Lance Strate’s Reflections on the Passing of Ted Carpenter


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Edmund Carpenter 1922-2011

 The passing of Edmund Carpenter on July 2nd is a loss for the field of media ecology, for anthropology, and for scholarship is general.  Ted Carpenter’s contributions were not always well acknowledged, but certainly of great significance to us all.

It is especially sad that he passed away during the Marshall McLuhan Centenary, as he was McLuhan’s closest collaborator and greatest influence during the years that McLuhan formulated his most seminal work that led to the publication of The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media.   As McLuhan’s colleague at the University of Toronto from the late 40s to the late 50s, Carpenter might well be considered an important member of what has been termed the Toronto School, but unlike McLuhan, he was not a Canadian, but rather was born in Rochester, New York (the site of the 5th annual MEA meeting), lived for many years in California, and most recently resided in New York City and the Hamptons out on Long Island.

Carpenter worked with McLuhan in Toronto as part of the interdisciplinary Explorations group, obtaining a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1952 that, among other things, funded the creation of a journal called Explorations (after which the MEA’s Explorations in Media Ecology was named), which Carpenter edited.  This was the moment when media ecology as a unified field, rather than as separate strands of intellectual inquiry, first coalesced.  Although only 9 issues were published, Explorations had a significant impact on a select and fortunate network of intellectuals during the 1950s, creating in its readership the beginnings of a community and invisible college of what we would call media ecologists.

An anthology consisting of selected articles from Explorations was published in 1960, under the title of Explorations in Communication, edited by Carpenter and McLuhan.  It is sadly out of print, but truly a major work in the media ecology literature.  Christine Nystrom once remarked to me that most of the main ideas that made McLuhan famous in the 1960s can be found there.  Certainly, the “Acoustic Space” chapter co-authored by Carpenter and McLuhan, represents one of the key insights about sensory biases as they relate to media, and Carpenter’s piece, “The New Languages,” was frequently reprinted, and enormously influential and in the field of communication, especially mass communication, and what would become known as media studies; also, it is a pioneering work in what would become known as media literacy.

As an anthropologist, Carpenter played a role in the adoption of the anthropological concept of culture into McLuhan’s work, as opposed to the more literary view of the popular arts that can be seen in McLuhan’s first book, The MechanicalBride.  And especially, Carpenter was interested in language, and the differences between different languages, in vocabulary, grammar, and worldview.  He was a proponent of what is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, otherwise referred to as linguistic relativism, that languages play a central role in thought, perception, and culture, a view that was attacked and repressed by Chomsky and his followers, and is only recently being retrieved and resurrected.  And Carpenter identified the anthropologist Dorothy Lee as a major influence on himself and McLuhan, although the influence on McLuhan may have been indirectly, through Carpenter.

Lee is the only author to contribute more than one piece to Explorations in Communication, aside from McLuhan and Carpenter themselves, and while she did not publish extensively otherwise, and has been largely forgotten outside of media ecology circles, she was known as a stronger advocate of linguistic relativism than even Benjamin Lee Whorf, so that some feel it only appropriate to refer to the Sapir-Whorf-Lee Hypothesis.  Her position is articulated in “Linguistic Reflection of Wintu Thought,” but it is in the chapter entitled, “Lineal and Non-Lineal Codifications of Reality” that Lee’s contribution becomes abundantly clear, as she provides the basis for the key insight about nonlinearity which McLuhan associated with electronic media.  Both articles were also included in her own book, Freedom and Culture, another important work in the media ecology intellectual tradition that is sadly out of print; I know from correspondence with Walter Ong that he thought very highly of that book, which begins to bridge the gap between linguistic anthropology and orality-literacy studies.

Explorations in Communication also included 4 contributions by McLuhan, “Classroom without Walls,” “The Effect of the Printed Book on Language in the 16th Century,” “Media Log,” and “Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed the Breath,” and some of the other chapters are “Tactile Communication” by Lawrence Frank, “Time and Tense in Spanish Epic Poetry” by Stephen Gilman, “Buddhist Symbolism” by Daisetz Suzuki, “The Language of Poetry” by Northrup Frye, “Kinesics and Communication” by Ray Bridwhistell, “Space Conception in Prehistoric Art” by Sigfried Giedion, “The Moving Eye” by Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, “Pure Color” by Fernand Léger, “The Oral and Written Traditions” by David Riesman, “Reading and Writing” by H. J. Chaytor, “Channel Cat in the Middle Distance” by Jean Shepherd, “Joyce’s Wake” by W. R. Rodgers, and “Communications Revolution” by Gilbert Seldes.  Truly fertile soil for McLuhan’s media ecology.

Carpenter, along with Harold Innis, also helped to shift McLuhan’s attention towards the concept of media, and Carpenter himself was a pioneer in using the media, having his own radio and television program for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, so in this as well he set an example for McLuhan to follow (and of course vastly exceed).  And working with and in different media led him to think about their differences, to argue that each medium is a language with its own grammar and worldview, thereby broadening the Sapir-Whorf-Lee Hypothesis (Louis Forsdale later suggested that McLuhan’s perspective on media was an extension of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis).  Carpenter also stated that languages are media, an argument that many traditionalists in communication had trouble with, but that makes perfect sense from a media ecology approach.

Carpenter is considered a pioneer in visual anthropology, as Harald Prins, John Bishop, and Michael Wesch have made clear, and the work he did founding and leading an interdisciplinary program in Anthropology and Art at San Fernando Valley State College (today known as California State University-Northridge) from 1959-1967 was simply amazing, as can be seen in the documentary, Oh What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! By Bishop and Prins.  We were fortunate to have been treated to a preview screening of the film at the 4th annual MEA meeting at Hofstra University on Long Island, and I’ve used it many times in classes.  It is incredibly rich in ideas about language, art, culture, and media, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in media ecology.

Unlike most documentaries of that sort, this one is quite affordable, only $24.95 direct from the filmmaker, via Media-Generation.  Here’s a preview: .

McLuhan brought Carpenter with him to Fordham University when McLuhan was given the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities during the 1967-1968 school year, and Carpenter had an important impact on what might be called the New York School of media ecology (in later years, he would teach courses at various schools in the metropolitan area, including New York University, the New School, and Adelphi University).  He also held the Carnegie Chair at the University of California, Santa Cruz for a year, and had a position at the University of Papua, New Guinea, where he conducted anthropological research that was captured on film, and included in the Bishop and Prins documentary.

Carpenter was condemned by his colleagues for experimenting on the tribal peoples that he visited in Papua, capturing their first reactions to media such as photographs, sound recording, radio, and film.  He himself seemed ambivalent about the fact that he had interfered with these cultures, but in the film you can see them using a steel, mass produced razor blade to perform the ritual scarification that figured in their rites of passage, so they were not exactly pristine.  You can also see them attending Roman Catholic mass, and the church is well known for its effort to change tribal cultures, so again, they were not free from foreign influences, and some tribesmen also wore articles of “civilized” clothing.  Moreover, the New Guinea government was mounting efforts to reach the tribal populations through education, exposing them to movies, radio, and literacy.

For the rest of this media ecology perspective of Ted Carpenter’s ideas and career, read the excellent retrospective by Lance Strate on his “Blog Time Passing”: .


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