Explorations Journal – The Vanguard of Media Studies


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

By Kevin Plummer

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 fetch more than $100 each— [actually, the availability & prices there now are quite reasonable] if 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.

In the early 1950s, Marshall McLuhan, an English professor at St. Michael’s College, hadn’t yet made a splash in academic circles or the broader culture. He’d first expanded his area of interest from literary studies to media analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his first teaching post. Several years after arriving in Toronto, he published his first book, Mechanical Bride (Vanguard Press, 1951), which examined Blondie comic strips and advertisements through a critical lens. But the volume didn’t have much impact inside academe or beyond, selling only a few hundred copies.

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.

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 8 issues of Explorations (1953 – 57)
Click  on the image for an expanded view.

Read the rest of this article here: https://tinyurl.com/rb6mban

One Response to “Explorations Journal – The Vanguard of Media Studies”

  1. 1 Bob Logan

    Thanks for posting this article about McLuhan and Carpenter’s Explorations journal, Alex. I will take this opportunity to inform the readers of your excellent blog that a group of us including you as associate editor are reviving the original Explorations journal with the New Explorations journal whose inaugural issue will appear in late February or early March. The journal will be an online open access journal hosted by the U of Toronto Library’s journal production services. For those interested in the project please contact me Bob Logan, the new journals editor by email at logan@physics.utoronto.ca. We are already set to publish a number of articles and several book reviews in our inaugural issue. And we are happy to receive contributions for our second issue scheduled for the Fall of 2020. Members of the editorial board need once a month on the campus of St. Michael’s campus. Please join us.


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