Meaning Abounds: Mac Low’s Anti-Saussurian Reading-as-Performance

In my plateau, “Noisy Inging: The ‘62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham’ as Anti-Exegesis,” I suggested that the Cage’s Cunningham mesostics, in their refusal of exegetical interpretation, become “notations for a reading public, who perform the piece … as they read” ( Considering how involved both Cage and Mac Low were in the artistic-performance community, it is unsurprising then that the same concerns surface in an analysis of Mac Low’s work. However, understanding reading as performance in the Cunningham mesostics is a more simple analogy, as the poems were used quite literally as notations for performance. The Stein Poems, on the other hand, is a series of poems that, save for poetry readings, were not composed with their eventual performance in mind. I would like to argue, in this section, that The Stein Poems, nevertheless demonstrate that performance is integral to the understanding and experience of Mac Low’s work. In them, as in other of Mac Low’s asyntactical works, the lines between notation and performance, between a message encoded and a message received, are blurred, and, as such, the experience or perception of The Stein Poems, and the meaning-making involved in that perception, amounts to a performance similar to that of the dancers in The Pronouns, an earlier composition of Mac Low’s in which the poems served as instructions for the dancers’ eventual performance. This analogy is, I should add, not at all a stretch, as Mac Low often, as is the case in his interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg included in Art, Performance, Media: 31 Interviews, maintained that much, if not all, of his work after 1954 combined the elements of music, poetry, and theatre into one (257). By envisioning the experience of asyntactical work as the performance of meaning, or what Mac Low himself terms the “enacting” of meaning, The Stein Poems, as emblematic of this work, break open the processes of exegesis, of meaning-making on the level of the reader. Ultimately, this is a political decision clearly in line with Mac Low’s larger poetics and ethics of anarchism and free communal engagement.

Part of Mac Low’s poetic goal in his production of asyntactical texts is an interest, similar to Cage’s call for attentiveness, in the intrinsic significance of all sounds. In the Jacket conversation transcript, “Making Poetry ‘Otherwise,’” for example, he asserts that he believes “there’s something significant in any sound made by a sentient being.” Arguing that, for example, animal noises convey meaning or significance without the vestiges of semantics, without the encoding and decoding of a linguistic message, Mac Low asserts here that the meaning (or meanings) of a sound are intrinsic to, or a part of, the sound itself, directly opposing the notion put forth in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, in which he famously asserts that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, and that semiotic meaning does not significantly correspond to the visual or aural properties of the signified itself. Mac Low, elsewhere, directly addresses this anti-Saussurian viewpoint when he says:

I believe (despite Saussure and his followers) that there’s an intrinsic connection between sound and meaning. […] However, each word has a number of different meanings connected with it, and these multiple meanings may be combined in an infinitely large number of ways, so that perceivers of work such as mine may find (or ‘enact’) for themselves many different meanings. (Art, Performance, Media 257)

What this means is that, while some may understand a refusal of Saussurian linguistics, and specifically a refusal of the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified, as a gesture towards essentialized meaning, for Mac Low the result is the exact opposite. Instead, understanding that each phoneme, intentional or nonintentional, semantic or otherwise, is the vehicle for infinite possible meanings, opens up the reading process in ways that traditional semiotics does not, or cannot.

Rather than understanding the materiality of language as essentially meaningless, Mac Low revels in the limitless potentials of meaningful sounds. In the Zurbrugg interview, he exclaims, “I am convinced that meaning abounds” (270). In poetry, this places the responsibility of meaning-making not on the poet who composes the piece, but rather on the reader who performs the process of meaning-making at the level of experience, or perception. He goes on to say that

All words in poems are meaningful, whether they intentionally convey messages or not and whether they’re brought into the poems intentionally or through nonintentional methods. The perceivers of the poems enact meanings, at the end of the day, whether the poets intend to convey meanings or not. (271)

