LA REVIEW OF BOOKS
John Cage’s Endless Project
If the simultaneously helpful and discouraging title of the book Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) seems to reflect Cage’s feelings of confusion, the book’s text brings that confusion to light. Observations, theories, and quotes bump up wildly against each other; a recipe for beet tops with yoghurt is followed by an account of a visit to an asylum, followed by a critique of modern education, followed by a quote from Chairman Mao, and so on. Cage, like many American artists who came up in the ’40s and ’50s, was drawn to Eastern philosophy, and he often used the I Ching as a way to build the concept of “chance” into his work. For Diary, this meant he tossed coins to determine the order of sentences in each section. The result reads a lot like a Twitter feed, one unrelated quote or thought after another, no segues in sight.
Cage didn’t live to see Twitter, but he was familiar with the similarly disjointed medium of the nine o’clock news. Television newscasts, according to media critic Neil Postman, present us “not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness.” Inertia, he argues, is the inevitable result. “What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East?” he asked in 1985. “I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them.”
The continued timeliness of Postman’s Middle East example lends credence to his argument. Despite nonstop coverage, our problems haven’t changed all that much. Many of the issues Cage could observe in 1972 remain at a standstill in 2015: the Equal Rights Amendment still hasn’t passed Congress, the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us that racism is as persistent and pernicious as ever, and, this summer, the Pentagon listed Russia at the top of its threat list. The Vietnam War is over but American military involvement overseas is not.
Cage suggests that this is cyclical: a confusing presentation of social issues leads to lack of progress and lack of progress on social issues makes the presentation of said issues more confusing. “One of the things that’s so confusing to us here and so exasperating is that we don’t lack good advice, say from Thoreau, say from Buckminster Fuller,” he explained in 1972. “But our government and the society as a whole pay absolutely no attention.”