Different kinds of “acoustic space”

Today, with all our technology, and because of it, we stand once more in the magical acoustical sphere of pre-literate man (Space, Time, and Poetry, 1955)

Not any art doctrine, then, but such complex changes as occur in the emergence of the press as art form, lead to the union of the visual and acoustical space in a new space-time poetry. (Space, Time, and Poetry, 1955)

McLuhan observed that he “never ceased to meditate on the relevance of (…) acoustic space to an understanding of the simultaneous electric world.” (‘The End of the Work Ethic’: The Empire Club Address, 1973).  But what may never have been defined explicitly by him are the deep differences between disparate sorts of “acoustic space”: (1) pre-literate experience, (2) electric experience and (3) topological meta-experience about all experience — with (3) including both (1) and (2), as well as the intervening Gutenberg galaxy: “the union of the visual and acoustical space in a new space-time”.1

All three of these were considered by him as variously implicating “acoustic space”.

The third — topological meta-experience about all experience — must include all possible experience whatsoever, but without identification with any one sort of it. Or, conversely, with identification with precisely every sort of it.

As far as my media studies are concerned, the Mechanization Takes Command by Sigfried Giedion is indispensable background for the languages of media. As soon as one approaches [such] a field, one has to abandon subjects. Or rather, [all] subjects are automatically included within the field. (McLuhan to Harry Skornia, January 20, 1960.)2

In this context the differentiation of “acoustic space” from “mosaic  space” could be highly important. For, while the Gutenberg galaxy (say) was exactly not “acoustic”, it was a “mosaic”: “the galaxy or constellation of events upon which the present study concentrates is itself a mosaic”. Perhaps “mosaic” might be thought of as the ontological shape of everything that comes to be, as Bernard Muller-Thym might put it, with “acoustic” being those modes of human experience which are fitting to “mosaic” as lacking fixed perspective (although inevitably not fitting in other respects):

Auditory space has no point of favored focus. It’s 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. (‘Auditory Space’, 1960)

With the end of lineal specialisms and fixed points of view, compartmentalized knowledge became (…) unacceptable… (Gutenberg Galaxy, 253)

It is exactly this lack of a “point of favoured focus” — a lack that it shares with pre-literate and electric experience — that enables topological meta-experience about all experience to extend its “formula to the entire world of language and consciousness” (‘New Media as Political Forms’, Explorations 3, 1954).3

  1. As exemplified by this citation from ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’, McLuhan was clear (although often not explicit) that pre-literate experience and modern experience were not the same. See also: “modern man has to live mythically, in contrast to his ancient forebears, who sought to think mythically” (Take Today, 8) — perhaps contrasting conscious (“modern”) with unconscious (“ancient”) modes.
  2. Cited by Michael Darroch in Media Transatlantic: Developments in Media and Communication Studies between North America And German-Speaking Europe, ed Friesen, 2016, 63. It is unclear whether McLuhan was referring here to academic subjects like English and Engineering and Anthropology, or to subjects as ‘perspectives’ and ‘points view’. Perhaps both.
  3. As suggested by McLuhan’s letter to Harry Skornia from January 20, 1960 (cited above), Giedion’s suggestion of an “anonymous history”, aka a history beyond or aside from subjects, seems to have played a key role in the development of McLuhan’s ideas here. Cf, ‘The Later Innis’ (1953): “No individual can ever be adequate to grappling with the vision of what Siegfried Giedion calls ‘anonymous history’. That is to say, the vision of the significance of the multitude of personal acts and artefacts which constitute the total social process which is human communication or participation.”