Historicist: Explorations at the Vanguard of Communication Studies

05May14

Cover of Explorations 3 (August 1954).

The short-lived but influential magazine overseen by Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan

(Republished by Permission)

In the 1950s, anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, English professor Marshall McLuhan, and others were at the centre of an innovative working group at the University of Toronto investigating modes and media of communication from a variety of academic perspectives. The establishment of the journal Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication in 1953 provided an outlet for their discussions and emerging ideas. The Globe and Mail‘s literary critic, William Arthur Deacon, proclaimed that the intellectual magazine’s cultural importance marked “a coming-of-age in Canada.”

Its content was an eclectic mix of treatises, poems, excerpts from popular magazines, and clippings of advertisements, with subjects ranging from indigenous cultures or musical instruments in Africa to experiments conducted in television studios. The magazine was both intellectually exhilarating for its cutting-edge ideas, and ploddingly dull for the opacity of certain articles. In his biography of McLuhan, Coupland characterized the magazine as a “glorious stew of diamonds and rhinestones and Fabergé eggs and merde.” And, along with the Ford Foundation-funded Seminar on Culture and Communication, Explorations was instrumental in laying the foundation of modern media studies.

The journal’s original nine issues, published in limited numbers between 1953 and 1959, were considered collector’s items almost immediately upon their publication and now fetchmore than $100 eachif you can find them.

Many of McLuhan’s key ideas had their genesis in the pages of Explorations, leading most observers to closely associate the journal with the media theorist. In fact, though often unacknowledged, the real driving force behind the publication was Carpenter, McLuhan’s friend and close collaborator.

As early as March 1951, McLuhan conceived of studying communications through experimental seminar cutting across strict boundaries between disciplines. It was a difficult proposition in an age before interdisciplinarity was widely accepted, but he found a kindred colleague with complementary ambitions in anthropology professor Edmund (Ted) Carpenter.

 Ted Carpenter (1922-2011)

Born in Rochester, Carpenter was intrigued by excavating prehistoric Iroquoian sites as a teenager. He enrolled in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania on the eve of the Second World War, but finished his degrees after serving in the Pacific Theatre. After accepting a teaching position at the University of Toronto, Carpenter embarked on a series of expeditions to the Canadian north and published several books on his experiences with the Aivilik people. On the side, Carpenter produced and hosted a series of shows on CBC radio and, later, television.

McLuhan and Carpenter co-wrote an application to the Behavioral Sciences Division of the Ford Foundation for an inter-faculty project investigating the effects of new media of communication. After being awarded funding in the spring of 1953, the two assembled their collaborators to lay out the content and scope of the Culture and Communication seminars (which was to be the core of their project) and to identify common areas of interests and methodological parallels between disciplines. This cadre, which became known as the Explorations Group, included D. Carl Williams of the psychology faculty and political economist Tom Easterbrook. Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, visiting professor of Town Planning in the School of Architecture, had been an early supporter of McLuhan’s seminar proposal, but wouldn’t rejoin the group until her return to Toronto from an overseas assignment in mid-1954.

The first seminar, held on October 15, 1953, was attended by about a dozen graduate students from the faculties of English, Economics, Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology. Word spread rapidly across campus about the intellectually challenging but invigorating discussions and guest speakers at the seminars, and graduate students scrambled for a seat at the table.

Read the rest of this lengthy article from Torontoist at http://tinyurl.com/lez9rtc .

Explorations in Media Ecology, the journal of the Media Ecology Association, carries on the tradition of the original Explorations.

See the previous posting on this topic titled Explorations: Studies in Culture & Communication (1953-59) 26mar14 here http://tinyurl.com/nlkocn7

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