Analogies of Free Communities: Jackson Mac Low’s Artistic Anarchism

“Then again, if you mean by politics something that affects other people, working with language in ways other than the usual is political because it can affect people in unexpected ways, change the views of language, of thought – even of society or human relationships in general!” – JML

Jackson Mac Low is one of the few authors on my list who self-identifies as anarchist. Similar to John Cage’s anarchism, Mac Low’s politics are largely dependent on non-engagement, on allowing individuals to exist and enact their desires as they see fit. However, while Cage’s anarchism is particularly concerned with how to exist as anarchist in a society that is definitively not anarchic, Mac Low’s politics are seemingly more utopian. Cage’s work, such as the example of the “62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham,” is interested in using the pre-existing tools of poetic language to work towards something outside of interpretation and representation[i]. Mac Low, on the other hand, uses the performative elements of his work as a means to reproduce a utopian (free, communal) anarchist society on a microcosmic scale. This is a major preoccupation of Mac Low’s work throughout his career, as he asserts in the conversation transcript, “Making Poetry ‘Otherwise,’” when he states: “I am still to some real extent an anarchist. […] Anarchy simply means people are making their own decisions.” In this sense, the other elements of Mac Low’s poetics that I have already discussed – the interplay of chance and authorial engagement, the potentialities of reading as performance, the problem of literary tradition in the quest of the unique – must all be read as elements of an anarchist poetics that envisions what a purely anarchist society would look like. And, as I will demonstrate in this plateau, Mac Low’s work also works through how artistic practice can be an activist practice that enables its producers and perceivers to come closer to that anarchist utopia.

For my purposes, it is important to first recognize that Mac Low’s desire to see political affect in his art is loosely related to his inclusion in the Fluxus school of avant-garde art. However, while other Fluxus-affiliated artists, such as George Maciunas, saw the goal of Fluxus as the purging of “bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual,’ professional & commercialized culture” (“Manifesto”) through the incorporation of the quotidian into artistic practice, Mac Low’s outlook is the entire opposite. Contradicting Maciunas’s anti-art view, Mac Low argues that he has “never had any anti-art attitude whatsoever. I wanted (and still want) to expand art to include a good deal of ordinary life, but not to destroy art in any way” (Art, Performance 266). Instead, more in keeping with Dick Higgins’s views on Fluxus, allowing artistic practice to include “a good deal of ordinary life” works in tandem with a desire for the quotidian in Fluxus to exist on its own, rather than signifying something larger (ie. allowing art to exist as analogous to life, rather than a metaphor for it). As Higgins describes in “A Child’s History of Fluxus,” “Everything was itself, it wasn’t part of something bigger or fancier” (87). This understanding of Fluxus lays the groundwork for Mac Low’s conception of art as a practice of embodying and enacting meaning, rather than encoding and decoding messages.

Postulating the artwork as a mediatory experience – one that mediates the perceiver (reader, viewer, even, in Mac Low’s conception, performer) of the art piece and his/her role in the social institutions that govern his/her existence – is not new. Tyrus Miller, in Singular Examples, discusses this political role of the poem perceptively.   He writes:

Artworks, especially those programmatically designed to expose new formal and experimental possibilities, may not be unitary, static, and punctual vessels of content; rather, they dynamically embody the contradictory and conflictual relations between those people, materials, and contexts shaping their genesis and continuing to play a role in their posterity. (3)

That is to say that developing, for example, a textual experiment that seeks to “expose new formal and experimental possibilities” foregoes control over the text’s content in order to recognize the subjectivity’s inability to control those very social institutions that govern its existence. As such, the form of the text comes to signify this lack of control. “Form, in this view,” Miller goes on to say, “is a weak boundary conditioning the artwork’s relative degree of control over the social heterogeneity it incorporates” (6). And yet, as the text necessarily functions within generic conventions (as my discussions of Mac Low’s engagement with literary tradition can attest), the politically anarchist text must navigate between these two poles. As Miller later states in his discussions of Mac Low and Cage’s writings-through of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, “in parallel with their attempts to re-situate the question of the self in the space of language games and textual forms, both Mac Low and Cage come up against a common problem of literary genre” (59). For Mac Low, at least, a way to reconcile this problem is not simply to (politically, anarchically) disrupt authorship by way of formal experiment and chance procedure, but to enjoy (or take pleasure in) this very process.

