Wednesday, May 16, 2007

To hazard (a chance meeting)

Dearest reader:

I like to leave off and then I like to return to what I've left. What's interesting about this return is that what I've left never seems quite the same as it was. John Cage's performance of "Water Walk" on I've Got a Secret is a meeting between the avant garde and a sitcom, as I wrote yesterday. What interests me now, in this different (and stormy) light, is the complexity of the performance's juxtaposition of the avant garde and the televisual.

As Joan Retallack explains in "Fig. 1, Ground Zero, Fig. 2," Cage's aesthetic practice aims towards a "heightened awareness" that "delight[s] in the graceful, anarchic harmonies of nonintentional configurations of sounds and sights." Cage notes (and Retallack quotes): "Music is about changing the mind — not to understand, but to be aware." There is for the composer a social goal, of "bring[ing] about some kind of change" that is at once political and ethical (these two categories are not separate for Cage).

For Retallack, this is best described by "the French notion of jouissance, a playful erotics of informed sensuality." Roland Barthes' formulation of jouissance (for which, of course, there is no adequate English translation) regards it as fundamentally different from mere pleasure in that it is based in transgression and rupture. Jouissance does not "content" us. Jouissance "discomforts" and "unsettles ... historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language," as well as meaning.

The jouissance in Cage's "Water Walk" comes from its invitation for us to rethink our daily lives: it encourages us to regard quotidian objects as musical instruments, to think about the range of sounds that could be produced by a pressure cooker, a vase of roses, etc. And it further suggests we rethink assumptions regarding the categories of noise & music, of the everyday & art. That the arrangement of musical objects resembles the set for a sitcom's representation of domesticity — that I'm inclined to call it a set at all, rather than an orchestra, or instrument — invites us, given that the piece was scored "for solo television performer," to rethink televisual representations of domesticity. This is the subversion his performance performs: by bringing the avant garde to the space of game show and sitcom, Cage encourages us to listen to the slapstick's slap, and to rethink it as composition.

At the same time, Cage's composition is attended by a great risk. Writing an radical avant garde composition for television confronts the danger that the radical message might be overwhelmed and subsumed by the medium. Instead of encouraging the audience to actively rethink their relationship to television, the composition might be reduced to nothing more than slapstick comedy, worthy, despite the (playful) seriousness with which the show's host frames the performance, of no more thought than a particularly unusual episode of Leave it to Beaver, a show noted neither for its radical transformation of consciousness, nor its critique of our society's bad habits of thought.

I assume Cage was aware of this risk — it's just that I'm not sure the performance survives it intact.

[Sources include two essays by Joan Retallack: "Fig. 1, Ground Zero, Fig. 2" and "Poethics of a Complex Realism," both in her Poethical Wager (U. of California Press, 2003). I also used the Richard Miller translation of Roland Barthes' Pleasure of the Text, published by Hill and Wang (1973).]


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