Edmund (Ted) Carpenter in 2011 – On Marshall McLuhan & Explorations Journal


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Edmund “Ted” Carpenter, an anthropologist, was a colleague of Marshall McLuhan’s at the University of Toronto in the 1950s, and a lifelong friend. McLuhan immediately recognized a fellow “intellectual thug” when he met Carpenter in 1948. Both cultivated reputations as academic iconoclasts. In his biography of McLuhan, The Medium and the Messenger, Philip Marchand recounts how Carpenter was reputed by those at St. Michael’s College to have the largest collection of books on the devil and diabolism in Canada.

In 1953, McLuhan and Carpenter were awarded a Ford Foundation grant for their interdisciplinary project “Changing Patterns of Language and Behavior and the New Media of Communication.” Citing the work of Innis as demonstrating that new communications technologies reconfigured political, economic and social dynamics, the proposal suggested that the new media of television, radio and movies were reshaping society, and were creating a new language “since the media of communication were themselves languages, or art forms” (Marchand 117). Their collaboration on this project lead to the publication of Explorations, an eclectic journal of media exploration, from 1953 to 1959. Selected articles from Explorations were reprinted in Explorations in Communications in 1960. The “Introduction” to this collection of articles by an impressive range of writers from D.T. Suzuki and Northrop Frye to Fernand Leger and Gilbert Seldes, establishes a theme which would pre-occupy both McLuhan and Carpenter for the rest of their careers.

As an anthropologist, Carpenter was exploring some of the same territory as Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir, Edward Hall and Victor Turner. Each in his own way discovered that we have much to learn about the unacknowledged values of our own culture by juxtaposing them against the values of another culture. Examining one medium through another. After this collaboration with McLuhan, Carpenter went on to pursue his career in anthropology, but he always retained an interest in the shaping of sensibility by media and culture. To the study of media he brought the skills of a person who, as an outsider, must find a way into another culture. The challenge for the anthropologist is to become sufficiently integrated or accepted into a culture to be given a deep enough view of that culture, while still remaining the stranger, the estranged one, capable of seeing the culture with fresh vision.

Likewise, as investigators of the North American media, both McLuhan and Carpenter sought techniques which allowed them deep access to the culture while keeping them estranged from the sleep of reason and familiarity. Both were suspicious of the apparent clarity given to reality by the linearity of logical, sequential discourse; consequently, both experimented with techniques of dislocation and radical juxtaposition–McLuhan’s probes and apparent disregard for inconsistencies–to prevent an overly rigid, fixed-point perspective on the cultural environment. Understanding media was always in the context of motion, of changing perspectives. The result is a collage or mosaic of insights requiring the student of their ideas to assemble the pieces into a meaningful arrangement. The audience becomes the workforce. In this approach, they were participating in Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s constructivist principles of learning.

In the early 1970s, Carpenter published a series of books which approach media of communication, including culture, from an anthropologist’s itinerant perspective. In all three–They Became What They Beheld (1970), Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! (1972) and Eskimo Realities (1973)– he uses juxtaposition, association, analogy and dislocation to structure the arrangement of ideas. “Organized ignorance can be a great asset when approaching the unfamiliar,” he writes in They Became What They Beheld, where he also describes his method of presentation.
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