The Caged Mind

John Cage

John Cage

I have owned three books by the late composer John Cage (1912-1992) for many years. The most recent was published in 1972. On very rare occasions–probably less than once every few years on average–I pick up one of these books and, in appropriately stochastic fashion, read something at random. Without exception this exercise proves to be at least interesting, often humorous, or even more often astounding. Last night as I was heading for bed I snatched my copy of A Year From Monday and began reading the introduction.

This book, published in 1967, begins by referring back to Silence, his previous book published in 1961 and arguably the most influential of his literary works (which includes the text of his narrative piece “Indeterminacy” and manifestos on new music), noting that the current book includes writing and lectures from the intervening years. What made me stop in my tracks was the text that follows:

“The question is: Is my thought changing? It is and it isn’t. One evening after dinner I was telling friends that I was now concerned with improving the world. One of them said: I thought you always were. I then explained that I believe–and am acting upon–Marshall McLuhan‘s statement that we have through electronic technology produced an extension of our brains to the world formerly outside of us. To me that means that the disciplines, gradual and sudden (principally Oriental), formerly practiced by individuals to pacify their minds, bringing them into accord with ultimate reality, must now be practiced socially–that is, not just inside our heads, but outside of them, in the world, where our central nervous system effectively now is.”

First Internet Message Arpanet UCLA

First Internet Message Arpanet UCLA (Photo credit: Dean Terry)

This statement seems prophetic, but he and McLuhan were not talking about the future. Cage was talking about his now: 1967. ARPANET, the precursor to what we now know as the Internet, did not exist until 1969. The first hand-held cellular telephone was demonstrated in 1973. Small CATV networks have existed since around 1950, but were primarily built to provide clear signals from over-the-air local broadcasters. Specialized cable-only programming networks distributed by satellite appeared in the 1970s. What Cage was talking about in 1967 as electronic technology consisted basically of hard wired telephones, broadcast television, and radio. There were no other popular electronic communications media at that time. But McLuhan’s message about the immediate transmission of information shrinking the planet into a “global village” was a revolutionary observation on the heels of the first transatlantic television and data signals broadcast via the Telstar satellites in the early 60s.

More recent advances in technology have accelerated McLuhan’s thesis, resulting even then in the awareness of “Future Shock,” as Alvin Toffler’s popular 1970 book so clearly enumerated. So Cage’s logical extension of McLuhan’s idea is that consciousness itself has become decentralized. And this has now become a way of life for anyone who uses technology to discover, store, retrieve, or share information. We are inextricably tied to our technologies in ways that make us more connected, arguably more productive, and ultimately more dependent on each other as segments of an intellectual and social network. A network in which it is becoming more difficult to distinguish between that which is “me” and that which is “not me.” And perhaps this comes from Cage’s Zen perspective, observing that experience is inclusive–as music is not separate from the environment in which it is played, so we are not separate from the social and information networks within which we live and think. Though how one might practice Zen meditation via a social network is a puzzle, perhaps.

Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers

I have a small desk in my living room that is covered with trinkets. I think of it as a sort of shrine. There are a few Mexican objects not related to each other and for no reason other than that they came to me in various ways: a dark wood carving that belonged to my father of a seated monk reading from a book, a Oaxacan Dia de los muertos skeletal figure carving with a colorful sombrero and playing a fiddle, a native woven basket, a votive candle depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe. Also on my shrine are pictures of people I admire–a sort of personal pantheon. These include Buddha, Bodidharma (a watercolor I made myself after a Japanese original), Jimi Hendrix, Bach, Fred Rogers (AKA Mr. Rogers), and most certainly John Cage.

Among the snippets Cage later quotes from his own earlier writings is this context-less notion, which I copy here, also without context:

“Our proper work now if we love mankind and the world we live in is revolution.”

Bodidharma - watercolor by D.Newton after a Japanese original

Bodidharma – watercolor by D.Newton after a Japanese original

[N.B. I originally posted this article at FW’s Laboratory last week.]

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