Mac Low was open about the potential activist or political elements of his work, arguing often that his attempts to disrupt the self in his texts, to produce texts that are “minimally egoic” (Tardos, “Forward” xviii), is an action against the overcoding of subjectivity at the hands of social institutions. For example, in “Poetry and Pleasure,” he writes that “[t]he kinds of pain that people suffer in present day societies are often due to clumsy social, economic, and political arrangements that simply need not be so clumsy, so slovenly” (xxvii). And later, “[s]o many artists and experiencers of art believe that the point of art is to change these slovenly, pain-causing – and boredom-causing – arrangements” (xxviii). But, importantly, he adds, “I do not think this ‘point’ is at odds with pleasure’” (xxviii). This pleasure that Mac Low discusses occurs on two parts: first, on his part as initiator and collaborator of/within the text; second, on our part as performers/enactors of the text. And, indeed, much of the enjoyment or pleasure one takes from Mac Low’s work, especially The Stein Poems, comes from the level of freedom afforded on both the levels of production and enactment of the text. By avoiding the prescriptive overcoding of a syntactical text that demands to be received and interpreted on an exegetical level, that encodes and decodes a message, the text opens itself up to a jouissance that could not be available otherwise.

Mac Low also argues that this freedom makes the text more anarchically activist, or, more appropriately, a more effective activist text, because of its ability to act as an analogy of a free community rather than a description of such a community. Also in “Poetry and Pleasure,” he writes that it is indeed true, as many political or activist authors have argued, that “speaking differently changes a culture and … different ways of speaking are most prevalent in poetry” (xxxiii), but he also notes that this process functions both positively and negatively; it can open up potentialities just as easily as it can close them off. And, for Mac Low, any texts that functions politically on a prescriptive level, that instructs its readers about better, more free, ways of living actually enforces an opposing politic by limiting the reading process. As such, Mac Low’s work, in its desire to expose new potentials, functions as an anarchic politic specifically because it does not prescribe a change in thought or speech. Rather, it leaves itself open for its perceivers to, in turn, leave themselves more open to these potentialities. In this sense, Mac Low’s work, especially his later work that prioritizes performance as the enacting of meaning rather than the reception of it, functions as a microcosm for anarchism. It produces “a state of society wherein there is no frozen power structure, where all persons may make significant initiatory choices in regard to matters affecting their own lives” (“Statement” 384). It is a turn that gestures toward Mac Low’s ideals of a utopian anarchic community, but one that, even he admits, is necessarily imperfect.

As I quoted earlier, Mac Low preferred to think of his work as producing analogies rather than paradigms of anarchic communities. This sentiment comes from an interview with Mac Low published in an issue of the journal Paper Air (2.3 1980), which was dedicated entirely to Mac Low studies. In the issue, interviewer Gil Ott poses the question “When one of your works is being performed …, is that a model political community?” (21), and Mac Low’s response is telling. I quote it at length here because he seems to summarize, in his own words, what I have been trying to say about his work, and the work of the other poets in my project for some time.

However, although performers are not directly regulated by a central authority, eventually they are, since I as the composer am giving them the materials, procedures, rules, etc. (This is why I usually say these days that such performances are ‘analogies’ rather than ‘paradigms’ of free communities). Nevertheless, they’re exercising their own initiative within the situation, the given materials being analogies of the real-life conditions provided by nature and society. Within such situations people can be regulated either by central authorities, as in most of the modern world, or by their own spontaneity and initiative. (21)

As such, by reading The Stein Poems, and thus enacting their meaning on an individualized but necessarily collaborative level, one is afforded the opportunity to choose, momentarily, to refuse some of the regulatory aspects of a larger system of overcoding; to refuse the clumsy, slovenly categories that limit the initiatory choices we are able to make in our lives; to choose, instead, spontaneity. It’s incomplete and imperfect, but it forces those who encounter Mac Low’s work realize how and when those choices are made for them.

