Monthly Archives: December 2022

3 types of space

Toward a Spatial Dialogue (Through the Vanishing Point)1

  • To talk about my work without showing the centrality of (…) the totally diverse character of visual, audile, and tactile spaces is to have no apprehension of my observations about the media.2 (McLuhan to Bill Kuhns, December 6, 1971, Letters p448)
  • Thought, thing and language are aspects of one reality. (Classical Trivium, 1943, p53)3

All experience is4 some ratio of visual-audile space where the hyphen or frontier or resonant interval is tactility:

  • The world of touch, whether passive or active, creates a relation not of connectedness but of interval. (Through the Vanishing Point p221)
  • The resonant interval may be considered an invisible borderline between visual and acoustic space. (Global Village p4)
  • Touch [tactility] is the “resonant interval” or frontier of change and process, and is indispensable for the study of technological effects. (Global Village p13)

The play of this three-fold un-folds as follows:

  • The tetrad, as a right-hemisphere visualization, helps us to see both figure and ground at a time when the latent effects of the mechanical age tend to obscure the ground subliminally. Its chief utility is that it raises the hidden ground to visibility, enabling the analyst to perceive the double action of the visual (left hemisphere) and the acoustic (right hemisphere) in the life of the artifact or idea.5 (Global Village p9)
  • The tetrad illumines the borderline between acoustic and visual space as an arena of spiraling repetition and replay, both of input and feedback, interlace and interface in the area of an imploded circle of rebirth and metamorphosis. (Global Village p9)
  • Acoustic and visual space structures may be seen as incommensurable, like history and eternity, yet, at the same time, as complementary (Global Village p45)
  • In our desire to illumine the differences between visual and acoustic space, we have undoubtedly given a false impression: and that is that the normal brain, in its everyday functioning, cannot reconcile the apparently contradictory perceptions of both sides of the mind. (Global Village p48)
  • There are a variety of factors which can give salience or mastery either to the right (simultaneous and acoustic) hemisphere of the brain, or to the left (lineal and visual) hemisphere. [But] no matter how extreme the dominance of either hemisphere in a particular culture, there is always some degree of interplay between the hemispheres. (Global Village p62)

It might therefore seem that “the totally diverse character of visual, audile, and tactile spaces” could be characterized as follows: (1) Visual space is space where the visual has salience, mastery or dominance over the audile in their “interplay”; (2) Audile space is space where the audile has salience, mastery or dominance over the visual in their “interplay”; (3) Tactile space is the space of the in-between “interplay” — the resonant interval, the invisible borderline, the hidden ground of interlace and interface, of relationship, reconciliation and complementarity

In this case, “the totally diverse character” would chiefly be between visual and audile spaces as figures, on the one hand, and tactile space as ground on the other. Since “no matter how extreme the dominance of either hemisphere in a particular culture, there is always some degree of interplay between the hemispheres”, it would be the particular “degree of interplay” that would structure each and every momentary6 variety of human experience as some form along the spectrum of visual-audile ratios.

  • Interface is the basis of the relationship between visual and acoustic space.” (Global Village p13) 
  • “It is the gap itself that has become the bond of being.” (Cliché to Archetype p113) 
  • The medium is the message.” (McLuhan from 1958 onwards)

But with “tactile space” McLuhan had something else of fundamental importance in mind as well. Consider a spectrum stretching between the overwhelming dominance of the visual over the audile at one end of its range and the overwhelming dominance of the audile over the visual at the other end. Between the two extremes, dominance would gradually diminish along the spectrum getting less and less until switching over at the midpoint to the dominance of the other (which would then gradually increase again). At the precise midpoint of the spectrum, the visual and the audile would be poised in balance, with neither one having dominance over the other. Here the relationship of complementarity would have dominance, not the visual or the audile.7 This midpoint could therefore be called “tactile space” since it would be the dominance neither of visual nor of audile space, but of their mutual “interface” in discontinuous8, indeed “incommensurable”, “interlace”.

