Ted Carpenter on discovering ‘auditory space’

Ted Carpenter’s ‘That Not So Silent Sea’ is included as an appendix to Donald Theall’s The Virtual Marshall McLuhan (2001). Somewhat differently from McLuhan and Williams (see ‘Autobiography 1954: McLuhan & Williams on discovering ‘auditory space’)1, he recalls the discovery of ‘auditory space’ in their Culture and Communication seminar as follows:

Carl Williams (…) sought to refine psychology to an objective science. It was for this reason he was invited to join the group. We felt we needed his bias to balance ours (…) to get Ford funding. [Yet it was] Carl [who] provided the first breakthrough [of the seminar sessions]. He used the phrase “auditory space” in describing an experiment by EA. Bott. (…) The phrase was electrifying. Marshall changed it to “acoustic space” and quoted Symbolist poetry. Jackie [Tyrwhitt] mentioned the Indian city of Fatehpur Sikri. Tom saw parallels in medieval Europe. I talked about Eskimos. (…)  Carl [then] sent a paper on “auditory space” to Explorations, minus all [the] seminar dialog [as just noted from McLuhan, Tyrwhitt, Easterbrook and Carpenter]. So Marshall & I put it [back] in. A mistake. Two articles, one on the mechanics of auditory space [by Williams], the other on acoustic “patterning” [by Carpenter and McLuhan] might have been more diplomatic. But we needed some input from Carl, and clearly it wouldn’t come without [our] help. (241)2

Carpenter and Williams plainly did not get along. This had some of its ground in the fact that Williams (a friend of McLuhan since high school) was close to Claude Bissell, who became Principal of Carleton College (UT) in 1956 and President of UT itself in 1958.  Williams followed Bissell as Principal at Carleton and became President of the University of Western Ontario in 1967 after serving in a series of further administrative positions at UT under Bissell.  

Now Bissell and McLuhan had come to the UT English Department together in the same year, 1946, and had established a friendship that lasted until McLuhan’s death. Williams came back to UT a few years later at which time he and McLuhan had been friends for two decades. This somewhat strange relationship with administration power in the persons of Bissell and Williams served McLuhan well over the years, but apparently irked Carpenter. In ‘That Not So Silent Sea’ he mentions a spat over allocation of some of the Culture and Communication Ford Foundation grant: “The head of Anthropology, as always, supported the administration. So did Carl.” (242)

Carpenter’s explanation of why Williams “was invited to join the [seminar] group”, namely that “we needed his bias to balance ours”, is only partly true, at best, since the number of people at UT who could have been approached to counter-balance McLuhan and Carpenter was very large. There must have been something to single Williams out from this multitude. In fact, he was a very old friend3 of McLuhan from Winnipeg and UM (along with Easterbrook).4 This personal background may have been another ground for the animosity between Carpenter and Williams — the two belonged to different, and perhaps competing, groups of McLuhan associates.

Carpenter also gives the impression that Williams was somewhat dim-witted, in need of the “help” of Carpenter and McLuhan to author a short paper. In fact, although Williams (born July 1912) was a year younger than McLuhan, he graduated from UM in Arts (English, Philosophy, Sociology, French) in 1932, a year ahead of McLuhan. He then went to Toronto for his M.A. and PhD in psychology and, before returning to UT in 1949, was head of the UM Psychology Department back in Winnipeg5. And in 1954 he was the President of the Canadian Psychology Association.

Williams was plainly a talented person, but in ways other than those prized by Carpenter. Noteworthy for McLuhan is the fact that he and Williams remained friends for half a century despite the fact that McLuhan shared Carpenter’s depreciative view of administration and management — without, however, considering it the only facet of Williams’ personality and without considering even that facet in Manichean black/white terms. 

  1. For further light on the ‘discovery of ‘acoustic space’ (as McLuhan always called it), see Eisenstein 3 (Balázs). McLuhan and Don Theall had read Balázs’ Theory of the Film which has a section on ‘The Acoustic World’. The exchanges in the seminar concerning ‘auditory space’ must have been mediated, at least for McLuhan and Theall, by Balázs’ discussion.
  2. Carpenter also discussed the same event in his interview on YouTube: “I remember there was one idea that came in. It  was introduced by a psychologist named Williams and he based it on (E.A.) Bott’s research. It was called (auditory) space and Marshall immediately renamed it acoustic space and that somehow liberated the thing and it became an amazing idea. The application in anthropology became to me of primary importance. We suddenly realized that every culture defines a sensory profile and in native cultures for example to maximize sound you will minimize sight, so the dancer is often blinded, deliberately. Or you may find that they will deliberately turn sound into a (tactile) thing so they will plug their ears when they sing. If you begin to examine cultures I think you’ll find that all peoples do this. We go into an art gallery and the sign says, do not touch; a concert goer closes his eyes (to favor hearing); in the library it says, silence; and you’ll find that this will differ markedly from culture to culture. With Jacqueline Tyrwhitt this immediately brought to mind to her a fabled city in India which was in a sense acoustic space, like a Frank Gehry building. And Tom Easterbrook got so interested in this he shifted his research to Africa and the marketplace and so forth. And for Marshall suddenly all kinds of things began to appear in terms of literature.” (‘Edmund Ted Carpenter 2011 —  On Marshall McLuhan and Explorations’, Interview on YouTube, 31:25ff).
  3. In Who was Marshall McLuhan?, Barrington Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan note that: “Carlton Williams (…) was one of Marshall’s close friends” (143). And Williams himself records: “Marshall and Tom Easterbrook were already close friends when we were all undergraduates at the University of Manitoba in the early 1930s.  I came to know both at that time and to value their friendship” (286). In fact, McLuhan and Williams  knew each other already before university since they attended Kelvin High School together (Who’s Who in Canada, Volume 77, 1985, p 962). For images of the Kelvin yearbook showing McLuhan and Williams in their respective rooms, see Richard Altman’s short film ‘Jacqueline Tyrwhitt‘ (0.29ff).
  4. Perhaps this Manitoba mafia regarded the Ford Foundation application as something of a lark? Or even the seminar itself?  See McLuhan to Lewis, March 7, 1955: ” We are spending some Ford Foundation funds by way of studying the new media of communication.” (Letters, 247)
  5. Williams’ wife was from Toronto and may have wanted to return there, perhaps to look after her widowed mother.