Edmund Carpenter

by Ellen Harold

Multifaceted anthropologist Edmund ("Ted") Snow Carpenter is an ethnologist, archeologist, filmmaker, and communications theorist. An authority on the Arctic peoples of the circumpolar regions, their art and archeology, he has also studied and written about the peoples and art of New Guinea, Borneo, and Tibet. He was, in addition, a leading figure in the Toronto School that developed modern communications studies and a pioneer in the visual anthropology movement that used film to document cultures. He is or has been, in addition, a broadcaster, producer, film-maker, exhibition curator, and author, whose interests encompass tribal, surrealist, and modern art. In his capacity as an administrator and as an editor he has shown tireless generosity in collaborating with and helping other scholars, even to the point where his own contributions have been somewhat obscured. In compiling the following profile we are particularly indebted to Harald E.L. Prins and John Bishop's first portrait, "Edmund Carpenter: Explorations in Media & Anthropology," published in Visual Anthropology Review in 2002. We also wish to thank Ted Carpenter and Adelaide De Menil Carpenter for their assistance and feedback.

Carpenter was born in 1922 in Rochester, New York, where his father was an art teacher. His interest in prehistoric archeology began in childhood, when he and his twin brother and cousins dug for Indian relics near their parents' summer home at Gull Lake, Michigan. When Carpenter was 13, Arthur C. Parker, director of the Rochester Museum and Science Center, and himself a Seneca Indian, invited him to spend weekends on a WPA-sponsored excavation of prehistoric Iroquoian sites in the Upper Allegheny Valley.

In 1940 Carpenter enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study with pioneering anthropologist Frank Speck (1980–1950), who advocated documenting cultures through multiple media, including imaginative literature, visual art, cinema, and photography. In an interview years after Speck's death Carpenter paid tribute to Speck's humanistic outlook, declaring that, "even now he remains my guide, my fond companion, my guardian spirit" (quoted in Harald Prins and John Bishop, Visual Anthropology Review 17, no 2 [2001–2002], p. 112).

Between his freshman and sophomore years in the summer of 1941 the nineteen-year- old Carpenter worked as foreman of a WPA-CCC crew excavating Pennsylvania Indian mounds. After the attack on Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the Marine Corps, continuing to write papers on indigenous Pennsylvania ethnography during wartime. During the occupation of Japan he served as Judge Advocate, COM-MARIANAS, and also supervised the work of some 500 prisoners of war in excavating local archeological sites. In 1946, he was discharged from the army with the rank of captain. He received a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania for service-related courses and experience and was appointed an instructor in anthropology at Penn. In 1948, he was hired to teach anthropology at the University of Toronto and two years later received his Ph. D. from Penn for his dissertation on the pre-history of northeastern America. He married and had two sons. To support his family and fund his researches he took a series of second jobs, finally finding a niche as a broadcaster on Canadian educational radio and television (then newly invented), an experience that gave him an insider's perspective on the new electronic media.

Carpenter spent the winters of 1951 and '52 doing ethnographic fieldwork among the Inuit, a pre-literate people of the Canadian Arctic whose culture at that time had been little studied. He lived in an Eskimo sod hut, where energy was conserved by moving and speaking little. Carpenter coined the phrase, "Acoustic Space" to define the often snow-blind Arctic, where sounds and the direction of the wind were more important than visual landmarks. His article "Witch Fear among the Aivilik of South Hampton Island" appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1953. He also began work (1953?54) on an experimental documentary film on Aivilik Eskimo carvings, in which he showed how these were meant to be appreciated by touch and speech, rather than being stood up and viewed from a fixed point. "They'll pass them from hand to hand and people admire them or ridicule them...And then, somehow . . . it's like a song that's been sung. It's over. The fun was in the carving and releasing the form and welcoming the form back, and passing it around" (Prins and Bishop, p. 208). This manner of experiencing art, he felt, reflected the perceptual modalities of an oral culture, as recalled in the Biblical phrase:

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 . . . . As he speaks, form emerges, temporarily but clearly . . . . When he ceases to speak, form merges once more with unbounded reality (Eskimo Realities[New York: Holt, Reinhart, Winston, 1973], p. 33).


The Arctic winters of the early fifties were exceptionally cold. When Carpenter went back to revisit the Aivilik in 1955, he discovered that many of the people he had worked with and grown close to had died from famine. "I'd gone through the war, the Marine Corps, I certainly saw people die, but I didn't see an entire culture die. I never did archeology again, except as a hobby." In a state heightened by shock and sorrow he continued his journey north through Nunavut (Northwest Territories) with the Inuit hunter, Amaslak.