McLuhan’s “new science” is situated in the “tactile space” of this midpoint. Since every other point on the spectrum represents a particular dominance either of the visual (on one side) or of the audile (on the other), no one of these lateral points is able to assess the virtues of other points along the spectrum. Its established bias prevents a ‘balanced’ assessment of their established biases.9 McLuhan’s determination to proceed like Nietzsche ‘beyond good and evil’ is based on this determination.10 Just as chemistry cannot favor any element or any material over any other, so the analysis and investigation of experience must work on the basis of the entire field.

The claim is not that tactile space has no bias. Rather, it indeed has bias, but it is an enabling bias11 — it is a bias on the basis of which collective investigation of the worlds of experience (the worlds of a myriad biases) may at last be initiated.

The bias of our culture is precisely to isolate the bias of all others in an effort at orchestration. (1969 Counterblast p64)

And it is “the medium [that] is the message”, aka the “interface [that] is the basis”, aka “the gap itself that [is] the bond of being”, aka “tactile space”, that, according to McLuhan, provides the focus needed to spark this inaugurating event.

every medium of communication is a unique art form which gives salience to one set of human [visual-audile] possibilities [as determined by the tactile interface of their hyphen] at the expense of another set. Each medium of expression profoundly modifies human sensibility in mainly unconscious and unpredictable ways. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press)12

The moment man accepts himself as an object, he is free to encounter a multiplicity of (…) spaces (…) created by himself and his technologies. It is the environments and unique spaces created by man’s own technologies that have [to]13 become especially the concern of the present age of ecology. (Innovation is Obsolete 1971) 


  1. Section head on p33.
  2. All bullet points in this post are citations from McLuhan.
  3. If “thought” may be taken as visual space, and “thing” as audile space, then “language” may usefully be taken as tactile space, the connection of the discontinuous (dual genitive).
  4. There are great complications to the word ‘is’ here. What McLuhan means by ‘space’ is a multilevel dynamic event with both an underlying synchronic structure and the correlated manifestation of that structure in the diachronic phenomenal world. (See the quote from ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ at the end of this post.) It is like ‘silver’ which is both an elementary structure that is part of Mendeleev’s table and material we can perceive and manipulate. Similarly, in McLuhan’s view, experience is a phenomenal manifestation of underlying structure which can be, and is, manipulated by the press, advertising, entertainment and, in fact, all media (taken in its phenomenal sense). The word ‘is’ names the underlying structure and its manifested expression and the dynamic impulse of the one to the other. The ongoing revolution of the electric age, according to McLuhan, particularly concerns our use and understanding of this ‘is’.
  5. The tetrad crosses “the visual (left hemisphere)” with “the acoustic (right hemisphere)” to produce “a right-hemisphere visualization”. It is therefore an archetypal example of the hendiadys, the one-through-two, which McLuhan describes in From Cliché to Archetype as follows: “The artist cannot dispense with the principle of doubleness and interplay since this kind of hendiadys-dialogue is essential to the very structure of consciousness, awareness, and autonomy.” (p99)
  6. For McLuhan all experience is grammatical in the same way as language is. Not only is there a comparable underlying structure, but this structure is subject to moment by moment manipulation by subjects who are usually entirely unconscious of their constitutive actions — of their work with an underlying ‘grammar’.
  7. I.A. Richards In his 1968 book, So Much Nearer, concerning the “Principle of Complementarity”: “This immensely important topic — publicized recently by Marshall McLuhan”.
  8. Since “no matter how extreme the dominance of either hemisphere (…) there is always some degree of interplay between the hemispheres”, there is never a point — and especially not at the point of their balanced complementarity — where they collapse into a merged One.
  9. The birth of chemistry from alchemy might be described in these terms. A great many elements were well known to the alchemists (and blacksmiths, tanners, medical doctors, etc) of the pre-chemical world: copper, tin, iron, sulphur, mercury, lead, etc. But they were not known as elements. Chemistry was the introduction of the collectively identifiable distinction between the elementary and phenomenal manifestation and hence of the field characterized by this distinction. This might be imagined as the withdrawal of special status from any particular material or materials and to accord it instead to their common structure. It is just McLuhan’s suggestion that our different perspectival stances analogously be analyzed (broken up) into their elements and their manifestations — and that “the medium is the message” as “tactile space” provides the key to this achievement.
  10. Understanding Media, 245: “A moral point of view too often serves as a substitute for understanding in technological matters.”
  11. ‘Enabling bias’ as “making” is a key aspect to McLuhan’s work. Humans are finite creatures whose insight never achieves a “matching” with the objects of their concern. All things are and will always remain — gapped. But as seen especially in the physical sciences, irremedial finitude does not bar access to truth. This is the great mystery to whose truth finite humans are especially called to witness via contemplation and investigation.
  12. This essay was submitted to The Sewanee Review in 1951 through Cleanth Brooks. But it was published in the Review, lightly revised, only in 1954. Thanks to Mandi Johnson, Director of the University Archives and Special Collections at The University of the South (which publishes The Sewanee Review) for her expert help in this matter!
  13. McLuhan simply has ‘have become’ here, not ‘have to become’. He was thinking chiefly the concern in anthropology to understand cultures from the inside. At the same time, however, he was acutely aware that the methods and understandings of the social sciences remained chaotically unfocused. That concern with the inside of culture had been initiated was very important, even a condition for further advance . But such concern could not genuinely advance without collective in-sight into the elements and phenomenal manifestations of that ‘inside’ — nor without the ongoing investigation that would result from that insight.

