(by way of Rasa Smite ) on Thu, 23 Apr 1998 06:55:15 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]


By Erik Davis

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.

Acoustic space is capable of simultaneity, superimposition, and
nonlinearity, but above all, it resonates.  "Resonance" can be seen as a
form of causality, of course, but its causality is very different than that
associated with visual space, because resonance allows things to respond to
each other in a nonlinear fashion. Through resonance in a physical system,
a small activity or event can gain a great deal of energy; for example, if
I belted out a pitch that resonated with the unique acoustic
characteristics of this room, the energy of my voice would be amplified by
the environment. That's why some singers can shatter a glass with their
voice: they hit the resonant frequency of the glass (which is a space and
contains a space), making it vibrate to the point of shattering. Resonance
is a very powerful analogy for understanding how various types of energies
and spaces operate.

Resonance is just one quality of acoustic space; another one is
simultaneity. Where visual space emphasizes linearity, acoustic space
emphasizes simultaneity--the possibility that many events that occur in the
same zone of space-time. In such a scheme, a subject--a person,
maybe--organizes space by synthesizing a variety of different events,
points, images, and sources of information into a kind of organic totality.
This isn't true in the strictest sense, but, nonetheless, our thoughts and
perceptions can tend towards this simultaneity: we sense many things at
once, and combine them into a coherent if fragmentary whole.

McLuhan argued that what we hear is very different from what we see.
Needless to say, we hear things and we see things simultaneously--but
according to different logics, logics that are culturally defined and
change over time. There's no hard-and-fast, timeless distinction between
the two; rather, these are simplified ways of talking about the conditions
for experiencing information, consciousness, conception. And the rise of
electronic media is awakening more acoustic sensibilities in the ways we
experience the world.

Much of what people say about cyberspace, the Internet, virtual reality,
and other electronic spaces is centered on visual images and graphics. This
discourse occurs on many levels--the artistic, the intellectual, as well as
more practical technical issues and pragmatic social practices. And given
the nature of today's interfaces, it isn't hard to see why. But I think we
might benefit by weaving some of the deeper questions raised by acoustics,
which includes hearing and orality, into the broader technocultural debate.
For one thing, there's electronic music, a tremendously innovative,
exciting and polycentered field, which raises all sorts of issues around
aesthetics, spatial constructions, the non-thought, the production of
subjectivity. And then there's the larger environment of electronic arts or
information culture--the Internet, virtual reality, for example--which
remain for the most part centered on the lingering dreams of visual space.
If you think for a moment about the technical construction of virtual
environments, I think you'll agree that Renaissance perspective continues
to play an extraordinarily powerful role.

I've had the opportunity to experience a number of very high-end virtual
reality environments. Some of them are profoundly immersive experiences.
This isn't necessarily a goal for all virtual environments, but it's
definitely a looming question for the people who work on making them: How
can we create a space where perception and subjectivity are sucked into an
alternate dimension, an alternate kind of space? This is a central
narrative about virtual reality; there are many, but this a very strong
one. In many ways, it's a naive narrative. Yet the first time I
experienced 3D audio, I was transported far more viscerally than in any of
the far more sophisticated visually-based virtual reality installations.
There was something about the very pure non-graphic spatial organization of
very good 3D audio that created an incredibly powerful immersive
experience. Typically, people relegate acoustic dimensions to the
"background"--a soundtrack or score that "accompanies" a primary visual
experience. But in an immersive acoustic environment, you might hear all
the sounds you would hear on a street corner, spatially organized in real
time, surrounding you. This is much, much, stronger than a visual
experience, which tacitly distances you, places you in a transcendent,
removed position, rather than embodying you at the center of a new context.

