A Purely Financial Collaboration: Joyce as Computer in John Cage’s Writing Through Finnegans Wake

This paper was written to be presented to the North American James Joyce Association’s 2017 Conference: Diasporic Joyce on the panel “Joycean Diaspores in Contemporary Poetry and Writing” (chaired by Sean Braune). The panel will be presented tomorrow, 22 June 2017, from 1:30-3:30pm Victoria College Room 212. 

While much has been made of the collaborative nature of John Cage’s many engagements with the work of James Joyce, this paper positions this engagement as decidedly one-sided. In a 1985 interview with David Shapiro, Cage spoke of the collaborative nature of his work on Joyce, particularly in his Writing Through and Writing for a Second Time Through Finnegans Wake, as an almost solitary endeavour. He tells Shapiro, “poor Joyce, he has no way to fight back. The only thing that happens is I’m obliged to give a percentage of my income to the Society of Authors, so that the Joyce side of the collaboration is now purely financial” (153). This paper looks to this “purely financial” collaboration with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as an important precursor to the generative digital poetics that followed. In doing so, this paper makes two important claims: first, that Joyce’s il- or anti-logical semantic play makes his work more readily available for this kind of “collaboration”; and second, that Joyce’s looming presence throughout Writing Through Finnegans Wake (and, to a lesser extent, Muoyce and the Roaratorio) functions more like a computer’s generative capabilities than an agential collaborator or even a source text as seen in other writing-through or cut-up methods. In the end, this paper positions “poor Joyce” as “dia-spore,” unknowingly and unwillingly generating new texts in a machinic way.

First things first: why is Joyce’s semantic play, emblematized by Finnegans Wake, more readily available to serve as a computer in this one-sided collaboration? Well, one way to respond to that question is to consider the general response by Joyce scholars to Cage’s experimentation. In the same interview I just quoted, Cage makes the fascinating observation that “there are more Joyce scholars who enjoy my writings through Finnegans Wake than Pound scholars who enjoy my writing through the Cantos.” What is it about Cage’s various writing-throughs that appeals to Joyce scholars more than Pound scholars? I don’t want to suggest here that Joyce’s writing freed him from the signifying structures of language that Cage so longed for. In fact, in the intro to Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake, Cage argues the complete opposite. “Joyce seemed to me,” Cage wrote, “to have kept the old structures (‘sintalks’) in which he put the new words he had made” (Writing Through ii). Instead, I’d argue that what sets Joyce (and Joyce scholars) apart from Pound (and Pound scholars) is Joyce’s interest in making explicit and manifest the constructedness of language and the writer’s ability to manipulate these dominant structures while still conveying, however opaquely, sense in language; Joyce’s linguistic manipulations still communicate while displaying the constructedness of manipulation. Pound, on the other hand, is still flagrant in his construction but is vastly more invested in the communicative function of poetry, particularly in poetry’s ability to use allusion and intertext to reinvent the literary in the service of expressing the poet’s ideas. Cage’s writings through of Joyce are not interested in replenishing or reinventing the communicative function of Finnegans Wake as source text.

So then I have to return to my earlier claim that in these first two writing-throughs especially, Joyce (as author-figure) and Finnegans Wake as source text end up acting more like a computer than a collaborator, and still more like a machine than data to be mined. The computer has been theorized in Cage studies as technology that did not alter Cage’s overall poetic project, but merely made that project easier to accomplish, and ease, we must remember, is an important feature of Cage’s poetics; he did not want the work to be difficult or cumbersome. Instead, for some scholars of Cage’s work, Cage’s use of the computer “was to implement more easily what he was already doing. … [In other words, the computer had not] changed what he was doing” (“Cage and the Computer” 205). Speakers of the panel go on to stress that “The technology [of computerized word processing and searching] made possible some large-scale projects that he otherwise would never have thought of embarking on. … Such as ‘writings through’ that became more and more elaborate” (205). The length and difficulty of Finnegans Wake is part of what makes it need the computer for Cage to write through it; it is much harder to work through in the secluded, analog format. But, the computer is also, this panel notes, one more way for Cage to make his writings even less egoic: “He was removed one step from the composition of the material by its production by the machine and was now free to step in as a non-composing individual, to become a performer at the final stage” (“Cage and the Computer” 197). Cage himself seemed to structure the role of the computer to his work in a similar fashion, telling Thomas Wulffen in a 1984 interview “My computer is a great liberation” (Conversing with Cage 155). We cannot, however, let the computer function just as extension or liberation in Cage’s writings through of Joyce; it is, of course, much more important to the poetry than that.

As literary scholars today we also must also be, to some extent, new media scholars, and so this argument that the radical change in material, media, and technology in Cage’s work somehow did not radically alter what and how he was writing should read as facetious. We can see now, looking back on Cage’s work, that technology played a huge part in what he produced (the typewriter for Mureau, Letraset for the Cunningham mesostics, and the computer algorithm for the Joyce mesostics). That is, in light of the media archaeology work of scholars like Emerson, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Jussi Parikka and Erkki Huhtamo, we must consider the emergent media of the computer, in the context of word processing and typewriting in the late 70’s when Cage was composing and publishing these mesostics. 1977 was a time of intense hope and progressivist rhetoric in technology and computing; 1977 was Star Wars, Apple II, Atari, and TRS’s (Tandy Radio Shack) first desktop computer. I have not been able to ascertain precisely what computer he would have been working on to mine through the Wake. This is less important than the fact that as Cage’s composition techniques for poetry, as for his music, became increasingly computerized, his use of Joyce as source text became informed by the same impersonal structures—all this despite Cage’s own theorizations of digital media as a move towards greater intimacy.

