.
Finding the actual page McLuhan was writing about took a little longer–and I was sure, unspooling microfilm in the Oakland Public Library, that here McLuhan’s own Emile Calvet was waiting to point his finger and draw his sardonic conclusions. But McLuhan was right. The image of the dead woman alone did not show her in a posture of surrender, a secret sexual fantasy now at work in a million minds. But the image of the supine pinup sexualized the partisan, took away her humanity and celebrated the obscenity of the model surrendering her own humanity, surrendering the individuality that now, on the page McLuhan was looking at, the dead woman was deprived of herself. One could imagine that McLuhan had seen the picture of the dead woman when it first appeared, and remembered it. One could imagine that when he found it again, the sardonic tone he adopted to present it as a tiny, irreducible element in his shadow play about modern communications was an echo of his own disgust.
Artforum, 50th Anniversary Issue, September 2012