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Historicist: Explorations at the Vanguard of Communications Studies

The short-lived but influential magazine overseen by Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan.

Detail from cover of Explorations 3 (August 1954)

Detail from cover of Explorations 3 (August 1954).

In the 1950s, anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, English professor Marshall McLuhan, and others were at the centre of an innovative working group at the University of Toronto investigating modes and media of communication from a variety of academic perspectives. The establishment of the journal Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication in 1953 provided an outlet for their discussions and emerging ideas. The Globe and Mail‘s literary critic, William Arthur Deacon, proclaimed that the intellectual magazine’s cultural importance marked “a coming-of-age in Canada.”

Its content was an eclectic mix of treatises, poems, excerpts from popular magazines, and clippings of advertisements, with subjects ranging from indigenous cultures or musical instruments in Africa to experiments conducted in television studios. The magazine was both intellectually exhilarating for its cutting-edge ideas, and ploddingly dull for the opacity of certain articles. In his biography of McLuhan, Coupland characterized the magazine as a “glorious stew of diamonds and rhinestones and Fabergé eggs and merde.” And, along with the Ford Foundation-funded Seminar on Culture and Communication, Explorations was instrumental in laying the foundation of modern media studies.

The journal’s original nine issues, published in limited numbers between 1953 and 1959, were considered collector’s items almost immediately upon their publication and now fetch more than $100 eachif you can find them.

Many of McLuhan’s key ideas had their genesis in the pages of Explorations, leading most observers to closely associate the journal with the media theorist. In fact, though often unacknowledged, the real driving force behind the publication was Carpenter, McLuhan’s friend and close collaborator.

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In the early 1950s, Marshall McLuhan, an English professor at St. Michael’s College, hadn’t yet made a splash in academic circles or the broader culture. He’d first expanded his area of interest from literary studies to media analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his first teaching post. Several years after arriving in Toronto, he published his first book, Mechanical Bride (Vanguard Press, 1951), which examined Blondie comic strips and advertisements through a critical lens. But the volume didn’t have much impact inside academe or beyond, selling only a few hundred copies.

(Right: Marshall McLuhan, ca. 1936. From the Library and Archives Canada [PA-172791].)

As early as March 1951, McLuhan conceived of studying communications through experimental seminar cutting across strict boundaries between disciplines. It was a difficult proposition in an age before interdisciplinarity was widely accepted, but he found a kindred colleague with complementary ambitions in anthropology professor Edmund (Ted) Carpenter.

Born in Rochester, Carpenter was intrigued by excavating prehistoric Iroquoian sites as a teenager. He enrolled in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania on the eve of the Second World War, but finished his degrees after serving in the Pacific Theatre. After accepting a teaching position at the University of Toronto, Carpenter embarked on a series of expeditions to the Canadian north and published several books on his experiences with the Aivilik people. On the side, Carpenter produced and hosted a series of shows on CBC radio and, later, television.

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McLuhan and Carpenter co-wrote an application to the Behavioral Sciences Division of the Ford Foundation for an inter-faculty project investigating the effects of new media of communication. After being awarded funding in the spring of 1953, the two assembled their collaborators to lay out the content and scope of the Culture and Communication seminars (which was to be the core of their project) and to identify common areas of interests and methodological parallels between disciplines. This cadre, which became known as the Explorations Group, included D. Carl Williams of the psychology faculty and political economist Tom Easterbrook. Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, visiting professor of Town Planning in the School of Architecture, had been an early supporter of McLuhan’s seminar proposal, but wouldn’t rejoin the group until her return to Toronto from an overseas assignment in mid-1954.

(Left: Cover of Explorations 1 [December 1953].)

The first seminar, held on October 15, 1953, was attended by about a dozen graduate students from the faculties of English, Economics, Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology. Word spread rapidly across campus about the intellectually challenging but invigorating discussions and guest speakers at the seminars, and graduate students scrambled for a seat at the table.

It wasn’t long before Carpenter suggested using Ford Foundation funding to establish a magazine as an extension of the seminar work. McLuhan, Easterbrook, Williams, and Tyrwhitt were listed as associate editors but, as editor-in-chief, Carpenter took on Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication with a full head of steam, energetically overseeing all aspects of editing, printing, and distribution. He wrote letters far and wide seeking—and sometimes begging for—submissions from writers and thinkers across the world. “It would have been a mediocre production without Ted [Carpenter],” Donald Theall, then a U of T graduate student, asserted in Philip Marchand’s Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger (Random House of Canada, 1989).

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The inaugural issue, Explorations 1 (December 1953), opened with a statement of purpose:

Explorations is designed, not as a permanent reference journal that embalms truth for posterity, but as a publication that explores and searches and questions.

