Marshall McLuhan’s Legacy at the U of Toronto

03Nov11

November 3, 2011 – You don’t have to be the most celebrated media theorist of the 20th century to pepper your conversation with phrases such as “global village” and “the medium is the message.” In the ’60s and ’70s, though, Marshall McLuhan’s prescient aphorisms and his prediction of the internet helped propel him from anonymous University of Toronto literature prof to an internationally renowned public intellectual. In 2011, when many of McLuhan’s once-revolutionary concepts have become commonplace, what can he offer modern media discourse?

Turns out, quite a bit. A century after his birth, McLuhan’s influence is waxing. International centenary celebrations and major academic events have turned the world’s eyes to Toronto and to the university where he did much of his most influential work.

“We are really claiming McLuhan for the city,” says Dominique Scheffel-Dunand, the director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology. McLuhan’s program found a permanent home in a building known informally as The Coach House at the very edge of St. George campus.

After McLuhan died in 1980, Coach House activities became much less provocative and ambitious. The program continued to offer courses and events, but without its controversial leader, it was no longer a hub of revolutionary thought. Even after the Faculty of Information absorbed the McLuhan program in 1994, it somehow remained metaphorically, as well as physically on the periphery, of the university.

Scheffel-Dunand’s took over the program in 2008. She has been capitalizing on the program’s marginal status to cultivate more intellectually edgy ideas that push academic boundaries in the spirit of its founder. His vision has not yet been fully realized, she says. He believed in breaking down barriers between traditional university disciplines, and in building bridges between academic and non-academic communities.

That’s why Scheffel-Dunand has been reaching out beyond the university for McLuhan’s centenary, creating non-traditional events to explore McLuhan’s ideas in new ways.

On July 21, designers from across Toronto met at the Coach House for an event called DesignMeets McLuhan and You. Scholars and non-academics alike were called upon to recite, debate and riff on McLuhan’s themes.

On September 6, Scheffel-Dunand and her colleagues took a relaunch of McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, (the book that 50 years ago, popularized the term “global village”) to the Gladstone Hotel for combined academic discussion and intellectual revelry.

On October 24, the program held a design charrette at which architects shared visions of how a revitalized Coach House could reflect and amplify its newfound energy. Fundraising for an architectural makeover is also underway.

“These events were really to infuse the city with the name of Marshall McLuhan,” she says. “It was to put Toronto on the map as a place of the mind.”

McLuhan centenary events culminate in the second week of November, with McLuhan100 Then | Now | Next, a hybrid academic conference and city-wide art festival, co-hosted by Toronto’s four universities: U of T, Ryerson, York and OCAD.

The conference will convene McLuhan scholars from many disciplines and institutions around the world. Subjects covered will include “The fine art of crafting verbal hand grenades,” “Is Toronto obsolete?” and “Finding McLuhan in Afghanistan.”

Scheffel-Dunand is also looking beyond the centenary celebrations to maintain momentum. She found inspiration in McLuhan’s well-known “Communication and Culture” seminars. Started in the 1950’s, McLuhan’s Monday-night seminars were legendary for their raucous exchange of ideas.

Now the McLuhan Centre has launched a new series of Monday-night seminars at which artists and poets take the stage alongside scholars and researchers. Audience members are expected to talk; the speakers expected to listen. At the inaugural seminar on October 17, former City of Toronto poet laureate Pier Giorgio Di Cicco shared the stage with professors of philosophy and media history to debate issues of ontology, epistemology and ethics in an age of digital media.

Perhaps the program’s most significant long-term investment are five new paid fellowships, filled by scholars whose research style embodies McLuhan’s spirit of public intellectualism.

“McLuhan had more influence outside than within the academy,” says Daniel Robinson, a historian of communications at the University of Western Ontario and one of the current fellows. “I’m spending time at U of T with not just other academics, but whole other categories of people who have involvement with information, media or digital culture.”

The aim is both to improve the general public’s media literacy, and to push the fellows’ research in new directions. Seamus Ross, Dean of the Faculty of Information likes this program’s new direction. “We want to make sure we are great researchers, but we also want make sure our research has an impact on teaching,” he says. “I hope that when our professors turn up in class, students are getting the stuff that’s going to make the textbooks that will be used in other universities.” http://tinyurl.com/3fpnncq

University College, U of T

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