Articles - August 2012

Playing the world

Poetry generated from a source text has been around at least since 1920, when Tristan Tzara wrote his instructions for how to make a Dada poem. What follows is an argument for reading the procedures of such works as texts themselves, worthy of analysis. These procedures signify in ways that are as complex as the results they yield. In other words, just as language is circumscribed by its cultural use, so are these seemingly neutral processes.

NewsReader is an online “textual instrument” that was commissioned by the net art website turbulence in 2003. Created by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and a team of collaborators that included Brion Moss, David Durand, and Elaine Froehlich, Newsreader is software that lets the reader alter and reformulate news stories through a variety of cut and paste procedures. As the creators note, the main action of these instruments is “to perform William Burroughs’s injunction to ‘cut word lines’ — to break the chains of conceptual association that say this follows from that …” In doing so, the piece reveals much about our times, but not in the way one might initially expect.

As of January 2012, this piece was no longer “playable,”[1] so what follows is a session of “play” that occurred in 2007 when I presented this essay as a talk at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention.

When the Newsreader program is first opened up, a Yahoo! News headline feed from mainstream news sources appears. A click on any of the article summaries leads to the full-length article.

However, the full-length article includes a number of highlighted words and phrases. Although they may appear as such, these are not hypertext links that connect to some predetermined offshoot of text; instead, these are n-grams — words that commonly repeat in the English language in groups of two (digrams) and three (trigrams). A click on any of these groupings leads to another screen. In the example here, the digram “to build” was selected, which generated a screen with three paragraphs beginning with “to build.”

It took me a long time to figure out how this nonlinear text was put together, but I could tell that it was the result of some kind of cut-up process. After reading through the working documents of the piece, as well as contacting Wardrip-Fruin and plying him with questions, here’s what I understand to have happened. While I was reading my mainstream Yahoo news story, the program was busy downloading in the background all the top news stories from an alternative newspaper feed at the website Common Dreams.

When I clicked on the digram “to build,” the program searched the alternative news stories for matching digrams. When a match was found, new text (what I’ll call an “alteration text”) was generated according to the statistical n-gram model.

How this model works might best be understood as a procedure in league with the Oulipo’s N+7 or John Cage’s mesostics or Jackson Mac Low’s diastics. Imagine you’re reading the news at the Common Dreams site and you randomly pick the pair of words that make up this particular digram, “to build.” You then search for another occurrence of that digram on the site and when you find one you add the word that follows that next digram: “to build a.” So you now have three words — a trigram. The second and third words (“build a”) are then treated as a digram, and there’s a search for a recurrence of that pair. Then the word that follows that pair is added (“build a Humvee”), and so on until a chain is created. Thus, this paragraph is a cut-up generated by an algorithm. The n-gram screens contain further n-grams that you can keep on clicking to produce new screens.

N-gram chains can be followed indefinitely. Each time, the n-grams act as bridges between two separate textual bodies.

But generating nonlinear text strands are just part of the play here; there’s more that can be done.

If you click on a word that’s not highlighted or linked in the alteration text, the chain that extends from that word back to the digram beginning the chain/paragraph will be cut and pasted into the previous document at the point of the digram that led you to this alternative page in the first place. In this example, a click on the word “report” in the first line of the second alteration paragraph causes the phrase “to build a children’s well-being report” to be cut and pasted into the original news article.

The alteration text screen disappears when this is done, and the phrase “The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion project to build the world’s largest computer database of biometrics” becomes “The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion project to build a children’s well-being report.”

The screenshot above is the result of some extended play with the first paragraph of the article.

The main action of Newsreader seems to be to locate n-grams in a source text (a news feed) and then inject them back in so as to alter that source. But to what end? Could it be argued that this piece is an elaborate machine for creating something that earlier proceduralists like Tristan Tzara and William Burroughs, were able to accomplish with a simple pair of scissors? Or is this program modeling something that goes beyond the syntactic disruptions of an algorithmic cut-up? In order to articulate what’s at stake in a piece like this, I want to do a quick comparison with John Cage’s mesostics — specifically those created for his Norton lectures at Harvard in 1988.