[i] It could be argued that some of Cage’s performance-based pieces, such as his earlier percussive work, or the Musicircus that functions as a sort of utopian society, as Charles Junkerman suggests in “‘nEw / foRms of living together’: The Model of the Musicircus.” Junkerman argues that the politics of the Musicircus is essentially Hegelian, wherein a critical antithesis (codes or rules that govern us are bad) is met with an affirmative thesis (the creative potentials of communal love) to produce a visionary synthesis (utopian community) (Junkerman 42).  I would argue that while there is some gesture toward a utopian moment in the Musicircus, that it is far more concerned with the ability to produce communal unintended sounds within this community than it is in envisioning a wider community that mimics the chaos of the Musicircus. Junkerman’s own designation of the “happening” as “insubordinate” (40) seems to support my own claims.

4 thoughts on “Analogies of Free Communities: Jackson Mac Low’s Artistic Anarchism

  1. I’m really enjoying reading these!

    Your differentiation between “producing analogies rather than paradigms of anarchic communities” is extremely useful.

    As for the differentiation between Mac Low and Cage, I’m not sure I see it as distinct as you suggest. Is the difference based on Mac Low’s privileging of pleasure (which, I suppose, you could contrast to Cage’s more serious “purposeful play,” based on close attention?). Because, for me, Cage is also concerned with offering “an analogy of a free community rather than a description of such a community.” Would you agree on that point? And, along these lines, could you expand on your point that “while Cage’s anarchism is particularly concerned with how to exist as anarchist in a society that is definitively not anarchic, Mac Low’s politics are seemingly more utopian”? A more direct comparison/contract between Cage and Mac Low would help clarify and support this point, I think.

    It seems that, especially towards the end of the plateau, there’s an opportunity to tie the discussion back to Bey’s TAZ–if I’m correct, that might be a fruitful gesture to make.

    1. I think, actually, that the TAZ is a perfect way of addressing your first concern. I definitely agree that Cage is interested, in part, in offering analogies of free communities (and the Musicircus is a really strong example of that). But, I also think (and this sounds strange, even from me) that Cage’s ideas are more practical, more pragmatic, in that they are concerned, as the TAZ is, in allowing those analogies to appear as moments of anarchy, of free community, within a larger structure that opposes them. So, something like the Cunningham mesostics is particularly concerned, throughout, with how this freedom is necessarily working within and against a larger structure that would silence it. Hence, noise.

      I see Mac Low as decidedly more utopian. His analogies function on the level of example rather than insurrection. In something like _The Pronouns_, for example, JML seems to say “If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere” (sung to the tune of “New York, New York”). He envisions an anarchism on the small scale, with the constant idea that we could change the world were we to continue living and working like this. Cage, as his “Diary” poems suggest, is not interesting in changing the world; he just wants little pockets, TAZs, in which, for a moment, we are freed.

  2. I’m still not convinced about the firm distinction you offer between Cage and Mac Low on this point (the point in your comment). I’ve always thought of both writers as exemplary, in that they are interested in providing/creating examples of anarchism that they hope will resonate in the reading community and beyond. In that sense, Cage might not be interested in changing the world (which implies ego and agency), but he is very interested in having the world change by having it implement anarchism on a larger scale–isn’t he? Is the crux of the difference you see one of intention?

    Or, and this is just a proto-thought that needs to be worked through in more detail than I can offer now, is the difference one between metaphor and metonymy, with Cage providing metaphors of anarchism and Mac Low offering metonymic examples of anarchism? Would something like that account for the difference you find in their approaches while allowing for the sameness I find in their goals?

    1. I actually think the metaphor/metonym idea functions excellently here. Which is to say, perhaps these approaches to anarchist art are not as different as I propose at the start of this entry (metaphor and metonymy are clearly linked). But, as Roman Jakobson asserted, these two are also radically different approaches to the associative functions of language. Similarity (as in, Cage’s _Musicircus_ is similar to what a fully actualized anarchist community would look like) is radically different from contiguity (as in, Mac Low’s performances are tiny analogies of larger anarchist communities).

      Perhaps the issue, then, is that while they both have an idealized anarchist community in mind, Mac Low is, at least in this regard, more interested in realizing or working towards this utopian ideal than Cage. I would argue, above all, the the anarchic community both envision is strikingly similar, marked by individual freedom alongside communal responsibility.


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