We envisage a series that will cut across the humanities and social sciences by treating them as a continuum. We believe anthropology and communications are approaches, not bodies of data, and that within each the four winds of the humanities, the physical, the biological and the social sciences intermingle to form a science of man.

“The journal focused on media biases,” Carpenter later recalled in reminisces titled “That Not-So-Silent Sea” [PDF], published as an appendix to Theall’s The Virtual Marshall McLuhan (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006). “This concern rested on the belief that certain media favor [sic], while others do not, certain ideas & values, or more simply: each medium is a unique soil. That soil doesn’t guarantee which plants will grow there, but it influences which plants blossom or wilt there.”

(Right: Cover of Explorations 2 [April 1954].)

Almost immediately the journal raised the profile of the seminar, drawing the attention of popular press. In his Globe and Mail (January 9, 1954) books column, William Arthur Deacon hailed the arrival of the Canadian-made intellectual magazine in a review of the first issue. He praised McLuhan’s “Culture Without Literacy” and other essays; he admitted that technical jargon rendered a piece by Hans Selye, a Montreal-based professor of physiology, beyond his comprehension. “[A]nd, while I could understand the article on speech-tones in the Congo, I am not interested in the subject,” he added. “As a literary event, it is important to possess a magazine on such a high intellectual plane that ordinary readers are sometimes left behind,” Deacon concluded. “It is a real asset to have in Canada a journal for expression of ideas that do not have to be watered down for those of the lowest educational attainments.”

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With funding secured for two years, the magazine was always intended as a short run, to be published two or three times a year. Its reception exceeded expectations, with sales of the first issue exhausting the supply of 1,000 copies on the first day—leaving many orders from the United States unfulfilled. Subsequent issues, each with a print run of only 2,000 copies, sold almost as quickly. However, in Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding (Stoddart, 1997), W. Terrence Gordon notes that the journal’s discussion of film, television, and radio—and Pogo cartoons—provoked “animosity and criticism” among the Toronto establishment. But when Ford Foundation’s funding expired after six issues, John Bassett, owner of the Toronto Telegram, stepped up with funding in 1957 for another three issues.

(Left: Cover of Explorations 5 [June 1955].)

The variety of articles published in Explorations covered the range of communication—from oral speech to literature and electronic media; from tribal linguistics to film, television, and comic strips—written from an equally broad range of disciplinary perspectives and methodologies.

Contributors included poets like Robert Graves and E.E. Cummings. A translation of a traditional Japanese story, Kamo no Chōmei’s “Hōjōki: A Fugitive Essay”—translated by Chicago art gallery owner Anthony Kerrigan and documentary producer Thomas Rowe—featured in Explorations 3 (August 1954).

The members of the Explorations Group each contributed to the journal regularly, as did a handful of their closest collaborators. Dorothy Lee, an anthropologist who’d taught at Harvard and elsewhere, was considered the magazine’s “most influential force” by Carpenter for her six articles that appeared in Explorations.

Excerpts and reprints were another frequent source of content. A piece from The Nation written under a pseudonym by an American advertising executive appeared in Explorations 1 (December 1953). Explorations 1 also included an article by Victoria College’s Northrop Frye reprinted from the Canadian Forum, and a July 1951 speech by historian Harold Innis was in Explorations 3 (August 1954).

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There were discussions of urban design in India, conceptions of space in prehistoric art, and portraits of James Joyce. In Explorations 7 (March 1957), Robert F. Bradford speculated on how television would alter political conventions—and impact the style of politician who appealed to the public—just as radio had a generation earlier.

(Right: Cover of Explorations 7 [March 1957].)

In Explorations 7 (March 1957), “The Bawdy Song…in Fact and in Print,” by Gershon Legman argued “that the early literatures of all peoples contained robust, coarse, earthy poems and songs,” as Deacon summarized in the Globe and Mail (June 15, 1957), but society had become too “genteel about words.” Nearly 36 lines of verse—most of the examples Legman provided to support his argument—were removed in order to comply with the Canadian Criminal Code. Still, Carpenter later recounted, the printer objected to the issue and took the proofs to his supervisor at the University of Toronto Press. He, in turn, raised objection to U of T president Sidney Smith. Carpenter received an outraged phone call, but when he presented the proofs to Smith, not a a single word was changed. Nevertheless, Carpenter’s publication of Legman’s article prompted Williams to demand his name be removed from the masthead—a clear indication that there was a healthy dose of conflict behind the scenes at the seminar and Explorations.