Genitives, times and essential types

[The imperative need today is] to understand the techniques and functions of the traditional arts as the essential type of all human communication. (McLuhan to Innis, 1951)

Joyce (…) saw that the change of our time (…) was occurring as a result of the shift from superimposed myth1 to awareness of the character of the creative process itself. (…) The very process of human communication, Joyce saw, would afford the natural base2 for all the future operations and strategies of culture. (Notes on the Media as Art Forms 1954)

Mallarmé (…) saw, like Joyce, that the basic forms of communication — whether speech, writing, print, press, telegraph, or photography — necessarily were fashioned in close accord with man’s cognitive activity.(Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

the central fact [of the identity] of human cognition and the artistic process (…) [is] the key to the modern world. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)


the Symbolists [took] aesthetic experience as an arrested moment (…) for which (…) they sought the art formula by retracing the stages of apprehension which led to this moment. (Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, 1951)

Compare from ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (1954):

The poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of [ordinary]3 human cognition. It has and will always be so; but with Edgar Poe and the symbolists this central human fact was taken up to the level of conscious awareness. It then became the basis of modern science and technology. That is what Whitehead meant when he said that the great event of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery.

 Hence (in the same place): 

The rational notes (…) traced by St. Thomas were actual stages of apprehension in every moment of human awareness.

It is imperative to pay close attention to the action of genitives in McLuhan’s work, especially in regard to their relations with time. “The stages of apprehension” in the above passage from ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’ is a subjective genitive, not an objective one. That is, the “stages” belong to “apprehension” as their possessing subject (like ‘the ball of the boy’); they are not the reverse where “apprehension” would be the genitive object of the “stages” (like ‘the manufacture of the car’).

“Apprehension” is inclusive of its temporal stages and has actively organized them, it is not organized by them passively in an external or exclusive manner.

The claim is that “apprehension” is not fabricated through some assembly line process (as if it were the object resulting from compositional “stages”), although this linear notion has been assumed by most philosophy and psychology since Descartes. The supposition has been that experience ‘begins’ with some or other sensory input (external or internal) and then is individually and culturally shaped in a kind of customizing process through the application of categories or filters. This is so with Kant as much as with Freud. Instead, says McLuhan, while experience is indeed generated through a temporal process, the time of its genesis is not “sequential” or diachronic, but “simultaneous” or synchronic:

Time considered as sequential (…) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (…) is ground. (The Global Village)4

Hence, as cited above from ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, he could refer to:

stages of apprehension in every moment of human awareness.

