McLuhan was greatly inspired by von Bekesy’s distinction between visual and acoustic space, but he developed these terms into epistemological categories. For McLuhan, visual space not only reinforces Renaissance perspective, but it also represents a form of linear and logical thinking, which is indelibly linked to the rise of literacy and print technology:
[V]isual space structure is an artifact of Western civilization created by Greek phonetic literacy. It is a space perceived by the eyes when separated or abstracted from all other senses. As a construct of the mind, it is continuous, which is to say that it is infinite, divisible, extensible, and featureless [...] It is also connected (abstract figures with fixed boundaries, linked logically and sequentially but having no visible grounds), homogeneous (uniform everywhere), and static (qualitatively unchangeable). It is like the “mind’s eye” or visual imagination which dominates the thinking of literate Western people. (McLuhan 2004: 71)
Visual space reflects the principles of logic, in other words, because it is sequential, homogeneous, and static. McLuhan describes acoustic space, on the other hand, as “the natural space of nature-in-the-raw inhabited by non-literate people. It is like the ‘mind’s ear’ or acoustic imagination that dominates the thinking of pre-literate and post-literate humans alike […] It is both discontinuous and non-homogeneous. Its resonant and interpenetrating processes are simultaneously related with centers everywhere and boundaries nowhere” (McLuhan 2004: 71). Acoustic space thus reflects a different epistemological orientation, which is fundamentally discontinuous, non-homogeneous, fluid, and decentered.
McLuhan also illustrated the differences between visual and acoustic space using a visual analogy borrowed from von Bekesy:
The world of the flat iconic image, [von Bekesy] 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. (McLuhan 1966: 97)
In other words, unlike “pictorial” or “three-dimensional” art, which represents visual space, the flat or “two-dimensional” iconic image represents acoustic space because it has no fixed boundaries and no center, it defies the laws of perspective, and it is constantly changing:
[Acoustic space is] a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing […] [I]t is indifferent to background. The eye focuses, pinpoints, abstracts, locating each object in physical space, against a background; the ear, however, favors sound from any direction. We hear equally well from right or left, front or back, above or below. If we lie down, it makes no difference, whereas in visual space the entire spectacle is altered. We can shut out the visual field by simply closing our eyes, but we are always triggered to respond to sound […] There is nothing in auditory space corresponding to the vanishing point in visual perspective. (Carpenter and McLuhan 1960: 67-68)
While “‘rational’ or pictorial space is uniform, sequential and continuous and creates a closed world,” acoustic space has “no center and no margin” (McLuhan 1969: 59). Rather than conveying meaning through linearity and coherence, therefore, acoustic space conveys meaning through discontinuity and resonance: “[T]he two-dimensional mosaic is, in fact, a multi-dimensional 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” (McLuhan 1962: 43). The term “resonance” is particularly crucial to McLuhan’s understanding of acoustic space, as Richard Cavell emphasizes: “‘Resonance’ conceptualizes the break in the uniformity and continuity of space as visualized; it is a sign, in other words, of the discontinuity of acoustic space, of the fact that it produces meaning through gaps” (Cavell 2002: 23). Unlike pictorial space, which conveys a coherent meaning by privileging vision over the other senses, acoustic space thus represents the confluence of multiple streams of sensory information whose meaning is derived precisely from its discontinuities and ruptures.
According to McLuhan, the history of optical media represents a direct continuation of three-dimensional pictorial art: “Photography gave separate and, as it were, abstract intensity to the visual [...] Movies and photo-engraving created a further revolution in Western sensibilities, tending to high stress on pictorial quality in all aspects of human association” (McLuhan 2005: 44). Photography and film thus represent a continuation and reinforcement of Renaissance perspective. This history was interrupted, however, with the invention of television: “[T]here has been no respite from this growing pictorial stress till the advent of television” (McLuhan 2005: 44). Unlike film, which represents a visual space that resembles three-dimensional pictorial art, television thus represents an acoustic space that more closely resembles flat, two-dimensional iconic images. Drawing on von Bekesy’s visual analogy, McLuhan even refers to television as a “mosaic mesh”: “It is a two-dimensional mosaic mesh, a simultaneous field of luminous vibration that ends the older dichotomy of sight and sound” (McLuhan 2005: 45).
McLuhan describes television as an acoustic space because it does not provide any sense of direction or perspective, and therefore it does not follow the principle of sequence or seriality. Instead, it is based on the principle of simultaneity: “Television...deal[s] with auditory space, by which I mean that sphere of simultaneous relations created by the act of hearing. We hear from all directions at once; this creates a unique unvisualizable space. The all-at-onceness of auditory space is the exact opposite of lineality, of taking one thing at a time” (McLuhan 1963: 43). McLuhan also describes auditory space as the juxtaposition – not the integration or synthesis – of disparate elements:
[A]ny pattern in which the components co-exist without direct lineal hook-up or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations, is auditory, even though some of its aspects can be seen [...] The items of news and advertising that exist under a newspaper dateline are interrelated only by that dateline. They have no interconnection of logic or statement. Yet they form a mosaic […] whose parts are interpenetrating … It is a kind of orchestral, resonating unity, not the unity of logical discourse. (McLuhan 1963: 43)
McLuhan’s description of the “orchestral, resonating unity” of the newspaper clearly echoes his earlier description of the “jazzy, ragtime discontinuity” of the front page of The New York Times, which he compares to the “visual technique of a Picasso” and the “literary technique of James Joyce” (McLuhan 1951: 3).