My question here is: why are acoustic spaces so effective in this regard?
What is it about sound that is so potentially immersive? I think it has to
do with how we register it--how it affects different areas of the bodymind
than visuals do.  Affect is a tremendously important dimension of
experience, and one of the most difficult to achieve in a visual
environment. "Atmosphere" might be a good way to describe this aspect:
sound produces atmosphere, almost in the way that incense--which registers
with yet another sense--can do. Sound and smell carry vectors of mood and
affect which change the qualitative organization of space, unfolding a
different logic with a space's range of potentials. Ambient music, or an
ambient soundscape, can change the quality of a space in subtle or dramatic

We've seen some interesting experiments and opportunities with the use of
RealAudio on the Internet, for example. But, more than that, I'm interested
in getting people to think about the larger implications of sound and
acoustics. Not as simply a vehicle for communicating information or
establishing dialog between far-flung actors; and not simply as electronic
music, a genre of activity and expression that, however fascinating, is
commodified and compartmentalized from our "other" activities and
experiences. A broader understanding of acoustic space is what I'm after:
I'm really talking about different dimensions of the kind of subjectivity
that we produce in networked environments. This dimension is profound, and
we should consider it, work with it, explore it.

A historical example of the possibilities  of acoustics that's worth
considering is the history of radio: there was a tremendous amount of
vitality in the early years of radio, and most of it was sapped away as it
became commodified and consumerized, with the exception of pirate radio
efforts, some public radio, and the fringes of radio art. Our situation now
has a bit of deja vu about it: when the ability to communicate via wireless
telegraphy occurred, it was absorbed into--and contributed to--the
construction of a utopian imagination, in ways that strongly resemble some
of the rhetoric surrounding information technology. In fact, with each
significant mutation in electronic technologies from the mid-nineteenth
century on, there was an eruption of utopian energy. "Now we will be able
to  communicate across the world, now we will be able to solve conflicts,
now we will have better education, now we will have more democracy."  These
ideas were very much associated with the mutation in electronic acoustic
space brought about by radio.

Imagine for a moment what the radio spectrum presented--a space that was
not a space, wide-open, unknown, literally cosmic. As people began to
interact with the world of vibrating waves, a sort of "hacker" culture
develop around it: people began to build their own crystal sets and talk to
with others in unknown places, exchanging information and building their
own networks. In fact, broadcast radio emerged from the ground up--from
these smaller radio hackers deciding to broadcast music and news. This is
very much like what we associate with the Internet's cultural development.
But radio was quickly absorbed into commodity systems, and the state
imposed its desire to organize the space of the spectrum, establishing the
boundaries and rules that define the commercial radio that now dominates
our airwaves.

Of course, there are other dimensions of the spectrum which maintain a more
utopian, progressive, and imaginative aspect. There are pirate radio
broadcasters, and there are people who listen to lightning storms, there
are our favorite college radio stations...the spectrum is still open, in a
sense. But  for the most part it's a vast, depressing wasteland.

Now, Internet "radio" isn't radio; it does not exploit the spectrum, and
that is a big difference. But it is hardly immune to the same kinds of
domination at the hands of similar forces. It's incredibly important to
maintain electronic communications media as a space of openness, of
indetermination, of the affects of the unknown. What made early radio so
exciting, in terms of the technical, the social, and the imaginative, was
its openness: it was a space that wasn't entirely defined, wasn't totally
mapped. More than that, I think, it was an acoustic space, which opened up
a different logic. And that's happening again: the acoustic dimension of
electronic media, and particularly of the Internet, offers an opportunity
that is very different than simply providing more information, or making
more web sites, or more entrancing animations. Or even making cheap phone

The idea that we can create another kind of dimension with its own
possibilities--not just "informational" possibilities--gives us a more
atmospheric sense of where we are headed, as we plunge into the 21st
century and its weird global environs. It's really difficult to see what
this might mean, impossible even. All of the different factors, all of the
different networks that are commingling and do we make
our way through this? How do we ground ourselves enough to get a sense of
what our spaces are or might be, or how we relate to these spaces? It is
precisely this acoustic dimension that gives us tools, not just as
individuals, but particularly as collectivities as well. It enables us to
modulate and re-singularize this new environment in powerful ways--ways
that the visual, the graphic, and the text-based, do not.

Acoustic spaces can create different subjectivities; they open
possibilities and potentials--particularly on an aesthetic and
informational levels--that can help us feel our way through the spaces we
are opening up and moving into. The greatest example of this is music,
particularly electronic music. Of course, one could talk about music in
general and its relationship to affect, the way that its vibrations
resonate inside the body, conjuring up pleasures, fears, singularities,
etc.. But I'm especially interested in electronic music, because its
history loosely maps the changing relationship between subjectivity and the
"acoustic space" of electronic media in the twentieth century.

