From vision to ‘vision’

….acoustic space has unique physical prop­erties (a perfect sphere whose center is everywhere and whose margins are nowhere). [But] quantum physicists con­tinue to make efforts at visualizing the nonvisual… (Cliché to Archetype, 154)

The more that one says about acoustic space the more one realizes that it’s the thing that mathematicians and physicists of the past fifty years have been calling space-time, relativity, and non-Euclidean systems of geometry. And it was into this acoustic world that the poets and painters began to thrust in the mid-19th century. Like Coleridge’s Mariner, they were the first that ever burst into that silent sea. This was the world of experience emerging to Keats when he spoke of “magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in faerie lands forlorn”. It was to be a world in which the eye listens, the ear sees, and in which all the senses assist each other in concert. (Counterblast, 114)

The visual world has very peculiar properties, and the acoustic world has quite different properties. The visual world which belongs to the old nineteenth century, and which had been around for quite a while, say from the sixteenth century anyway, has the properties of being continuous and connected and homogeneous, all parts more or less alike. Things stayed put. If you had a point of view, that stayed put. The acoustic world, which is the electric world of simultaneity, has no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, and no stasis. Everything is changing. To move from one of those worlds to the other is a very big shift. It’s the same shift that Alice in Wonderland made when she went through the looking glass. She moved out of the visual world and into the acoustic world when she went through the looking glass. (Living at the Speed of Light, 1974)

It is striking that Hayakawa in ‘The Revision of Vision’ not only manifestly appeals to different notions of vision via its revisioning, but in doing so at the same time specifies vision — doubtless following Kepes here — as the required focus for the study of individual and social experience. Indeed, he seems to equate vision with experience at large:

He [Kepes] gives us the “grammar” and the “syntax” of vision: what interplays of what forces in the human nervous system and in the world outside it produce what visual tensions and resolutions of tensions; what combinations of visual elements result in what new organizations of feeling… (9)

Up to some point in the 1950’s (although he would later characterize such emphasis on vision as typical of the Gutenberg galaxy) also McLuhan tended to privilege the role of vision himself. Here he is in his programmatic essay in Explorations 1, ‘Culture Without Literacy’ (1953; all emphasis added):

  • all art and all language (!) are techniques for looking at one situation through another one
  • it is hard for us to see the printed page or any other current medium (!) except in contrast to some other form
  • the curious thing is that Spaniards like Picasso or Salvador Dali are much more at home amidst the new visual culture (!) of North America than we ourselves
  • This division between visual and literary languages (!)
  •  we are unable to read the language of technological forms
  • seeing our old literary culture in the new plastic terms in order to enable it to become a constitutive part of the new culture created by the orchestral voices (!) and gestures (!) of new media
  • seeing that modern physics and painting and poetry speak (!) a common language 
  • Perhaps we could sum up our problem by saying that technological man must betake himself to visual metaphor (!) in contriving a new unified language for the multiverse of cultures of the entire globe. 
  • The language of visual form is, therefore, one which lies to hand as an unused Esperanto (!)  at everybody’s command. The language of vision has already been adopted in the pictograms of scientific formula and logistics. These ideograms transcend national barriers as easily as Chaplin or Disney and would seem to have no rivals as the cultural base for cosmic man.

The way to a topology of human experience based on the co-variance of the senses was blocked by such decided emphasis on visual form, visual metaphor and visual language. McLuhan would have to come to an appreciation of the difference between the senses, and especially vision, used in all sorts of different particular and general ways — and the ‘senses’ used in a technical way as a ground of all human experience (aka a “cultural base for cosmic man”) via a topology of their dynamic co-variation. (It may be that McLuhan came to use the word ‘space’ to indicate this technical use of the ‘senses’. “Acoustic space”, for example, could be engendered by things seen, like a newspaper or television.)1

More, he would have to learn the particular virtues of acoustic experience both in order to valorize the ear on a par with the eye and in order to formulate a “unified field” of all experience — something that could not be achieved on the basis of any sort of perspective with its correlative absolute space and inertial system.

McLuhan himself had to learn what he described in Take Today (69):

Once science went through the vanishing point into acoustic or resonant space, both scientists and economists were left on the wrong side of the looking glass, because they were mostly unable to make what Bertrand Russell cited (on the first page of his ABC of Relativity) as the indispensable preliminary act needed for grasping Einstein: “What is demanded is a change in our imaginative picture of the world…” 



  1. The word ‘formal’ can have this same function: “Since the telegraph, then, the forms of Western culture have been strongly shaped by the sphere-like pattern that belongs to a field of awareness in which all the elements are practically simultaneous. It is this instantaneous character of the information field today, inseparable from electronic media, that confers the formal auditory character on the new culture. That is to say, for example, that the newspaper page, since the introduction of the telegraph, has had a formally auditory character and only incidentally a lineal, literary form.” (Myth and Mass Media, 1959)