Georg von Békésy’s Experiments in Hearing was published in 1960 and immediately put to use by McLuhan in his own writings that year, especially in Report on Project in Understanding New Media. Two years later, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan continued to cite von Békésy extensively.
Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1960)
- Switching attention to effects away from “the sensuous facts” high-lighted (…) that the two-dimensional in visual presentation is in effect very tactile, resonant, and auditory. Three dimensional representation on the other hand remains primarily visual, pictorial, retinal, abstract and exclusive of the non-retinal. (…) In direct connection with this, it is most illuminating, at the very beginning of Georg von Békésy’ s Experiments in Hearing (McGraw-Hill, 1960), to find him contrasting two-dimensional and three-dimensional paintings. His purpose is to explain how in the study of hearing, “mosaic” methods of research are more effective than “perspective” methods. Acoustical research is necessarily “depth” study since hearing is from all directions at once. Two-dimensional mosaic structures with their multi-levelled effects are therefore of great relevance to auditory research. There can be no fixed point of view with perspective and vanishing point, in such study. But Békésy is naturally apologetic in abandoning the conventional “perspective” patterns of research (such as are still used in audio-visual media study): “It is possible to distinguish two forms of approach to a problem. One, which may be called the theoretical approach, is to formulate the problem in relation to what is already known, to make additions or extensions on the basis of accepted principles, and then to proceed to test these hypotheses experimentally. Another, which may be called the mosaic approach, takes each problem for itself with little reference to the field in which it lies, and seeks to discover relations and principles that hold within the circumscribed area.”1 Békésy then proceeds to introduce his two paintings: “A close analogy to these two approaches may be found in the field of art. In the period between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries the Arabs and the Persians developed a high mastery of the arts of description and portrayal and they used the mosaic style (…) Later, during the Renaissance, a new form of representation was developed in which the attempt was made to give unity and perspective to the picture and to represent the atmosphere (…) When in the field of science a great deal of progress has been made and most of the pertinent variables are known, a new problem may most readily be handled by trying to fit it into the existing framework [or perspective]. When, however, the framework is uncertain and the number of variables is large the mosaic approach is much the easier.”
- Just as Békésy found perspective irrelevant to acoustical research, so today by virtue of electric information movement all of us live globally in a kind of tribal drum of simultaneous resonance. When information moves to and from all directions and locations at the same moment, we return to a mode of experience that is structured as an auditory field of simultaneous relations. Even our visual experience is now a mosaic of items assembled from every part of the globe, moment by moment. Lineal perspective and pictorial organization cannot cope with this situation.
- in concluding this general introduction I want to revert to Georg von Békésy’s discovery that you can’t investigate auditory problems by conventional scientific methods of perspective. The auditory must be handled on its own terms, and these call for a mosaic approach, not a three-dimensional perspective approach. The auditory forbids perspective if only because it is inaccessible to any fixed position.
- Edison once laid down a general rule for aspiring inventors: “When you are experimenting and you come across anything you don’t understand, don’t rest until you run it down; it may be the very thing you are looking for or it may be something far more important.” The technique of research that Edison here points to is the “mosaic” one described by Georg von Békésy at the opening of his Experiments in Hearing. “The very thing you are looking for” is the natural way of referring to our standard method in research in which we try to get everything into a single consistent picture or perspective. The exploratory “mosaic” pattern of research is the one referred to by Edison when he says: “or it may be something far more important.”
Effects of the Improvements of Communication (1960)
- Perspective, with arbitrarily fixed point of view and its vanishing point, is natural to the reader of uniform lines of repeatable type. It is not natural at all in our nuclear age when information does not move exclusively in such patterns any more. And Georg von Békésy, in his Experiments in Hearing finds it necessary to criticize the perspective techniques in scientific research, as compared with the mosaic techniques needed in field theory and non-visualizable problems.
McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff Dec 19, 1960
- it is equally observable in preliterate societies, as in our own post-literate global village, that we begin to note a heightening of auditory values after centuries of neglect through [visual]2 stress. (Georg von Békésy in the Psychological Review for January 1959 has an article on ‘The Similarities between Hearing and Skin Sensations‘.) But in preliterate societies where the auditory is supreme as the mode of organizing experience, there is a deprivation of value in the other senses equivalent to the worst excesses of abstract visuality and pictorial space.
