Edmund Carpenter, 88; studied language and culture with Marshall McLuhan

By William Grimes
New York Times / July 11, 2011

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NEW YORK - Edmund Carpenter, an archaeologist and anthropologist who, impatient with traditional boundaries between disciplines, did groundbreaking work in anthropological filmmaking and ethnomusicology and, with his friend Marshall McLuhan, laid the foundations of modern media studies, died July 1 in Southampton, N.Y. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Adelaide de Menil.

Dr. Carpenter, a disciple of the anthropologist Frank Speck, started out excavating prehistoric Indian sites in the Northeast but soon showed signs of the intellectual restlessness that marked his entire career.

At a time when few anthropologists showed much interest in the Arctic and its peoples, he embarked on a series of expeditions among the Aivilik people and published several books on the Inuit: “Time/Space Concepts of the Aivilik’’ (1955), “Anerca’’ (1959) and “Eskimo’’ (1959), republished as “Eskimo Realities’’ in 1973.

His interest in language and culture led him into a fruitful collaboration with McLuhan when both taught at the University of Toronto in the 1950s. Together they organized the influential Seminar on Culture and Communication to discuss the role of radio, television, film, and print in transforming human relations.

Dr. Carpenter took the lead in editing Explorations, the interdisciplinary journal that grew out of the seminar; it published writers like the anthropologist Dorothy Lee and the literary critic Northrop Frye.

In 1969, he and De Menil, a photographer whom he would later marry and a member of the family that founded the Menil Collection in Houston, went to Papua New Guinea to observe the effects of modern communications on tribal peoples. Invited by the Australian government, he accepted the post of research professor at the University of Papua New Guinea because it offered “an unparalleled opportunity to step in and out of 10,000 years of media history, observing, probing, testing,’’ he wrote in “Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!’’ (1972), his best-known book. “I wanted to observe, for example, what happens when a person - for the first time - sees himself in a mirror, in a photograph, on films, hears his voice; sees his name.’’

He was deeply skeptical about scientific claims of impartiality and worried about the destructive effects of modern life on tribal peoples. Although he continued to teach anthropology and supported numerous ethnographic filmmakers, he disengaged from the profession.

He taught intermittently in the United States and spent eight years at the Museum of Ethnology in Basel, Switzerland, editing the papers of the art historian Carl Schuster, which were published in 12 volumes as “Social Symbolism in Ancient and Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition and Continuity’’ in the late 1980s and in a one-volume condensation, “Patterns That Connect: Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art.’’

His collaborations with McLuhan included numerous jointly written articles and the anthology “Explorations in Communication’’ (1960).

Dr. Carpenter was deeply involved in the writing of “Understanding Media,’’ the book that made McLuhan an intellectual celebrity. It began as a collaboration, but Dr. Carpenter gradually withdrew and the book was published under McLuhan’s name alone. “I admired Marshall’s insights and style, but it simply wasn’t me,’’ Dr. Carpenter wrote to the anthropologists Harald E.L. Prins and John Bishop in 2002. The published work was a hybrid. “The final version of ‘Understanding Media’ mixed both our contributions,’’ he wrote in a 2001 essay. “This partly explains its uneven tone.’’

After returning from Papua New Guinea, Dr. Carpenter taught at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, Adelphi University on Long Island, and Harvard’s Center for Visual Anthropology.

Dr. Carpenter lived in Manhattan and Sag Harbor, N.Y. In addition to his third wife, Adelaide, known as Addie, he leaves three sons and a sister, Barbara Grace of Rochester.