Elizabeth McLuhan: Daughter of an Icon


Elizabeth McLuhan. Marshall McLuhan and his wife Corinne on a friend’s boat in Toronto, Summer 1980. Source: Special to The Hamilton Spectator

Daughter of an icon   –   September 14, 2011

Elizabeth McLuhan knew her father was famous. How could she not?

He was the subject of a popular two-line poem (“What are you doin’, Marshall McLuhan?”) on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. He was interviewed by Playboy, in company that year with Jesse Jackson and Joe Namath.

But she never thought he was necessarily “cool” — he was a communications theorist, after all — until a man came to the door of their home in 1969.

The man wore these glasses, the arms of which disappeared into the tangles of his long hair, and there was a woman.

“My brother and I were frozen.”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Such was the reach of McLuhan’s fame and influence.

“He (Lennon) came to see Dad, not the other way around. Dad greeted him in his way, nonchalant, like ‘Oh, look who turned up.’ But Michael (her younger brother) and I were beside ourselves.” Lennon, she remembers, signed her calendar.

It’s been a busy year for Elizabeth. She is executive director of the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre on Stuart Street, she’s moving house (“the McLuhan genes are firmly planted in Hamilton, which we love,” Elizabeth says with a smile), and 2011 is the centenary of McLuhan’s birth (July 21, 1911).

The great Canadian thinker — he coined phrases such as “the global village” — is riding a cultural current again, with McLuhan conferences in places as far flung as Brussels and Copenhagen.

Elizabeth and her siblings (she’s one of six) have been invited to numerous anniversary events. Recently she and brothers Michael and Eric were front and centre at the launching of 50th anniversary edition of The Gutenberg Galaxy.

“It’s great to see the recent wave, back to acclamation,” says Elizabeth. “He was always controversial.”

Not your conventional scholar, McLuhan wrote about things like television, advertising and the shapeless plasma of what we now call “popular culture” before they were considered fit subjects of academic discourse.

Moreover, he wrote in this curious style — not academia’s plodding march of the footnotes but a vigorous, jumped-up electric prose. He combined the pensiveness of aphorisms with the payload of ad slogans to create gnomic tag phrases such as “the medium is the message.”

In fact, says Elizabeth, even Warhol scholars concede that McLuhan conceived the idea (if not the exact wording) of our “15 minutes of fame.”

McLuhan had much more than 15 minutes, as the centenary illustrates.

“But it was very hard at times,” Elizabeth recalls. “There were years when he was anathema. Students were actively discouraged from following him.”

When he died, in 1980 at the age of 69, the University of Toronto didn’t want his papers. They went instead to the national archives.

Read the rest here: http://tinyurl.com/5tmyt8d

Elizabeth McLuhan, front right, in front of Michael McLuhan

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