Digitally reproduced by permission of the publisher from I-IV by John Cage, pp. 9, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

This is the first mesostic strand in the first of the lectures.[2] Very briefly, mesostics are similar to acrostics, but with a center strand functioning as a kind of spine. The center strand is often a name or a group of words (in the excerpt above, it’s the word “method”), used to infiltrate or “read through” a much longer text or group of texts. The mesostic rule requires not repeating two adjacent center string letters which frame the wing words (between the “m” and the “e” in method, there is not a repetition of those letters).

Cage created this procedure so as to make unpredictable discoveries apart from authorial intention. Once the center strand was determined, Cage “hunted” for what the material was trying to say; he looked for the ideas that might become clearer by taking a few words or letters away from the wings. So the words to either side of the center are the result of his editorial choices. As Cage said during one of the question and answer sessions that followed each lecture, “this is a way of writing that comes from ideas but is not about them but somehow brings new ideas or other ideas into existence” (338).

The six Norton lectures are published as I–VI, but the sub- (or super-) title is above. Each word listed refers to an aspect of Cage’s work in music composition, and each word is used as a determining center strand (in the listed order) for sections of the mesostics that make up the lectures. The main reason I’ve chosen this particular procedural work for comparison with Newsreader has to do with Cage’s choice of source texts. Unlike other mesostic works that were generated from singular texts (Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or Thoreau’s journals being well-known examples), these lectures mix writings by a familiar set of Cagean influences (Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Emerson, McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller) with an array of newspaper sources (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor). Such use of quotidian materials is rare for Cage. Below is a page where the news is visible, if not entirely readable:[3]


Digitally reproduced by permission of the publisher from I-IV by John Cage, pp. 14, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Due to the newspaper text, a number of questions were raised after the lectures about how Cage saw language and politics to be relating in his work. He answered:

I seem to be at a point where maybe many of us are where there’s a kind of separation between us and language and even things that are reported so that we don’t always respond — it’s almost as though we can’t … I’m in a situation of using words so to speak in a straitjacket but a straitjacket that includes the things from which we have so to speak numbed ourselves. I would like to know something more intelligent to say but I don’t know it. (115)

In a later question and answer session he noted, “Performance of a piece of music can be a metaphor of society … you can think of music as a representation of a society in which you would be willing to live” (177). A clue to how this might work is given in Cage’s introduction to I–VI: “there was a tendency on the part of the empty words, the particles, connectives like ‘and’ and ‘the’ and ‘a’ … to become important and to give us a kind of meaning that I’m not sure we fully understand” (5).

In this excerpt from IIV, we can see and hear the particles:


Digitally reproduced by permission of the publisher from I-IV by John Cage, pp. 409, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

AND IS with gets, is in AS TO …

In relation to this phenomenon, Cage states that “the words that we thought were so meaningful become almost meaningless …. Benefits can come from taking the lesser of two things and supporting it rather than the stronger one, as for instance noise as opposed to musical sound and in this case empty words as opposed to full words and in the case of our society the poor instead of the rich” (254).

Thus the mesostic provides a possible world model, a vision for how the status quo might be altered through a procedural and documentary poetics. Which brings me back to Newsreader. If Cage’s mesostic procedures are modeling a society in which we would be willing to live, what kind of connectivity between text, procedure, and world does Newsreader posit?

In my exchange with Noah Wardrip-Fruin, it was made clear that the n-gram model that runs Newsreader is used in a number of everyday circumstances, as computers try to recognize and work with the input we give them. For example, in voice recognition software, if a computer was trying to parse out whether a speaker said “banana” or “bandanna,” the trigram “ate the banana” is much more common than “ate the bandanna” and the computer can make its choice based on that knowledge.[4] But the n-gram model is also behind ideas such as “total information awareness” and other government-sponsored mass surveillance projects. These models are used to determine patterns of “normal” language behavior, so as to be able to locate when patterns are transgressed. They are used to locate syntactic combinations that statistically indicate suspicious or criminal behaviors. If you were following your non-linear aesthetic inclinations and found yourself producing digrams and trigrams with unfortunate associations over the Internet or over the phone, this could have consequences if you live in a society where your government decides to eavesdrop on its citizens. You might find yourself in a suspect data set, caught in the net of an early-warning system, marked by your avant-garde word chains. Although this might sound like some kind of Minority Report cyber conspiracy theory, the fact is that datamining for “pre-crime” has been (and no doubt still is) a subject of funded governmental research.[5]