This process, he argues, frees language from overcoding, from the weight of the communicative message, allowing the linguistic elements themselves to speak, and freeing the perceiver or reader to engage with, or enter into an affective relationship with, the piece unburdened by the limitations of traditional communication. The goal of this writing, then, “is to let what’s there be; especially letting words, linguistic units, be, not make them carry a burden of my thoughts, my feelings, whatever” (“Making Poetry ‘Otherwise’”). What Mac Low proposes here, then, is, in no small terms, a postanarchist reading practice in which expression is refused in favor of more productive engagement with the text at hand. This view of readership opens up aynstactical texts like those of The Stein Poems, but also, in effect, all texts, to the production of infinite unique readings on the part of the reader. “Each person who hears or reads this kind of work produces something new,” he tells Zurbrugg, “whether one wishes to call it ‘meaning’ or something else” (271). The result is a reading practice that is radically communal, radically anarchic.

I say “anarchic” here because by placing the responsibility of meaning-making on the reader as performer, Mac Low refuses the potential authority of the composer/author role. This has long been a concern of his work, as Anne Tardos recognizes in her forward to Thing of Beauty, when she quotes the now unavailable “Instructions” for his “Music for Gathas”: “[The composer] values freedom – everybody’s freedom with this composer-performer community. He [sic] is neither the dictator nor … the primary soloist” (“Forward” xvi). But, ever the realist, Mac Low never asserts that in these moments of free meaning-making they are purely anarchic. Rather, the experience of Mac Low’s work functions as a TAZ, which is what Mac Low himself suggests in an interview for Paper Air when he argues that his performances are “‘analogies’ rather than ‘paradigms’ of free communities” (“Interview” qtd. in Miller 35). By creating a TAZ, a performative analogy of an anarchist, free community, Mac Low allows perceivers of his work to recognize how sign systems and their concomitant limitations reinforce the organizing, ruling, and thus inhibiting, effects of larger social institutions, allowing the reader as performer momentary freedom from such limitations. As critic Tyrus Miller asserts, “Mac Low mobilizes the difference between sign systems, the paragrammatic-rewriting of a set of written instructions into a set of actions that at once realize and transpose the text, setting in play the text’s ‘code’ while asserting the ‘independence’ of performers from that code” (74). The “action” of these texts serves as an activism, an opening-up of the choices individuals are able to make, both in the literal performance of pieces like The Pronouns, where instructions are vague and open to potentially limitless interpretation, and in the reading-performance of asyntactical pieces like The Stein Poems, where exegetical interpretation is revealed as similarly limitless. Mac Low always viewed this allowance of reader-performer choice as an anarchist activism, arguing that

the ‘audiences,’ as well as the performers, … exercis[e] many kinds of choice – both perceptive and meaning productive. And this is equally true of readers and hearers of my so-called solo poetry. Most of my work in the arts provides for many types and areas of freedom. And I hope furthers freedom in the world. (Art, Performance, Media 271).

In this way, Mac Low’s work invites a postanarchist reading practice that recognizes the ways in which language, and its reliance on deleuzoguattarian overcoding, works to limit freedom on the level of the individual.

These elements of The Stein Poems are exemplified by “Time That Something Something (Stein 18),” a poem that not only invites and embraces the potentials of multiplicitous meaning, but also relies heavily on aurality (on rhythm, silence, and repetition, elements that Mac Low retained from the Stein works that provided the source texts for the poems). This emphasis on aurality foregrounds the reading of this poem as a performance, and the excessive use of blank space to denote silence acts as a reminder for the reader to meditate on the potentials of the language therein. The poem begins, following the vague but inviting title, with the following six lines, making up the first “sentence” of the poem:




One and one is is,


The juxtaposition of the specificity of the definite articles, “That,” “This,” and “The,” stands in stark contrast to the extremely vague “Something Something” of the title, and the emphasis on the multiple inherent in “One and One is is,” which is repeated throughout the poem, identically on line sixty five, as “If is one one” (50), as “One, / and one is, / is one” (77-9), and as “One and one, / is ís then there,” (118-9). The multiple variations of the line, and its suggestion that the multiple (“one and one”) cohere incompletely, seem to reinforce Mac Low’s suggestion that the individual linguistic unit carries with it multiple potential readings. On line nineteen, when the line is repeated with an added emphasis on the second “ís” (via a stressor accent, recalling Mac Low’s interest in sprung rhythm, and Hopkins’s privileging of stressed syllables), the poem reminds its reader that the message, the object of the verb “to be,” is not encoded in the poem. That, instead of the burden of syntactical meaning, the poem presents its reader with an emphasized but emptied “ís.” The rest of the poem is littered with pronouns without referents, definite articles without clarifying nouns, progressive verbs without clear acting subjects, and the almost frustrating repetition of vague pronouns such as “something” (27, 28, 42, 43), “anything” (87, 89,105), etcetera. The final four lines of the poem seem to acknowledge the potential frustrations of a reader seeking expression, unaware that the poem requires that s/he take the role of meaning-maker in the text. It ends:




discovering something something. (142-5)

As the implied acting subject of these progressive verbs, the reader fills in the emptiness of the words, accepts the potentials of their meaning, and as such, performs the piece. S/he enacts something something.

5 thoughts on “Meaning Abounds: Mac Low’s Anti-Saussurian Reading-as-Performance

  1. This is a really fascinating entry. Your discussion of postanarchist reading is starting to come together quite nicely.

    A few thoughts:

    I’m not certain what you mean when you write “However, understanding reading as performance in the Cunningham mesostics is a more simple analogy, as the poems were used quite literally as notations for performance.” Could you explain how the mesostics were literally notations for performance? Cage’s own description of the poems as “waterfalls or ideograms” would suggest that he didn’t think of them as notations for performance. (Do you perhaps means “notations OF performance” (thinking of them as capturing or mimicking Cunningham’s dancing?) Could you clarify, please?

    You should refer/link back to your discussion of Hakim Bey’s temporary autonomous zone (TAZ), so you don’t alienate those who’ve recently started following your work.

    After quoting Mac Low (““Each person who hears or reads this kind of work produces something knew,” [sic] he tells Zurbrugg, “whether one wishes to call it ‘meaning’ or something else” (271)), you write that “The result is a reading practice that is radically communal, radically anarchic.” Is it communal, though? It seems that it is radically non-hierarchical, and I can certainly agree that it is anarchic, but I’m not convinced about the communal, since the reader is presumably unable to convey her “meaning” or “something new” to other readers. Isn’t this reading practice radically isolated or individualized, rather than communal? Or do you see that reading experience differently?

  2. 1) I was thinking of those times when the Cunningham mesostics were performed as a composition for solo-voce (Demetrio Stratos, Eberhardt Blum, &c). There are recordings available (on record, CD, and mp3 —!/album/62+Mesostics+Re+Merce+Cunningham+Eberhard+Blum/7544878).

    2) Done. I’ll be more diligent about this.

    3) I understand this reading practice as communal insofar as the production of meaning is collaborative (initiator, chance, machine, reader[s]). But, I take your point that this view of meaning is also highly individualized, and necessarily outside of semantic communication. In this sense, each reader/reading is a node in a molecular structure of potential readings.

  3. Your analysis of Mac Low’s lines: “One and One is is”, “If is one one” as “One, / and one is, / is one”, “One and one, / is ís then there,” in relation to the multiple made me think about Badiou’s work on set theory. Badiou’s interest in set theory is both ontological and political: on the one hand, set theory allows him to theorize multiplicities, and on the other, set theory permits the theorization of membership because numbers become “members” of sets. Membership, for Badiou, is political (and his “political” is always Maoist), but I was wondering if Mac Low’s counting of “ones” here could benefit from a Badiou at all?


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