It is especially sad that he passed away during the Marshall McLuhan Centenary, as he was McLuhan's closest collaborator and greatest influence during the years that McLuhan formulated his most seminal work that led to the publication of The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. As McLuhan's colleague at the University of Toronto from the late 40s to the late 50s, Carpenter might well be considered an important member of what has been termed the Toronto School, but unlike McLuhan, he was not a Canadian, but rather was born in Rochester, New York (the site of the 5th annual MEA meeting), lived for many years in California, and most recently resided in New York City and the Hamptons out on Long Island.
Carpenter worked with McLuhan in Toronto as part of the interdisciplinary Explorations group, obtaining a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1952 that, among other things, funded the creation of a journal called Explorations (after which the MEA's Explorations in Media Ecology was named), which Carpenter edited. This was the moment when media ecology as a unified field, rather than as separate strands of intellectual inquiry, first coalesced. Although only 9 issues were published, Explorations had a significant impact on a select and fortunate network of intellectuals during the 1950s, creating in its readership the beginnings of a community and invisible college of what we would call media ecologists.
An anthology consisting of selected articles from Explorations was published in 1960, under the title of Explorations in Communication, edited by Carpenter and McLuhan. It is sadly out of print, but truly a major work in the media ecology literature. Christine Nystrom once remarked to me that most of the main ideas that made McLuhan famous in the 1960s can be found there. Certainly, the "Acoustic Space" chapter co-authored by Carpenter and McLuhan, represents one of the key insights about sensory biases as they relate to media, and Carpenter's piece, "The New Languages," was frequently reprinted, and enormously influential and in the field of communication, especially mass communication, and what would become known as media studies; also, it is a pioneering work in what would become known as media literacy.
As an anthropologist, Carpenter played a role in the adoption of the anthropological concept of culture into McLuhan's work, as opposed to the more literary view of the popular arts that can be seen in McLuhan's first book, The Mechanical Bride. And especially, Carpenter was interested in language, and the differences between different languages, in vocabulary, grammar, and worldview. He was a proponent of what is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, otherwise referred to as linguistic relativism, that languages play a central role in thought, perception, and culture, a view that was attacked and repressed by Chomsky and his followers, and is only recently being retrieved and resurrected. And Carpenter identified the anthropologist Dorothy Lee as a major influence on himself and McLuhan, although the influence on McLuhan may have been indirectly, through Carpenter.
Lee is the only author to contribute more than one piece to Explorations in Communication, aside from McLuhan and Carpenter themselves, and while she did not publish extensively otherwise, and has been largely forgotten outside of media ecology circles, she was known as a stronger advocate of linguistic relativism than even Benjamin Lee Whorf, so that some feel it only appropriate to refer to the Sapir-Whorf-Lee Hypothesis. Her position is articulated in "Linguistic Reflection of Wintu Thought," but it is in the chapter entitled, "Lineal and Non-Lineal Codifications of Reality" that Lee's contribution becomes abundantly clear, as she provides the basis for the key insight about nonlinearity which McLuhan associated with electronic media. Both articles were also included in her own book, Freedom and Culture, another important work in the media ecology intellectual tradition that is sadly out of print; I know from correspondence with Walter Ong that he thought very highly of that book, which begins to bridge the gap between linguistic anthropology and orality-literacy studies.
Explorations in Communication also included 4 contributions by McLuhan, "Classroom without Walls," "The Effect of the Printed Book on Language in the 16th Century," "Media Log," and "Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed the Breath," and some of the other chapters are "Tactile Communication" by Lawrence Frank, "Time and Tense in Spanish Epic Poetry" by Stephen Gilman, "Buddhist Symbolism" by Daisetz Suzuki, "The Language of Poetry" by Northrup Frye, "Kinesics and Communication" by Ray Bridwhistell, "Space Conception in Prehistoric Art" by Sigfried Giedion, "The Moving Eye" by Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, "Pure Color" by Fernand Léger, "The Oral and Written Traditions" by David Riesman, "Reading and Writing" by H. J. Chaytor, "Channel Cat in the Middle Distance" by Jean Shepherd, "Joyce's Wake" by W. R. Rodgers, and "Communications Revolution" by Gilbert Seldes. Truly fertile soil for McLuhan's media ecology.
Carpenter, along with Harold Innis, also helped to shift McLuhan's attention towards the concept of media, and Carpenter himself was a pioneer in using the media, having his own radio and television program for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, so in this as well he set an example for McLuhan to follow (and of course vastly exceed). And working with and in different media led him to think about their differences, to argue that each medium is a language with its own grammar and worldview, thereby broadening the Sapir-Whorf-Lee Hypothesis (Louis Forsdale later suggested that McLuhan's perspective on media was an extension of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). Carpenter also stated that languages are media, an argument that many traditionalists in communication had trouble with, but that makes perfect sense from a media ecology approach.
