A Glass of Milk has more than Two Parts

It is not yet an object! The constellation becomes an object by virtue of the relationship I place upon the parts. But I can refrain from positing this relationship; I can consider the stars as separate but proximate, almost gathered into a unique constellation.
–John Cage

This essay is designed to start and stop. It will be approximately 2,100 words. It is just now beginning. If anyone is sleepy, let them sleep now rather than later.

We agree that there is nothing to say, and that isn’t a pithy u-turn response to the subject matter.

Here we are having charged ourselves with writing about John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing and we have nothing to say. We have allowed ourselves to live with it, sleep with it, be bored by it, even infuriated, in love, mystified, absorbed, inspired, and indifferent. But still, we find ourselves with a kind of nothing. And, not the Nothing but a kind of nothing whose hazy space is imposed, unwanted, and obsessed with it’s other. The fighting kind. If it is a pleasure, it is elusive. If it has edges, they are encroaching, always glimpsable, and stippled with the tangled lines of future somethings.

Oh well. We need a structure to see nowhere. The important thing is that we go on writing. Is this still true?

For the last couple of years, we have been reading Lecture on Nothing with foundation art students at a public university as a part of a class we didn’t name called Idea and Form. We picked this particular Cage work because it easily leads the class into conversations about Fluxus and the infusion of the everyday in art during the second half of the 20th century (knowledge that seems indispensable when talking about any artwork made today). But it also is a piece that illustrates a beautiful collapse between form and content; it does what it says. It makes the space of time visible and felt. It demonstrates the power of repetition and unlike so much of the writing we read in that course it goes nowhere.

Cage places repetition over resonance. A soft circular and reconfiguring repeat has more interest, more effect, than the loud reverberation of a melodious punctum. Proximations rather than relations. Noises instead of notes.

We think about redemptive rags-to-riches stories—the ones we’ve heard translated over and over again through the imagistic languages of news, marketing, sports, literature, and culture. How many of us do they actually resonate with in a real sense? Probably very few, (we can cite more examples of riches-to-riches or rags-to-rags stories) but once we’ve been through the mechanics of repetition, we begin to recognize the lilt of these narratives as our own. We believe by sheer volume or because it seems like everyone else is doing it.

Our real stories are much more like the one we find at the beginning of the eighth unit of the first large part of this essay. Where more and more we have the feeling that we are getting nowhere. Slowly, as the essay goes on, we are getting nowhere and that is a pleasure. It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else. Here we are now a little bit after the beginning of the eighth unit of the first large part of this essay. More and more we have the feeling that we are getting nowhere. Slowly, as the piece goes on, slowly, we have the feeling we are getting nowhere. That is a pleasure which will continue. If we are irritated, it is not a pleasure. Nothing is not a pleasure if one is irritated, but suddenly, it is a pleasure, and then more and more it is not irritating (more and more and slowly). Originally we were nowhere; and now, again, we are having the pleasure of being slowly nowhere. If anybody is sleepy, let him go to sleep.?

Last Tuesday we met a friend who introduced us to her sister. We both noticed immediately a blankness in her stare, which proved undoubtedly that she was an academic.

We are fond of it but refrain from adopting it ourselves. We don’t have any attention for extreme specialization. There are always interruptions. Black flies and growling stomachs. Yesterday we drove for hours.

There are voids between being and nothing, between experience and intellect, between sentiment and belief. Is that what we’re looking for? And if so what’s there? Is there there? Or nothing?

Someone once asked John Cage “aren’t we in danger of returning to the number one?”?

More and more the best questions are not rhetorical.

We sometimes realize that we’re simultaneously ascribing to inverse beliefs, arguing for opposing points in a single breath. But, somehow these contradictions don’t feel as though they disprove or invalidate each other. Our logic isn’t flabby like an atrophied middle, instead it appears as a joint—ball and socket, condyloid, pivot, or hinge. And this anatomy of thinking is inherited.
This talk is designed to start and stop. In class we begin by asking our students if they have ever heard of John Cage. Each term it’s the same: out of a group of twenty-five or thirty students, one or two, sometimes three, raise their hands (usually ex-music majors, whose distaste for Cage’s perceived laziness is palpable). This moment of collective ignorance invokes a short silence in the room as we observe in ourselves a particular sensation—a blending of opposing senses—where disappointment and mild horror mix with excitement, relief, and satisfaction. We’re still shocked that there’s anyone unfamiliar with Cage and at the same time relieved that he hasn’t been completely assimilated into the shoals of mainstream knowledge and culture. (We would be painting ourselves in too righteous a light if we also didn’t mention that there is a mild sense of pleasure in realizing that we know something these otherwise savvy students don’t. We have at least something to offer.) But despite the students’ lack of familiarity with Cage as a particular creative figure in history, they are all inevitably familiar with his ideas and processes, and they are eager to offer dozens of contemporary correlatives.