One way to understand why I position Joyce in this way is to look at how Cage’s writing-through mesostics would lead, eventually, to a field of ergodic digital literatures. Despite the fact that his work never fully came into electronic literature (certainly not in the way that his music did), Cage was well aware—perhaps more than we are now—that it was the digital that held the greatest, most egalitarian, and most radical opportunities for literary cultural output. He tells Birger Ollrogge in 1985, “I think we’re almost at a point of change. The change, I think, will go from a book-publication as we know it to some form the electronic publication. And electronic publication would not be something with paper and binding but would be something that you would simply have access to, as you do the voice of a friend on the telephone” (155). Though he could not have anticipated the pervasiveness of networked media, it is striking how far away Cage’s projections seem to be from our current publishing environment which still, by and large, privileges print media. Nonetheless, there has been (and continues to be) a vibrant and exciting, albeit underground, community of writers producing digital literary works that continue the experiments that Cage made, particularly in his work with Joyce. Cage’s engagement with Joyce, however, is not the intimate, phone conversation suggested by this interview quotation. Instead, I want to argue that Cage’s use of Joyce in these mesostics functions less as an homage to a history print-based experimentation with source and seed texts and rather as a media-specific, important precursor to a future of digital poetics that would be—is­—marked by its ergodic tendencies (that is, tendencies to require autonomous, agential, and essential direct engagement from readers).

The “problem” of works like Cage’s writings-through Joyce is that they encourage the production of other derivative experimental works. I mean this not in the Hallmark Billy-Collins-poetry-truism that “the problem with poetry is that it breeds other poetry” because it inspires its readers to express their own thoughts, responses, and whatever. Cage’s writing-throughs are specifically designed resist authorial expression and to, conversely, encourage radically autonomous responses; the gift of Cagean modes of writing, he often reminds us, is that anyone can make art this way, and as such the author is not patriarch or pedagogue, but just simply the person who did the thing. Cagean modes of writing thus CANNOT be expressive because, as Cage tells us in his “Lecture on Something, “[w]hen Art comes from within   ,   which is / what it was   for so long doing it be-came a thing  which seemed to elevate the / man who made it   a-bove those who observed it or heard it” (129). Instead the work relates to his readers, implanting ideas in their heads because “hey, they could do that too” – which is, perhaps, the exact opposite of the effect of reading Joyce. It is designed to produce new work that pays royalties rather than homage. This type of work feeds off existing literature and grows indefinitely, producing new parasitic texts and always linking back to them, exhibiting a complicated relationship between new writer and “purely financial” predecessor that manifests itself as the uneven, semi-obscured nominal spine of Cage’s mesostics: Joyce’s name is there, but it is simply not enough to hold this work together.

Although Cage’s mesostics rely on the name of the author of the source text as seed, his process works to dismantle the power and control of conventional, expressive authorship, thus fitting it in nicely with Cage’s career of author-effacing and expression-obscuring poetics exemplified by 4’33”. Here, I’d argue, is both the site of the Joyce-via-Cage as dia-spore and as proto-ergodic because Cage’s use of Joyce is un-author-ized, except financially, and uncollaborative. This is what Louis Armand starts to unravel in his “Writing After: Joyce, Cage…” published in Hypermedia Joyce Studies. Armand considers the role of the “after” in writing, what does it mean if Cage is writing after Joyce, Armand and I after Cage? For Armand, Cage’s mesostic work in his various writings through Finnegans Wake “affect a retrospective illusion of affinity (to or with ‘JOYCE,’ as it were)” (np). The illusion of affinity, which comes with most allusion, in the Joyce cum Cage is revealed, by Cage’s use of Joyce and his discussions about this “collaboration” in paratext and interviews, as “merely … an act of assumption of a commonality, of a ‘discourse’ whose lineaments assume an inherence in the object to which it seemingly refers” (np). In this way, Cage resists consideration of himself as inheritor of a Joycean legacy, this despite Marjorie Perloff’s insistence on a lineage—but I have neither the time nor the energy to rail against Perloff anymore. Instead, Cage reveals in his mesostic manipulation of Joyce the silliness of such literary lineage, owning that he mines Joyce, alters and buys from Joyce the material to write. “In this sense,” Armand continues, the “‘JOYCE’ [of Cage’s mesostics] becomes nothing more than a schematic figure, just as HCE and ALP can be seen to operate as schematic figures in the Wake, buoyed up by the illusion that each affects within itself a semantic inherence which is in fact the outcome of an increasingly fortuitous encounter between otherwise disparate (material) elements” (np). Instead, the reaching out, the intimacy, the “phone conversation” suggested by such close material engagement is not between the two authors, but between Cage as compiler or RE-arranger (sorry…) and a readership who gains much more autonomy, control, and freedom in the Joyce readings-through than “poor Joyce” ever did.


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