On one occasion, Carpenter hoped to publish one seminar student’s class assignment examining media biases in the New Yorker‘s contemporary art reviews, which didn’t include illustrations. The student used the skills and equipment from his part-time job as a printer to create exact duplicates of the New Yorker review pages—complete with ads—substituting only the artist name from one review with that of another. Then, the student sought comment from leading critics, none of whom spotted the students’ alterations and claimed to agree wholeheartedly with the reviews. “I wanted to run these re-writes & responses, but the New Yorker objected,” Carpenter lamented.

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The Explorations editor tried again and again to secure a piece by a Russian linguist discussing the impact of electronic media, like television, on Marxism as practiced in the USSR. “So I wrote and wrote, suffered Soviet & RCMP visitors, and in the end got only Party Line,” Carpenter recalled. “I printed this only because the ’50s belonged to McCarthy, even in Canada, and survival of this dialog seemed more important than quality of dialog.” An article on “Soviet Television,” penned by V. Sharoyeva, seemingly the director of Moscow’s television station, appeared in Explorations 6 [July 1956].

(Left: William Arthur Deacon’s literary column from the Globe and Mail (June 15, 1957).)

The Explorations Group was also keen to carry out research experiments that were distinctly interdisciplinary in nature. Carpenter, who freelanced on CBC radio and television through much of the 1950s in addition to lecturing and writing for journals, was intrigued by how the same content would be perceived differently when received via different media. In the spring of 1954, he conceived and carried out an experiment with the assistance of his Explorations colleagues and the CBC.

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Over 100 university students were divided into four groups, each receiving the exact same lecture simultaneously but in different media: in print, via live lecturer, over radio, or on the television screen. Each participant was tested afterward for their retention of the material. After Williams tallied the scores, the television viewers rated highest on the retention of information conveyed, regardless of the test subject’s individual level of academic achievement. Listening on the radio scored second, while reading print scored lowest of all as an effective means of conveying information.

(Right: Cover of Explorations 8 [October 1957].)

Williams wrote up the “Experiment in Communication” for Explorations 3 (August 1954), a piece that Carpenter caustically noted “missed the whole point” of the experiment, so the anthropologist penned another himself. News of the experiment spread widely, earning a write-up in the New York Times and a degree of controversy until subsequent tests replicated the findings.

In another experiment staged shortly before Christmas 1954, Tyrwhitt had 800 students at Ryerson Institute of Technology fill out questionnaires probing “their perceptions of how they commonly approach the Ryerson Institute, and . . . their perceptions of the visual environment in the vicinity of Ryerson (advertising, street orientation, street furniture, trees, colours, and so forth),” as Michael Darroch summarized the experiment in the Canadian Journal of Communication 33.2 (2008). Students were asked to map these recollections, but results revealed that most remained oblivious to the details of their surroundings—a fact that Tyrwhitt felt had implications for town planners and architects. There were “two distinct levels of perception,” Tyrwhitt concluded in “The City Unseen,” co-authored with Williams for Explorations 5 (June 1955): “a very low level of consciousness” and “a fully conscious registration of objects of personal interest. Between them lies an extensive no-man’s land.”

Explorations 8 (October 1957), the only issue for which McLuhan assumed primary editorial responsibility, was an extended experiment in typographical word art. Harley Parker, display designer at the ROM and instructor at the Ontario College of Art, utilized Flexitype, which until then had only been used extensively in advertising, to stretch, twist, and otherwise visually distort words to alter how they might be interpreted aurally. Such word art would become a feature of McLuhan’s later books, like Counterblast (McClelland and Stewart, 1969), and the issue was in fact republished as Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations (Something Else Press, 1967). But despite full-page ads in the Telegram, the increased print run of 3,000 issues sold very poorly at the time, and the higher expense of Flexitype and colour printing completely exhausted Explorations‘ funding.

Word art from Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan, eds , Explorations in Communication: An Anthology (Beacon Press, 1960)

Word art from Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan, eds., Explorations in Communication: An Anthology (Beacon Press, 1960).

It was left to Carpenter to raise the money necessary to fulfill Explorations‘ obligation for a ninth and final issue. In 1959, he cobbled together a book entitled Eskimo that featured artwork by painter Frederick Varley, and slapped “‘Explorations’ on enough copies to fill paid subscriptions,” as Carpenter later explained.

When Carpenter’s proposal to publish selections from the journal as an anthology was rejected by the Oxford University Press, McLuhan offered to show Carpenter’s manuscript to a friend at Beacon Press. It was readily accepted, Carpenter recalled, with the only difference between manuscript text and finished product—published as Explorations in Communication: An Anthology (Beacon Press, 1960)—being the addition of McLuhan’s name on the cover as co-editor. Although the volume is now nearly as much a rarity as the original magazines, it was widely used as a textbook and sold well through several printings in the United States and abroad.