While the dogs pulled and the Amaslak dozed, I read Richard Henry Dana's Two Years before the Mast (1840) [film adaptation, 1946, re-released in 1955]. I was completely overwhelmed by the experience. For months I had read nothing. Now print transported me to another ocean, another century, offering experiences which seemed at that moment, more real, more vivid, than those surrounding me. No book ever before affected me so strongly. I was returning to literacy after a long absence, but I wonder: does print have this same power over those who first encounter it? And in post literacy, can it be that what really troubles us is not the absence of the experience of print, but the experience of the absence of print? — "Melville Peninsula, Northwest Territories: 1955" in Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me, p. 75–77.


This experience impressed on him the importance of understanding the effects of all communications media on human cognition and of continuing to preserve and value the older ones while embracing the perspectives opened up the development of newer ones.

Carpenter was one of several colleagues at the University of Toronto who were thinking collaboratively about the impact of changes in communications modalities (print, and the newer cinema, radio, and television media) not only on pre-literate people like the Inuit, but on human perception in general. In 1947 Harold Adams Innes (1894?1953), whom many consider one of the greatest scholars that Canada ever produced, became Dean of Graduate Studies. Innes, a political economist, had studied the Canadian fur trade and the dilemmas of resource depletion. In the 1930s, he and classicist Eric Havelock (who had written about the impact of the invention of the alphabet in Ancient Greece) began to explore the role of communications in history. Innes' book Empire and Communications (1950) on the role of the telegraph in state formation laid the foundations for the new field of Communications Studies. He followed this with The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951) in which he alluded to the paradoxical mixed blessings conferred by technological innovation: "Improvements in communication...make for increased difficulties of understanding" (The Bias of Communication, p. 28).

During the nineteen forties several other scholars working along these lines had joined the faculty at Toronto. They included anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, founder of Kinesics, and Marshall McLuhan, a professor of English, who had started as a medievalist. McLuhan and Carpenter became close friends. Both were interested in the transition from pre-literate to post literate mentalities and were fascinated by the cognitive possibilities opened up by the new media of film and broadcasting. Building on Innes and Havelock's work, they created what is now recognized as the "Toronto School" (or pattern of influence), whose "membership" extended to other scholars who were not necessarily located in Toronto.

Inspired by Innes and also (and especially) by Dorothy Lee's ideas about literacy and linear thinking, as well as by Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir's hypothesis on the influence of language structure on patterns of thought and behavior, Carpenter and McLuhan began co-teaching a course on the new media. In 1951, McLuhan published The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951) about the relationship of orality, literacy, and technology. Then, with the help of a Ford Foundation grant, the two men founded an interdisciplinary project, Changing Patterns of Language and Behavior and the New Media of Communication (overseen by McLuhan). This gave rise to their joint editorship of the eclectic journal of communications Explorations (1953–59), in whose pages McLuhan first formulated some of the ideas elaborated later in his books, but never, some think, more accessibly than in these early writings. Selected articles from the magazine (with contributions by Ray L. Birdwhistell, Northrop Frye, Fernand Leger, McLuhan, Gilbert Seldes, Jean Shepherd, and D.T. Suzuki among others) were reprinted in book form as Explorations in Communications, an Anthology (1960). According to the preface:

Explorations explores the grammars of such languages as print, the newspaper format and television. It argued that revolutions in 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 scrutinize it objectively. But it can be done, and a fruitful approach is to examine one medium through another. (Preface, p. ix)


In 1959 Carpenter published a book, Anerca, an anthology of Inuit poetry (translated by Knud Rasmussen, William Thalbitzer, and himself) and prose tales (collected by Robert Flaherty in 1913 and 1914), illustrated with photographs by Flaherty. The title comes from the Eskimo word for "to make poetry," which also means, "to breathe" and "the soul" — "that which is eternal: the breath of life. A poem is words infused with breath or spirit: 'Let me breathe of it', says the poet-maker and then begins: "I have put my poem in order on the threshold of my tongue" (Carpenter 1959). [Breath sounds also are salient in Eskimo song style, Eds.] Four Canadian composers have used the title for works inspired either by the verse or by the concept. This was followed by Eskimo (University of Toronto Press, 1959), illustrated with Frederick Varley's sketches and paintings and photographs by Robert Flaherty.

