[5. Hsü / Waiting (Nourishment), Nine in the Second Place. Changing to: 63. Chi Chi / After Completion]
It is at this crossroads that we must change direction, if, that is, we are going where we are going. (I know perfectly well I’m wandering but I try to see what there is to see and my eyes are not as good as they were but they’re improving.)
Nothing special. Nothing predetermined. Just something useful to set the thing going.
I mentioned last week that the two large essays toward the end of Silence make up almost half of the book, and I feel that “Where are We Going? And What Are We Doing?” is a sort of philosophical joke. It is very long, and most of the statements in it are of no particular significance. There is little if any mention of compositional techniques, chance, the I-Ching, Suzuki, or any of the other familiar heuristics that pepper the rest of John Cage’s prose. The text consists of four separate dialogues, each one a sort of stream of consciousness writing that does not really stick to any particular idea, but instead flows seamlessly. The instructions are for a performer to read one of the four lines accompanied by tape recordings of the other three (he may choose any one of the four, and the tapes are available for rent by C.F. Peters, of course).
The back cover to Silence has a wonderful image of Cage at his drafting table at Wesleyan University, where he was in residence in 1960, and where he redrafted and assembled Silence. “Where Are We Going?” was clearly written at this desk; there are many references to the space in the stream of consciousness sections, including Cage’s constant complaining about the air conditioning, which he was not used to, and of the maid coming in to clean the space.
|John Cage at Wesleyan University|
Cage indicated that he used Cartridge Music (1960), one of his early point-to-line transparencies, to arrange the text. Unlike I-Ching operations, this randomization procedure is incredibly difficult to explain or analyze, because it is wholly indeterminate—so indeterminate, in fact, that often scholars have wondered whether Cage consistently followed the intricate measurements in practice…..
Regardless, the text, if one reads it successively, is nearly impossible to decipher. If one reads the individual lines separately, which are each in a different italic or boldface type, a sense of coherence exists, or at least continuity; but each separate strain never really talks about anything in particular. And I think this is the point. Something, anything is happening in each line; it’s almost as if Cage was just looking around him making observations about things. Cage is apologetic in the introduction:
I have therefore made a lecture in the course of which, by various means, meaning is not easy to come by even though lucidity has been my constant will-of-the-wisp. I have permitted myself to do this not out of disdain of you who are present. But out of regard for the way in which I understand nature operates.
Cage brings up his favorite statement by Ananda Coomaraswamy on nature and her manner of operation, and he presents a familiar philosophical problem:
Not all of our past, but the parts of it we are taught, lead us to believe that we are in the driver’s seat. With respect to nature. And if that we are not, life is meaningless. Well, the grand thing about the human mind is that it can turn its own tables and see meaningless as ultimate meaning.
Few people have pointed this out, but I believe that this essay in particular was influenced by the work of German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. There are notes in Cage’s correspondence that he was reading Wittgenstein’s famous Philosophical Investigations (1953), and possibly his earlier infamous 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). It never occurred to me to make the connection until I came across this line in the middle of the text (on p. 232):
There is a story that is to the point. A man was born in Austria. When he came into his inheritance, he gave all his money away. He engaged in a wide variety of activities one after the other. When the War came along, he went into it. He continued his activity during the War and even his correspondence. Later, he moved back and forth between more or less the same countries and, as I say elsewhere, he started at different times different schools and repudiated both of them which is only partly true. He moved around a good deal and even came to America and then he went back; he had been at one time in Ireland and he began to more and more include it in the places to which he went and he included Norway. He found a rare mushroom and since it was in a dry season he built a protection for it and provided it with water. Fulfilling other commitments and yet studying the growth of the fungus, he involved himself in many trips of 250 miles each. Is that what we are doing?
I don’t know about the mushroom anecdote, but this is definitely a brief outline of Wittgenstein’s famous life story; his abandonment of his inheritance, his various travels, and the repudiation of his two major volumes at various points in his career. I am not terribly familiar with the intricacies of Wittgenstein, and I doubt Cage really dug into the work too deeply, considering all of his other commitments, and considering the fact that by this point he had a clear set of heuristics to sustain his artistic career for some time to come, but I do think that there is something to be said about Wittgenstein’s investigation of language and this essay.
