Daughter of an iconhttp://www.thespec.com/news/local/article/594034--daughter-of-an-icon
- Wed Sep 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.
But then McLuhan was famous for being misunderstood, the punch line, in essence, of his legendary walk-on scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. He appears from behind a poster, like a rabbit pulled out of a hat, to dress down a pretentious Columbia professor who, to impress a date, has been invoking McLuhan's ideas, then mangling them.
Says Elizabeth, "My father's memory of the movie was this costume designer who kept telling him how to look like ... himself." And that Allen wasn't funny one-on-one.
The ironies. There was another, she says, with a chuckle.
"Despite all his talk about hot and cool media and technology, he barely knew how to turn on the TV."
Though a very public intellectual, he worked mostly at home, bouncing ideas off family, as well as students and visitors when they were there ("easier to ask who 'didn't' show up at our house," says Elizabeth).
That's how she remembers her dad, a complicated man, full of offbeat charisma and great comic timing, illuminating her life — with big ideas.
She doesn't even have to say it. The message is the medium and the medium is the pride in her eyes when she talks of him.