John Cage

Cagean Silence and the Comunis of Communication

Before I get into my readings of John Cage’s poetic sequence, “62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham,” I would like to begin where many scholars start their work on Cage: with his silence. Silence is central to an understanding of Cage’s work (in poetry, in prose, in music, in visual art), and it has been a point of scholarly contestation since academics began discussing these pieces in any depth. Part of the reason that Cage’s silence has become so integral to his scholarship is that, despite the recent exponential growth of Cagean scholarship, he remains best known for his musical composition, 4’33” (1952), a composition in three parts in which the musician (traditionally a single pianist) does not play for the duration of the piece. The result is that the audience (usually equal parts uncomfortable and attentive) is forced to listen to atmospheric and environmental sounds, and especially the impromptu sounds of each other’s discomfort. The general reception, as evidenced by the linked YouTube video comments (and various comments littered throughout Cage videos on the internet), is that the piece does not mean anything. In more critical comments, the piece is described as a cruel joke, a version of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” in which we are all duped into believing that Cage has created art. Kyle Gann’s excellent book-length study of the piece and its reception, No Such Thing as Silence, details that this reaction is in no way limited to contemporary YouTube users with little or no familiarity with Cage’s work. Instead, the piece has always met with similar criticisms: it says nothing; it is not art.

It is this reaction to the many manifestations of silence in Cage’s work that Jonathan D. Katz responds to in “Identification,” an essay that essentially revolutionized readings of Cagean silence by asserting that Cage’s refusal to communicate in a conventional sense is a mixture of both “camouflage and contestation” (51). That is, Katz demonstrates that this silence – or, Cage’s politics of non-engagement – is emblematic of a queer passivity and resistance in the manifestly homophobic climate of post-McCarthy Cold War America[i]. Katz’s arguments are, before a radical rereading of Cage’s work, a response to Moira Roth’s seminal readings of Cage, most evident in her essay “The Aesthetic of Indifference.” Roth argues that Cage’s work, especially 4’33” (where the silence is literal), expresses “no messages, no feelings, and no ideas” because such things could not be articulated in the restrictive, oppressive atmosphere of America’s contemporaneous political climate (41). Roth admits that “Cage would object to such an interpretation,” especially because Cage imagined that the refusal of conventional meaning would allow for the production of, and more importantly in light of my project’s emphasis on readership, the reception of, new meanings or new ways of meaning (41). Nonetheless, Roth maintains that Cage’s work suggests an indifference to a policy that was seemingly indifferent to him as a homosexual. While Roth attempts to show how this silence can move from negative to positive, from passive to active (ie. from silenced to refusing), her work maintains that a lack of conventional meaning is necessarily a lack of any meaning. Most importantly, Roth dismisses Cage’s poetics of silence, and by proxy his anarchist tendencies, as apolitical (36).

Instead, Katz proposes that this “indifference” is not, as Roth would have it, an apolitical position, but rather a position outside of conventional politics. After all, Cage always insisted that he was not particularly interested in politics proper: “I am interested in social ends, but not in political ends, because politics deals with power, and society deals with numbers of individuals” (Kostelanetz 274). Katz also objects to Roth’s designation of Cage’s wilful silence (a silence that is a refusal to engage) because of its assumption of choice. He writes that “her [Roth’s] implication that they did not become involved assumes that they could have” (“Identification” 53). I would go much further than Katz here, because what he calls Roth’s “implication” is not implied at all, but rather plainly stated. Roth argues that Cage and his contemporaries (a group that, for both Roth and Cage, includes Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Cage’s long-time partner Merce Cunningham, for whom the sequence of mesostics I will discuss is written), either willingly or instinctively decided on silence rather than an oppositional engagement. And, what’s worse, Roth characterizes this silence as lamentable and even cowardly:

to have chosen, consciously or not, to advocate indifference and neutrality as psychological and intellectual way out of the impasse of the McCarthy period was perhaps not a courageous stance but, in retrospect, was understandable in view of the paralyzing effect that the early 50s had on so many intellectuals. (46)

