Edmund Snow Carpenter (1922-2011) was an archaeologist and visual anthropologist who worked extensively with the indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic and Papua New Guinea. With his colleague and close collaborator Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), he laid the groundwork for modern media theory. Carpenter is also known for his work as an ethnographic filmmaker and as a collector of Paleo-Eskimo art.
Born in 1922 in Rochester, New York, Edmund (nicknamed "Ted") Carpenter served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II before receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1950 under Frank Speck for work on Iroquoian prehistoric archaeology. Carpenter began teaching at the University of Toronto in 1948 while simultaneously working as a programmer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). In the 1950s, he undertook fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic among the Aivilik (an Inuit Igloolik subgroup). This fieldwork resulted in several publications in the field of cultural anthropology, including Time/Space Concepts of the Aivilik (1955), Anerca (1959), and Eskimo (1959, republished as Eskimo Realities in 1973).
Also in the 1950s, Carpenter began a working relationship with media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Together, they received a Ford Foundation grant (1953-1955) for an interdisciplinary media research project into the impact of mass communications and mass media on culture change. Carpenter and McLuhan's partnership resulted in the Seminar on Culture and Communication (1953-1959) and the journal series Explorations. In 1957, Carpenter was the founding chair in the interdisciplinary program "Anthropology and Art" at San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge). There, he collaborated with Bess Lomax Hawes and other colleagues in the production of several ethnographic films, including Georgia Sea Island Singers about Gullah (or Geechee) songs and dances. During this period, Carpenter worked with McLuhan on the latter's seminal book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). The article published as "Fashion is Language" in Harper's Bazaar under McLuhan's name (1968) was actually written by Carpenter. It was later published in book form under Carpenter's name, with the title They Became What They Beheld (1970).
In 1969, Carpenter took a research professorship at the University of Papua and New Guinea sponsored by the government of Australia. Alongside photographer Adelaide De Menil (whom he would later marry), he applied many of the ideas about media literacy and culture change to indigenous communities of Papua New Guinea. These activities led to developments in the field of media ecology, as well as the publication of Carpenter's best-known work, Oh, What a Blow the Phantom Gave Me! (1976).
Carpenter taught intermittently at various universities throughout his career, including Fordham University, the University of California-Santa Cruz, Adelphi University, Harvard University's Center for Visual Anthropology, the New School for Social Research, and New York University. He spent eight years associated with the Museum of Ethnology in Basel, Switzerland (1973-1981), editing art historian Carl Schuster's research.
In addition to his teaching and research, Carpenter, with his wife Adelaide De Menil, collected tribal art, eventually amassing the largest private collection of Paleo-Eskimo art in the United States. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Carpenter curated various exhibitions on art and visual culture, including the Menil Collection's Witness to a Surrealist Vision and the Musée du Quai Branly's Upside Down (later reconstructed at the Menil Collection). In later years, Carpenter resumed his archaeological interest in Arctic peoples, researching and collaborating on the Zhokhov Island Mesolithic site in the Russian Arctic with Russian scientists from the Institute for the History of Material Culture and archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.
Carpenter died on July 1, 2011 at his home in New York.
"Edmund Snow Carpenter." https://edmundsnowcarpenter.com/about
Grimes, William. "Edmund Carpenter, Archaeologist and Anthropologist, Dies at 88." The New York Times. 2011 July 7. https://www.nytimes.com
Prins, Harald E. L. and John Bishop. "Edmund Carpenter: Explorations in Media and Anthropology." Visual Anthropology Review 17:2 (Fall-Winter 2001-2002): 110-140.
1922 September 2
Born in Rochester, New York
Archaeological field work, Sugar Run mounds, Pennsylvania
Served in the United States Marine Corps
Anthropology Department, University of Toronto
Began work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)
Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania (Anthropology)
Fieldwork among the Aivilik Inuit
Ran the Seminar on Culture and Communication with Marshall McLuhan
"Anthropology and Art" program at San Fernando Valley State College (California State University, Northridge)
Schwitzer Chair, Fordham University (with Marshall McLuhan)
Carnegie Chair in Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz
Research Professor, University of Papua and New Guinea
Associated with the Museum of Ethnology in Basel, Switzerland for Carl Schuster papers project
Collaboration regarding Zhokov Island archaeological site
2011 July 1
Died in East Hampton, New York