Of course, the total information awareness model can’t actually function. It yields a lot of false negatives and false positives. You can really only get good results for matches on a very small scale — for example, if you’re dealing with textual units, you’ll be more successful trying to find matches for three words than for full sentences. But there are instances when such models do work in more common circumstances — for instance, when Amazon makes suggestions for books you might enjoy, or when a music or film site suggests things based on your past interests. The example that is perhaps most useful because of the potential for negative consequences is when credit card companies use the n-gram algorithm to identify fraud. Credit card companies have defined a profile of purchasing (purchases being the n-grams here) for each individual that can help indicate criminal activity on a card. You may have taken a trip abroad without informing your credit card company and then had the awkward experience, like I once did, of having your card denied at a restaurant. Basically, I was the victim of a false positive in the statistical model that the company used. The inconvenience was annoying, but a relatively small price to pay for the failure, and fairly easy to fix. But the cost for using these models for something like terrorist surveillance is much higher, in that everyone is monitored, everyone is treated as a suspect, and there are perhaps one billion false positives for every one terrorist communication actually intercepted.

According to Wardrip-Fruin, the people designing these surveillance systems know that the costs of massive information aggregation and analysis far outweigh the benefits. But they also know that the model is quite seductive, with its proposition that everything can be accessible and knowable via computer systems (the biometrics article in the Newsreader example above is another instance of that seductive quality). Such a promise is easy to sell to a government that continues to wage war on an abstraction like “terror.” The threat of a “false positive” was clearly not a concern when the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act was passed.

And that’s where Newsreader comes in. It’s a piece that calls attention to use patterns, but emphasizes the fallibility of any attempt to interpret them. It highlights and celebrates the fact that the matches it produces are false positives — they can’t lead to a place of narrative coherence, to a singular meaning. They have a different kind of story to tell, and they evoke meaning in a different kind of way. They defy the concept of normative language structures and predictable usage patterns. The reader must hunt for what these digrams have in common, what they might coincidentally suggest, in the way that Cage hunted through the debris of his procedures’ output for ideas. The action is not of solving a cryptogram, but of reveling in the multiplicitous actions of our words.

Both Newsreader and Cage’s mesostics make use of what we now easily recognize as forms of data mining. Both argue against habitual systems of knowing and experiencing the world, with the help of aleatory and anti-digestive fragmenting procedures. Both show readership (and authorship) to be performative: an act of sampling, transforming, altering, and physically handling text. But perhaps most importantly, both are functioning on metatextual or metaphorical levels, allegorizing our methods of attention, our methods of processing information, and the ways those forms of processing mirror the forms of life we actually live in and with.

As much as I want to make the case that these procedures are two parts of a continuing project, the differences between them keep me from bringing this piece to a tidy conclusion. These documentary procedures are responding to forms and structures that perform the contents of very different historical moments. Cage, in his decision to follow the path of nonintention, was resisting what he saw as the automatic privileging of romantic self-expression and intention. Newsreader, built with an architecture of information processing tools, resists the contemporary desire for everything to be knowable, searchable, and analyzable.

Similar to the Surveillance Camera Players performance group, Newsreader is co-opting a nefarious system and retooling it for creative play. Unlike Cage’s mesostics, which are wonderfully elegant in their precision and thus poised for instigating meditative discoveries through reading or listening, Newsreader’s outputs are deliberately clumsy. Readers are forced to prioritize the concept behind those outputs over the textual product. Readers are asked to see process as the content of the work.

John Cage is often quoted as saying that “the function of art is to imitate Nature in her manner of operation.”[6] Newsreader revises that dictum by declaring that the function of art is to imitate culture and its procedural operations, and that when those cultural operations become dangerously reductive, they must be altered.

 


 

1. When I attempted to access Newsreader in order to update my “play” with current news stories, I discovered that it was no longer functional. The creators say that an upgrade may be forthcoming; however, its current dysfunction points to the ephemerality of digital art that relies on an external data source. This piece is built on a certain kind of data collection (of news, in this case) in a particular format. But formats are always changing; perhaps digital works will one day be able to accommodate that constant change. Until then, they function (to use Wardrip’s term) as “impermanence agents.”

