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The 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birth is on July 21, 2011. (Photo illustration by David Woodside/Photo illustration by David Woodside)
The 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birth is on July 21, 2011. (Photo illustration by David Woodside/Photo illustration by David Woodside)

The return of Marshall McLuhan Add to ...

Good news. This Thursday is the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birth, and the communications and technology theorist celebrated by his most fervid admirers as Canada's greatest thinker of all time has emerged from the valley of darkness that closed around him in the last decade of his life.

The University of Toronto professor of English credited with foreseeing the Internet 30 years before it was invented and broadcasting scores of ideas about how electronic communications media was changing the way humans think has been redeemed from labels of McLuhanacy and psuedo-scientific charlatanism.

His work no longer is described, as it was in one erudite journal of the 1970s, as "a hoax so gigantic that it shows every sign of becoming an international intellectual scandal."

He is being honoured with bouquets of conferences in Edmonton, where he was born, in Winnipeg, where he grew up, in Toronto, where he taught at the University of Toronto's St. Michael's College for 34 years - McLuhanesque images will be shown on the subway system in addition to lectures and exhibits throughout the city this week and in November - and in 15 cities across Europe, where his popularity never flagged.

Moreover, cash-strapped U of T has found several hundred thousand dollars to create a re-designed, re-energized McLuhan program in culture and technology in the coach house on the eastern edge of the downtown campus where he conducted seminars for nearly 15 years until his death in 1980.

Whether he's the greatest Canadian thinker of all time is moot; the country has not been short of intellectual stars.

But he has been brought back into the intellectual sunshine, as the U.S. essayist Lewis Lapham writes, for the simple reason that he makes a lot more sense now that so much of what he foresaw in the 1960s has come true.

Which leads to two fascinating questions: Why in the space of less than 10 years did McLuhan slide from supernova oracle into a toxic sea of contempt and ridicule? And now that his oracular forecasts have come true, why still study him?

The rise and fall . . .

There's a rather charming signpost to the answers provided by Emily Kellogg, a fourth-year student in St. Michael's College book and media studies program, who is the summer author of the campus student-life blog, UpbeaT.

Deciding recently to pay a visit to the McLuhan coach house, she wrote: "To be perfectly honest, I had never heard of McLuhan until I moved into residence at SMC, and accidentally stumbled into the book and media studies program. But as I quickly learned, Marshall McLuhan is kind of a big deal. You know that phrase that you hear everywhere: 'The medium is the message?' Yeah, that was McLuhan."

And McLuhan's problem - one of his problems - is that his message couldn't escape his medium. As Douglas Coupland points out in a 2009 McLuhan biography, the wonderful, whimsical, boundlessly optimistic and imaginative sixties society that embraced him and lapped up his ideas morphed into the gloom of a change-fatigued seventies society that tired of hearing from him. Yet the brand remained strong. "You know that phrase that you hear everywhere: 'The medium is the message?'" Ms. Kellogg asks us. "Yeah, that was McLuhan."

Think of his intellectual history as a journey between two mountain peaks passing through a shadowed valley.

Beginning in the 1940s and continuing through most of the 1960s, he was one of the first theorists of technology to examine the significance and impact of electronic technology on human senses, society and culture, writes University of Calgary historian Douglas Francis, in his new book, The Technological Imperative in Canada: An Intellectual History. We're inclined to forget, as the peerless U.S. media theorist James Carey pointed out in 1967, that McLuhan and fellow U of T scholar Harold Innis were at one time alone among students of human society in making the history of mass media central to the history of civilization. Today it's a given.

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