Marshall McLuhan’s first book, his first deep dive into pop culture, published in 1951; this is a hodgepodge of essays alongside examples of advertisements or newspaper front pages. Delicious, sharp stinging commentary pointing out the idiocy of the barrage of exhortations to buy buy buy. He excoriates an ad that claims to have a letter from soldiers who witnessed the dying of one of their own while holding a poster of Betty Grable—”an alert and conscious public would have repudiated this ad emphatically,” but “[the American nihilist is] unconscious, illogical, and inarticulate… must destroy because of the vacuum and self-hatred within him… he is born of the social conditions of rapid turnover, planned obsolescence, and systematic change for its own sake.”
“When people have been accustomed for decades to perpetual emotions, a dispassionate view of anything at all is difficult to achieve.” This, from 1951. Sixty years later, the swirl of perpetual emotions is even stronger, the onslaught of images ever more constant.
“A very able person may often choose to freeze or anesthetize large areas of his mind and experience for the sake of social and practical success or the pleasures of group solidarity.”
“Freedom, like taste, is an activity of perception and judgment based on a great range of particular acts and experiences. Whatever fosters mere passivity and submission is the enemy of this vital activity.”
Terrific takedown of the book of the month clubs and their advertisements that claim “Perhaps you have often wondered how these truly great books ‘got that way.’ First, because they are so readable… And of course to be interesting they had to be easy to understand. And those are the very qualities which characterize these selections: readability, interest, simplicity.” Apparently books were subjected to Gallup Poll type activities where a manuscript was boiled down to a one-hour reading and recorded then played to various segments who recorded their impressions while listening. He quotes Sterling North, “gaping at these wondrous totalitarian techniques for mashing the public into process cheese,” as saying “this is a way of consulting the collective wisdom of the American people.” McLuhan’s best line yet: “Which gives the cube root of pink toothbrush, at least.”
In analyzing an ad to help you develop your executive ability, McLuhan questions the person who’s being built up. “The successful executive has to strip himself of every human quality until he is nearly mad with boredom. Then he can work, work, work without distraction. The work is the narcotic for the boredom, as the boredom is the spur to work.”
He mentions a 1947 editorial in Fortune about the flood of advertising, “The American citizen lives in a state of siege from dawn till bedtime. Nearly everything he sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells is an attempt to sell him something. Luckily for his sanity he becomes calloused shortly after diaperhood; now to break through his protective shell, the advertisers must continuously shock, tease, tickle, or irritate him, or wear him down by the drip-drip-drip or Chinese water-torture method of endless repetition.”
Finally, he questions education. “Why train men if there is only a market for robots? Why train individuals, if the only available life is the collective dream of uniform tasks and mass entertainment? Why make life difficult? Why be different? Why use your brains to ensure poverty? To put the whole thing briefly, a power economy cannot tolerate power that cannot be centrally controlled. It will not tolerate the unpredictable actions and thoughts of individual men.”