Katz, on the other hand, does not ignore the clearly oppressive elements of this silence, and argues instead that Cage’s silence is both oppression and opposition. In a later essay, “John Cage’s Queer Silence; or, How to Avoid Making Matters Worse,” Katz clarifies this argument, insisting that “there are both surrender and resistance in these silences” (53, italics added). While Katz does a great service to Cage studies in redeeming this silence as, at least in part, political, his language is tellingly dualistic, despite his arguments in the “Queer Silence” article about Cage’s non-oppositional politics[ii]. In “contestation” and “resistance,” he captures the classical anarchist elements of Cage’s work, and the clear anti-authoritarian elements. But, this also fails to recognize that Cage persistently shied away from oppositional politics, and instead embraced a world of alternative and experimentation. As Christopher Shultis explains in Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the American Experimental Tradition, an objection to dualism has always been a prominent feature of Cage’s work. Shultis writes that Cage, following in the tradition of Thoreau, attempts to forge “a nondual universe where coexistence replaces control – where there is no need for reconciliation because there are no opposites” (33). Katz, instead, paints a dualistic picture in which Cage feels oppressed, and therefore remains silent as if to refuse the oppression; it’s a oppositional strategy, and one to which Cage constantly seeks alternatives. While Katz’s work here may have opened up new potential readings, the explanation it affords us as readers of Cagean silence is ultimately unsatisfactory.

To be sure, the looming presence of Joseph McCarthy was not the only oppressive force leading Cage to silence. The American art community, and especially the New York school, where Cage and Cunningham conducted the bulk of their creative work, was dominated by abstract expressionist artists who were attracting public attention for their avant-garde[iii] works. Led by the very public personas of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline, the New York art scene was permeated, from the 40s into the early 60s, by what Roth calls a “machismo attitude” that clearly opposed Cage’s non-oppositional politics and seeming “indifference” (37). The abstract expressionists relied heavily on both the persona of the artist and the expression of meaning (however abstracted). This, then, brings me to my discussion of the “62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham,” or the Cunningham Mesostics, as I will refer to them throughout.

The first mesostic in the sequence.

The first mesostic in the sequence.

These mesostics, in their nonsemantic lines joined by a combination of chance procedure and clearly defined parameters[iv], the virtual “illegibility of most of the “words,” and the persistent repetition, all resist conveying meaning in the conventional sense. For Cage, this resistance to meaning is a resistance to an expressive power over the reader (and here the poems lend themselves quite clearly to a postanarchist reading practice), but it is also a resistance to being “read” by the audience. As Katz goes on to write, for Cage “meaning was concomitant with interpolation, the act of being read by another” (55). So, Cage’s work gets characterized by Katz as “unexpressive expressionism” (62), another unsatisfactory term that begs the question: if, as Katz asserts, Cage wants to refuse expression, why express at all?

A postanarchist reading of Cage’s poetics of silence undercuts Katz’s designation of an “unexpressive expressionism,” understanding Cage’s work as engaging in a proliferation of noise, which is to say that it seeks to communicate rather than to express.  Noise, as understood by communication theories, is a break in communication, an external entry into the message that disturbs its eventual delivery. This is to say that communication still occurs, but it is not “successful” in that it is no longer “sensical.” When this communicative understanding of noise is adapted into poetic study by Craig Dworkin in Reading the Illegible, “noise” becomes a multiplication of meaning, an overabundance of sense that, in turn, renders the message nonsensical, illogical, and thus a kind of terrorism or violence against a militarized[v] language. While, in this case, Dworkin is discussing the work of Susan Howe, who I will also discuss much later in this project, his observations regarding noise are especially relevant to Cage’s silence. “[N]oise,” he writes, “proliferates hand in hand with an increase in the terms of communication” (45). And, more importantly, he notes that noise, rather than merely engaging in what Wittgenstein famously calls “the language-game of giving information” (Zettel §106), instead contains the “potential to disrupt the message, to unsettle the code of the status quo” (Reading the Illegible 39). Thus, it is our responsibility, as the audience of Cage’s work, poetic, musical, or otherwise, to allow this communication (to enter into the comunis of communication) without requiring that the text make its expressions. As such, the “62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham,” articulate a noisy silence, much like a theatre full of people anxiously listening as David Tudor does not play. In the sequence’s illegibility, in the ways that the already nonsensical language overlaps and obscures itself, the reader is forced to see how quotidian language gets coded and overcoded, and to critique the ways in which this overcoding produces a limiting and oppressive violence[vi].


[i] Indeed, the Cunningham mesostics are emblematic of a post-McCarthy era and its concomitant fear of homosexuality, and of political dissent (both of which clearly mark the piece). But, it is even more important to note that 4’33” was first performed in 1952, while Joseph McCarthy still held his position as Senator, and was right in the middle of the “Lavender Scare” (the name now given to McCarthy’s witch-hunt against homosexuals in government positions). For more information on McCarthyism and its abuses of homosexuals, see David K. Johnson’s acclaimed book-length study, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004.

