Visual culture versus acoustic culture

I’ve become intrigued with the idea that the fundamental experience of being alive has been changing over the course of human history. I don’t mean basic changes like we’ve got more stuff or less hunger, but rather that the very nature of how we perceive and conceive of the world around us is shifting. You might recall my musing about a writer who argued that human beings were not even conscious 3000 years ago. Or my conception that as we’ve become more assaulted by distractions like phone calls and email alerts we’ve become less able to focus on the creation and enjoyment of ornamental art.

Today I came across a relevant section in David Byrne’s “How Music Works.” He notes…

Marshall McLuhan famously proposed that after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we shifted from an acoustic culture to a visual one. He said that in an acoustic culture, the world, like sound, is all around you and comes at you from all directions at once. It is multi-layered and non-hierarchical; it has no center or focal point. Visual culture has a perspective—a vanishing point.

I’m not sure I totally buy this. Sound isn’t exactly “everywhere” – we can tell if a sound came from our left or our right; we can tell if a sound is coming from far away or close. And I’d even say there’s a certain hierarchy to sounds. Loud or novel sounds demand our attention more so than softer or common ones. (Of course, maybe that’s just my visual culture trained brain imposing a hierarchy on acoustic culture.) Nonetheless, I agree with the gist – the acoustic world is much more ephemeral and ghostlike than the visual world of objects. The acoustic world is harder to define, which is Byrne’s next point.

McLuhan claims that our visual sense began to get increasingly bombarded by all the stuff we were producing. It began to take precedence over our auditory sense, and he said that the way we think and view the world changed as a result. In an acoustic universe one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies. He claims that in a visual universe one begins to think in a linear fashion, one thing following another along a timeline, rather than everything existing right now, everywhere, in the moment.

Again I have some small qualms with these statements but the point is made. Certainly we seem to live in a world obsessed with defining things. One need look only at genres of music; people don’t just listen to pop music, they listen to “West Coast post-modern indie pop.” (And they have no use for anyone who doesn’t!) The argument some would make is that we’ve gotten so obsessed with defining things that we no longer really experience them.

We’re so used to the hierarchy of the visual universe that it’s hard to imagine life without it. It seems like such an essential aspect of our life experience that we presume it must be innate – built into the brain. But I recall neurologist Oliver Sacks observations of a man who – after being blind his whole life – regained sight. It wasn’t really a gift; he could see but he struggled to comprehend what he saw. I discussed this in my old acid logic piece “Making Sense of the Senses.”

With the cataracts gone the outside visual world flowed into Virgil’s brain, but he could not map what he saw to objects he had only experienced with his other senses. During Virgil’s initial moment of sight…

… he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, “Well?” Then, and only then, [Virgil] said, did he finally realized that this chaos and light and shadow was a face — and, indeed, the face of the surgeon.

Sacks contemplated the dilemma of this moment.

… when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for 45 years — having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten — there were no visual memories to support a perception, there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them.

After regaining sight, Virgil struggled with seemingly basic components of seeing. He could see all the elements of a tree — the leaves, the roots, the branches — but had difficulty combining them into a single object. He struggled to understand shapes. Movement baffled him. He had to practice looking at household objects from different angles to gain the understanding that they were one single thing. And his eyes would fatigue much faster than a normal person. Eventually, Virgil lost his vision a second time, though the exact cause for this is unclear.

McLuhan might have argued that Virgil was at the center of a devastating collision between the visual and non-visual universes.

I’m taking pains here to not insinuate that one way of observing the world is better than the other. But I will say there’s a part of me that yearns to escape the endless defining and categorization that seems built into modern life (and often passes for some kind of intellectual activity when it’s more often mere mental masturbation.) I’d like to experience things more simply and fully. To better experience the essence of things.

9 Responses to “Visual culture versus acoustic culture”


  1. john

    I’m confused by this “defining” and categorization” business. We don’t define and categorize sounds? I do! All the time! Does that make me an asshole? What? What was that? Oh, it was a dog barking. Boy, do I suck!

  2. Wil

    Sure, but we can’t define and categorize sounds the way we do visual objects because sounds are so transient. You hear a dog bark and by the time you realize what it is the bark has ended, whereas with an object we can stop and stare at forever. After all, sound is really just a wave (whatever those are), not a physical thing.

  3. john

    Wait a minute . . . Other people can’t see a sound? I . . . Uh . . . Never mind. I won’t talk about it.

    Gee, that car honking is PRETTY!

  4. Wil

    Well, of course, as you insinuate John, there is synesthsia – the condition where one might see colors as prompted by certain sounds (or other sensory input.) So a car honking could indeed be pretty (for mutants with this condition.)

  5. john

    That is a common symptom of Schizophrenia,

  6. Wil

    Which one of you said that?

  7. john

    Schizophrenia is not connected with Multiple Personalities. In fact, Psychiatric Medicine has rejected the conceot of Multiple Personalities – There’s no such thing! Schizophrenia is a state in which a person has lost contact with Reality. This – Hey! Haven’t you been listening to my Pod Cast? You prick!

  8. Wil

    There are such thing thing as multiple personalities! Right Bob?

    There are such thing thing as multiple personalities! Tell ‘em Phil!

    There are such thing thing as multiple personalities! You better believe it. Tell ‘em Bill!

    I could go on all day.

  9. john

    You pricks!