(Winnipeg) Forgetting Marshall … McLuhan, that is


Shame on Winnipeg for neglecting to remember Marshall McLuhan’s centenary, which, except for Richard Osicki and Howard Engel’s mini-conference at St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba in the spring and a conference at the University of Winnipeg last fall, is the totality of the remembrance Winnipeg’s most famous citizen has received.

Marshall McLuhan

Even though he spent most of his formative years here in Winnipeg, not much has been made of the fact he would have turned 100 this year.

It’s also initiated more than a bit of bewilderment among the hardcore boosters of this city.

How could Winnipeg miss Marshall this year, a year in which he would have celebrated his 100th birthday. Heck, even Edmonton honoured the man with a day. Plus, it’s got his name on three streets. All this, and he only spent the first four years of his life there.

Winnipeg is where Marshall McLuhan grew up.

You know, he’s the guy who was arguably the media guru for much of the 1960s.

When the New York Herald Tribune trotted out in the fall of 1965 a list of influential thinkers, such stars as Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, etc., McLuhan — who provocatively pronounced, “the medium is the message” — got stacked on the same high shelf.

And despite or in spite of such lofty praise, this graduate of Kelvin High School managed to do the media equivalent of a kick-ass cannonball into the pool of popular culture.

Hung out with Warhol

He graced the television talk-show circuit. He hung out with pop artists like Andy Warhol. He got a memorable cameo as himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. And he reached the status of adjective with “McLuhanesque.”

Not bad for a ‘Pegger who grew up on Gertrude Avenue and received a BA (Hons.) in 1933 and a MA in 1934 from the University of Manitoba.

But while city hall insists on dishing out keys to the city to Gene Simmons, Roddy Piper, Henry Winkler and Shannen Doherty, it shows its keester to McLuhan.

Admittedly, city hall isn’t the only one in town flashing this oracle of the “Age of Information.” His alma mater can only manage to name a glorified mess hall/meeting room in University Centre after McLuhan.

There’s no communication building bearing his name because there is no communication program at U of M.

You have to go to the University of Toronto, one of Canada’s great intellectual vampires, to find a building with the McLuhan moniker.

Eating our young?

I know both universities in this city held conferences in his honour. But those meetings were for McLuhan acolytes, not the larger public.

It seems many professors are only too pleased to squeeze this lanky media genie, once a very public intellectual, into the lamp of the academy.

All these moves by the city and our universities have effectively erased McLuhan from Winnipeg’s public memory.

Perhaps, there is some eating of one’s young here. Perhaps, he treacherously and annoyingly became too big and too East for us. Or maybe, once you unpack the bumper-sticker versions of his ideas, they just don’t translate neatly enough into our popular discourse.

I’m not sure. But I do know many of his ideas have Winnipeg written all over them.

His profound sensitivity to the central place of communications in creating modern life is something baked into our cosmopolitan metropolis, which exists largely because a railway imagined it.

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