Light Through McLuhan

The concept of 'acoustic space' owes its genesis to a cross-disciplinary research group at the University of Toronto established in the early 1950's by McLuhan and his friend Ted Carpenter.

The 'communications group', as it came to be known, included Ted Carpenter (Anthropology); McLuhan (English); McLuhan's long-time friend Tom Easterbrook (Economics); Jacqueline Tyrwhitt (Town Planning); and D. Carlton (Carl) Williams (Psychology); it also, at various times, welcomed Siegfried Giedion, Ashley Montagu, and anthropologist Dorothy Lee, among many others.

The grant that the group received from the Ford Foundation in 1952 partly subsidized the publication of the cross-disciplinary journal Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication, founded by Ted Carpenter, the first issue of which was published in December 1953.

Nine issues of Explorations were published between 1953 and 1959; a collection of articles from the journal was later published by Beacon Press in Boston as Explorations in Communication (1960); and issue 8 (October 1957) was reissued in 1967 by the Something Else Press as Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations.

The interest shared by the communications group, and the theme of Explorations, was 'media biases'.1

In his memoir of McLuhan, Ted Carpenter names the concept of 'acoustic space' the 'first breakthrough' for the Toronto communications group, and he attributes it to Carl Williams:

'Carl ... used the phrase 'auditory space' in describing an experiment by E. A. Bott [then recently retired from the University of Toronto].... the phrase was electrifying. Marshall [McLuhan] changed it to 'acoustic space' and quoted 'inner landscape' poetry. Jackie [Tyrwhitt] mentioned the Indian city of Fatehpur Sikri. Tom [Easterbrook] saw parallels in medieval Europe. I talked about Eskimos.'2

Williams wrote an essay on 'Acoustic Space' for Explorations Four (February 1955), in which some of the group's discussions on 'space' surface between Williams's scientific paragraphs on audition; the product is notably obscure.3

A year later, over differences with Ted Carpenter, Williams 'insisted that his name be removed from the masthead of Explorations'.4

McLuhan and Carpenter later revised the essay on 'Acoustic Space' and republished it under their names in the anthology Explorations in Communication (1960).5

As described in the revised paper, 'Auditory space ... [is] a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing. It is not pictorial space, boxed in, but dynamic, always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment.'6

In fact the concept of 'auditory space', though suggested by Williams, must have had resonance for McLuhan with what T.S. Eliot named the 'auditory imagination', a concept McLuhan had been quoting since the late 1940's.7

Eliot describes the 'auditory imagination' as 'the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back...'8

McLuhan's knowledge of gestalt theory, and of the work of the symbolists and modernists, enabled him to conceptualize 'acoustic space' in terms of a field of 'discontinuous' components.

He says in an article of 1957: 'Factors making for simultaneous or instantaneous presentations of facts or forces tend to set up fields of relations which have an auditory character.'9

From Georg von Békésy's Experiments in Hearing (1960), McLuhan adopts the concept of the 'mosaic', replacing earlier formulations of 'landscape' technique.10

'The paradox presented by Professor von Bekesy', says McLuhan, 'is that the two-dimensional mosaic is ... a multidimensional world of interstructural resonance', while 'the three-dimensional world of pictorial space' is 'an abstract illusion built on the intense separation of the visual from the other senses.'11

McLuhan emphasizes the fact that the 'visual' and 'acoustic' each represent a form or structure, rather than implying that something is 'seen' or 'heard'.

As he says, 'any pattern in which the components co-exist without direct lineal hook-up or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations, is auditory, even though some of its aspects can be seen.'12

The newspaper, for example, 'is "auditory" in basic structure ... The items of news and advertising that exist under a dateline are interrelated only by that dateline. They have no interconnection of logic or statement. Yet they form a mosaic whose parts are interpenetrating.'13

The TV, likewise, is 'auditory' or 'mosaic' in form; in fact McLuhan finds the acoustic form to be the basic structure of all electronic technology, modern art and modern physics.14

He contrasts this 'simultaneous' and 'discontinuous' field of interpenetrating forms to 'visual' structures which he conceives as inescapably 'sequential', 'linear' and 'connected', due to the ability of the eye to focus on objects in sequence.

The eye, McLuhan says, is the only one of our senses that is able 'to separate or capture single aspects'; unlike the ear, which hears 'simultaneously' sounds from all directions, we can focus our eyes upon an object; and the eye must consider things in sequence, one-thing-at-a-time.15

The concept of 'efficient causality' (i.e. the singular 'cause' that produces the 'effect') only makes sense to the eye.

Meanwhile, 'The man who lives in an aural world lives at the center of a communications sphere, and he is bombarded with sensory data from all sides simultaneously.'16

That, for McLuhan, is the essence of acoustic space, and this is why the symbolist 'landscape', the 'mosaic' newspaper and the 'tactile' TV image are acoustic in structure, not visual.

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