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Cavell, Richard. McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002.
McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography (2002) by Richard Cavell, is a scholarly re-assessment of the importance of "space" as the master trope in McLuhan's work. Although McLuhan is clearly positioned as the central figure in this book, Cavell is generally interested in explicating "space studies" as the domain of 21st century (post) humanities inquiry, a concept gaining significant attention in rhetoric and composition. We can see this interest in Nedra Reynolds and Gregory Clark's works on travel and location, in Geoff Sirc's work on composition as a happening, in Cynthia Haynes' desire to "unbuild" reason in composition, and in a much broader pedagogical movement like service learning which gets students out of grid-like classrooms with one-way broadcasts and into the dynamic spaces of engaged, collaborative learning.
Cavell's McLuhan in Space consists of two parts. The first half focuses on the development of McLuhan's notion of acoustic space through his engagement with Modernist literature, New Criticism, and through his own interdisciplinary seminars, with participants from psychology, anthropology, architecture, and literary studies. Cavell also examines how "space" and "acoustic space" are defined in McLuhan's early texts (The Mechanical Bride, Gutenberg Galaxy, and Understanding Media). The second half of the book focuses on McLuhan's later texts, his "non-books" (The Medium is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village, Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations, Through the Vanishing Point) and their relation to the arts: concrete poetry, art books, the Situationists, the Fluxus artists, and Glenn Gould, to name a few. Although Cavell argues contra-Donald Theall that McLuhan was a consistent and rigorous theorist of space, the second half of the book matches up with Theall's account of McLuhan as trickster, poet, and artist.
McLuhan the theorist, however, drives the argument in this book. Cavell's central tenet is that McLuhan was a theorist of space, and that his theories of communication are a subset of his theories of space. The key terms in McLuhan's own scholarship are visual space and acoustic space, and the most important work that Cavell does in this book is to explain why McLuhan used the following formulations:
visual space = print cultureVisual space, Cavell explains, is not space filled with visuals or images, it is not the contemporary mediascape, but instead it is space that is easily demarcated with vision, it is space that is highly regular (like the standard printed page), and it tends to be static. One way to understand McLuhan's famous formulation, "the medium is the message," is to understand that each medium 'impose[s] its own spatial assumptions and structures' on consumers (70 in Cavell), thus in an era dominated by the printed word, the dominant conception of space was a visual one. But, as Cavell notes, "Visual space was only one kind of space, and as electronic media brought the other senses back into analogical interrelationship, other sorts of spaces would come (back) into being, spaces that would be dynamic and interactive" (70).
acoustic space = visual culture
Just as visual space is not filled with visual elements, but instead refers to the dominant means of perceiving space, acoustic space is not necessarily filled with sound. Acoustic space tends to be perceived by both the ear and the eye, but more importantly, the qualities of the space, therefore, tend to be as Cavell says, interactive and dynamic. In Cavell's reading of The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan's second book, he sees McLuhan emphasizing that even non-verbal communication, like a mosaic, can be understood as oral or acoustic, because of its many resonances, its piling up and juxtaposing of images, its "allatonceness" (55). We generally recognize that email, discussion board text, weblog text, reads more like speech than finished prose, but in addition to those formal qualities, the text is being produced and consumed in spaces that emphasize exchange. Cavell states clearly in his preface that the first part of the book "argues for the importance of understanding acoustic space as a hybrid of oral and literate modalities" (xiv). The word is not dead, and visual space is not vanquished, but both are being increasingly pushed aside by communication with images and spaces that are formed through social interaction. As educators, we know intuitively that the kind of spaces we create from our paper or hypertext syllabi, our arrangement of the classroom, our structuring of activities will send clear messages about authority, knowledge, power, and the rules of conduct for communication to our students.
This tension between visual space and acoustic space, and the periodizations that accompany these descriptions of space, look very much like Walter Ong's primary orality-literacy-secondary orality formulation. Cavell argues that Ong's sense of space is not as richly nuanced as McLuhan's, however, and Ong's argument that "Writing [is the] commitment of the word to space (Orality and Literacy 7), fails, [...] to discriminate between visual and acoustic space: writing is in fact the commitment of the spoken word to visual space (138). Ong only tentatively invokes "secondary orality" in Orality and Literacy, whereas McLuhan spent much of his career exploring the dynamic dimension of acoustic space through his non-books, his sound recordings, and his film project the latter an obscure project described in the opening pages of McLuhan in Space (3-4).
Cavell's analysis of the Ong-McLuhan differences is only one small part of this highly networked book, but it is representative of the many interesting encounters that Cavell describes and analyzes. He spends considerable time analyzing the McLuhan-Harold Innis intellectual relationship, as well as McLuhan's debt to architectural historian Sigfried Gideon. Cavell also touches on relationships with theorists more familiar to rhetoric and composition: Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin, Roland Barthes, and others. The final encounter elaborated on in the book lays out the striking differences between McLuhan's contemporary colleague at the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye. Frye is presented as a product-oriented, anti-media, archetypal structuralist scholar in contrast to McLuhan, the process-oriented, media ecologist, proto-poststructuralist critic/artist. English studies and to a certain extent composition studies has been strongly influenced by Frye and his followers for almost 50 years, but increasingly the vision and practices outlined by McLuhan are being valued. Near the end of this chapter, Cavell quotes one time McLuhan critic, John Fekete, after Fekete had revised his understanding of McLuhan. Fekete "argues that McLuhan's work can be 'regarded as a new model for a strategically -oriented humanist scholarship, characterized by a concern with paradigm shifts, civilization-level reflection, a futuristic edge and experimental pedagogy'" (222 in Cavell).
McLuhan in Space is a readable, informative, intellectual history and should be of interest to anyone wanting to understand the history of space or the history of postmodernism. Cavell considers McLuhan worthy of the label "a founding father of postmodernism" because he established "the spatial as the most significant dimension of postmodernist inquiry, be it in geography or media theory" (28).