PERMISSION GRANTED. BUT NOT TO DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.
I’m beginning to feel that my I-Ching coins are weighted, since this is the second week in a row I’ve received an unchanging reading. In reality, this has more to do with the deficiencies with the I-Ching model for complete randomization, and for the general theory of randomness. One would think that a random number generator would give us readings that are constantly changing. However, an expert in randomness theory can always spot a fake number set for example, in test groups of dice-rolling. Usually what happens in these cases is two sets of persons are asked to toss a coin over and over and write the results up. One group is asked to fake the results and give an order they consider random. Almost always, the group that actually tosses the coins comes up with a common localized anomaly: many long successions of one side of the coin or the other in a row. The other group attempts to “fake” it by alternating constantly between heads or tails. This is in fact the true nature of randomness on the local level. It’s why gambling works so well; nearly everyone who has gambled will experience a “streak” where against all odds they suddenly keep winning, and nearly everyone who gambles long enough will experience an equal balancing moment in which they consistently lose every hand or roll of the dice; in the end, the house always wins—that is statistical randomness on the global scale.
This is something that John Cage realized in the 50s with the I-Ching coin tossing technique, and he eventually moved to star charts and paper imperfections to generate random sets of data to correlate to musical actions. Many see this as a simplification of the entire compositional method of chance, and in a sense Cage was trying to save time not having to toss coins thousands of times; but what he may or may not have realized, star charts and other random number generators that do not use a set means of variables that generate data are in fact statistically more random; with these methods you get a better localized sense of randomness, because nature in itself is much more random than any model mankind has come up with. Just visit www.random.org, which uses atmospheric noise to generate number sets rather than computer programs, and is currently one of the most successful commercial generators of random figures or information.
I’ve been terribly short on time the past month or so, so apologies in advance for poor writing, typos etc. This is dissertation defense season, where thousands across the country are entering footnote void, frantically rewriting, and fretting about hordes of problems that are insignificant to everyone around them, including their committees. I am sad to say that I am joining this crowd, and needless to say it’s not a terribly pleasant experience. But, as the I-Ching reading notes, “duration is a state whose movement is not worn down by hindrances..duration is the self-contained and self-renewing movement of an organized, firmly integrated whole, taking place in accordance with immutable laws and beginning anew at every end.” I just need to remember to breathe….
“Seriously Comma” is a short essay, and it mainly concerns Marshall McLuhan, whom Cage admired and whom he met in 1965. I don’t think Cage was truly as invested in McLuhan as he was in Fuller, but it was hard for anyone to avoid the cultural trendiness of a public figure like McLuhan; he was sort of like the Malcolm Gladwell of the 1960s, shamelessly culling from hard-earned academic research in the social sciences and digesting it into an easily readable populist message. McLuhan’s famous motto, “The Medium is the Message” (originally misprinted in the first edition as “The Medium is the Massage”), sparked a generation of technological determinists in communications studies, and it took quite some time for the field to leap out of the mess of theories to morph into its quantitative/qualitative bifurcated pseudo-humanities form it is today.
My research has focused on Cage and the audiovisual experience, and what role it might have in his general aesthetic, and McLuhan’s message (or culturally mediated massage), promoted the familiar messages of western culture since the enlightenment, which gave primacy to the visual over the auditory. Semiotic studies have covered the relationship between signs and objects in advertising and popular media for several generations, alternately embracing and rejecting the bonds between objects and ideas as part of our overall consciousness. Almost all of these studies use visual examples as the a priori condition for any type of bond, be it indexical or symbolic, and the secondary action of articulating meaning through vocal phonemes is wholly arbitrary; thus sound is inherently subjective in this model, while visual signs are concrete and definable.
Cage of course, gave primacy to the audible in his metaphor of being through the negative aesthetic of silence, and thus his interpretation of McLuhan generally involves transplanting visual metaphors on to auditory ones. This formed an important precursor to sound art theories of the cochlear versus the optic, and it is helpful to keep this in mind when investigating Cage’s written works, which were “musicalized” in a sense, meaning that the auditory phenomena in performance were just as important as the word relationships on the page, at least in Cage’s more abstract writings.
“Seriously Comma” is written to reflect McLuhan’s notion of scanning or jumping, where individual pockets of information (all are which are, coincidentally, the length of a tweet) are placed in different fonts on the page. The scattered layout of ideas and comments are meant to be read in random order in the same way that the eye jumps from object to object on a newspaper page. McLuhan was writing at the dawn of the 60s, when the American consumerist imperative had catapulted advertising into the household in unprecedented ways through print, radio, and television, and his argument was that humans, as evolving beings, simply adapted to this new form of information processing. Perhaps the best example of what was derided as schizophrenic visuality is the use of “jump cuts” in the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Rather than presenting cinematic narrative through the traditional method of three camera setups and shot-reverse-shot, scenes “jump” ahead of the action, cutting out moments of reality and turning filmic reality into something else.
Cage’s essay was written for a special edition of the French journal Preuves entitled Serial Music Today, and his point was to demonstrate the fundamental flaw with serial composition and the modern mediated listening subject: according to McLuhan, and Cage, listeners are unconcerned with continuity, they have adapted and no longer follow or think chronologically; they instead jump, scan, and skim, considering an object simultaneously from the global and local perspective. Thus, to advocate a compositional method that is entirely predicated on the logic of succession was anathema to contemporary music. Cage puts it nicely when he notes “At present, it appears to be a series of components—a sound system—but it is a series of components, not a series of components.”
This is 2012, and in the fifty-plus years since McLuhan and Cage, much has changed, yet we still cling to apocalyptic visions of our minds being changed for the worse. The internet is rotting our brain, Google is making us “stooopid,” spell-check has ruined us; our attention spans have decreased, no one can read anything longer than a 1,500 word blog post without clicking on another link and wandering through the web; advertisements must follow a specific beat and display images of the product in a carefully calculated succession of test-group and cognitive-based assessments of human desire and attentiveness, and so on.
These are compelling arguments, but I think it is important to stress, very seriously, that these are perennial arguments. Ever since the dawn of civilization we have feared and prophesied that changes in the way we think, communicate, live, and work are dangerous turns down the wrong road. Utopian claims are always pitted against apocalyptic cries. Is the internet turning us into human machines, or are we just adapting our habits? Does it really matter?
I’ll end with one more note on the famous passage in “Seriously Comma” that Cage scholars and critics like to constantly quote: “Permission Granted. But not to do whatever you want.” I spent a great deal of time on this blog discussing this in the context of Benjamin Peikut’s recent critique of experimentalism in the 1960s, and it is always considered a lynchpin in the argument against Cage’s “anything goes” aesthetic. Cage allowed for indeterminacy, but only according to his rules, the argument goes, and in a sense it’s a good one. However, the context of the quote is something quite different. Cage was noting that the modern mediated subject has the potential to engage in a new form of communication brought about by technological innovation, but like any new system, it must have a shape and a form that is culturally acceptable in order to be effective—a liberal argument in the truest sense (and wholly unlike today’s form of extremist liberalism). As I’ve mentioned on this blog, the same thing is happening with internet technology as we speak; gone are the days of the “wild west” of internet piracy, net neutrality, and unsponsored information. I imagine that this will continue into the future, when Facebook pops up instantly in our browsers, while far-flung foreign sites will be a thing of the past, lost in the abyss of unsponsored and unregulated information that made this medium such a great message (or massage) in the first place.
Complaint: you open doors; what we want to know is which ones you close. (Doors I open close automatically after I go through.)