Ted Carpenter’s Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! Book (1972) & Film (2003)

14Dec16

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KIRKUS REVIEW of the book, published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston of Canada in 1972 (April 2, 1973) – Carpenter, a one-time Marshall McLuhan associate (the two jointly edited Explorations in Communications, 1960), explores the impact of media, both visual and acoustic, on preliterate peoples — Eskimos and New Guinea tribesmen being among those to whom he has introduced the printed word, the mirror, the Polaroid camera and the tape recorder. The effect, says Carpenter, is staggering: “I think media are so powerful that they swallow cultures,” encircling and destroying old environments, eroding and dissolving cultural identity. Citing his own experiences Carpenter tells of the stunning psychological disorientation he has witnessed among men who have just learned to write their names, heard their voices coming from a tape deck or seen their photograph for the first time; staring into the lens of a camera “the terror in their eyes is the terror of being recognized as individuals” — for the first time each man saw himself and his environment “and saw them as separable.” Unlike McLuhan, Carpenter is leery of “hot” media and openly biased toward the visual: Euclidian space, three-dimensionality, the phonetic alphabet are for him inexorably linked to the development of Western Civilization and its characteristic patterns — lineality, causality, temporality, etc. Thus the ubiquitous use of radio in New Guinea alarms him. Radio is magic; it reinforces the separation of spirit and flesh hitherto confined to dream-myth rituals and ceremonials. He worries about its propaganda potential noting that in North Africa and Indonesia it has already been used to break down traditional tribal groupings, “building nationalism to a feverish pitch and creating unreasonable national goals.” This sometimes smacks of Western paternalism but Carpenter pleads that no technology is neutral; the notion that electronics can simply be used to dispense information is folly; the medium is indeed the message. Some of his recommendations (government sponsored chess, crossword puzzles and “huge mirrors erected in public places”) will make you blink but his repeated examples of media-induced distortions of human behavior are interesting enough to galvanize attention and draw feedback. (Source: https://goo.gl/4hDhcJ )

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THE FILM (2003) by John Bishop & Harald Prins – Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! returns Edmund Carpenter’s visionary work to the center of visual anthropology and media ecology. A maverick who explored the borderlands between ethnography and media over fifty years, Carpenter looked at the revolutionary impact of film and photography on tribal peoples. He opened the Pandora’s box of electronic media with delight and horror, embracing it even as he recoiled from its omnipotence. The documentary dives into the tensions between art and anthropology, film and culture. Using extensive interviews with Carpenter and footage from his fieldwork, the film evokes the insights and ironies of his classic book of the same name. He comments on his wide-ranging fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic and Papua New Guinea, concepts of authenticity and truth in media and art, the relationship between anthropology and surrealism, and the impossibility of preserving culture. Much of the film is built around his 1969-70 New Guinea footage, never seen before, which includes a riveting scene of an Upper Sepik River tribal initiation in which a crocodile skin pattern is cut into the initiate’s skin. Coinciding with the current McLuhan renaissance, Carpenter is now being claimed as a pioneer in the emerging field of Media Ecology, and his once-exotic ideas about electronic media seem perfectly obvious in light of the World Wide Web. It captures that moment in anthropology when exploring the many ways media transform cultures was fresh and alive and hold promise for a new generation. (Source: https://goo.gl/WA2uve )

Kandangan Initiation – 5-minute excerpt from the film:-

An Annotated transcript of the film (PDF): https://goo.gl/tbv4XJ

See also on this blog: 

NY Times Obituary: Edmund Carpenter, Archaelogist & Anthropologist: https://goo.gl/4qdlqN

Lance Strate’s Reflections on the Passing of Ted Carpenter: https://goo.gl/WNLzbJ

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