Carpenter is considered a pioneer in visual anthropology, as Harald Prins, John Bishop, and Michael Wesch have made clear, and the work he did founding and leading an interdisciplinary program in Anthropology and Art at San Fernando Valley State College (today known as California State University-Northridge) from 1959-1967 was simply amazing, as can be seen in the documentary, Oh What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! By Bishop and Prins. We were fortunate to have been treated to a preview screening of the film at the 4th annual MEA meeting at Hofstra University on Long Island, and I've used it many times in classes. It is incredibly rich in ideas about language, art, culture, and media, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in media ecology.
Unlike most documentaries of that sort, this one is quite affordable, only $24.95 direct from the filmmaker, via Media-Generation. Here's a preview:
McLuhan brought Carpenter with him to Fordham University when McLuhan was given the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities during the 1967-1968 school year, and Carpenter had an important impact on what might be called the New York School of media ecology (in later years, he would teach courses at various schools in the metropolitan area, including New York University, the New School, and Adelphi University). He also held the Carnegie Chair at the University of California, Santa Cruz for a year, and had a position at the University of Papua, New Guinea, where he conducted anthropological research that was captured on film, and included in the Bishop and Prins documentary.
Carpenter was condemned by his colleagues for experimenting on the tribal peoples that he visited in Papua, capturing their first reactions to media such as photographs, sound recording, radio, and film. He himself seemed ambivalent about the fact that he had interfered with these cultures, but in the film you can see them using a steel, mass produced razor blade to perform the ritual scarification that figured in their rites of passage, so they were not exactly pristine. You can also see them attending Roman Catholic mass, and the church is well known for its effort to change tribal cultures, so again, they were not free from foreign influences, and some tribesmen also wore articles of "civilized" clothing. Moreover, the New Guinea government was mounting efforts to reach the tribal populations through education, exposing them to movies, radio, and literacy.
Here's another excerpt from the Bishop and Prins documentary:
And of course the very presence of an anthropologist taking notes changes things, as the documentary also shows us, by way of a tribe member who had "invented" his own form of "writing" which just amounted to making marks on paper, but this already deviates from what Ong termed primary orality, where the members of the culture do not even know of writing. It was only a matter of time before the tribe members were introduced to these other media, an event that would otherwise occur without anyone observing and analyzing, so there is ample justification for what Carpenter did.
Carpenter's conclusions are quite clear, and essential for the field of media ecology: that media swallow cultures rather than the other way around, that culture does not have a significant effect on the way that individuals use or relate to different media, but that media have significant effects on cultures, on thought, feeling, worldview, and ways of life.
The title of the Biship and Prins documentary is taken from the title of Carpenter's most important and popular book in media ecology, Oh What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me, published in 1972.
The title is an allusion to Don Quixote, and his encounter with the windmill, and the book was Carpenter's follow-up to McLuhan's Understanding Media, which Carpenter stated that he made unacknowledged contributions to. Oh What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me begins with the words,
"Electricity has made angels of us all. Not angels in the Sunday school sense of being good or having wings, but spirit, freed from flesh, capable of instant transportation anywhere. The moment we pick up a phone, we’re nowhere in space—everywhere in spirit. That is Saint Augustine’s definition of God: a being whose center is everywhere, whose borders are nowhere."
This is another book that is sadly out of print, but available electronically in various ways, including in hypertextual format online, courtesy of Mike Wesch, at
Carpenter's relationship with McLuhan after the Fordham year became somewhat strained, which Carpenter attributed in part to McLuhan's illness, and the after effects of the major brain surgery he had that year, and this is reflected in the essay that he wrote, "Remembering Explorations," published in the spring 1992 issues of Canadian Notes and Queries, and in abridged form as an appendix in Donald Theall's 2001 book, The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. But he also was quite generous in taking care of McLuhan in the Hamptons after McLuhan had his debilitating stroke.
I've heard that Carlos Castaneda of New Age fame was one of Carpenter's students, and he also was a mentor to one of McLuhan's daughters, Teri, who published a number of books about Native Americans as T.C. McLuhan. I've also heard that he was quite the ladies' man in his time, which is perhaps reflected in the fact that he was twice divorced.
But it seems he found his soul mate in Adelaide DeMenil, who was also very much his collaborator, doing the camerawork in New Guinea, working with him on many research projects (I recall him mentioning about frequently visiting a dig in Siberia near the arctic circle, where some of the oldest human remains were found), and in curating museum exhibits.
We were fortunate indeed to have Ted Carpenter as a featured speaker at the MEA's 6th Annual Meeting held at Fordham, and it was a great honor to meet him, and Adelaide, and then to be able to publish his talk about McLuhan, simply entitled "Marshall," in Explorations in Media Ecology (5:3, 2006). That brief essay is an altogether brilliant bit of writing.
Ted Carpenter was truly one of the great ones, in media ecology, and in scholarship and the arts in general, and he will most certainly be missed, and remembered.