From 1953 to 1957 Carpenter also hosted a radio and television series also called Explorations about issues in physical and cultural anthropology on the Canadian broadcasting network. By the late fifties, however, he began to miss the freewheeling atmosphere of broadcasting's earlier days and was not sorry when presented with the opportunity to try something new in visual media.

In 1957, Carpenter left Toronto to become Chairman of the Anthropology Department at San Fernando Valley State College (later the State University of California at Northridge) with the mission of starting an experimental program combining anthropology, film-making, folk music, and jazz. It was an opportunity to train anthropologists in the visual arts, particularly in the technical aspects of documentary film making, a task facilitated by the availability of underemployed and blacklisted members of the near-by Hollywood film industry. Post-Sputnik Cold War anxiety over competition with Soviet science education meant that funds and equipment were relatively plentiful.

Carpenter recalled how he built up his department:

When I arrived, it was an orange grove. Today it has over forty thousand students. The anthropology department combined appointments in conventional fields (ethnology, archeology, linguistic, physical anthropology) with appointments in performing arts. Dorothy Lee left Harvard to join us and stayed six years. Other Explorations contributors came, as well as a jazz cellist, animator, multi-screen innovator, African author and drummer, folklorist [Alan Lomax taught ethnomusicology there], etc. All fit comfortably into the anthropology curriculum. A fabulous faculty! The administrators backed us all the way, including equipment & funding for a wide range of experiments, especially in film. —"That Not-So-Silent Sea", p.15


The resultant films (many of them award winning) included among others, two animated films with Al Sens and four films by Bess Lomax Hawes (based on fieldwork by Alan Lomax): Georgia Sea Island Singers; Bright Star Shining in Glory; Yonder Come Day; and Buck Dancer, in which cane-fife player Ed Young demonstrated a "traditional dance of solo male virtuosity engaged in by both black and white frontiersmen" (Bess Lomax Hawes). Carpenter's short film College (1964), with a script by Jacob Bronowski, was based on an article ("Class Room without Walls") Carpenter had co-written with Marshall McLuhan and was intended to stimulate young people to further their educations. Bronowski's script contained the following words:

The traditional college can no longer serve as a model. It's been bypassed on three fronts. Shaping attitudes has been taken over by entertainment and advertising; job training by industry; applied research by defense. What function does college have in this new setting? Clearly it's the creation of basic knowledge. Youths come not to acquire knowledge, but to join in the exploration for truth.


There was a weekly festival of "Censured" films — not censored, despite the pun, but rather, overlooked films that had not been widely distributed. The festival also showed commercials from other countries.

Not coincidentally, Northridge also became the focus of the late '50s West Coast folk revival. While at Northridge, Carpenter had stayed in touch with Marshall McLuhan, who in 1962 published The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, which built on the insight of Innes that "we change our tools and our tools change us" and also echoed some of Carpenter's research on the non-visual "acoustic space" of the Inuit.

Carpenter also provided feedback and extensive editorial contributions for the book that would transform McLuhan into an international superstar and media "guru": Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). Its thesis (much simplified) is that the abrupt irruption of new media can be profoundly destabilizing to the identities of individuals and society, but that that these negative effects could possibly be mitigated when understood and planned for, an optimism that, as time went by, Carpenter, for his part, ceased to share.

Carpenter's experiments in combining visual art and anthropology came to an end in 1967 when Ronald Reagan took office as Governor of California in a country increasingly polarized by protests over the Vietnam War. Vowing to punish the state's universities for student unrest, he sharply curtailed their budgets. The conservative Board of Regents fired the University's President Clark Kerr, whom Reagan had termed a "dangerous liberal." It then cancelled the funding for Edmund Carpenter's interdisciplinary visual anthropology program because it was too "controversial," eliminating the positions of thirteen faculty members, including Carpenter. Yet by this time using film in anthropology had ceased to be controversial. Ethnographic films were being shown in the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association and Harvard had initiated a center for ethnographic filmmaking. Carpenter believes the involvement of many of the faculty in the Civil Rights movement likely prompted the closing.

Now newly divorced from his second wife, Carpenter left California to join McLuhan in sharing the Albert Einstein Chair at Fordham University in New York City. When McLuhan was suddenly was stricken with a brain tumor and unable to fulfill some of his commitments, Carpenter ghost-wrote an article for him, titled "Fashion is a Language," which appeared in a special issue of Harper's Bazaar dedicated to McLuhan's work. The proceeds earned from the article ($18,000) helped pay McLuhan's medical bills. It was later issued under Carpenter's own name as They Became What They Beheld (1970).