To summarize poorly, Wittgenstein’s early work deals with the “problem of philosophy,” and argues that the problem is fundamentally about our use of language. As he explains in the introduction to Tractatus, “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” I always enjoy when analytic philosophers make fun of themselves, explaining that they talk about nothing quite precisely, and this is what Wittgenstein was getting at; the Tractatus in essence voided itself by its very logical precision. This is why people always say, if you understand Wittgenstein, you will give up philosophy. Because of this impasse, Wittgenstein famously retreated from philosophy for quite some time and taught at a primary school in rural England. His final posthumous publication, Philosophical Investigations, returned to the impasse of language, proposing a use-value model of language. In essence, language is a game, governed by rules, and all one can really do is look at how language is used. The meaning of a word is its use, and ”philosophy puts everything before us and neither explains nor deduces anything.” All questions, metaphysical or otherwise, are governed by one's language, hence, “the limits of my language are the limits of my reality.”
This seems to be the point of “Where are We Going? And What Are We Doing?” I would say that Cage’s answer to the meaningless is the same as Wittgenstein’s: meaning is based on use, thus we can see “meaningless as ultimate meaning.” This fits perfectly with Cage’s negative aesthetics: something is what it is based on our use of it, or our ability to perceive it. This goes back to his empirical categorization of sound structure, the anechoic chamber eureka moment in which he discovered his inability to imagine a situation that does not exist within the reality of a sentient human being (silence), the crisis of expression, and the embrace of indeterminacy as a philosophical concept to explain reality. Cage’s introductory paragraph again summarizes this nicely: if we are not in the “driver’s seat,” meaning we are not able to accurately describe all of reality as it exists with language, “life is meaningless.” But, through negative aesthetics, we can, at the least, prove that meaningless is meaning, and leave it at that. Analytic philosophers are content to leave it at that and go home for the day, and so was Cage.
Consider the opening line of “Where Are We Going?” “If we set out to catalogue things today, we find ourselves rather endlessly involved in cross-referencing. Would it not be less efficient to start the other way around, after the fashion of some obscure second-hand bookstore?” A few pages later, when this text continues, Cage states: “You know what we’re doing? We’re breaking the rules, even out own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” Basically, Cage is setting us up for a series of thought experiments; the only problem is it is almost impossible to decipher them; they’re jumbled up in the simultaneous texts running along the page. Consider the same passage in conjunction with the rest of the text:
You want to know what we’re doing?
That is what we are doing. In fact
We’re breaking the rules, even our
we don’t need to go to bring that
own rules. And how do we do that?
into our action. We tend to rush
By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.
to what we think are the limits
The house had been so well built that
only to discover how tamed out
even though it burned, it did not
After we have been going for some
I’m tempted to speculate that Cage was not entirely “pure” with his application of point-to-line randomization for this essay, and that some of this overlap was explicit, for the very reason that it demonstrates the concepts through a series of thought experiments. Cage seems to allude to family resemblances in a number of sections:
We are leaving the machines home to play the old games of relationships, addition and who wins.
Now we get an idea and present it in such a way that it can be used by him who is going to do it. Someone once raised the question who gets the credit. The listener gives it to himself when he gets it. All the people have become active and enjoy what you might call individual security.
Yet at other times it seems like pure stream of consciousness writing:
I wander out in the hall expecting to see someone. It turns out it wasn’t anybody: it was a machine. I’m as crazy as a loon: I’m invited out to dinner. I keep telling myself: Before you go to bed, be sure to close the bathroom door; if you don’t, you’ll just have to get up and close it later.
I am not sure just how far this point can be stretched, because it seems Cage did not take Wittgenstein’s concepts much further in later essays, especially when he got caught up with Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan; but it tempting to speculate where it might have gone, and what it might have done.