In the late 1950’s when Lecture on Nothing was composed, it must have been fairly radical (while retaining enough familiarity and relevance to be recognized, in line perhaps with the readymade inversions of Duchamp, which were at the time being reconsidered and canonized in retrospective exhibitions in Stockholm, Pasadena, and Philadelphia). The lecture is quiet, rigorous, militantly boring, tautological, full of small observations and glasses of milk, inaccuracies about the vegetation in Kansas and sightings of unremarkable birds. This was radical practice. It wasn’t about grandiose ejaculatory ‘gestures’ in painting or trips to the moon.

We read the news and wonder why nobody is willing to question the amount of money spent on space exploration. Even the most critical and disillusioned thinkers are writing exuberant messages about Curiosity landing on Mars. Connecticut is nice this time of year, a breath of monochrome air from an air conditioner and the flashes of creamy green from the underside of the sycamore leaves as they move against the thick and darkening sky.

Cage’s practice is like punk rock—a heartbreaking example of how revolutionary method gets neutralized and absorbed into an overdetermined hegemony. These ways of living and making that were designed as disruptions, alternatives, and challenges reappear all around us but without their internal necessity.? They are stylizations without true style, simulations untied from their referent. What was once a visual brick through the established notions of acceptable public appearance is now available for 11.99 at a local mall. What was a revolutionary embrace of complexity and an alternative between opposite binaries (in chance operations) appears to be everywhere: in our pocket technology, our randomizing algorithms and search engine results (not to mention every art student’s box of tools).

Is this what reverse destiny was all about?

When I was young my father taught me to look at stars. His telescopes kept getting larger and more automated. He used more wires, more epoxy, more and more massive mirrors. But we were still struggling to see tinier and more distant pinpricks of light. “Look to the side of where the star should be and then you’ll see it. It’s brighter when you see it out of the corner of your eye.” Later, the same instructions were given for understanding Lacan’s idea of the Real.

When I was young my father taught me to lie. His stories kept getting larger and more automated. He used more adjectives, more nouns, and more and more massive misnomers. But we were still struggling to see tinier and more interesting moments of life. “You’ve gotta add more action. No one will believe you if it’s not outlandish.” Later, the same instructions were given for creating a work of art.

Things are made knowable through comparison and relation—relation, which Cage attempted in his work to resist. How did we first learn of him? We’ve heard him described in the context of a story about spiritual enlightenment and self-actualization, through imported spirituality. We’ve heard him described as a leader of a movement, the catalyst of Fluxist experimentation. These are stories about an individual maker and a fascinatingly, provacative and influential educator. But we could also be talking about his audiences—his ability to unite a crowd through sound and silence, the ways that, in the space of his work, people learned how to listen to themselves, each other, and the small movements of their shared world in new ways. There is very little left in individualism or self-actualization that is radical. Actualizing communities, even temporarily, is much more radical, and that is precisely why there has been a top-down destruction of communally organized spaces like the ones that have popped up around the country with the rise of the Occupy movement.

There is no real censorship in our society as Chomsky points out. Suppression of dissent is instead paradoxically achieved by allowing media to absorb all dissent as image.

When is nothing the right thing to do? When is it revolutionary? When all possible somethings you might try would turn you into your own enemy? Can nothing only prove active and useful when it is set in relationship to something? The economic idea of zero growth appears to be a kind of revolutionary nothing when it is set in relation to the traditional goal of continual growth. What does economic silence sound like?


We have unknowingly succumbed to a severe compression. The space of time and the allowance for folly are narrowing. Diagonals are a luxury we can’t afford.

One of us was standing at the corner of the house near where the wren had constructed her nest; the other was sitting in a low chair about six paces away. We were trying to make a Venn diagram with our conversation, but were falling short of an overlap by a few feet, until we began talking about form. Who brought up Abstract Expressionism? It was you, saying something disparaging about Rothko.

Looking at two compositions at once: Philip Guston’s Red Painting (1950) and John Cage’s 4’33’’ (1952) we identify similarities: both works are formalist. They are painting about painting, music about music. Their form is their content. And, both brands of formalism were revolutionary, typified movements, and expanded disciplinary bounds. But Cage’s formalism is about open structures. His compositions are renewable, repeatable experiments, models that can be refilled with each performance or appropriation. And, because the nature of the form (even by staying as constant as possible through subsequent performances) elicits new content with each iteration, reading, or performance, the content changes—the content is also change. This is formalism at its least suicidal.?
Guston’s abstractions, like so many abstract expressionists’ paintings, will, on the other hand, always be Abstract Expressionist painting. Open and free in technique and gesture, they represent a closed formalism. Their form is their content, but that form is continuous—tethered to a canvas, a time, a hand, and the trajectory of a discipline—therefore the content is continuous. Continuity versus change—something we’ve read about before. (It’s important to mention that Guston gave up on Abstract Expressionism in his painting, while still keeping a faith in it as a revolutionary form rather than a mere historical style.) It strikes us now, seeing it laid out this way that the whole comparison may be flawed. But, we’ll just go on writing.

We are ready to give up the game of acceleration. Opt instead for amoeba-like methods that can be reused through time and situation. Sporadic movement, pre-happenings not yet articulated, props, occupations that go on through their own ending, the feeling of quiet confusion, like looking at a painting by Ad Reinhardt in 1964. We can embrace nothing, but let it be with urgency.