Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Man in Time: James W. Carey

It is almost a year ago that James W. Carey passed away, and the journal Critical Studies in Media Communication will be publishing a special tribute to this great scholar and media ecologist in their next issue. Among the contributions that will be included will be a short essay that I wrote for a memorial session held at the National Communication Association's annual meeting last November. It was just about a month ago that I reviewed the proofs for my piece, and signed the contract, so it seems that the timing is as appropriate as the theme of time, and according to the contract I can make this article available online with the following acknowledgment:

This is a preprint of an article whose final and definitive form will be published in Critical Studies in Media Communication Vol. 24, No. 2, June 2007, pp. 177-180, © 2007 National Communication Association; Critical Studies in Media Communication is available online at http://journalsonline.tandf.co.uk/.

Understanding A Man in Time:
James W. Carey and the Media Ecology Intellectual Tradition

Lance Strate

I can speak of James W. Carey as a role model, a mentor, a colleague, and a friend, but terms such as these are never sufficient to describe a life, or even that small slice of a life that we call a relationship. What I have to say about James Carey is necessarily incomplete and inadequate, but nonetheless necessary. He was, after all, first and foremost an extraordinary human being, a great mind balanced by an equally great heart. Carey excelled at connections, by which I mean that he connected to others as human beings, in both his personal and professional interactions. And he also excelled at intellectual connections, at uncovering the interrelationships among ideas, perspectives, and schools of thought.1 He was an ecological thinker and, among other things, a scholar in the intellectual tradition known as media ecology.2 And like all great media ecologists, Jim Carey understood time. He had a sense of the deep time of history, and also a profound understanding of his own time. He was aware of time's arrow, its wounds and tragedies, and he also understood time's cycles, its healing gifts and its divine and profane comedies.

Like Harold Innis (1951, 1972, 2004), Carey recognized the space bias of modern civilization, which was intensified by technologies such as the telegraph, and he echoed Innis's plea on behalf of time. Like Lewis Mumford (1934), Carey realized that we have moved from keeping time to serving time, that a genuine sense of time is missing from our collective consciousness. Carey understood that time was the original invisible environment, that we live in time, and that, as we have sped things up, we have come to think of time in threatening terms, time as fleeting, and flying, and running out on us—time as an elusive enemy, time as the terrorist that we fear the most. Jim's response was: Be patient! Slow down! Don't be in such a rush! Take your time, give yourself the time you need, in scholarship, in administration, in life. This runs counter to the contemporary bias of our culture, and consequently Jim's approach was not always understood, or appreciated, or rewarded. But it was true wisdom, nonetheless.

Media Ecology

Carey's criticism of the transmission view of communication is a common theme in the field of media ecology, where we prefer to understand media, technology, and culture as environments. Marshall McLuhan (1995), for example, said that he was concerned with media not in terms of transportation, but transformation; Tony Schwartz (1974) offered as an alternative the sonic metaphor of resonance; and Walter Ong (1982) rejected the pipeline perspective in favor of human communication. Of course, Carey was influenced by Raymond Williams, who identified the double meaning of space and time in communication, as reflected in such related terms as commute and commune (see Williams, 1983). But more importantly, Carey followed Innis (1951), who argued that communication takes place over time as well as space, through commemoration and conservation as much as through delivery and dissemination.3 Carey's often-cited ritual view is an understanding that communication take place across time, through time, and in time. Rituals are, after all, all about repetition and cycles, about perseverance and preservation, about memory and tradition. For Carey, the ritual view is a cultural approach, and cultures are formed through time, cultures are grown in time. Over time, a population binds itself together as a group, and over time, a group maintains its identity. In other words, community comes from continuity. This I learned from James Carey.

Within the field of media ecology, I would group Carey together with Walter Ong and Neil Postman as part of a generation of paradigm builders. An earlier generation consisting of scholars such as Lewis Mumford, Benjamin Whorf, Dorothy Lee, Susanne Langer, Eric Havelock, Jacques Ellul, and of course Harold Innis, were largely concerned with explorations. McLuhan was at his best as an explorer, although he also dabbled in paradigm-building. But it was Ong, Postman, and Carey who excelled at synthesis—theoretical, curricular, and practical—and in doing so made it possible to establish media ecology as a coherent field of study.

