Autobiography 1954: McLuhan & Williams on discovering ‘auditory space’

In ‘The End of the Work Ethic’, an address to The Empire Club of Canada, November 16, 1972, McLuhan described a moment, apparently in 19541, which he styled as “my own first discovery of acoustic space”.2 The same event was described by Carlton Williams for Who Was Marshall McLuhan (1994, p 144).

McLuhan: A group of us which included Carl Williams (now President of the University of Western Ontario), Tom Easterbrook (Political Economy, University of Toronto), and Jacqueline Tyrwhitt (Architecture and Town Planning) were discussing the newest book of Sigfried Giedion, The Beginnings of Architecture.

Williams: At one of our earlier [Culture and Communication seminar] sessions3 we were wrestling with Space, Time and Architecture, a major work by (…) Sigfried Giedion.

Williams must be correct about the Giedion book which was being discussed. The Beginnings of Architecture was not published until almost a decade later and Giedion’s underlying Mellon lectures were not given until 1957. McLuhan was doubtless thinking of Giedion’s ‘Space Conceptions in Prehistoric Art’ which appeared in Explorations 6 (1956) and may well have been discussed in this same seminar session (courtesy of Tyrwhitt) along with Space, Time and Architecture.4

McLuhan: Jacqueline Tyrwhitt (she had worked with Giedion on this study for years) was explaining how Giedion presented the fact that the Romans were the first people to enclose space. The Egyptian pyramids enclosed no space since their interior was dark, as were their temples.

Williams: I made the point that one could, and indeed had to, consider space in various ways: it was not a simple “given.” There was, he [Giedion] said, “hollowed out” space, as in a cave; “enclosed” space, as in a stadium; “infinite” space, as in the heavens.

McLuhan: At this point, Carl Williams, the psychologist, objected that, after all, the spaces inside a pyramid, even though dark, could be considered as acoustic spaces, and he then mentioned the characteristic modes of acoustic space as a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose margins are nowhere…

Williams: This put me in mind of a comment of Hermann von Helmholtz, a major figure in German psychology and physics at the turn of the century. Helmholtz used the phrase, “auditory space” to describe the notion of space experienced by a blind person, or a seeing person wearing a blindfold. Such persons are at the centre of an n-dimensional sphere, in that they may detect a sound from any angle.

McLuhan: I have never ceased to meditate on the relevance of this acoustic5 space to an understanding of the simultaneous electric world.6

Williams: The notion of auditory space struck Marshall with great force and I was thereafter bombarded with telephone calls, (usually after midnight), as he presented his latest insights sparked by this idea. This was characteristic of Marshall: that he appropriated ideas from others, developing and expanding them beyond anything contemplated by the original proposal.7

For Carpenter on the same event, see Ted Carpenter on discovering ‘auditory space’.

  1. McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 18, 1954 (Letters 245): “A group of us here have been studying the new media and have been looking into the character of Acoustic Space as reconstituted by the mechanization of sound. Acoustic Space is spherical. It is without bounds or vanishing points. It is structured by pitch separation and kinesthesia. It is not a container. It is not hollowed out. It is the space in which men live before the invention of writing — that translation of the acoustic into the visual. With writing men began to trust their eyes and to structure space visually. Pre-literate man does not trust his eyes very much. The magic is in sound for him, with its power to evoke the absent.” On the same day to Ezra Pound: “A group of us here are working on the character of acoustic space — the space of pre-literate man. Non-euclidian, non-container.” (Letters, 246)
  2. An earlier description of the same event was recounted by McLuhan in ‘Environment As Programmed Happening’ (1968): I vividly recall an occasion when I made my first encounter with acoustic space as a concept. Professor Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, now at the Harvard School of Design, was a member of our Toronto seminar on Culture and Communications. She had been explaining some of Sigfried Giedion’s recent findings in which he discriminated between enclosed and unenclosed spaces. Since that time his study of The Beginnings of Architecture has brought these matters into a luminous focus. As Professor Tyrwhitt followed his exploration of Egyptian as contrasted with Roman space, she stressed the. point that a pyramid did not enclose any space since darkness is to space what silence is to sound. In the same way, an Egyptian temple does not enclose space since it, too, is dark. Even the Greeks never achieved true closure of space. This remained for the Romans. At this point psychologist Carl Williams (now President of the University of Western Ontario) intervened, He observed that unenclosed space could best be considered as acoustic or auditory space. Williams had long been associated with E.A. Bott, who has spent his life studying auditory space. Bott’s formula for auditory space is simply that it has no centre and no margins, since we hear from all directions simultaneously. Structurally, it tends to be the space of all preliterate societies since the auditory sense has much primacy over the visual sense in preliterate cultures.”
  3. The seminar began in 1953 and ended in 1955.
  4. It was not unusual for the seminar to have access to research which would be published in Explorations at a later date.  The ‘Auditory Space’ paper attributed to Carlton Williams in Explorations 4, for example, cites an Eskimo bard declaring “Let me be known only as the man who wrote the songs of my people”.  This would appear years later in Explorations 9 (Ted Carpenter’s ‘Eskimo’).
  5. Williams: “He (McLuhan) always — and wrongly — called it ‘acoustic’ space. I say ‘wrongly’, because acoustics pertain to the physical properties of the room, auditorium or whatnot, in which human auditory capacity is called into play.”
  6. Cf, McLuhan to Tyrwhitt, Dec 23, 1960 (Letters 278): “Today with electronics we have discovered that we live in a global village and the job is to create a global city, as center for the village margins. The parameters of this task are by no means positional (= those of visual space). With electronics, any marginal area can become centre, and marginal experiences can be had at any center. (…) In a word, that which is normal and desirable in a print culture with regard to the titillation of the senses may become quite nonviable under electronic conditions, even for the welfare of the private individual. Whatever we may wish in the matter, we can no longer live in Euclidean space under electronic conditions, and this means that the divisions between inner and outer, private and communal, whatever they may have been for a literate culture, are simply not there for an electric one.”
  7. Cf, Ted Carpenter, ‘That Not So Silent Sea’: “Writers commonly speak of Marshall’s original ideas. He had none. (…) His genius lay in perceiving, not creating. He accepted the world as he found it and simply described what he saw, free of the haze he believed obstructed all others.” (Virtual Marshall McLuhan, Donald Theall, 2001, 245) Also Buckminster Fuller: “McLuhan has never made any bones about his indebtedness to me as the original source of most of his ideas. The ‘Global Village’ indeed was my concept. I don’t think he has an original idea. Not one. McLuhan says so himself. He’s really a very great enthusiast, a marvelous populariser and teacher. He has an irrepressible sense of the histrionic, like no one I’ve known other than Frank Lloyd Wright. . . . My concept of the ‘Mechanical extensions of man’ is the basis for his talk of the ‘Electrical Extensions’ of man. . . . McLuhan has always been the first to say ‘Bucky is my master. I am only his disciple.’” Letter from Fuller to E. J. Applewhite, July 10, 1973, in Synergetics Dictionary: The Mind of Buckminster Fuller, ed. E. J. Applewhite (1986), 592. Also Wilfred Watson: “invention was not his metier”, ‘Marshall McLuhan and Multi-Consciousness: The Place Marie Dialogues’, boundary 2, 3:1, 1974, 197.