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Edmund Carpenter (Became What He Beheld)

Explorations in Communications

"Canadians are all a very humble bunch. They take it for granted that everything they do must be second rate. Carpenter and I just blithely assumed that, since nearly everything in the world is second rate at best, there was no reason why we couldn't do something that was first rate right here."

Marshall McLuhan (qtd. Marchand 119)

Eskimo Realities

Edmund "Ted" Carpenter, an anthropologist, was a colleague of Marshall McLuhan's at the University of Toronto in the 1950's, 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 (115). In Carpenter's class, according to Marchand,

...the two sometimes engaged in dialogues with a loud tape recording of African war chants as accompaniment. "Our exchanges were like Lenny Bruce and jazzmen doing rap sessions, where Bruce would tell five jokes at once," Carpenter recalls. "Sometimes it was like a comedy act we were doing, with the two of us making up stories as we went along. People listening to it were appalled." (116)

Carpenter and McLuhan would often walk around the city of Toronto indulging in their penchant for "perceiving patterns" in whatever they saw. Carpenter describes one such outing on a Toronto streetcar:

There were all the little widows in black, all the mean faces--it was a mean life then, and the faces reflected it--and Marshall began to talk about the ads on the streetcar in a very loud voice. He pointed to an ad of a girl drinking a Coke with some man watching her, and he said, "Coke sucker." I said, "Marshall, lower your voice." He was totally oblivious to the sound of his voice. And he went down the line and analyzed one ad after another. Everybody just looked straight ahead and pretended they didn't hear him." (qtd. in Marchand, 116)

Here were a couple of media tricksters creating a (barely) "tolerated margin of mess."

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:

Explorations explored the grammars of such languages as print, the newspaper format and television. It argued that revolutions in the packaging and distribution of ideas and feelings modified not only human relations but also sensibilities. It further argued that we are largely ignorant of literacy's role in shaping Western man [and woman], and equally unaware of the role of electronic media in shaping modern values. Literacy's vested interests were so deep that literacy itself was never examined. And the current electronic revolution is already so pervasive that we have difficulty in stepping outside of it and scrutinizing it objectively. But it can be done, and a fruitful approach is to examine one medium through another...(ix)

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.

A taste of Carpenter's style of media analysis is provided by the following from his article in Explorations in Communications, "The New Languages":

Each medium, if its bias is properly exploited, reveals and communicates a unique aspect of reality, of truth. Each offers a different perspective, a way of seeing an otherwise hidden dimension of reality. It's not a question of one reality being true, and others distortions. One allows us to see from here, another from there, a third from still another perspective....New essentials are brought to the fore, including those made invisible by the "blinders" of the old language....This is why the preservation of book culture is as important as the development of TV. This is why new languages, instead of destroying old ones, serve as a stimulant to them. Only monopoly is destroyed....The appearance of a new medium often frees older media for creative effort. (173-179)

Written almost 40 years ago, this passage nicely captures the spirit of our contemporary debate on the impact of electronic texts, the Internet, and computer-mediated communication on the future of the book and the library.

They Became What They Beheld

"We don't know who discovered water, but we're certain it wasn't a fish."
John Culkin (qtd. They Became What They Beheld )

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 1970's, 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:

This notebook of juxtaposed images and explorations is organized around correspondences between certain preliterate & postliterate experiences. To convey the essence of these experiences to a contemporary audience, in the idiom of our day, I felt it necessary to find literary expressions consonant with the experiences themselves. The rhythms practised here are heightened, concentrated & frequently more violent than those found in more conventional texts. They belong to the world of icon & music, graffiti and cartoon, and lie closer, I believe, to the original experiences....There rhythms include interval (with abrupt interface) & repeat / repeat of cliche (with slight variation), a technique made familiar by Andy Warhol and common to much tribal art.

We are forced into new modes of communication when media render the old patterns of perception obsolete. In this confusing environment of "declassified" information, we are forced to create our own environments--Carpenter says we program our own psychic and sensory lives--and it is then that we turn to artists who practise creating their own lives. In many ways we are forced to improvise: to take what is at hand, and to form it into something that could be, into something new, but which is made from the parts of the old: "repeat / repeat of cliche (with slight variations)."