2. John Cage, I–VI (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), 9.

3. Ibid., 14.

4. Since presenting this talk in 2007, the concept of “n-grams” has moved perhaps more visibly into the mainstream with the introduction of Google’s Ngram viewer.

5. The Total Information Awareness program was created in 2003 as part of the Homeland Security Act. Although it was defunded by Congress in 2004, its work was renamed and absorbed by other intelligence agencies, such as the Disruptive Technology Office and the National Security Branch Analysis Center.

6. John Cage, A Year from Monday (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 31.

Hidden harmonies in John Cage's 'Empty Words'

Mushrooms grow best on shit — specifically, the shit of “corn-fed, hard-worked horses, which have been bedded down on wheat straw.”[1] Some mushrooms pop up after a rain, and grow in circles called “fairy rings,” only to disappear a few hours later. Some mushrooms have names like “Angel of Death” and “Death Cap,” and cause nausea, vomiting, delirium, coma, and — yes — death.

“The function of mushrooms is to rid the world of old rubbish,” wrote John Cage, composer and founder of the New York Mycological Society. He was talking about the Buddha being killed by a poisonous mushroom.[2] This comment seems very Cagean: humble, irreverent, funny.

Another Cage-mushroom anecdote has Cage struggling to find an adequate translation to a Basho haiku about mushrooms. A composer friend, Toru Takemitsu, suggested, “Mushroom does not know that leaf is sticking on it.” Three years later Cage himself came up with two translations: “that that’s unknown brings mushroom and leaf together,” and, his favorite, “What leaf? What mushroom?”[3]

What Cage appreciated in the haiku, besides the oblivious — or nonexistent — mushroom, was the multiplicity of meanings contained in its seventeen syllables — a multiplicity made possible by the haiku’s ambiguous syntax. If destabilizing syntax could admit so many divergent readings, what would happen if one destabilized — or eliminated — words? Syllables? Letters? How many more meanings would be possible? Cage explores these possibilities in his 1974 work Empty Words.[4] In it, he uses aleatory methods, that is, chance operations, to systematically disassemble the journals of Henry David Thoreau.

Empty Words is both text and score: It was designed to turn language into music. Each of its four parts, or “lectures,” is composed of at least four thousand chance events dictated by throwing the I Ching. The first lecture eliminates sentences; and contains only phrases, words, syllables, and letters. The second lecture eliminates sentences and phrases; and contains only words, syllables, and letters. The third lecture eliminates sentences, phrases, and words; and contains only syllables and letters. The final lecture eliminates sentences, phrases, words, and syllables; and contains only letters.

Cage intended the performance of the work to last overnight, with three half-hour intermissions between lectures for the audience to eat. The final lecture would be accompanied by projected images from Thoreau’s journals (also selected and placed in the text according to chance operations), and would be timed to coincide with the dawn. The doors would open and the ambient sounds of the morning would mingle with the linguistic “music” of Empty Words.


* * *


Cage’s methods may have been chance-determined, but his choice of Thoreau could not have been more deliberate. (Cage himself grants that, had he applied the same aleatory procedures to Finnegan’s Wake, or to a non-English text, the resulting work would have been very different.[5]) In the journals, Thoreau’s observations exhibit a disciplined clarity that evokes the wide, non-judging perception associated with Zen. He describes the eyes of an owl and the patterns made by the first frost of the season. In summer, he notes the flowering of the white vervain, checkerberry, spikenard, orchis.

As linguistic material, Thoreau’s journals are no less attentive, no less earth-bound. In Empty Words, we recognize over and over allusions to the cardinal directions (“santwh cur of gen M. more ingSouth them,” “neighborhood youaou is ngdspruongrwestd!” “makingGod on the southeast slopes on”), and to colors (“star quite handsome orange,” “greenness trifolia sky,” “ingray-brown pull nover high ofa e”). Thoreau is just as scrupulous about noting times of day (“notAt evening,” “morning oldgolden andbubble ground,” “noonOthasndry sn nglth e Dr. B the I ee tw”) and Latin species names (“Lysimachia lanceolataare,” “amtheleavesand andFringillareawakened,” “Lechedtyon Vi the terin theoth y”).[6] Oaks, white maples, and blackberries haunt the text, becoming more and more indistinct as the work progresses.

