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Michael Darroch (Windsor) Giedion and Explorations: Transatlantic Influences on the Toronto School

In the context of examining the continuing influence of Toronto School thinkers on contemporary theories of media and the materialities of communication in German-speaking Europe, it is vital to recognise transatlantic influences on the development of the Toronto School in the first place. This paper examines the influence of the Swiss art historian and architectural critic Sigfried Giedion on the collaborative work that developed during the Culture and Communications Seminar (1953-55) and the publication of the Explorations journal (1953-59) at the University of Toronto. Funded by a Ford Foundation grant, and chaired by Marshall McLuhan, the graduate seminar was co-directed by cultural anthropologist Edmund Carpenter along with British urban planner Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, political scientist Thomas Easterbrook and psychologist D. Carleton Williams. They sought to develop interdisciplinary methodologies using a ‘field’ approach to discern the new grammars and environments created by electronic communications technologies. The radical interdisciplinary Explorations journal, edited by Carpenter and co-edited by the other seminar leaders, was launched as a means of “cutting across the arts and social sciences by treating them as a continuum,” placing special emphasis on studying the effects of media on oral, visual, and post-visual cultures. Building on Harold Innis’ thesis of the bias of communication, the group turned to the work of Giedion as a guiding theme. Connected to modernist architectural and town-planning movements --including Bauhaus and CIAM (Congrès international d’architecture moderne which he founded with Le Corbusier in 1928)-- Giedion represented a postwar wave of humanistic, interdisciplinary scholarship that would have a profound influence on the group’s direction. In McLuhan’s well-known letter to Innis (14 March 1951), in which he first proposed the seminar, he noted that Giedion’s two classics Space, Time and Architecture (1941) and Mechanization Takes Command (1948) were the central inspiration for this “experiment in communication.” Giedion’s writings on architectural history, town planning and the cultural history of mechanisation came to dominate the weekly seminar discussions and media experiments conducted by the group. In all his historical studies of architecture and everyday life, Giedion was committed to crossing the boundaries between science, technology and art as a means to engage with history as a living process of “manifold relations” (1948: 3). Mechanization Takes Command was centred on a methodological approach to what Giedion called the ‘anonymous history’ of everyday objects and cultural phenomena that reveal the essential spirit of their period. In the age of mechanization, technological developments had severed our capacity to think from our capacity to feel, a rupture represented by the disjunction between natural and human sciences and their shared connection to human expression. As early as 1943, when McLuhan and Giedion began to correspond, Giedion promoted the belief that ‘interrelations’ between arts, sciences, and humanities must become the focus, and not the exception, of university research. In many ways, the Culture and Communications Seminar and Explorations journal represented such an attempt to bridge disciplinary boundaries. Giedion’s ideas were represented in seminar discussions by Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, who served as translator, editor and arguably co-author of many of his writings over a period of twenty years, and who was herself an integral member of CIAM’s British wing. She acted as a mediator between Giedion’s conception of anonymous history and McLuhan and Carpenter’s argument that electronic media were creating an acoustic post-visual cosmos. Under the influence of Giedion’s work, a methodology grew out of the seminar that viewed the environment as an active rather than a passive space. For McLuhan, the encounter with different spatial disciplines (art history, anthropology, economics, architecture and town planning) would have a decisive impact on the conceptual frameworks he carried from English studies, placing an emphasis on both history and geography. Focused on culture as a landscape, the Explorations journal published writings by group members along with anthropological studies of media effects, experimental poetry, scientific studies, and urban studies. The journal was an experimental space, including contributions of many established and new scholars across the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences. The seminar and journal thus form an important starting point for defining the research agenda of the Toronto School and represent an important turn towards interdisciplinary research in Canada. Together, they helped initiate a Canadian tradition of studying culture, communication, and media. This paper is based on a close examination of Giedion’s works and original archival research into the group’s papers.