The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)
- A recent work by Georg von Békésy, Experiments in Hearing, offers an exactly reverse answer to the problem of space to the one which Carothers and Wilson have just given us. Whereas they are trying to talk about the perception of non-literate people in terms of literate experience, Professor von Békésy chooses to begin his discussion of acoustical space on its own terms. As one proficient in auditory spaces, he is keenly aware of the difficulty of talking about the space of hearing, for the acoustical is necessarily a world in “depth.” It is of the utmost interest that in trying to elucidate the nature of hearing and of acoustic space, Professor von Békésy should deliberately avoid viewpoint and perspective in favour of mosaic field. And to this end he resorts to two-dimensional painting as a means of revealing the resonant depth of acoustic space. Here are his own words: “It is possible to distinguish two forms of approach to a problem. One, which may be called the theoretical approach, is to formulate the problem in relation to what is already known, to make additions or extensions on the basis of accepted principles, and then to proceed to test these hypotheses experimentally. Another, which may be called the mosaic approach, takes each problem for itself with little reference to the field in which it lies, and seeks to discover relations and principles that hold within the circumscribed area.” Von Békésy then proceeds to introduce his two paintings: “A close analogy to these two approaches may be found in the field of art. In the period between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries the Arabs and the Persians developed a high mastery of the arts of description (…) Later, during the Renaissance, a new form of representation was developed in which the attempt was made to give unity and perspective to the picture and to represent the atmosphere (…) When in the field of science a great deal of progress has been made and most of the pertinent variables are known, a new problem may most readily be handled by trying to fit it into the existing framework. When, however, the framework is uncertain and the number of variables is large the mosaic approach is much the easier.” The mosaic approach is not only “much the easier” in the study of the simultaneous which is the auditory field; it is the only relevant approach. For the “two-dimensional” mosaic or painting is the mode in which there is muting of the visual as such, in order that there may be maximal interplay among all of the senses. Such was the painterly strategy “since Cezanne,” to paint as if you held, rather than as if you saw, objects. (GG 41-42)
- The paradox presented by Professor von Békésy is that the two-dimensional mosaic is, in fact, a multidimensional world of interstructural resonance. It is the three-dimensional world of pictorial space that is, indeed, an abstract illusion built on the intense separation of the visual from the other senses. (GG 43)
- the suppression of the visual sense in favour of the audile-tactile complex, produces the distortions of tribal society, and of the configuration of jazz and primitive art imitations which broke upon us with radio, but not just “because” of radio. [McLuhan’s footnote: “Georg von Békésy’s article on “Similarities between Hearing and Skin Sensations”, (Psychological Review, Jan., 1959, pp. 1-22) provides a means of understanding why no sense can function in isolation nor can be unmodified by the operation and diet of the other senses.] (GG 53)
- Coexistence and interplay among the figures in the flat field create a multilevelled and multi-sensuous awareness. This mode of approach tends to partake of the character of auditory, inclusive, and unenclosed space, as Georg von Békésy has shown in his Experiments in Hearing. (GG 63)
Cybernetics and Human Culture (1964)
- Sculpture itself, which today is manifesting such vigor and development, is a kind of spatial organization that deserves close attention. Sculpture does not enclose space. Neither is it contained in any space. Rather, it models or shapes space. It resonates. In his Experiments in Hearing, Georg von Békésy found it expedient to explain the nature of sound and of auditory space by appealing to the example of Persian wall painting. The world of the flat iconic image, he points out, is a much better guide to the world of sound than three-dimensional and pictorial art. The ﬂat iconic forms of art have much in common with acoustic or resonating space. Pictorial three-dimensional art has little in common with acoustic space because it selects a single moment in the life of a form, whereas the ﬂat iconic image gives an integral bounding line or contour that represents not one moment or one aspect of a form, but offers instead an inclusive integral pattern. This is a mysterious matter to highly visual and literate people who associate visual organization of experience with the real world and who say, “Seeing is believing.” Yet this strange gap between the specialist, visual world and the integral, auditory world needs to be understood today above all, for it contains the key to an understanding of what automation and cybernetics imply.