“Meaning,” determined as it is by linguistic and cultural conventions, begins to shimmer. Take, for example, this stanza:

beneathboards in militsvexground

     comes hawk

within some Isoff owlafiftythem[7]

Like the hawk itself, traditional meaning appears, and then gradually, through the chance-driven compounding of words, flies off. Rather than being compulsory, it is merely a point our attention moves toward, and returns from.

We witness this movement on the syntactic level, too:

                                               to which of the fire
overfelt mebut yet mingled red and green
               about a three espassing over it[8]

Here, a relative clause abuts a prepositional phrase, neither of which has any discernible antecedent. Does “red,” placed after “mingled,” function as an adverb or a noun? What does “it” — nested so deeply within what are ostensibly clauses — refer to? Cage attempted to “demilitarize” language by releasing it from syntax, but it is, on the contrary, the insistence of syntax that makes possible so many divergent readings — that paradoxically liberates it.

Consider the following, taken from the fourth lecture:

          oea
                                                                 ann

h opls e ar as
 
                                     a eolsstr eu rSp
                           dsbyM h n l re R s ny
              n pr tt Tk sn r ndl llth ksshd
e inat tnthrn ts oe iai twsh.   M es    o rm

                ck          tl hchm                         eihe
                                        eo
                  re                                       y r
                     Stro                  thndB  e
     a   e     kP.    M.      Tho                e
rse  h                             u                 ca           i
               i  s,  s  r
                              ing       ymbf     Chdh             llk
                 n                                            o  n
           stwn                                          r       dyd   ntly,
   thhtlytr                             a

                                                                                           n
               a
   u
                 e[9]

In performance, units that evoke ocean (“oea / ann”) and star (“eolsstr”) are separated by long periods of silence, in which ambient sounds might intervene, and the mind might wander, before being brought back to attention by Cage’s articulation of the next sound. (In his performances of Empty Words, Cage sometimes lets minutes go by in this kind of apparent silence.) In “twsh” and “ksshd” we hear the snap of a sheet drying in the wind, the sound of a boot breaking through the crust of ice that has formed on a puddle. The mind moves from the particular instance to the idea, or chain of ideas, the word evokes. In the voiceless fragments “eihe” and “h,” the sound is the sense: breath.

Given Cage’s method and his theoretical concerns (which he articulates in the introductions that precede each lecture), it is fairly straightforward to identify some of the ways in which Empty Words — both as text and as score — means. But might there be another, more arcane valence of meaning revealed by Cage’s meticulous process?


* * *


Ferdinand de Saussure devoted three years and ninety-nine notebooks to research on anagrams. The French title of the published notes, Les mots sous les mots, suggests that the process was like excavation, looking beneath words to find hidden meanings. Central to his research was the concept of the poetic hypogram, a fragmented version of a “theme word,” usually a name, which is dispersed and circulated throughout the text. In the line of Saturnian Latin verse, “Taurasia Cīsauna Samnio cēpit,” for example, Saussure uncovered “Scīpio,” the name of the man (Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus) the lines honor.[10]

“The hypogram,” Saussure writes, “is very much concerned with emphasizing a name, a word, making a point of repeating its syllables, and in this way giving it a second, contrived being added, as it were, to the original of the word.”[11] This implies that there is a link between the constituents of a word and the word itself; that, in the poetry Saussure studied, phonemes retain vestiges of the names they were once a part of — an idea that is as revolutionary as it is fanciful.

Saussure never conclusively proved this theory; nor did he conclusively fail. What matters to us is the fact that “he isolated a particularity of poetic functioning: that supplementary meanings slip into the verbal message, tear its opaque cloth, and rearrange another signifying scene.”[12] It may be a stretch to consider the text of Empty Words to be the hypogrammatic “residue” of all fourteen volumes of Thoreau’s journals, but we can nonetheless draw on Saussure’s ideas to determine, for example, what “r h nt rt nyncy” could possibly mean — and, perhaps more importantly, how it could possibly mean.

Baudrillard compares the operation of the poetic hypogram to annihilation: “The name of God, torn limb from limb, dispersed into its phonemic elements as the signifier, is put to death, haunts the poem and rearticulates it in the rhythm of its fragments, without ever being reconstituted in it as such.”[13] To him, each fragment — hypogrammatic or not — reminds the reader of what has been lost. (Even though the name of God is torn apart, the specter of God remains, and haunts the poem.)