The whole “apprehension” with its “stages” is already composed, and is already available, but must be selected (so to say) from the panoply of other whole apprehensions which are equally already composed and already available. To compare: when we speak, our words are not fabricated in “stages” of one sound or one syllable added to another in a chronological process, but are available as already composed in their complex “stages” — along with all sorts of alternate words and expressions with their complex “stages”. Below and before the chronological sequence of our spoken words, there is a synchronic constitution of grammar and a selective operation on it that recognizably expresses both individual personality and social membership (age-group, education, class, region, nationality, etc), in addition (it may be) to some or other semantic intention. 

For McLuhan it was just this language process in simultaneous depth which is the elementary form, or “essential type”, constituting the unperceived environment to all human action.5

In regard to our own experience and behavior, individual and social, we remain in the same situation as was the world between whenever it was that human being6 originated and 1800 (say), when it began to dawn on us that we live in a physical environment constituted by chemical elements. This was an environment that had always and everywhere been active, and that always and everywhere will remain active, but had never before been perceived. It was a total environment of the farthest reaches of the universe, and of the nearest reaches of our own bodies, that had never before been known to exist. The revolutionary changes to the planet in the last 200 years have resulted from this new consciousness of our perennial physical environment, the ‘exterior landscape’.

It was McLuhan’s hope and prediction that an analogous new consciousness of our perennial ‘interior landscape’ could lead to changes of a similar scope.7 And it was here alone, he thought, that the way to peace might be found for a world currently shaped by an unknown and out of control interior environment8 (perilously combined with an exterior environment that had become capable of nuclear war). 

the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) (…) have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language9 (McLuhan to Harold Innis, 1951)

[The imperative need today is] to understand the techniques and functions of the traditional arts as the essential type of all human communication. (ibid)

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences (…) Retracing becomes (…) the technique of reconstruction.10 (…) From the point of view of the artist (…) the business of art is no longer the communication of thoughts or feelings which are to be conceptually ordered, but [to facilitate] a direct participation in an experience. The whole tendency of modern communication whether in the press, in advertising, or in the high arts is toward participation in a process, rather than apprehension of concepts. And this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt. (ibid)

It is popular (…) to attack advertising. But is is unheard of to take it seriously as a form of art. Personally I see it as a form of art. And like symbolist art it is created to produce an effect rather than to argue or discuss the merits of a product. Baron Wrangel, the man in the Hathaway shirt [advertisement] — white shirt and black eye-patch: what did it mean? Out of the millions who bought Hathaway shirts, how many could say what the ad meant? It was a piece of magic: irrational, meaningless. But it had a definite effect. The advertiser proclaims to his clients that his pictorial and verbal magic is linked to the assembly line. No pictorial magic, no mass production. The primitive witch-doctor had spells which controlled the elements. The modern advertiser concocts spells which compel the customer. What the advertisers have discovered is simply that the new media of communication are themselves magical art forms. All art is in a sense magical in that it produces a change or metamorphosis in the spectator. It refashions his experience. In our slap-happy way we have released a great deal of this magic on ourselves today. We have been changing ourselves about at a great rate like Alley Oop. Some of us have been left hanging by our ears from the chandeliers. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)


