Revisiting the Toronto School: Edmund Carpenter

In print I have had some harsh words to say about the so-called Toronto School’s treatment of sound (that’s so-called “Canadian School” to some Americans, but pretend I didn’t say that) in the concept of orality, and I shall have a few more in print shortly. But in preparation for that, I’ve taken a couple weeks’ leave from the book manuscript in order to go back through some material for the positive argument that I wish to present at the end of the paper, about what parts of the tradition might be worth recovering. I have been re-reading some Harold Innis (and also discovered Heyer and Crowley’s excellent 1991 introduction to The Bias of Communication, which I had never read–I also never bothered with McLuhan’s intro which I should clearly go back and read), and also working through Edmund Carpenter for the first time, really. I remember looking at his material in grad school.

To people not preoccupied with the “school,” Carpenter is relatively minor figure on communication theory, or at least his work is not widely cited in our field. Carpenter was an anthropologist and brief look through his oeuvre shows that his concerns were anthropological first and mediatic, second. My current preoccupation is his Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Dealt Me, which attempts to construct a transcultural theory of media through a series of almost aphoristic short sections. As a work of medium theory the book is in one way derivative, since Carpenter’s claims about media and the senses aren’t new or shocking. It is also very much of its period, with more than the requisite macho humanist references to sexual escapades (and the standard dated ideas about gender and race), the somewhat random substitution of “&” for “and”, and its episodic and disconnected character. At the same time, I find the book captivating. As Innis has an attention to historical detail even as he aimed for synthesis, Carpenter has an attention to ethnographic detail. There are many passages where if one substituted the right terms, his observations about television and telephony could pass for current scholarship on digital and mobile media.

As for Carpenter’s intellectual legacy, it is hard for me to judge, but he did teach Steven Feld, who brought a whole new level of sophistication to questions of media and sound in anthropology and music.

But I will say this: for all my criticisms of and problems with Toronto school authors and their basic assumptions, there is something very attractive in their expansive curiosity about communication, culture and consciousness. Even if I find their answers unsatisfying, the questions they posed more than a generation ago remain vital and engaging, and many of their formulations still resonate.