In Empty Words, it is tempting to attribute the phonemes’ multiple possible meanings not to any hypogrammatic alchemy, but to Cage’s process. After all, he set out deliberately to break down Thoreau’s language (and to tell us that that is what he is doing): of course the fragments are going to suggest the words they came from. However, it must be stressed that Saussure never proved that poets used hypograms as a method of composition. What matters, then, is not the “why,” but the simple, observable fact that the fragment suggests meaning beyond itself.

Consider the following:

                the er think three – rind-in the
oftheshaldol ifis andhard Coloingdis
                Monto ahisgold in de weeds should in and
oncealedso with asun lyby sim Pond[14]

Might “Co” in “Coloingdis” have originally been part of “Concord”? Or “Thoreau and Company,” pencil makers? Perhaps. For those listening to the performance (on whom the initial capital would be lost), it may suggest “cottage,” “cloudy,” or “factory” — all likely possibilities given Thoreau’s lexicon (and Cage’s process). 

Likewise, “oncealedso” could be a composite of “once a led so,” “onc[e] [s]ealed so,” or “[c]oncealed so.” (Unless we have read the entire journal, though, the “lost meaning” we recover, or, rather, the lost meaning each fragment suggests, is not the journal itself, but our idea of it.)

So the text, especially in its earlier sections, asks the attentive listener to hold different ways of meaning and different chronologies of meaning in a kind of negative capability, in disciplined Zen attention. Empty Words becomes a palimpsest, with all possible meanings leaving their traces on the text.

Indeed, if the fragment can contain links to a presumed “original” whole, why could it not contain links to every whole it might possibly be? In

cm orv rthtnhu t strs ws
                               art ainS o nt in
              sh chi htndSpsca[15]

“strs” could originally have been starlings, streams, stutters. Could it not also be stairmasters, strippers, stoplights? And why limit our readings to English? “t u as glass”[16] and “leaf oneRain aler”[17] have lovely possibilities in French.

I am not asking these questions to be perverse. Rather, I am asking whether the possible signification of Cage’s text is limited by the text from which it is drawn: do the words in Thoreau’s journals describe the boundaries of Empty Words, or do they open the text to a multitude of possibilities? And if this is the case, might reading be less like murder and more like reassembling the body of Osiris?[18]

I think it is both. One would be hard pressed to look at the unit “nt” and claim that it does not seem to be missing something. So on this level, yes, the fragments emphasize their own incompleteness. However, I would venture that this very incompleteness gives the text its meaning. The fragment, according to Steve McCaffery, “contaminates the notion of an ideal, unitary meaning and thereby counters the supposition that words can fix or stabilize in closure.”[19]

On first read, McCaffery’s conclusion seems overly ambitious. If the fragment is indeterminate, must it necessarily follow that the word from which it originated is also indeterminate? In Empty Words, yes. Cage’s process, in the way that it systematically divides and combines units of meaning, reminds us that words themselves are configurations of interchangeable parts, assembled according to phonetic conventions. Just as the ostensibly incomplete words (“nt,” “de”) allude to all of their possible “wholes,” the hybrid words (“oneRain,” “oftheshaldol”) allude to all of the possible words they comprise. Just as Co could be Concord, so too could Concord be Co, acorn, raccoon. And because it could be any of these, it must be none of them — it must remain open.

“A,” then, is above all a symbol of indeterminacy. The fragments in Empty Words, by retaining links to words they comprise, words they may have been, and words they may yet become, keep the text porous — so much so that when the work dissolves into “emptiness,” it is, paradoxically, full of inchoate meaning.


* * *


When Cage performed parts of Empty Words at the Naropa Institute in 1974, people jeered and threw things. When he performed it in Milan in 1977, the audience of 3,000 divided into camps: some audience members tried to destroy the slide projector Cage was using; others fought them off. One person smashed the bulb in Cage’s reading light; another screwed a new bulb in. Someone even took off Cage’s reading glasses then, on second thought, placed them carefully back on Cage’s face.[20] One can see why audiences may have felt threatened: Empty Words can justifiably be described as pretentious, a work accessible only to an educated coterie. Visually and sonically, it is hostile to conventional notions of sense and harmony. Yet Cage did not intend only to provoke.