After a year at Fordham, Carpenter returned to California to spend a year as Chairman of the Anthropology Department the University of California at Santa Cruz. The following year (1969) he took a position as Research Professor at the University of Papua and New Guinea. Now independent, Papua New Guinea at that time was administered by the Australian government, which hired Carpenter as an applied anthropologist to investigate the use of electronic media in nation building among tribal peoples, many of whom had had little or no contact with outsiders or even with each other. Carpenter was joined on this expedition by the photographer Adelaide de Menil, who became his companion of many years and later his wife.

Together, Carpenter and de Menil documented the reactions of the inhabitants of New Guinea to films shown by the Australian government, to Polaroid photographs, audio tape recordings, and to radio. They shot copious footage (much of it by de Menil), sometimes involving the subjects themselves in camera work and other aspects of production. It was an arduous process because (except with Polaroid photos) the film had to be shipped overseas to be developed. They were struck by the region's beauty and unparalleled diversity and amazed at the alacrity and enthusiasm with which new media were adopted.

The landscape was just fabulous, amazing. Different languages — 800 mutually unintelligible languages. And no one was borrowing anyone else's culture or costume... We could step in and out of different media worlds, different periods of time where you could actually see literacy coming in and how it was first handled — people trying to make up their own alphabets, their own glyphs to cover their language. You might be going down a trail and some guy comes racing up and he hands you some note...and he's written this thing out. He's devised it and he's very proud of it, but you cannot read it. (Prins and Bishop, p. 127)


Yet before long Carpenter began to have misgivings about the project, and his doubts soon extended to the concept of applied anthropology as a whole. Government bureaucrats, he wrote, "viewed media as neutral tools, and they viewed themselves as men who could be trusted to use them humanely. I saw the problem otherwise. I think media are so powerful that they swallow cultures. I think of them as invisible environments, which surround & destroy old environments. Sensitivity to problems of culture conflict & conquest becomes meaningless here, for media play no favorites: they conquer all cultures" (Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me, pp. 188–91).

Back in New York, Carpenter found himself unable to write the report that the Australian Government expected. Instead, hoping to reach a broader audience, he wrote his best-known book: the aphoristic Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! about the paradoxes and dangers inherent in documenting vanishing ways of life. The title comes from a passage in Cervantes (Part I, chapter XVII), where Don Quixote is struck by an unknown hand "which must have been attached to the arm of some huge giant...I am losing much blood from the wound of that phantom." The giant is the windmill — an invention of modern technology, a stand-in for the new media of the printing press that (ironically) disseminates Cervantes' book. Carpenter's final chapter , "Misanthropology," critiques his chosen field: "Anthropology, as an offspring of colonialism, reflects what Levi-Strauss calls 'a state of affairs in which one part of mankind treats the other as object'... The trend has been toward the manipulation of peoples in the very course of studying them" (p. 189).

In the meantime, the revelation that the U.S military had used anthropological research in its campaigns assassinate tribal leaders during counterinsurgency operations in Laos and Vietnam created a climate of bad conscience throughout the profession and set off a storm of recriminations. Although Carpenter's work in New Guinea had nothing to do with Vietnam, and although (or perhaps because) he himself had made public his misgivings about that work, he found himself the target of intense criticism from his professional colleagues. As a result he put the project aside, placing all his film footage in storage.

Henceforth Carpenter's career was peripatetic. He taught at the New School for Social Research in New York (1973–81), and worked at the Museum für Voelkerkunde in Basel, Switzerland, and at Harvard's Center for Visual Anthropology.

One of Carpenter's projects was to edit and publish the massive 12-volume work of the late Carl Schuster (1904–69), whose vast archive is at the Museum für Volkerkunde. Schuster had sought to decode the meanings of tribal designs through comparative analysis. "The closest counterpart to Schuster's work," Carpenter explained:

lies with the Structuralists, particularly Claude Levi-Strauss and Rodney Needham, both life-long friends of his. The Structuralists focused on the universality of symbolic opposition. Schuster extended their examples into prehistory. He then distinguished between generalized universals and highly specific, non-universal symbols transmitted through tradition.

.... The real value of Schuster's work . . . does not lie in explanation, a process which he generally shunned. It lies in his identification and documentation of an immensely complex symbolic system, which he traces back at least 30,000 years. He referred to examples of this system as "genealogical patterns." —Ted Carpenter, Tribal Arts


Carpenter also distilled Schuster's material into one volume, Patterns That Connect: Social Symbolism in Ancient and Tribal Art (1996), a massive folio with 1023 stipple and line drawing illustrations. This beautiful and important book has yet to yet to receive the recognition it deserves.