  1. Nineteenth century figures like Feuerbach,  Stirner and Nietzsche had already seen western culture as “superimposed myth”. This type of analysis was then applied to other cultures by anthropologists and to individual personality by psychoanalysts.
  2. At this same time in the early 1950’s McLuhan was declaring that “technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense” (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’, Explorations 2, 1954). “The natural base” was not be to be found in “nature in the old sense”, therefore, but in a relativized nature, what McLuhan called “second nature” (Laws of Media, 116ff). This was a ‘nature’ beyond “superimposed myth”.
  3. The word ‘ordinary has been added here. But throughout ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ McLuhan uses phrases like this with ‘ordinary’ included in them. For example: “The most poetic thing in the world is the most ordinary human consciousness”. Again: “In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world”. And again: “in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world”. And again: “this sublime process is that of ordinary apprehension”. And finally: “the drama of ordinary perception (…) is the prime analogatethe magic casement opening on the secrets of created being.
  4. Page 10.
  5. Like Eliot’s Sweeney, McLuhan had to use words to talk to us. In reading his work it is imperative to differentiate between expressions used in an attempt to communicate (like ‘media’ as books, newspapers, radio, television, etc) and words used in a technical sense (like ‘media’ as the elementary structures of the human environment). This is to understand media, as McLuhan wrote to Innis (and is cited more fully above), “as the essential type of all human communication“. There is an fundamental reversal here. Not an understanding of books (say) leading to an understanding of media, but an understanding of media leading to an understanding of books — and of all other communication technologies.
  6. Throughout this post and blog, ‘human being’ is used as a verbal expression, not a substantive or nominal one: ‘human being’ as ‘human action’, ‘human perception’, ‘human experience’, etc.
  7. In the long ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ passage cited above, McLuhan observes that “the primitive witch-doctor had spells which controlled the elements (while) the modern advertiser concocts spells which compel the customer.” Through the birth of chemistry and its associated sciences, we have learned to ‘control the (physical) elements’ in a fundamentally different way. Through a ‘new science’ of human bias, says McLuhan, we can learn to control the “spells which compel the customer” in a comparably revolutionary way.
  8. The ‘interior environment’ is not inside our skulls. It is the exterior physical environment plus the interior psychological one.
  9. For McLuhan ‘language’ was not one of the array of human tools used for communication, but the underlying ‘type’ of all communication, indeed of all human being. (For ‘type’ see McLuhan’s 1951 letter to Harold Innis cited at the start of this post; for human being, see note #4 above.)
  10. What McLuhan termed ‘reconstruction’ is close to what Heidegger termed ‘deconstruction’.

What was McLuhan up to?

Satellites automatically enclose the old Darwinian “Nature” environment by putting the planet inside a man-made environment.1 

This sentence is from Dew-Line 1.5 (November 1968) but it could be from any number of McLuhan’s books and essays in the last two decades of his life after 1960. Here he is, for example, in 1971:

The latest technology in our world is the satellite. The satellite is the first man-made environment to encompass the planet. The earth has become the content of a human artifact. The satellite surround is the new artistic mask worn by the earth itself. It is a kind of proscenium arch, turning the globe into a theater. With Sputnik, Earth became (…) echo-land… (Innovation is Obsolete)

Are these reports of an historical event and its effects ? Namely, the launching of satellites which began in 1957 and the effects this has had in creating a new “man-made environment” across many fields from warfare to weather forecasting to resource mapping? In this case (1) McLuhan would have been doing a history of modern technology and its effects with an emphasis on new media.

Or (2) are these passages a figurative description of a ‘new science’ of human experience in which all of its data would be “man-made” in the sense of being an “artefact” of some or other subjective perspective or bias? A science, that is, where every object would be correlated with a subjective ‘take’ somewhat as a bat navigates by sonar signals which it sends and receives in a back and forth “echo-land” environment? “Blip calling unto blip” as McLuhan wrote in his 1957 review of Northrop Frye.

The satellite is also the shift from the planet as a homogeneous continuum or visual space, to the planet as a “chemical bond” or mosaic of resonating components. (Dew-Line 1.5)

In this case McLuhan would have been characterizing the domain of a potential new type of scientific investigation.2 Not ‘old science’ which takes its objects as much as possible exclusive of subjective bias, but ‘new science’ which would take its objects always inclusive of a correlated bias.3 Hence McLuhan’s observation that his work was a footnote to that of Harold Innis:

Innis taught us how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research. By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures.4

But already in 1944, years before he met Innis,5 McLuhan could speak in relation to Hopkins of our need to “keep ever sharply focused the stereoscopic gaze at the work itself”.6

Or (3) are these texts a description of how such a science might first come into view as a possibility? Just as satellites provided new imagery of the globe and thereby revealed the possibility and the need for environmental action, so could this same imagery suggest the idea that all of nature — all possible experience of nature — might be investigated in a new science or sciences:

The (…) archetypal-isation of Nature ensures that the Earth is now (…) a sort of archaeological museum affording immediate access to all past cultures simultaneously on a classified-information basis. (Dew-Line 1:5)

The first snippet given above is from this same Dew-Line issue. In it McLuhan brought together the new satellite environment with the possibility of ‘new science’ as follows:

The inability to perceive the “Emperor’s New Clothes” technological environments (…) needs no more illustration than Sputnik.
From the first moment of the satellite, the earth ceased to be the human “environment”.
Satellites automatically enclose the old Darwinian “Nature” environment by putting the planet inside a man-made environment. They are just as much an extension of the planet as is clothing an extension of the skin.
Satellites are equivalent to enclosing the Earth in a Bucky Fuller “dome” of acoustic space.
The consequent process of archetypal-isation of Nature ensure that the Earth is now an old “booster-stage”. . . a quaint form of Camp. . . a sort of archaeological museum affording immediate access to all past cultures simultaneously on a classified-information basis.

In this case McLuhan would have been crafting a real-time history of science, in which the birth of a ‘new science’ of human culture would be traced and thereby announced.   

Or (4) was McLuhan actually doing ‘new science’? That is, was McLuhan talking about the possibility of investigating human culture as “programming” — or was he attempting to perform cultural programming, as far as he was able as an isolated individual, back to us from the actualization of that possibility? Was he fulfilling Hegel’s acute observation that the only convincing proof of the possibility of a science would be its actuality?

Or (5), by continually jumping between all these different aims, was McLuhan attempting to provoke that “quantum leap” which is required to obviate our “inability to perceive” and thereby to come to see the “Emperor’s New Clothes” of new science?

My canvases are surrealist, and to call them ‘theories’ is to miss my satirical intent  altogether. As you will find in my literary essays, I can write the ordinary kind of rationalistic prose any time I choose to do so.7

Was he jumping between different audiences — in the academy, government, commerce and entertainment — in such different modes — from scientific to analytic to comedic — as a strategy of communication?8 

Or was he always doing all of these different things (and perhaps others as well) together and at once?

  1. McLuhan saw this development prior to the first satellites: “power technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art“. (‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’, Explorations 2, 1954)
  2. In this same Dew-Line 1.5, McLuhan described the appearance of the domain investigated by new science: “A TOTAL FIELD (…) OF MULTIPLE CONGLOMERATES AND INTERVALS WHOSE INTERFACES CREATE A VAST FERMENT OF RAPIDLY CHANGING PATTERNS.” Like old science in this respect, new science would not engage with pure elements at the level of the phenomenal world. Here it would instead find “conglomerates” of various sorts. But, again as was the case with old science, the prerequisite of such study would be the dis-covery of the underlying elements composing those “conglomerates”: media.
  3. Western Old Science approaches the study of media in terms of linear, sequential transportation of data as detached figures (content); the New Science approach is via the ground of users and of environmental media effects.” (Laws of Media, posthumous, 85, the bracketed insertion of ‘(content)’ is original.) The word ‘inclusive’ is one of the most important in McLuhan’s vocabulary — it designates the need to take subject and object together, as well as the related need to take all the varieties of human experience together.
  4. ‘Media and Cultural Change’, McLuhan’s introduction to the reprinting of Innis’ The Bias of Communication in 1964.
  5. See Innis and McLuhan in 1936 for the question of when McLuhan first read Innis.
  6. ‘The Analogical Mirrors’, Kenyon Review, 6:3, 1944.
  7. McLuhan to Bill Kuhns, December 6, 1971, Letters 448.
  8. McLuhan must be understood in the context of the fact that western civilization knows ever less about fundamental matters. Plato knew far more about the human situation than we do, although we have the means to destroy ourselves, and all life along with us, and the classical Greeks did not. Our problem is, then, not to learn more. It is to learn what has long been available to us — to achieve communication at last, with what is already there. As McLuhan said of the man who in his view provided “the only method of escape”: “Vico aimed to heal the rift (…) between the Ancients and the Moderns.” (See McLuhan on Vico.)