Carpenter studied the dream of humanity, humanity's dreaming about itself. Like McLuhan, he had a great respect for the way media communicates to the unconscious mind. To speak to that mind we must use the rhetoric of the dream to circumvent the illusions of the conscious mind :

Media are really environments, with all the effects geographers & biologists associate with environments. We live inside our media. We are their content. TV images come to us so fast, in such profusion, they engulf us, tattoo us. We're immersed. It's like skin diving. We're surrounded & whatever surrounds, involves. TV doesn't wash over us and then go "out of mind." It goes into mind, deep into mind. The subconscious is a world in which we store everything, not something, and TV extends the subconscious....Such experiences are difficult to describe in words. Like dreams or sports, they evade verbal classification. (They Became... 63)

In Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!, Carpenter's chief technique is to juxtapose his theoretical media analysis with selected diary entries from his anthropological expeditions around the world. The effect is to estrange our own culture, and make it new. In They Became What They Beheld, he juxtaposes commentary with the expressive photographs of Ken Heyman showing an incredible array of multicultural humanity. It is difficult to summarize the range and playfulness of Carpenter's explorations. He finds it hard to resist a good story, even when fragmentary:

"Is it on?" asked a three-year-old holding a ball-point pen....Psychologists were recently called to aid a boy who couldn't move or speak unless an electric chord, attached to his body, was plugged in...California hippie: "...one couple I know rarely speak but share the same rhythms with tamborines & drums, as well as with their breathing. These rhythms are the same as the ones their electric fan & refrigerator make."..."It took me a long time to discover that the key thing in acting is honesty. Once you know how to fake that, you've got it made." Actor in Peyton Place.

Carpenter forces his readers to complete the associations he sets up with his mosaic of fragments, and in so doing we decode our invisible media environment.

Hanging Women Eskimo Realities is one of Carpenter's more sustained meditations on a culture estranged from our own (even though we share the same national government!). In this visually stunning text, Carpenter retains many of his literate viewpoints all the better to demonstrate the contrast in worldviews. In the following anecdote, he continues his deconstruction of literate perspective by commenting on Inuit sculpture:

A distinctive mark of the traditional art is that many of the carvings, generally of sea mammals, won't stand up, but roll clumsily about. Each lacks a single, favored point of view, hence, a base. Indeed, they aren't intended to be set in place and viewed, but rather to be worn or handled, turned this way and that. I knew a trader with a fine, show-piece collection of such carvings who solved this problem by lightly filing each piece on "the bottom" to make it stand up, but alas he also made them stationary, something the carver never intended. (132)

Acoustic Space

"In Eskimo, the word "to make poetry" is the word "to breathe"; both are derivatives of anerca--the soul, that which is eternal: the breath of life. A poem is words infused with breath or spirit..."
(Eskimo Realities 50)

Like Innis, both Carpenter and McLuhan had a soft spot for the implied community and time-binding of the oral tradition. Likewise, they believed that acoustic space was more involving than visual space, since it surrounds us in a 360 degree environment. In Explorations in Communication, they collaborated on an article entitled "Acoustic Space" to define some of the themes which would occupy both of them for the remainder of their careers. In this article they discuss the literate culture's bias for the visual--"Seeing is believing." "Believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear." The following passage from this article is a virtual rhapsody to acoutic space:

Auditory space has no point of favored focus. It's a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing. It is not pictorial space, bowed in, but dynamic, always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment. It has no fixed boundaries; it is indifferent to background. (67)

One has the sense that they are a little hungover from too much visual culture. They hunger for a new ratio of the senses. "Today we are experiencing the emotional and intellectual jag resulting from the rapid translation of varied visual and auditory media into one another's modalities" (70). Carpenter seems to carry some of this hunger of the literate person into the auditory acoustic world of the Inuit as described in Eskimo Realities: "Art and poetry are verbs, not nouns. Poems are improvised, not memorized; carvings are carved, not saved. The forms of art are familiar to all; examples need not be preserved" (57). Carpenter takes great pains to introduce his readers into this forbidding environment, to make us feel and hear the world of the Inuit, as much as to understand their worldview. He uses a technique which is relevent to the study of contemporary media--revealing form rather than imposing it--a technique he associates with the way the Inuit orient themselves in a land with few visual markers, where the sound and direction of the wind is more important than a map. Where breath is more significant than icon:

In the beginning was the Word, a spoken word, not the visual one of literate man, but a word which, when spoken, imposed form. This is true, as well, of the Eskimo, but with one significant difference: the Eskimo poet doesn't impose form, so much as reveal it. He transfigures and clarifies, and thus, sanctifies. As he speaks, form emerges, temporarily but clearly, "on the threshold of my tongue." When he ceases to speak, form merges once more with unbounded reality. (33)


Carpenter, Edmund. Eskimo Realities. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.
---. Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.
---. They Became What They Beheld. Photographs by Ken Heyman. New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1970.
---, & Marshall McLuhan, eds. Explorations in Communication. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960.
Marchand, Phillip. The Medium and the Messenger.