[ii] Nonetheless, the danger of reading Cage’s politics as oppositional is underscored by Katz, who notes that “Once marked as oppositional, any disturbance can be incorporated into a discourse of oppositionality that only catalyzes oppressive constructions” (59). Andy Weaver, in his dissertation chapter on Cage, “Not Understanding, But Undergoing: John Cage’s ‘Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake’” notes that, in light of this danger, Cage’s silence is an attempt to move beyond such binaries, in order to expand the field of play” (159). Despite this, I maintain that Katz’s language ends up placing Cagean silence into the very dualism it looks to disturb.

[iii] As my discussions of this term in previous entries would indicate, my use of the term “avant-garde” to describe Pollock, de Kooning, and the other abstract expressionists, is purposeful and political.

[iv] I will discuss the actual process of the sequence’s production in greater detail in the sections that follow.

[v] For Cage on the militarization of language, see my entry in my “Introduction”: “Anarchism and the Experiment: What is an Experimental Poem?”, under bullet 4. “Politic.”

[vi] To scapegoat McCarthy once more, the violence he enacted on the victims of the “Lavender” and “Red” Scares was, in addition to an economic and sometimes physical violence, very much a violence of language, a language game of naming in which the individual is coded (as communist, as homosexual) by the State, publicly, but not communally. By refusing this language-game, Cage implicitly critiques those structures that label and limit him, as author, as lover, as anarchist.

6 thoughts on “Cagean Silence and the Comunis of Communication

  1. I like this entry, but I wonder about this sentence: “When this communicative understanding of noise is adapted into poetic study by Craig Dworkin in Reading the Illegible, “noise” becomes a multiplication of meaning, an overabundance of sense that, in turn, renders the message nonsensical, illogical, and thus a kind of terrorism or violence against a militarized language.” Is “illogical” stumbling back into binarism (is Cage attempting something more… alogical, if that’s possible?); also, would Cage, a committed pacifist, agree with Dworkin’s (and yours?) endorsement of “terrorism or violence against a militarized language”? Maybe something like David Bernstein’s application (in his article “‘In Order to Thicken the Plot’: Toward a Critical Reception of Cage’s Music”) of Raymond Williams’s “alternative culture” rather than “oppositional culture” to describe Cage’s stance might be more appropriate?

    • On your first concern: illogical, I think, only falls back into an unhelpful binarism so long as we maintain a 0-1 binaric understanding of a logical/illogical system. If we, instead, position the illogical as an alternative to this binary (something akin to Kristeva’s 0-2 doubleness of poetic language), than illogic becomes not the negative side of a two-part system, but rather an alternative to, or perhaps an outside of, this system. That is only partially a cop out. I think that extracting nonsense from a logico-sensical system is integral to understanding how Cage’s work plays with otherwise overcoded sign systems.

      On your note on pacifism, though, I fear my answers will be far less Cagean. It is on this note that Cage’s poetics, and my (and Dworkin’s) criticism part ways. Cage believes in an anarchic pacifism, but my own anarchism, and the theorizations that Dworkin provides, instead propose that a linguistic anarchism (a poetic anarchism, a literary TAZ) is necessarily a violence against organizational structures. Certainly, Cage would be disgruntled with some elements of my reading of his work (his distaste for even literary violence is perhaps best demonstrated by his writings-through of Ezra Pound). But I maintain that dismantling linguistic structure the way Cage does is a violent, terrorist act whether the man would concede to that or not.

      • Hmm. I take your first point about “illogical,” but I’m still not convinced about Cage as violent terrorist. Is it possible to adjust the terminology, I wonder? It’s certainly true that some readers/listeners are terrorized by Cage’s work (or at least outraged, which seems to be much the same thing, aesthetically), but “violence”? That seems a tougher argument. Can there be such a thing as a non-violent terrorism? Could we meet mid-way, by thinking of Cage’s work as transgressive or destructive, rather than violent. Of course, Lyotard’s notion of education as violence is one I agree with, and so perhaps my arguments are undone? Perhaps I merely want you to define “violence” in relation to Cage’s disruption of language codes?

  2. I think your reading of noise is really important and you already move in the direction of information theory, but I would also throw Michel Serres in the mix (specifically in both “La Parasite” and “Hermes”). Noise is, for Serres, a parasite – “bruit parasite” means “interference” or “static.” Serres nicely toys with the complexity of this interplay of parasitism and noise.

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