“The word at the center of [Cage’s] appreciation of sound is beauty,” writes David Revill in Roaring Silence.[21] Indeed, Cage famously used the word “beautiful” to describe the sounds of traffic and the sound of a table being dragged across the floor. But his is not the kind of essentializing beauty by whose simplistic definition the sound of traffic would be considered discordant — ugly, even. Beauty for Cage admits uncertainty and change, chance and imperfection. Conceived this way, it “[troubles] unquestioned categories, values, and generalized truth …. Beauty troubles sameness because it embodies difference.”[22]

Other poets and scholars who have been talking about beauty recently take a similar tack, pointing out the ways in which beauty is fraught, while affirming that it is nonetheless something real, charged, potent. Karla Kelsey suggests that it is a movement of mind, a way of perceiving.[23] Elizabeth Robinson offers this definition: “beauty is by definition imperfect: partial, transitory, and yet willing to embrace the valuations that are intrinsic to the pleasure we take in perceiving beauty.”[24] There is a wonderful double meaning here that I am sure she intended: beauty is partial in that it can never fully be realized; and beauty is partial in that it is biased — it is connected to ideology. Robinson implies here that qualities like “imperfection” and “value” can coexist.

The sound of traffic may have been beautiful to Cage because it did not seek to “mean”; it sought only to be. Likewise the sound of a table being dragged across the floor. Unlike the table, however, Empty Words is entirely dependent on traditional habits of meaning-making. The distinctions among sentences, phrases, words, syllables, and letters delineate each of its four lectures, thereby constituting the framework of the piece. Syntax, phonics, sound, process, and even the obscure signification of Saussure’s hypograms all become more pronounced as the mind attempts to impose their rules and conventions on Cage’s text.

Yet it is not the rules themselves, but their “failure” that gives Empty Words its artistic energy. The furtive, unruly fragments in Empty Words resist containment and preclude definitive interpretation. They activate multiple registers of sense at once, generating myriad shifting, partial meanings. Perhaps most importantly, they destabilize our notions of sense and closure by exposing the mechanics of our different systems of meaning-making. Here, then, is the subversive beauty that Robinson and others describe.

Joan Retallack asks us to consider the implications of the beautiful, radical shifts Empty Words requires of us: “Might it be possible to move through our lives in other ways, guided by other processes and structures, perceiving connections, even constellations lost to our habitual grammars, seeing the side streets, getting lost and discovering something new?”[25] In a linguistic universe dominated by the cant of politics, religion, war, and commerce, this task is increasingly urgent — a poethical imperative. When reading the paper, shopping for groceries, passing by a billboard, we would do well to remember Cage’s translation of Basho’s haiku: “What leaf?” he asks. “What mushroom?”

 


 

1. Lucy Kavaler, Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles: The Strange Realm of Fungi (New York: John Day, 1965), 45.

2. John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1994).

3. Kenneth Silverman, Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage (New York: Knopf, 2010), 261. 

4. Cage, Empty Words (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1979).

5. Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Routledge, 2003), 150.

6. Cage, Empty Words, 8, 20, 28, 25, 18, 37, 12, 37, 61, 30, 49, 62.

7. Ibid., 18.

8. Ibid., 14.

9. Ibid., 71.

10. Jean Starobinski, Words Upon Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 16.

11. Ibid., 18.

12. Julia Kristeva, “Towards a Semiology of Paragrams,” in Tel Quel Reader, ed. Patrick French and Roland-François Lack (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 293.

13. Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London: Sage, 1993), 199. 

14. Cage, Empty Words, 52.

15. Ibid., 54.

16. Ibid., 15.

17. Ibid., 55.

18. Starobinski, Words Upon Words, 20.

19. Steve McCaffery, Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 196.

20. Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 130–133.

21. David Revill, The Roaring Silence: John Cage, a Life (New York: Arcade, 1992), 123.

22. Steven Taylor, “Beauty Trouble: Identity and Difference in the Tradition of the Aesthetic,” in Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, ed. Anne Waldman and Lisa Birman (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004), 389.

23. Karla Kelsey, “Attention in the Garden: Beauty as an Act of Mind,” Five Fingers Review no. 23.

24. Elizabeth Robinson, “The Ecology of Beauty (And the Vulnerability of the Perceiver),” Not Enough Night (Fall 2006).

25. Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 223.