Growing from his leadership role in the seminar, appearances at symposia and conferences, and articles in humanities and social science journals, McLuhan had established himself as a pre-eminent authority in the study of media and communications by the late 1950s. His celebrity skyrocketed with the publication of Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (McGraw-Hill, 1964). He became, as James W. Carey put it in the Canadian Journal of Communication 23.3 (Summer 1998), “the first celebrity intellectual of the electronic age.” McLuhan was interviewed by Playboy, earned business consulting gigs with Bell Telephone and IBM, and was invoked as a television catchphrase on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. His fame, and the success of the interdisciplinary investigations of the Ford Foundation-funded seminar, eventually led to the University of Toronto’s establishment of the permanent Centre for Culture and Technology in 1963, with McLuhan as head until his retirement in 1979.

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With McLuhan’s growing celebrity and influence, he was retroactively given greater and greater credit for founding the journal and its contents—even though, apart from Explorations 8, McLuhan had only ever played a secondary role in its production. When the magazine was discussed in the popular press, the man who’d handled almost all editorial responsibilities was rarely mentioned. And the Japanese edition of the Explorations anthology omitted Carpenter’s name entirely.

(Left: Masthead from Explorations 8 [October 1957].)

McLuhan’s disciples discovered that many of the ideas contained in even his later writings could be traced back to the pages of the magazine. “Everything McLuhan said or wrote [after his final contribution to the magazine in October 1957] is directly traceable to something he wrote in the first eight issues of Explorations,” Marchand asserted in his McLuhan biography. McLuhan published frequently in Explorations to develop and work out his ideas, William J. Buxton notes in the Journal of Communication 37.4 (2012), “but [he] was able to draw on the material published there by his colleagues to develop his own ideas.” Too many observers failed to appreciate, Carpenter insisted decades later, the “community of contributors who generated these ideas” through seminar discussion and journal submissions. In his entertaining and insightful—if contrarian—reminisces, Carpenter complained that most of what had been written about Explorations was wrong because none of the authors had ever contacted him for his version of the journal’s history.

Downplaying McLuhan’s originality of thought, Carpenter argued the theorist’s genius lay in building off the ideas and concepts of others. “He was basically a poet,” Carpenter once said of McLuhan. “He was a jester, a shaman.” It was the press—and a PR firm than handled McLuhan—that hyped the media guru as wholly original. “This wasn’t Marshall’s doing,” Carpenter stressed, “though he never objected.” It was a testament to the pair’s complicated friendship that Carpenter and McLuhan continued to collaborate off and on—including an article Carpenter ghost-wrote for Harper’s Bazaar when his friend was suffering ill health in 1968.

Though Carpenter seemed happy to let Explorations go with the ninth issue, McLuhan was eager to revive the publication, which he did in 1964. It ran as a supplement in U of T’s Varsity Graduate (later the University of Toronto Graduate) alumni magazine until May 1972. That final issue closed with a note from McLuhan: “Mr. Ken Edey [head of the university's news and PR operation] tells me that in all the years that the Explorations series has appeared in the Graduate there has never been a response, pro or con, nor a comment of any sort.” Critics, cited by Gary Genosko, complained that McLuhan’s publishing experiments—including the second run of Explorations and his newsletter, DEW-LINE—contained too many recycled excerpts and clippings, and “very little new McLuhan.”

The critique was symbolic of McLuhan’s waning influence in the 1970s on both academe and pop culture. After his death in 1980, McLuhan fell completely out of fashion until the advent of the internet age reinvigorated investigation of his ideas.

Carpenter left Toronto in 1959 for Northridge, California, to help found an anthropology program emphasizing interdisciplinarity at San Fernando Valley State College. He continued to take part in documentary films and travelled widely, including a famous excursion to Papua New Guinea, which resulted in Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973). Later still, an obituary in the New York Times (July 10, 2011) noted, “worried about the destructive effects of modern life on tribal peoples,” Carpenter disengaged from active anthropology to focus on teaching.

Sources consulted: William J. Buxton, “The Rise of McLuhanism, The Loss of Innis-sense: Rethinking the Origins of the Toronto School of Communication,” Canadian Journal of Communication 37.4 (2012); James W. Carey, “Marshall McLuhan: Genealogy and Legacy,” Canadian Journal of Communication 23.3 (Summer 1998); Michael Darroch, “Bridging Urban and Media Studies: Jaqueline Tyrwhitt and the Explorations Group, 1951-1957,” Canadian Journal of Communication 33.2 (2008); D. de Kerckhove & E. McLuhan, “100 years…,” International Journal of McLuhan Studies no. 1 (2011) [PDF]; Gary Genosko, “The ‘Unknown’ Explorations,” AModern: The Future of the Scholarly Journal (Issue 1).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.