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.