In 2005, he published Two Essays: Chief and Greed (Persimmon Press) a history of the Museum of the American Indian (on whose board Carpenter served for eleven years) and its colorful, unscrupulous founder, financier and collector George Heye (1874–1957). As well as discussing specific artifacts — some of them masterpieces — that were collected by Heye and his curators, the book discloses the anatomy of collecting and museology from its early heyday to the present.

He has also continued researching on Arctic archeology in Siberia as a participant in a collaborative project initiated over 10 years ago between Russian scientists from the Institute for the History of Material Culture and archeologists from the Smithsonian. The work has been done at Zhokov Island, a far north Mesolithic site found in the Russian Arctic, dated 8000 B.P., and situated 76 degrees North Latitude; and at Yana RHS, is the earliest site to trace Paleolithic human activity in Arctic, dated 27,000 B.P. and situated 71 degrees North Latitude.

Carpenter serves as an officer of the Rock Foundation, which, among other commitments, supports anthropological books, films, and archeological research. Recently, he has edited and published two books, Comock: The True Story of an Eskimo Hunter, with Eskimo drawings, photos, and text by Robert Flaherty; and Padlei Diary: An account of the Padleimiut Eskimo in the Keewatin District west of Hudson Bay during the early months of 1950, with text and photos by Richard Harrington. He is currently working on two books: one, on Eskimo maps, includes 400 original drawings made before 1900; the other is a memoir, "Deep Times," comprising portraits of the people who influenced him: the academicians, Arthur C. Parker, Carl Schuster, Dorothy Lee, Frank Speck, Frank Ridley, and Marshall McCluhan; and an Aivilik Eskimo, Onainewk (Aniouek).

In 2004, John Bishop and Harald Prins's film of Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me received the John Culkin Award for Outstanding Praxis in the Field of Media Ecology. A show of Eskimo art curated by Edmund Carpenter opened in Paris at the Musée du Quai Branly in the fall of 2008.

Selected References

Prins, Harald E.L., and Bishop, John. 2002. "Edmund Carpenter: Explorations in Media & Anthropology." Visual Anthropology Review 17 (2): 110–140).

Carpenter, Edmund Snow and Marshall McLuhan. Explorations in Communications, an Anthology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960.
____. Comock : the true story of an Eskimo hunter (by Qumaq). Edited by Edmund Snow Carpenter, with text and photos by Robert
Flaherty. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968. Re-published by McGill-Queen's University Press, in 2001.
____. They Became What They Beheld. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970.
____. Eskimo. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959. Reprinted in 1970 with minor revisions.
____. Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972.
____. Anerca. Illustrated with drawings by Enooesweetok. Toronto: J.M. Dent, 1972.
____. Eskimo Realities. Photographs by Eberhard Otto, Fritz Spiess, and Jorgen Meldgaard. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973.
____. Patterns that Connect: Social Symbolism in Ancient and Tribal Art; based on the work of Carl Schuster. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
____. Padlei Diary: an account of the Padleimiut Eskimo in the Keewatin District west of Hudson Bay during the early months of 1950. Excerpted from Richard Harrington's complete diary of his Padlei trip, January–April 1950. Edited by Edmund Carpenter. New York: Rock Foundation, 2000.
_____. Two Essays: Chief and Greed. Persimmon Press, 2005.

Films

Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me A film by John Bishop and Harald Prins. Media Generation, 2003. Contains filmed interviews with Carpenter and footage from the films listed below:

College. 1964. 19 minutes. 16 mm. Script by Jacob Bronowski.
Eskimo Masks. c. 1964. With Robert Cannon.
Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. With John Davis and the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Film produced by Edmund Carpenter, Archer Goodwin, Bess Lomax Hawes, 1964.
Buck Dancer. With Ed Young. Produced by Edmund Carpenter and Bess Lomax Hawes, 1965.
Yonder Comes Day. With the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Produced by Edmund Carpenter and Bess Lomax Hawes, 1967.
Throw Me Anywhere, Lord. With the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Produced by Edmund Carpenter and Bess Lomax Hawes, 1967.
Thank you, Jesus. Produced by Edmund Carpenter and Bess Lomax Hawes, 1967.

Web Resources
Complete Bibliography of the Works of Edmund Snow Carpenter
Virtual Snow: a web resource on the life and works of Edmund Snow Carpenter
"That Not-So-Silent Sea" Originally published in Theall, Donald. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001, pp. 236-261.
An Interview with Edmund Carpenter by Bunny McBride (1980).

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