Taking on McLuhan

Of the three, Carey is known as the sharpest critic of McLuhan, but neither Ong nor Postman accepted McLuhan at face value. Ong generally avoided discussing McLuhan's work, rather than engage in direct criticism of his mentor. Postman cited, quoted, and credited McLuhan, but also chided him for his lack of clarity, and ultimately would say that McLuhan asked the right questions, implying that his answers were less than reliable. But it was Carey who took on McLuhan directly at the height of the media guru's popularity, arguing that Harold Innis was the superior scholar (see Carey, 1967). The simplified version of Carey's argument, "McLuhan bad, Innis good," became an oft-repeated mantra and meme in communication studies, and, unfortunately, an easy way to dismiss McLuhan's work altogether. But Carey was not dismissive of McLuhan. He grappled with him, sought to understand him and the larger intellectual tradition that he had sprung from, which included Innis and Mumford. Carey's criticism of McLuhan was criticism from within media ecology, criticism that ultimately would advance the field, not undermine it. Moreover, Carey softened his stance on McLuhan over the years, especially over the past decade or so, although much of that work has not been published.4

Carey's reading of Innis served as an important corrective to McLuhan's, and stands as the single most influential interpretation of his work. The grand historical theories that Innis devised excited McLuhan (1962, 1964), but what Carey emphasized was the careful accumulation of detail that make up Innis's scholarship, and the identification of a multitude of interconnections in his research. Carey is not the only media ecology scholar to shy away from theorizing— scholars such as Lewis Mumford (1934), Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979), and Denise Schmandt-Besserat (1992) also come to mind, but Carey was unusual in his distrust of abstraction and his resistance to generalization. Instead, Carey's media ecology was an ecology of the particular. He also insisted on viewing scholars as the product of a particular time, and place. This meant that Carey excelled at intellectual history, and consequently helped to identify some of the important roots of the media ecology intellectual tradition in the Chicago School, and in the work of the Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes. In other words, he not only contributed to our field, he played an important role in defining our field, and helping us to understand who we are, where we come from, and therefore where we might go from here. In all things, James W. Carey was a man in time, and to our great good fortune, a man of our time.


1 Carey's remarkable ability to recognize intellectual connections is readily apparent in the two major collections of his work, Communication as Culture (1989) and James Carey: A Critical Reader (1997).

2 I discuss the relationship of Carey's work and American cultural studies to the field of media ecology in greater depth in Echoes and Reflections (Strate, 2006a), and see also Frederick Wasser's (2006) chapter along with Casey Man Kong Lum's Introduction in Perspectives on Culture, Technology, and Communication: The Media Ecology Intellectual Tradition (Lum, 2006), and the special issue of Explorations in Media Ecology devoted to James Carey (Strate, 2006b) which includes the text of his Keynote Address to the 4th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association (Carey, 2006).

3 Paul Heyer's (2003) recent study of Harold Innis notes the centrality of Carey's views to subsequent scholarship relating to Harold Innis. It is also worth noting, in this context, Carey's (2004) introduction to the new edition of Changing Concepts of Time (Innis, 2004).

4 Paul Grosswiler (2006) discusses this largely undocumented shift in Carey's thinking, which was readily apparent in his 1998 Keynote Address, "Where Do We Go With Marshall McLuhan?" given at the 56th Annual Convention of the New York State Communication Association at Kutsher's Country Club in Monticello, NY, in which Carey discussed the book about Innis and McLuhan that he had been working on (which he was not able to complete before he passed away).


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Carey, J. W. (1989). Communication as culture: Essays on media and society. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Carey, J. W. (1997). James Carey: A critical reader (E. S. Munson & C. A. Warren, Eds.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Carey, J. W. (1998). "Where do we go with Marshall McLuhan?" Keynote Address given at the 56th Annual Convention of the New York State Communication Association, October 9-11, 1998, Monticello, NY.

Carey, J. W. (2004). Introduction to the Rowman & Littlefield edition. In H. A. Innis, Changing concepts of time (rev. ed., pp.vii-xx). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Carey, J. W. (2006). Globalization, democracy and open communication: Can we have all three? Explorations in Media Ecology 5(2) [special issue on James W. Carey], pp. 103-114.

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Schwartz, T. (1974). The responsive chord. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.

Strate, L. (2006a). Echoes and reflections: On media ecology as a field of study. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Strate, L. (Ed.). (2006b). Explorations in Media Ecology 5(2) [special issue on James W. Carey].

Wasser, F. (2006). James Carey: The search for cultural balance. In C. M. K. Lum (Ed.), Perspectives on culture, technology, and communication: The media ecology tradition (pp. 255-274. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Williams, R. (1983). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society (rev. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

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