Chance as Poeticizing Strategy


Roger W. H. Savage

When in 1952 pianist David Tudor premièred John Cage's
4'33", new innovations were heralding the changing status of art in the twentieth century. In the cultural aftermath of the Second World War European avant-garde composers were adopting stylistic models based on the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. In America the break with traditional musical practices was perhaps even more emphatic. The chance compositions of John Cage, like the white canvases of Robert Rauchenberg and Jackson Pollock's visual portrayals of thrown paint, had an experimental quality that seemed to radically redefine the changing status of art in the modern world.

The well-known 'happening' at Black Mountain College in 1952, arranged by Cage, was exemplary of this changing definition of art. The first mixed-media theatrical event of its kind, it consisted of several simultaneous but individually unrelated performances. David Tudor played the piano, Cage delivered a lecture while up a ladder, M.C. Richards and Charles Olson gave readings of their poetry (while also up ladders), slides were projected at one end of the hall and a movie at the other, some of Robert Rauchenberg's white paintings were hung above the performance area (Rauchenberg also played an old gramophone), and Merce Cunningham with other dancers performed amongst the audience. Unplanned as a whole, the 'happening' was designed so as not to convey any sense of an overarching, integrative structure. On the contrary, its experimental character shattered traditional precepts of form and expression by bringing to the forefront the unexpected and the unpredictable.

Perhaps more than any other work, Cage's famous, and one-time notorious silent piece, 4'33", brings the changing orientation of experimental art more clearly into focus. Consisting of three movements, each marked TACET, the work consists of nothing but structured spans of 'empty' time. At its first performance, David Tudor challenged conventional expectations by indicating the beginnings of each of the movements by closing the keyboard lid, and the endings by opening it. Framed by the structure of 'empty' time spans, all audible ambient sounds served as the work's material, becoming the musical equivalent of the modern cultural artifacts Duchamps treated as ready-mades.

This theatrical debunking of traditional aesthetic expectations through the experimental actions of the 'happening' and by means of this play upon silence ruptured more completely an understanding of art already strained by modernist developments. Cage was by no means the only one to call into question the special designation of art as a cultural monument and the distinction that sets it apart from everyday experiences. Peter Bürger identifies the work of the avant-garde with the project of overcoming the conflict between an isolated aesthetic experience afforded by the art work and the "loss of any social function." (1) Yet he argues that inasmuch as it is an "historical fact that the avant-garde movements did not put an end to the production of works of art" (2) the avant-garde failed "to do away with art as a sphere that is separate from the praxis of life." (3) Theodor Adorno, too, identifies the avant-gardist work's critical function with its calling into question the normative role of art in bourgeois society. For Adorno, discord, dissonance and the expression of suffering on this reading becomes something of a trademark that characterizes modern "art's emancipatory quality" (4) in the contradictory terms which, under prevailing social conditions, he felt was the only possibility open to authentic art. As a critique of the ideological reconciliation of the individual and society, modern art transfigures the "beguiling moment of sensuousness" (5) in order to reveal the antagonistic relations which the aesthetic ideal of harmony conceals.

There is no question but that Cage's innovative treatment of indeterminacy stands out as marking a radical break with the high modernism of twentieth-century music. Yet we might wonder whether the music of chance overcomes the problematic, contradictory relation that dissonance in modernist works of art so forcefully expresses. It might be objected that the strategic use of chance overcomes the dichotomy of an objective, structural determinism and a subjective, formalized mode of reason inherited from the Enlightenment. Yet it is by no means self-evident that the subreption of expression as a formal, aesthetic category by means of indeterminate techniques does not in the end serve as a substitute for the instrumental rationality that governs the modern, bureaucratized world. Cage clearly was opposed to the aesthetic practices of European composers such as Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Maderna and Pousseur in whose work he saw "an element of tradition, [and] continuity with the past." (6) We might agree with Cage that inasmuch as a traditional normative concern with continuity, "whether in terms of discourse or organization," (7) continues to inform these practices, their music embraces logocentric values of Western society. Cage in fact considered developments in Europe to perpetuate a "crucial mistake" (8) if only because within the tradition to which the avant-garde movement could be said to belong, aesthetic experience remained within a special sphere delimited by art's social function.

If serialist innovations represent the rational extension of a musical universe immanent to Schoenberg's twelve-tone discovery, Cage's rejection both of this mode of practice and its culturally representative claims marks the distance separating the aesthetics of indeterminacy from a purposively instrumental determination of music's structural functions. Arnold Schoenberg, with whom Cage at one time studied, once claimed that "in music there is no form without logic, there is no logic without unity." (9) Renouncing the need of both an ideal of structural integrity and its attendant logic of expression, Cage takes a deconstructive turn in which his practice of indeterminacy is schismatically opposed to the method he felt was socially analogous to the "integration of the individual in the group." (10)

Cage, in other words, countered the aesthetic practices that followed in the tradition of Schoenberg's revolutionary discovery by deconstructing the twelve-tone method's structurally representative claims. In the Sonatas and Interludes, this deconstruction follows the path of an inversion in which causal relations between a rationally determinate structure and its substantive materials are given over to chance. Structure, defined by the arithmetic grouping of metric units, here becomes nothing other than an abstract representation of linear spans. This abstract representation of formally empty time spans ensures that "nothing about the structure was determined by the materials which were to occur in it; it was conceived, in fact, so that it could be as well expressed by the absence of these materials as by their presence." (11)

In the Music of Changes, perhaps one of Cage's most well known indeterminate works, the I Ching serves as a means of codifying the element of contingency which in the Sonatas and Interludes derives from the formally empty relation between the structure of arithmetically related time-spans and the materials that fill them out. Inasmuch as the actual components of the Music of Changes are selected by a process of tossing coins, their coordination is controlled solely by the chance relations that obtain between the results of this process, charts of elements and the hexagrams of the I Ching. The magnitudes of abstractly represented structural time spans and the materials that occur within them are nothing other than the consequences of these chance correspondences. Hence whereas in post-Webernian compositional practices the principle of structural integrity preserves a high degree of determinacy between the structural derivations that the compositional process undergoes and the zero degree of the musical language, the reverse tendency informs the compositional formations derived from the application of indeterminate techniques.

It is no doubt already evident that indeterminate techniques become useful insofar as they fail as a means of providing the ground for the identity of a work in terms of its formal, structural integrity. One might ask, in fact, whether the techniques of chance do not derive their significance from the way they dissimulate the logically structured order of a work's materials. We might even wonder whether compositional indeterminacy, for all its apparent radicality, does not in the end take the place of the ideal of systemic unity to which it is schismatically opposed by reproducing the latter's complementary functions in an inverted form. If, in other words, the strategy of indeterminacy consists in assigning individual values to uniquely differentiated components in the construction of a work, chance techniques replace rationally integrative ones.

To my way of thinking, it is critically telling that this compositional strategy opposes the principle of structural integrity by reproducing the dichotomy between an arbitrarily ordered structure and elemental materials. I am aware that deconstructing the systemic logic of a heteronomous expression by opposing a rationally determinate process with one in which chance serves as the operative construct reveals an element of irrationality hidden within the former's instrumental character. On the other hand, one might wonder whether inasmuch as this strategy remains dependent upon the schematization of systemic control and random occurrences, it escapes this instrumental duality or whether it conceals it more deeply.

Voiding the representational value of a work's structural design plays a strategic role in the aesthetics of indeterminacy. In the Music of Changes, for example, the use of the I Ching as a technical relay in the compositional process voids every systematic attempt to coordinate the actual materials with a predetermined structural plan. With respect to the work's temporal organization, this relay introduces a break between the structures represented by the arrangement of organized metric units and their chance correlation with the actual time spans. The mechanism that transforms a structure into actual durations, in short, is itself the function of chance. Ultimately, these mechanisms of chance are strategically located such that every schematic representation gives way to epiphenomenal occurrences, so that in Music for Piano and subsequent works, composition by chance appears to take place "within a universe predicated upon the sounds themselves rather than upon the mind which can envisage their coming into being." (12)

Nowhere in my opinion is the sense of autopresentation that obtains with this universe more forcefully represented than in 4'33". I would venture to say that 4'33" is the primary expression of a compositional strategy in which silence comes to represent a universe of autopresenting sounds. For silence in 4'33" traces out a space that becomes the poetic equivalent of those places where the alterity of unintended sounds is raised to the level of spontaneously occurring events.

Inasmuch as in its essential characterization silence is nothing other than the absence of intended sounds, it shares with the notion of structure the attribute of being a formally empty construct. Silence, like structure in other words, is nothing but the measure of empty durations. Yet if silence delimits the absence of intended sounds, then by doubling this space, silence becomes an opening for listening to all audible occurrences as if that was the nature of the ambient sonorous environment. In this deconstructive doubling, silence is not not sound. Silence, in other words, fulfills its poeticizing function as the frame of a space where "ambient not form a part of a musical intention." (13) Far from simply measuring a lapse of time "silence becomes something else--not silence at all, but sounds, the ambient sounds." (14) Doubling the silence out of which they arise as an "echo of nothing," (15) such sounds are not just sounds, but are "shadows" (16) which, "equivalent to the denial of the will," (17) correspond to that form of activity "having no dominance of will in it." (18)

This poetic construction of a space of silence in 4'33" clearly delimits the field in which sound appears to emerge free from constraints and exterior determinations. Following the precedent set by Edgar Varèse, Cage tells us that the use of chance would "more completely liberate sounds from abstract ideas about them and more and more exactly...let them be physically, uniquely, themselves." (19) Yet we might wonder whether for a poeticizing strategy in which "[e]ach moment is absolute, alive and significant," (20) doubling the space of silence does not eclipse the method of its own internal construction. We might wonder, in other words, whether this absolute moment is not in fact coextensive with the poetic strategy that produces it, and wholly dependent upon it. Jacques Derrida has remarked upon the theatrical space where the "closure of classical representation" (21) is also "the reconstitution of a closed space of original constitution, the arch-manifestation of force or of life." (22) In the theater of cruelty, where cruelty is distinguished "as necessity and rigor," (23) this space is "produced from within itself and no longer organized from the vantage of an other absent site." (24) As counterforce to the invisible utopias and the logocentric practices that master the space of classical representation, the theater of cruelty is the site of an "original representation" (25) where the spectator, infused with pure sensibility, "can no longer constitute his spectacle and provide himself with its object." (26) Distance here dissolves in the mise en scène of this 'original' representation "as the autopresentation of pure visibility and even pure sensibility." (27) Like the 'happening' for which 4'33" is the categorical expression, this theatrical act opens a space within which distance, as the condition of possibility for both representation and reflection, "should no longer be extendable" (28) but is instead ensconced within the field of play delimited by its production.

With this falling away of distance in the mise en scène of indeterminacy's field of operation, the temporal character of the sounding event also undergoes a change. Wim Mertens has rightly argued that by reducing "the traditional dialectical opposition between form and content into the opposition of silence and sound," (29) Cage dispenses with the logic of traditional works, dispelling the need of expression as an aesthetic category. Yet this levelling of the category of expression is itself based on the reduction of a sound event's temporal character to the opposition of rectilinear time spans and happenstance occurrences. Events happen in an indeterminate manner only insofar as this reduction of dialectical tensions to schismatic oppositions conceals the instrumental doubling on which indeterminacy as a poetic strategy ultimately depends. The relation of non-determinate identity which in an indeterminate process has the function of severing any causal link between anterior schema and experimental actions constitutes a principle of differential equivalence that is perhaps best represented in the binary opposition sound-silence. But this relation of non-determinate identity is itself derived from a deconstructive doubling of the classical space of representation. One might be tempted to ask whether this relation does not in the end replace the metaphysics of the representative illusion with a metaphysics of absence. If indeterminacy functions to structure a space in which "every musical related to every other musical element, has an equal value and works in all directions at the same time" (30) then as a deconstruction does it not constitute an inverted doubling of the metaphysics of presence? Is the simulacrum of the noncausal, originary ground of freely interpenetrating, auto-presenting occurrences that ensues, in other words, not the metaphysical representation of an absent alterity?

By equating the construction of a field of happenstance occurrences with the time of their self-presencing, the strategy that informs the practice of chance ensconces experimental actions in a remythologized, archi-temporal world. In its explicit failure "to control the elements subjected to it," (31) chance plays an instrumental role in this mythologizing return. Its strategic inversion of the formal categories upon which it depends plays out the differential operations in which a reflection upon the conditions of possibility for experience is seemingly exhausted. Silence henceforth is the metaphysical index of spaces of empty time, investing chance occurrences with the value of autopresenting immediacy such that every happening is NOW. This sempiternal present of auto-presenting immediacy is nothing other than the simulacrum of the time of myth. Paul Ricoeur explains that mythic time embraces "the totality of what we designate, as, on the one hand, the world, on the other hand, human existence." (32) Yet if "myth is only a myth because we can no longer connect that time with the time of history as we write it," (33) is indeterminacy's poeticizing construction of a field of immediacy not achieved at the price of sealing the experience of time in a state of absolute presentness?

If chance plays out its constitutive function in its construction of this infinitely self-presencing immediacy, does its strategic placement in the use of indeterminate techniques not dissimulate the possibility for reflecting upon the conditions through which this fictive space comes into being? Does the auratic production of this self-presencing present, in other words, not forcefully conceal contradictions by enfolding its own poetic activity within the means of its production? Is it not in fact the function of an indeterminate technique, designed is such a way as to have "no effect on anything that happens," (34) to dissemble its meaning and to become invisible? And if as Mertens maintains, "the dialectical opposition of form and content disappears" (35) from Cage's work, is it not in order that "the opposition between art and life also disappears and music becomes a means of realizing the identification with the here-and-now" (36) of reality?

If we acknowledge the strategic significance that chance techniques have, this reality is one in which time might be regarded, as Mertens suggests, as a "mere succession of moments that do not relate to one another," (37) and in which one's identification "with the here-and-now presents a category of time beyond history, which excludes all development." (38) Yet it seems to me that the verisimilitude of Cage's work is understood all too literally when the fictive character of its poetico-temporal world is confused with the realities of practical experience. Mertens on the one hand contends that the historical category of an indeterminate work is only negatively dependent both historically and formally upon its dialectical status. Yet he argues on the other hand that with "the disappearance of the dialectical link between form and content, the historical category of the work is also removed, replaced by the absolute reality of the immediate experience." (39) If as Mertens suggests, in aleatoric music "the removal of dialectical content coincides logically with the removal of history" (40) does the substitution of the "absolute reality of the immediate experience" (41) for "a dialectical position [that] ensures the historical continuity of the musical work" (42) not dissemble the former's poetic significance? Is the activity of pure self-presencing, in other words, not continually reliant upon the reduction of dialectical tension to a relation of non-determinate difference, leading to the levelling of the temporal character of all historical experience? In their own way, the prepared piano sounds in a work such as the Concert for Piano and Orchestra are representative of this ideal, existing only in and for themselves by virtue of the fact that they produce an effect that for the listener has supposedly been stripped of any temporally mediated meaning.

If in this aestheticization of the time of autopresentation the practice of indeterminacy remains conditioned by the processes whereby chance is used to deconstruct the schemata according to which it continues to operate, then could we not say that the strategy of indeterminacy reproduces the metaphysical hold of rational thought in an inverted form? Derrida recognizes in the circle in which "we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest" (43) the impossibility of presenting anything in terms of itself. Since "the sign represents the present in its absence[,] [i]t takes the place of the present...The sign in this sense, is deferred presence." (44) Deconstructing the representative illusion of the metaphysics of presence opens the space for the play of difference that marks the trace of this deferral. Hence in the "delineation of différance everything is strategic and adventurous...If there is a certain wandering in the tracing of différance, it no more follows the lines of philosophical-logical discourse than that of its symmetrical and integral inverse, empirical-logical discourse." (45)

The concept of play that emerges here is one in which play is located beyond the opposition of presence and absence, "announcing, on the eve of philosophy and beyond it, the unity of chance and necessity in calculations without end." (46) Play, regarded in this way, is the activity of the endless deferral of presence itself. Does this endless deferral of presence also come to signify the self-presencing present and the immediacy of chance occurrences within the field of indeterminacy? In representing itself an indeterminate action, it would seem, is the sign of its other. The question as to whether the unity of chance and necessity is itself the product of this hypostatization of chance is here superseded by a critical consideration of the systemic construction of a field of alterity. The unity of necessity and chance in 4'33" clearly coincides with this deconstructive doubling of silence and the play of oppositional differences, signifying the self-presencing action of a silent alterity in which the other of the absence of sound is nothing other than the no-thing that is visible or aurally present. Derrida tells us that presence, "in order to be presence and self-presence, has always begun to represent itself, has always already been penetrated." (47) Yet if "one can conceive of the closure of that which is without end," (48) is closure the "circular limit within which the repetition of difference infinitely repeats itself...[such that] closure is its playing space" (49) circumscribed by the strategies that set this repetition in motion?

It is critically telling that this sense of closure is implicitly invoked by an aesthetic practice the actions of which constitute a methodological inversion that takes the form of a repetition. I have argued that the practice of indeterminacy systematically inverts the rational order of causal relations by formalizing the contingency of chance occurrences, thereby voiding them of their interpretive value. Could we not now also say that the space of the play of chance occurrences is both bounded by the methodological inversion of the rational order and infinite in the latter's repetition? The double structure of indeterminacy's formally non-determinate negativity in the final analysis identifies the poetic action of the practice of chance with the event of indeterminacy itself, inscribing a sense of immediacy in the action of self-presenting events within the space of this play. Equally significant, this poeticizing action comprises a contour which is immediately identified with the experimental action of the event itself. Action and event, in other words, are immediately bound by the playing space of indeterminate techniques. In the final analysis, the methodological dislocation of indeterminacy's strategic place in the production of happenstance occurrences is its most primordial feature, constituting the mode of repetition in which every indeterminate occurrence doubles itself by way of the not. As an act of formal negation, the techniques of chance transform every experimental action, "the outcome of which is not foreseen," (50) into an event that signifies the repetition of the representation of an absent alterity.

Ensconced within this simulacrum of a self-presencing present, the immediacy of actions and events obscures the poetic structure by means of which it represents itself. Derrida tells us that to "think the closure of representation think the cruel powers of death and play which permit presence to be born to itself, and pleasurably to consume itself through the representation in which it eludes itself in its deferral." (51) But if the deferral of presence entails a temporal consideration, does one then not also need to recognize that the poetic force of the immediacy of autopresenting event has a different significance as a work codified by the production of its field of play? According to Paul Ricoeur, actions imply goals, "the anticipation of which...commit the one on whom action depends." (52) Just as actions "refer to motives, which explain why someone does or did something" (53) they also reveal structuring activities that convey a meaning. Theodor Adorno, commenting upon the problematic role of contingency in modernist open form art works, argues that in aleatoric music as in informal and action painting, the "aesthetic subject seems to despair of the burdensome task of forming the contingent" (54) and instead delegates "this responsibility to the contingent itself." (55)

Could we not say, therefore, that as a poetic strategy the practice of indeterminacy codifies an aesthetics in which the ideal of autopresentation consigns action to the contingencies of history and imposes the conditions of an aestheticizing flight from the perplexities and aporias with which the meaningfulness of experience is confronted? The confluence of blind possibility and necessity, which is the real meaning that Cage's work gains by imposing the strictest of contingencies upon itself, is according to Adorno "meaning in the form of an expression of terror." (56) If what is tragic, as Derrida writes, is "not the impossibility but the necessity of repetition" (57) then formalizing contingency is an aesthetic strategy that carries with it the double tragedy of the abandonment of the specifically human task of making history and the abandonment of the self to the vicissitudes of its contingencies. The "[o]nly chance to make the world a success for humanity lies in technology" (58) Cage tells us, because "all technology...move[s] toward [the] way things were before men began changing them." (59) But if the "identification with nature in her manner of operation" (60) is effected by the sense of "complete mystery" (61) that stems from this technological recourse, does this utopian hope have its correspondence in a strategy of totalizing mystification codified in the repetition of the metaphysics of an auto-presenting absent center?

Transforming its own principle into the formal condition for mythologizing the time of the chance event as that of the immediate present, the practice of indeterminacy effaces the traces of the temporal order to which it nevertheless remains bound. Wholly instrumental, chance techniques comprise the operative method which ipso facto constitutes the mode of repetition in which the poetic strategy of indeterminacy is formulated. Yet just as the closure of the playing space of indeterminacy circumscribes the time of a present immediately present to itself, so the repetition of the space of the play itself conceals indeterminacy's instrumental force behind the appearance of the action-event in its purposeful simulation of pure intensity.

We might wonder whether wherever "cause and effect is not emphasized but instead one makes an identification with what is here and now," (62) this mode of repetition mutually reinforces the identification of the purely intensive immediacy and the contingency of chance occurrences. Paradoxical as the distinction between repetition and contingency might seem, this distinction comprises the force of dissimulation that gives to an indeterminate event the illusory power that this simulacrum of pure intensity has. Repetition here not only marks the return of the same as different; it is itself constitutive of the differential process in which the principle of return, codified in the techniques that undergird the sempiternal time of a self-presencing present, dissimulates all trace of its instrumental origins. Equally, contingency--the condition of possibility for historical uniqueness and the category of the new--once hypostatized in a play of differences, becomes the ground for the identification of chance with the principle of necessity such that the contingency of events, the necessity of their occurrence and the repetition of indeterminacy's methodological inversions are the same.

We might wonder whether by handing the significance of an event over to "the relation of things happening at the same time" (63) the aesthetic strategy codified in the practice of indeterminacy represents the abandonment of the contingencies as the locus of the possibility for meaningful action. Once deprived of their ontological bearing, events undoubtedly appear as "spontaneous and unrepressible." (64) Cage claims that this spontaneity "is you yourself in the form you have that instant taken." (65) Yet given the way that the immediacy of auto-presenting events comes to be identified with the eternal NOW, the value they have must be blindly accepted as the index of an unmediated life, or interpreted as the tyranny of a heterogeneous law. Correlative with this act of pure self-presencing, pure negation is in the end the locus for a second order mythologization of the reality of the temporal significance of every meaningful action. It is perhaps telling that in the minimalist works of composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, this second order mythologization makes recourse to an aestheticizing deontology. Insofar as in the development of indeterminate techniques the "rhythmic structure...[is understood as] impersonal and thereby universal," (66) as Steve Reich tells us, this structural attribute remains rooted in a perennial abstraction that paves the way to an aestheticizing of the processes of repetition. Producing an ecstasis in which past and future fall away, and encompassed by the no-time of a sempiternal present, repetitive music derives its intensity from the return of the same as always different. One might even be tempted to suggest that minimalist music, by giving a broader accent to the aestheticizing end of history immanent in Cage's work brings a new clarity to the sense of an arché which in the reenchantment of experience signifies the beginning of the postmodern myth.

Does this different arché not recall the double sense of closure and tragedy of the mystification of history? By enfolding the space of experience within the aesthetic practice of indeterminacy, does the utopian gesture of the chance happening not obscure its complicity with the entrenched social and political matrices by concealing the critical hermeneutical difference between the fictive character of its poetic world and the realities of historical existence? And is it not through this aestheticizing recourse to a poetico-mythologizing unity of art and nature that this postmodern myth legitimates their instrumental identification?

Ironically, it is the imitative identity of art and life that ultimately becomes the means for transforming culture back into nature. This nature, however, is not that of a first-order world of experience untouched by civilization. On the contrary, this is nature turned against itself in a world of appearances; the nature of the world of the simulacrum, in which second-order cultural determinations reappear as the ground of all existence. Like Duchamp's ready-mades, or Cage's environmental sounds, the artifactual signs of culture provide the postmodern bricoleur with raw materials. Michael Newman has rightly argued that for "the postmodern bricoleur nature is already culture and culture is a second nature: the city and the mass media are forests of signs." (67) In this transformative reversion of culture back into nature, the imitative function of poetics is not only inverted, but instrumental actions are culturally reinscribed to legitimate the simulated nature of modern life. Cultural freedom here becomes the principle of its own deficiency. Legitimated aesthetically as the ecstasis of the ever presenting NOW, this aestheticizing recourse to a time of sempiternal presence in postmodern music distinguishes the flight from the demands of human finitude and temporal existence as the unfreedom of a history which has become the ground of its own necessity.

It is no doubt evident to the reader that the questions raised by Cage's music extend beyond a critique of the aesthetics of indeterminacy to a hermeneutical concern with the interpretation of culture, and the critical function of art. If postmodernity signifies the end of the Enlightenment project, postmodern art and thought presumably mark a radical departure from this project, and are not simply an inversion that culminates in a mythologizing return to metaphysical closure. In their critique of the dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer recognize the immanent possibility of such a return. Yet if "myths signify self-repetitive nature," (68) as Adorno and Horkheimer explain, the return of nature as culture distinguishes the mythicizing of postmodernity as something other than the cyclical myth of eternal recurrence. One might be tempted to suggest that just as the presence of the eternal in the eternity of the present can be attributed to the reenchantment of an archi-temporal reality, so the postmodern condition becomes the condition for the aestheticization of its own historicality. If in its naturalization the activity of life appears to penetrate beyond mundane existence such that it seems no longer to be subject, in Cage's words, to any "dominance of will," (69) this mythologizing return which seemingly dispels the power of representation ironically joins itself to the dialectic of enlightenment and enchantment. Newman explains that for the postmodern bricoleur, if nature reappears, "it is as a representation within culture, doubly cooked, a signifier rather than a referent external to the sign." (70) Could we not therefore suggest that in the same vein, events appearing as having neither syntax nor structure but as "analogous to the sum of nature" (71) conceal a cultural meaning that lies hidden beneath the mystification of a purpose behind compositional indeterminacy's seemingly purposeless play?

Dissembling its culturally specific historical horizon, the practice of indeterminacy in the end implodes at the point at which art and life collide. The rejection of the socio-ethical model of Schoenberg's twelve-tone method returns with a vengeance in the mode of praxis in which the "use of technological means requires the close anonymous collaboration of a number of works." (72) If as Cage tells us we are "on the point of being in a cultural situation without having made any special effort to get into one," (73) is this situation itself not the product of the instrumental dissembling of cultural forces in order to return culture to a supposedly natural condition? And does "[r]emoving social controls to the point where they escape our notice" (74) not parallel the aestheticizing inscription of a poetic strategy that in the end conceals the historicality of those contingencies to which modern life remains bound?

Rooted in the production of an archi-temporal reality, this mythologizing construction, however, does not entirely efface the traces of its aestheticizing origins. Collapsing the distinction between action and event undoubtedly conceals the instrumental force behind the chance occurrence's mise en scène. Circumscribed by a phantasmagorical ellipsis in which techniques disappear behind such chance events, the aestheticizing action that preserves this ellipsis seemingly ensures the endless return of nature in cultural products. Ricoeur sees the noematic structure of action as giving a basis to "a dialectic of event and meaning." (75) Even as an aestheticizing action, the operations performed by indeterminate techniques are a constitutive moment in the production of a meaning. Drawing upon Aristotle's notion that art 'imitates nature' Ricoeur points out that because "the function of the expression imitation of nature is as much to distinguish human making from the natural production as to align them," (76) Aristotle's proposition "introduces a discriminant as well as a connective element." (77) As the product of a human making that is distinctly different from the course of natural production, the work of art is a mimesis that opens a space for interpreting reality that with equal force the aestheticizing strategy of indeterminacy attempts to close. Every action has a meaning as an event; as Ricoeur explains an event "is not necessarily brief and nervous...[but] is a variable of the plot." (78) But if, as Ricouer tells us, all "experience both possesses a contour that circumscribes it and distinguishes it, and arises against a horizon of potentialities that constitutes at once an internal and an external horizon for experience" (79) then even the aesthetic experience afforded by the work of indeterminacy has a meaning that is open to interpretation.

In spite of its intended aim, the poetic strategy of indeterminacy bears the authentic trace of a response to a contemporary crisis. On the one hand, as a poetic activity, the practice of indeterminacy bears witness to the activity of the creative imagination. On the other hand, its verisimilitude attests to a horizon that is itself more than an epiphenomenal product of chance. Even if in the final analysis it adopts an anti-art aesthetic stance, the poetics of indeterminacy calls for interpreting its inner structure, thereby placing its poetic signature in tension with the ontological vehemence of a critical appropriation of its aesthetic vision.

Does this poetics in the end efface the meaning of the present by devaluing its perplexing relation to the past and future through a strategy that equates the time of the present with the sempiternal presence of autopresenting events? The equating of contingency with fate contributes to the aestheticization of this aporetic relation in much the same way as does the "explicit glorification of the aleatory" (80) that Culler attributes to the Tel Quel theorists. In this regard, the postmodernist character of the indeterminate practices that Cage espouses is as much attributable to the sublimity of this poetic--or better, this antipoetic--simulacrum of self-presencing immediacy as it is to the deconstruction of traditional aesthetic categories of the language of expression. Jean-François Lyotard suggests that in the light of the present postmodern condition, the celebration of the "increase of being and the jubilation which result from the invention of new rules" (81) takes precedence over the acceptation of modernity as a kind of sublime nostalgia. Unlike Habermas, whom Lyotard feels requires that "the arts and the experience they provide... [should] bridge the gap between cognitive, ethical, and political discourse, thus opening the way to a unity of experience" (82) Lyotard argues that the postmodern "would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself." (83) The real sentiment of the sublime is, Lyotard tells us, "the pleasure that reason should exceed all presentation, the pain that imagination or sensibility should not be equal to the concept." (84) But then does the celebration of indeterminacy as blind necessity do justice to the horizons of those experiences upon which its poetic meaning ultimately draws? Does the formalization of contingency by what finally is an anti-poetics of chance, in other words, not attest negatively to the possibility of a different future, a possibility which as its ownmost condition of possibility this anti-poetics reduces to a technology of compliance that serves in the end to entrench the status quo?

Adequately interpreting a work of art, Adorno claims, "means demystifying certain enigmatic dimensions without trying to shed light on its constitutive enigma," (85) grasping the work "in its interrogatory form." (86) This hermeneutical task, moreover, is inseparable from the unfolding of a work's horizons that in part constitute its authenticity. We might therefore wonder if the repetition of the self-enfolding strategy that comprises the technology of chance elevates the phantasmic play of experimental actions to the level of the sublime by voiding the work of indeterminacy of this authentic moment. Lyotard claims that the modern "cannot exist without a shattering of belief and without discovery of the 'lack of reality' of reality, together with the invention of other realities." (87) But if the postmodern presents the sublime by inventing "allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented," (88) to what can this invention be attributed? For if one is to understand the postmodern "according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo)" (89) as Lyotard suggests, then does this paradox itself not call for an imaginative interpretation in which a meaning emerges in tension with those horizons which are the condition of its own possibility?

To the extent that works of chance follow a strategy of overturning traditional aesthetic paradigms, the practice of indeterminacy seemingly introduces an unbridgeable schism between an understanding of the value and significance of art works and the immediacy of present experience. Yet in the final analysis, does the formalized strategy of chance techniques escape every determination of the social and historical horizon from which it seems to take its leave? On the one hand, locating the relation of sound and silence in an ellipsis dislocates their ordinary referents. Yet on the other hand, does the entwinement of an autopresentating, archi-temporal world with the celebration of pure intensity not conceal the artifice which joins the anti-poetic act of indeterminacy to an instrumental reason? Perhaps in its simulation of nature, this anti-poetics offers a condemning critique of the encroachment of instrumental purposiveness on modern society. And yet in its own self-centering ratiocination, it contributes to the simulation of a sempiternally self-presencing present that falls victim to that same instrumental reason. In the final analysis, its aestheticizing recourse to the purely intensive time of autopresenting events is nothing other than the force of enchantment inscribed within an instrumental technology.

Perhaps the structure of the paradox that Michel Foucault observes in modern music "which is so close, so consubstantial with all our culture" (90) but which "we feel..., as it were, projected afar and placed at an almost insurmountable distance" (91) is nowhere more disturbingly represented than in this double allegiance of an anti-poetics to an instrumentally purposive technology and the simulation of self-presencing immediacy. For Foucault, music "has been much more sensitive to technological changes [and is] much more closely bound to them than most of the other arts." (92) We might wonder whether by raising anew questions concerning the adequacy of traditional aesthetic categories and compositional paradigms works of chance represent alternative ways of experiencing and understanding the realities of modern life. Works such as the Music of Changes, oriented towards the problems and perplexities which give to every work of art its authentic accent, might open a space for such a possibility. But ultimately, the enigmatic structure of indeterminacy's phantasmagoric ellipsis is but the shadow of a possibility. For in reality it is the imaginative figuration of the perplexities of human existence that disclose the real possibilities hidden within the immediacy of experience. However impoverished, in Adorno's words, the "blandly unmysterious essence" (93) of modern life might be, and however dominated it is by a logic borrowed from the spiritual mastery of nature, it is the work of art, for one, that holds out the hope of a different future. And yet if our experiences are truly to be different, the hope art holds out cannot take refuge in flight from the historical reality of the aporias and contingencies that meaningfully orient us, but must instead find its adequate expression in the aesthetic prefiguration of as yet unrealized possibilities.




1. Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 33.

2. Ibid., p. 57.

3. Ibid., p. 53.

4. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1984), p. 124.

5. Ibid., p. 21.

6. John Cage, Silence (London: Calder and Boyars, Ltd., 1968), pp. 74-75.

7. Ibid., p. 75.

8. John Cage, A year from Monday (Middleton, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), p. 90.

9. Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea, trans. Leo Black (London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1975), p. 244.

10. Cage, Silence, p. 5.

11. Ibid., pp. 19-20.

12. Ibid., pp. 27-28.

13. Ibid., pp. 22-23.

14. Ibid., p. 22.

15. Ibid., p. 131.

16. Ibid., p. 131.

17. Ibid., p. 53.

18. Ibid., p. 53.

19. Cage, A year from Monday, p. 100.

20. Cage, Silence, p. 113.

21. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 238.

22. Ibid., p. 238.

23. Ibid., p. 238. "What will speech become, henceforth, in the theater of cruelty? Will it simply have to silence itself or disappear?" Ibid., p. 239.

24. Ibid., p. 238.

25. Ibid., p. 238.

26. Ibid., p. 244.

27. Ibid., p. 238.

28. Ibid., p. 244. Derrida also draws an important distinction between the 'happening' and the theater of cruelty in that "the happening substitutes political agitation from the total revolution prescribed by Artaud. The festival must be a political act. And the act of political revolution is theatrical." Ibid., p. 245.

29. Wim Mertens, American Minimal Music, trans. J. Hautekiet (New York: Alexander Brounde Inc., 1983), p. 107.

30. Ibid., p. 107.

31. Cage, Silence. p. 154.

32. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative vol. 3, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 105.

33. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p. 5.

34. Cage, Silence, p. 188.

35. Mertens, American Minimal Music, p. 116.

36. Ibid., p. 116.

37. Ibid., p. 109.

38. Ibid., p. 109.

39. Ibid., p. 116.

40. Ibid., p. 107.

41. Ibid., p. 116.

42. Ibid., p. 116.

43. Derrida, Writing and Difference, pp. 280-281.

44. Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 9.

45. Ibid., p. 7.

46. Ibid., p. 7.

47. Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 249.

48. Ibid., p. 250.

49. Ibid., p. 250.

50. Cage, Silence, p. 39.

51. Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 250. "To think the closure of representation is to think the tragic: not as representation of fate, but as the fate of representation."

52. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative vol. 1., trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 55.

53. Ibid., p. 55.

54. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 315.

55. Ibid., p. 315.

56. Ibid., p. 221.

57. Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 248.

58. John Cage, M: Writings `79--`82 (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), p. 102.

59. Cage, A year form Monday, p. 18.

60. Ibid., p. 18.

61. Ibid., p. 18.

62. Cage, Silence, p. 155.

63. Ibid., p. 155.

64. Ibid., p. 155.

65. Ibid., p. 155.

66. Steve Reich, Writings about Music (New York: New York University Press, 1974), p. 42.

67. Michael Newman, "Revising Modernism, Representing Postmodernism: Critical Discourse of the Visual Arts" in Postmodernism. ICA Documents, ed. L. Appignanesi (London: Free Association Books, 1989), p. 133.

68. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (London: Verso Editions, 1979), p. 17.

69. Cage, Silence, p. 53.

70. Newman, "Revising Modernism," p. 133.

71. Cage, Silence, p. 53.

72. Ibid., p, 65.

73. Ibid., pp. 65--66.

74. Cage, A year from Monday, p.64.

75. Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, trans. John B. Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 205.

76. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, trans. Robert Czerny (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), p. 41.

77. Ibid., pp. 41--42.

78. Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1, p. 217.

79. Ibid., p. 78.

80. Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 253.

81. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 80.

82. Ibid., p. 72.

83. Ibid., p. 81. Lyotard refers to modern art as art that devotes its technical expertise "to present the fact that the unpresentable exists." (p. 78) Then if "it is true that modernity takes place in the withdrawal of the real and according to the sublime relation between the presentable and the conceivable, it is possible, within this relation, to distinguish two modes". (p. 79) The first, which places an emphasis "on the powerlessness of the faculty of presentation, on the nostalgia for presence felt by the human subject" (p. 79) is that of regret. The second is that of assay. Postmodern art, according to Lyotard, belongs to this second mode.

84. Ibid., p.81.

85. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 177.

86. Ibid., p. 178.

87. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 77.

88. Ibid., p. 81.

89. Ibid., p. 81.

90. Michel Foucault and Pierre Boulez, "Contemporary Music and the Public," Perspectives of New Music (Fall--Winter 1985), p. 7.

91. Ibid., p. 7.

92. Ibid., p. 6.

93. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 184.