Erik Davis on Acoustic Cyberspace


Davis erik 2008 rauner michael.jpg Erik Davis

A talk delivered at the Xchange conference, Riga, Latvia, November 1997

Today I’d like to talk about some abstract ideas, some images, some open-ended notions about acoustic space. In particular, I am interested in the relationship between electronic sound and environments, on the Internet or in music. I won’t talk about the various technologies involved; instead, I’ll try to get at some of the deeper issues about sound and the ways it constructs subjectivities and can act as a kind of map.

A good place to start is with a distinction that Marshall McLuhan draws between visual space and acoustic space. McLuhan used the notion of visual space as a way to describe how Western subjectivity has been organized on a technical basis since the Renaissance. McLuhan argued that Renaissance perspective not only provided a powerful new way of organizing the visual field (in terms of representation), but also engendered a very specific form of subjectivity. He didn’t just associate this subjectivity with the point-of-view produced by Renaissance perspective painting—he related to it also to print technologies and to the new form of the book. In essence, he argued that the self that comes down to us from the Renaissance—the “molar” self of the modern West, as some have called it—is a visual self.

Renaissance perspective thus serves as a pictorial analogy for a much more general phenomenon—the power to create a distinct, single point of view that organizes thought and perception along linear lines. This is related to print technologies—and print culture—because, according to McLuhan, these technologies inculcate within us a habit of organizing the world in a linear, atomized, and sequential fashion. Central to this visual space is the axiom or assumption that “different” objects, vectors, or points are not and cannot be superimposed; instead, the world is perceived as a linear grid organized along strictly causal lines.

McLuhan contrasts this construction of visual space, and the kind of subjectivity associated with it, with what he calls “acoustic space.” Acoustic space is the space we hear rather than the space we see, and he argued that electronic media were submerging us in this acoustic environment, with its own language of affect and subjectivity. Acoustic space isn’t limited to a world of music or sound; the environment of electronic media itself engenders this way of organizing and perceiving the other spaces we intersect. (Read the rest of this essay at ).

Erik Davis is the author of Techgnosis: Myth, magic + mysticism in the age of information:

 Read more about him here: .

Visual versus Acoustic Space. Source: Gordon A. Gow, “Spatial Metaphor in the Work of Marshall McLuhan,” 75

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