An example: the first truly electronic instrument is a gadget invented by
the Russian Leon Theremin, which was appropriately called the theremin.
Theremin created his instrument in the early twenties; basically, it
created an electromagnetic field that you could modulate with your hand.
You controlled pitch and volume by inserting your body into this field;
seemingly, you plucked the music from thin air. Theremin thought of his
creation as a concert hall instrument, and Clara Rockmore, the greatest
thereminist of all time, used it for performances of Rachmaninoff and
Ravel. But what do we see and feel when we hear the theremin's eerie
etheric tones, its weird and wavering voice? We know the instrument through
the soundtracks of fifties UFO movies and pop songs like the appropriately
named "Good Vibrations." So though the instrument was constructed as an
instrument to play "real" music, it drifted through twentieth-century pop
culture, picking up any number of strange  associations--cosmic vibrations,
outer space, paranoia, drugs. Electronic space opens up a variety of
curious modes of subjectivity--and not just science-fiction clich=E9s. Think
of what happened to electronic music in the sixties and seventies, in both
psychedelic music and art music like Stockhausen. We find an emphasis on
the cosmic, on spatial disorientation, on transport, on affect, on the
nonhuman. The acoustic spaces of electronic music aren't limited to the
organization of affect and narrative that define much popular music, with
its highly personalized structures of love and loss.

Rather than merely extending the language of human affect along such
typical lines, electronic music opened up much less personalized
soundscapes and psychic spaces. It's not just a genre or technique of
music, but a much deeper phenomenon that involves mapping the electronic
media spaces that humans find themselves in, whether the "space" of the
spectrum, the acoustic space of McLuhan, or the deterritorialized spaces
that have become so important for the articulation of postmodern

Another example one could site is dub music. Dub music arose in a very
crude technological context, in low-tech Jamaican recording studios in the
early seventies. Basically, what dub artists did was take the backing
tracks from
whatever pop songs were laying around, and cut and splice them, mutating
their various elements by submitting them to a variety of strange and often
primitive effects: echoes, distortion, reverb. The result was that an
ordinary reggae tune, with its dance-friendly rhythms, became unfolded into
a strange and somewhat alien electronic space. When you listen to dub
music, you become submerged in a kind of immersive space carved out by all
these sonic effects.  The "invisible landscapes" of John Cage or the
ambient music of Brian Eno furnish other, very different, examples. And yet
all these environments suggest a kind of cyberspace--a spacious electronic
orientation of affect and quality rather than information and quantity, a
space of simultaneity, superimposition, nonlinearity, odd repetitions, and
odder resonances. At the same time, as many of these musical forms
propagated themselves, their various folds and mutations created new spaces
for subculture, psychic resistance, and popular rituals.

Music and sound are tremendously powerful forces for organizing affect;
their power to structure subjectivity, in the here and now and over time,
makes them an incredibly productive language, one capable of overcoming the
linear grids implied by text. This isn't just true of electronic music: all
popular music functions, particularly for young people, as a way to
construct and define a whole worldview, a whole position, a whole set of
ways of organizing the world. It is no accident that you find the logic of
youth subculture most strongly articulated around music. And in the world
we're moving into, a world full of cultural viruses, memes, decentered
subjects and unfolding para-spaces, these issues will only become more

In closing, I'd like to re-emphasize that the acoustic dimension of
electronic technology is a powerful emergent domain--not just for
aesthetics, but for the organization of subjectivity and hence for the
organization of collectives, of larger political groupings in the broadest
sense of politics. I have used the example of music because it demonstrates
most clearly how large groups of people around can organize--or be
organized--around the politics of affect, of resonance. This is a very
powerful language, even a dangerous one. Electro-acoustic spaces aren't
simply a genre of music or a backdrop for good VR--they are interfaces with
the machine, interfaces where we mutate in order to feel our way. As our
machines become more complex, our relationships with them will become more
complex, and whole new domains and dimensions will keep opening up -- and
closing down as well. By pushing the boundaries of electro-acoustic
environments, of acoustic cyberspace, we can maintain a line into the open
spaces of the unknown.


transcript from the lecture at "Xchange On-air session" Riga, November 1997
edited by Diana McCarty and Ted Byfield
pubished in net audio issue 'Acoustic Space'
real-audio version available at
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: