July 15, 2005

Reading Processes: Perloff’s Radical Artifice

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 12:09 am

Yesterday I wrote about my interest in reading processes.

Today, in that vein, I’m sharing some thoughts from reading Marjorie Perloff’s Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1991). Given its subtitle, you’d think I would have read Perloff’s book a decade ago. But I just picked it up for the first time this summer. In part this is because Perloff’s focus is primarily on writing in a media-saturated culture, rather than writing which employs media other than traditional print (though a number of such examples are considered). As it turns out, I found that Perloff’s book has much to offer someone coming from a perspective such as mine. In particular, her focus on the procedural work of John Cage is of interest. In fact, while Cage is more often mentioned in connection with music than poetry, as Perloff notes in her preface (p. xiii) Radical Artifice is a book about poetry “written, so to speak, under his sign.”

Let me start with something rather general, however, before looking to her readings of Cage or others. I’ll begin with her discussion (p. 187) of ideas that consider the literary in terms of information theory (which might be quite relevant to our recent discussion of “literary” digital media):

The meaning of a given message, in other words, includes not only information (the message actually sent) but whatever modifies that message, whatever references become relevant, in the course of its transmission. In information theory, the term for such modification is “noise.” In William Paulson’s words, “Noise may . . . be the interruption of a signal, the pure and simple suppression of elements of a message, or it may be the introduction of elements of an extraneous message . . . or it may be the introduction of elements that are purely random.” The poetic function, in this scheme of things, subordinates the informational axis (language used as a pure instrument of efficient communication) to what we might call the axis of redundancy, “meanings” now being created by all those elements of reference that go beyond the quantifiable communication of data from A to B.

Paulson’s argument that literary, as opposed to ordinary, “communication assumes its noise as a constitutive factor of itself” is, of course, no more than a fancy and “scientific” version of Wittgenstein’s theorem, cited in chapter 1, “Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.” And this statement, in its turn, can be traced back to the famous statement in book 9 of Aristotle’s Poetics: “The difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse. . . . The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more scientific [philosophoteron] and serious [spoudaioteron] than history, because poetry tends to give general truths [ta katholou] while history gives particular facts [kath ekaston].” (1451b).

General truths versus particular facts, meaning versus information: it may be that the urgency expressed in current debates on these issues is prompted by the recognition that poetry now functions in an environment that foregrounds precisely those information systems that suppress “redundancy” or “noise,” particularly the digital environment of the computer.

A tinge of the numerist fallacy aside, here’s a discussion of the literary and information theory that doesn’t reduce either to a parody. From the perspective of process, part of what is interesting about the first of these paragraphs (the discussion of Paulson) is that it seems to open a space for something other than information, than data, than text, to be the site of literary work. It could be any part of the message. Which brings me to the question: are processes, for Perloff, part of the message — part of what we need to interpret in order to satisfactorily understand artworks that involve specified processes?

The answer certainly seems to be yes when Perloff considers others who write on Cage. Take, for example, her reply to Edward Rothstein (p. 149-50):

The common wisdom about Cage’s texts is that, in the words of Edward Rothstein, recently reviewing I-VI for the New Republic, “they are randomly put together.” Cage, as Rothstein typically explains his technique, “once used the I Ching as his instrument of liberation — thus giving the choices of tones and phrases a semi-mystical aura as he tossed sticks according to the ancient Chinese oracle. But the aura evidently became less convenient the more exotic Cage’s techniques became. Now he depends on a computer program for assistance, its spit-out numbers determining the locations of words and ideas and sounds.” And further, in referring to the mesostic rule, which organizes the text of I-VI, Rothstein remarks: “Between any two consecutive capital letters in the randomly chosen words . . . Cage insists that neither letter may appear in lower case. This rule is purely lexicographical: it means nothing, particularly since the words with the capitalized letters are arbitrarily chosen.”

One wonders what Rothstein thinks Cage means when he explains in the Introduction to I-VI that, in any given line, he adds “all the wing words from the source text . . . within the limit of forty-five characters to the right and the same to the left,” and admits, “Then I take out the words I don’t want” (I-VI 2). [. . .]

Chance operations, even though the phrase is Cage’s own, is a highly misleading term for what actually happens in the mesostic text like Roaratorio. True, the mesostic words themselves may be generated by an arbitrary counting device (e.g., “find the first J not followed by an A in Finnegans Wake), or as they are in I-VI, by elaborate computer operations based on the I Ching; but such nonintentionality, as Cage has repeatedly explained, must be understood as a form of discipline, forcing the artist to break with ego, with habit, with self-indulgence. A given writing project is said to use chance operations in that, at its outset, Cage has no idea what words the I Ching (or its computer version, the Mesolist) will generate, what words, that is to say, he will have to use. Once the chance-generated letters and words are in place, however, their presence provides the poet with rules that cannot be broken. Like Perec’s 10 x 10 chessboard square or Zukofsky’s 8 x 5 lyric stanza, then, the mesostic text is the very opposite of random; it is, on the contrary, rule-generated, the clinamen, to use the Oulipo phrase, being that the “wing phrases” in each line are written according to taste, following Cage’s stated purpose of “taking out the words I don’t want.”

Interestingly, Perloff’s answer seems to address Rothstein’s assertion that Cage’s mesostics are “randomly put together” — but it’s unclear whether she has answered the assertion about Cage’s process (and, by her extension, the structures of Perec and Zukofsky) that “it means nothing.” Is the only interesting thing about the mesostics the choices Cage makes among possible wing words (and the resulting text), or is there also something interesting about the process itself?

At times, reading Radical Artifice it seems that the processes, structures, or constraints behind a text hold the key to audience enjoyment — and then it starts to seem otherwise. For example, let’s look at these discussions of Cage (p. 215-16) and Lyn Hejinian (p. 170):

One of the common complaints about Cage’s poetry, as about his music, is that it rejects emotion, that it is not sufficiently expressive. But, as Cage has frequently remarked in conversation, it is precisely because emotions are so central to life that one must learn to discipline them: “Heroism doesn’t consist in brilliantly combatting someone else. It is not a question, as Nixon undoubtedly believed, of winning battles . . . What is heroic is to accept the situation in which you find yourself. Yes!” In poetic terms, this means that one can only use what is given: in I-VI, that given consists of source texts, title words, mesostic rules, and the struggle with letters, words, and numbers, a struggle animated by the passion — and it is a passion — to get it right. As such, the text challenges the audience to recreate the process whereby it was actually created, to “lay bare,” as the Russian Formalists would have it, the devices of its own making.

Ironically, then, I-VI is, as its detractors claim, an unreadable book. But its “unreadability,” far from being the consequence of what Rothstein calls “a random collection of atoms bumping into each other,” is of course intentional, a carefully plotted overdetermination designed to overcome our conventional reading habits. Thus the elegant format and oversize numbered pages raise expectations that the text purposely deconstructs, engaging as it does in a “relaxing” reading process that involves making rather than taking: open any place you like and follow whichever path interests you.

The pleasure of Hejinian’s text — and here we come back to the larger issue of the rule-generated text in late twentieth-century writing — has less to do with what happens to her protagonist in the course of the “story” than with the reader’s discovery that, however random and disjunctive the book’s events, conversations, aphorisms, and commentaries seem to be at the level of microstructure, each unlisted number, when extracted, gives us a key to the behavior of “Lyn” at age x or y. Or does it? As in the case of Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, My Life introduces a certain “bend” or clinamen into the carefully articulated mathematical structure. In 29, for example, the opening sentence with its reference to “brown and chirping trills of birds” could just as well be the opening sentence of number 3 or 4, and many other sentences and phrases — “The berries are kept in the brambles, on wires on reserve for birds,” “The big trees catch all the moisture from what seems like a dry night” — defy the text’s larger number system so that the “saturated structure” (ML 99) of My Life cannot be replicated.

And, as it turns out, most of Perloff’s discussions of process turn in this direction — from the discussion of the process itself to a reading of the resulting text in terms of the process that eclipses consideration of the process except in its traces in the text. In fact, the only place I noticed that this doesn’t happen is in relation to a piece of Cage’s that is explicitly a performance, rather than a text: Lecture on the Weather. Given that I believe her consideration of this piece to be, for GTxA’s authors and readers, the most interesting part of the book, I hope I can be forgiven a lengthy quotation from this section (p. 22-26):

To begin with, Lecture on the Weather is not a lecture at all, but an elaborate rule-generated collage-work:

Subjecting Thoreau’s writings to I Ching chance operations to obtain collage texts, I prepared parts for twelve speaker-vocalists (or -instrumentalists), stating my preference that they be American men who had become Canadian citizens. Along with these parts go recordings by Maryanne Amacher of breeze, rain, and finally thunder and in the last (thunder) section a film by Luis Frangella representing lightning by means of briefly projected negatives of Thoreau’s drawings.

Here, as so often in his “production notes,” Cage assumes a casual air that his actual work belies. For one thing, the agreed-upon time-length for the spoken parts is rigidly fixed (“at least 22’45” [5′ x 4’33”] and not more than 36’24” [8′ x 4’33”]),” the numerical reference being, of course, to Cage’s famous early prepared piano piece of 4’33”. Again, the “entrance” of the taped sound events — breeze, rain, and thunder — is precisely timed, the breeze “to be faded in at the beginning,” the rain “to be faded in after 11 or 12% of the total agreed-upon performance time-length has elapsed,” and the thunder “to enter abruptly after 63 to 70% . . . has elapsed.” Further directions indicate when the lights are to be lowered, when the “lightning” slides are to be projected, and inform the performers that the recording of thunder should “stop abruptly” before those of breeze and rain fade out, but that “this stop [should not] interrupt a thunderclap.”

Thus, although the Thoreau texts themselves are chosen by chance operations, their actual collocation, together with sounds and visual images, is a strictly planned mathematical system. Since no single passage from Thoreau is repeated twice, and since each of the twelve text-sets must have the same length, the performance of the simultaneous reading is anything but random. The chance operation, in this context, is more properly understood as a form of constraint, a rule-generated process within which “weather conditions” occur.

Weather: “The condition of the atmosphere at a given place and time with respect to heat or cold, quantity of sunshine, presence or absence of rain, hail, thunder, fog, etc., violence or gentleness of the winds. Also the condition of the atmosphere regarded as subject to vicissitudes” (OED). Here is the key to Cage’s composition, in which a strict rule-bound process is subjected to the “vicissitudes” of the “atmosphere at a given place and time.” Specific events (whether the speaker-vocalists stand or sit and where they are located in relation to the audience, how or whether the audience is seated, whether the performance space is large or small, open or closed, etc.) inevitably differ from performance to performance. At the California Institute of the Arts (Valencia) performance in March 1984, the “theatre” was a large empty room with bare floorboards, rather like a gym, with a platform at one end, on which the twelve speaker-vocalists were placed, a projection screen behind them covering the whole wall. At the Strathmore Hall “Cagefest” in May 1989 (Rockville, Md.), on the other hand, the performance space was a much smaller conference room with french doors on one side and a fireplace on the other; the speaker-vocalists sat at a long table in front of the fireplace, facing the audience, which was quite conventionally seated in rows.

[. . .]

No matter what the conditions of a given performance, the “lecture” opens with the recitation of the twelve vocalists, simultaneously reading twelve different sets of excerpts from Thoreau (from Walden, the Essay on Civil Disobedience, and the Journal), while “weather” sounds (recordings of breeze, then rain, and, about two-thirds of the way through, thunder, the house gradually being darkened) begin to be heard, emanating from the walls or ceiling. The audience thus finds itself, not passively attending a lecture (indeed, the simultaneity of recited speech reflects, as Cage has frequently remarked, our larger inability to listen to one another), but participating in an environment. The performance, accordingly, is not about weather, it is weather.

At first, when one hears gentle breeze, birds chirping, and the light rain, one reminds oneself that this is, after all, mere sound effect, rather like a movie sound track; that the sound is not, in fact, “real.” But as the rain becomes more insistent, as lightning flashes and thunderclaps begin to drown out the reading of Thoreau’s text, a strange thing begins to happen — at least it did at the Cal Arts performance I attended. The audience, scattered around the room, some standing, some sitting on the floor, began to move closer and closer together. By the time the storm “broke,” lightning flashes appearing on the large screen in the form of briefly projected negatives of drawings by Thoreau, the audience had become something of a football huddle. Everyone wanted to join together and get out of the storm.

But because the “path” of this strange attractor is unpredictable, the communion I have described may be achieved in other ways. At the Strathmore Hall performance, for example, it happened (the “vicissitudes” of atmospheric conditions) that a torrential rain and thunderstorm took place just at the performance was beginning and, since the french doors were open to the outside, “this had,” in the words of Joan Retallack, “the lovely effect of eradicating the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ — the room, the performance, the concept of weather, as Cage presents it to us, including the ‘weather’ of coincidences, voices, ideas — all combining to cause the kind of storm that occurs in a particular . . . climate.” [. . .]

Yet the multiplication of situations does not change the basic “shape” of the work. Toward the end of his Preface, Cage remarks, “More than anything else we need communion with everyone. Struggles for power have nothing to do with communion. Communion extends beyond borders: it is with one’s enemies also. Thoreau said: ‘The best communion men have is silence'” (LW 5). This is the insight Lecture on the Weather enacts, whatever its specific performance conditions. Instead of lecturing us on communion, instead of defining community in terms of verbal images and metaphors, the piece gradually transforms a skeptical audience (an audience that cannot “hear” the words recited) into a community: by the end, when the storm is subsiding and patches of sunlight appear, we are all in it together.

Here, then, is a text particularly for the times. Lecture on the Weather is a verbal-visual-musical composition that relies on current technology for is execution. There is no complete written text, since the printed page cannot reproduce the simultaneous visual and sound features of the “lecture.” The coordination of vocal elements, sound, and film image is achieved by elaborate computer calculations. Yet, so the “lecture” implies, the availability of such technology by no means implies that we are now slaves to automation and commodification, that we have come to the endgame of art. On the contrary, Cage is suggesting that even as the early New England settlers achieved a sense of community out of mutual deprivation, hardship, and want, two hundred years later, our own “deprivation” (the glut, for example, of “aspirational” writing as well as of media discourse) can be overcome, not by finding books in the library that will talk about community, but by finding ways to actually have it happen.

“An adequate theory of prose,” Richard Lanham suggests, would re-conceive prose style “as radical artifice rather than native transparency.” [. . .]

Cage created a lecture that would assault us with frightening noises and images, that would make us wish we were merely driving in freeway traffic. We might call it a case of defamiliarization, but defamiliarization of a sort the Russian Formalists, who disseminated the concept, would be hard put to recognize, the object of a work like Lecture on the Weather being, not to make the stone stony, but to stage an ‘event’ that can change our environment and how we respond to it.

Such simulation is, of course, a case of marked artifice.”

I’ve chosen the sentence above as a place to end my excerpt from Perloff in order to call attention to a particular word: simulation. Perloff reads Cage’s process as a simulation — as a weather simulation sensitive to local topographies and structured by elaborate calculations. But unlike weather simulations that help us plan picnics, this one doesn’t predict weather, it creates weather. And it is weather arranged not by processes that try to approximate the natural world, but by processes defined for artistic and political ends.

While I’ve never seen this Cage piece performed, I’m quite sympathetic toward Perloff’s interpretive strategy here. While she is attentive to the audience experience, it doesn’t eclipse consideration of specifics of the processes involved — as it seems to when she considers traditionally printed text. But something else is missing: any careful examination of the text itself. That’s to say, as soon as process gets its due, data loses out. Perloff’s book is replete with careful considerations of the words, and overlapping arrangements of words, of poets such as Johanna Drucker and Steve McCaffery. Why is it that the words, and arrangements of words, spoken by Lecture on the Weather‘s twelve speaker-vocalists aren’t given similar consideration? In fact, not one word of the spoken text of Lecture on the Weather appears in Perloff’s discussion (which is only partially reproduced above). And, while there is an image reproduced in this section of the book, it is of a strange attractor — rather than of the performance space or of the film projected within it — so visual data loses out as well.

Which is not to necessarily say that Perloff made the wrong choice in her interpretation of Lecture on the Weather. Rather, it’s to say that I didn’t find in Radical Artifice one thing that I hoped would be there — something that, perhaps, I only directly realized I was seeking once I felt my own disappointment. I’m looking for an example of a careful reading of both an artwork’s data and its processes.