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In the 1970s John Cage was a paradigmatic figure (open, rather than closed, form) for Jean-François Lyotard, both for his engagements with libidinal economies and des dispositifs pulsionnels, and for his later work on minor ruses and their retorts of authoritative voices. The paper looks in detail at Lyotard's intervention, Notes sur le retour et le capital, at the 1972 Cerisy conference, Nietzsche Aujourd'hui. The paper ends with the Semiotext(e) Schizoculture conference where Cage and Lyotard appeared together in 1976.

Lyotard's Cage

It is not easy to see things from the middle and not from above or below, from right to left or from left to right. Try and you will see that everything changes.

—Deleuze and Guattari, Rhizome

    "From the moment we set a stage and speak here," Lyotard said at Cerisy in 1972, "we are within representation and within theology. The walls of this castle [the conferences at Cerisy were held in a chateau] are the walls of the museum—that is, the setting aside of feelings and the extraterritorial privilege granted to concepts, the setting in reserve of intensities, their quiescence, their presentation in a staged-setting."  The setting (Cerisy) to which Lyotard was referring was a conference, Nietzsche aujourd'hui, at which some of the more remarkable of 1970s readings of Nietzsche were offered (Derrida's reading of the feminine in Nietzsche, for example, which Irigaray would later re-enact in response; Deleuze's presentation of Nietzsche's nomadic thought ). And in that setting, though not at first but in conclusion, Lyotard offered Cage, Cage's Silence, within the "walls of the museum."
    How to characterize this museum in which Cage will somewhat belatedly appear? Inasmuch as we are in the process of staging another conference today, insofar as we are once again reconstituting the walls of a museum—if not in a chateau then certainly in a fortress—perhaps it will be useful to offer Lyotard's Cage today as well—now in a 70s conference—at the moment as "we set a stage and speak here." "What gives rise to representation is weakness," Lyotard writes, "loss of intensity, standardization . . . even if the walls of this fortress were eliminated, even if we held these discussions in the subway," because "the condition of representation is inherent in philosophical discourse. The weakening of intensities in philosophical discourse, the production of concepts (of deviations regulated with the order of signification), the mise en représentation, all are congruent. The mise en représentation (its mise en scène) is above all an act of externalizing within the interior, a scene within the interior as a setting: stage and audience. That is Wagner. And that is theology." And that is the "representational scene-staging" of "philosophical discourse."
    At this point a critic might note that Lyotard is also guilty—as we are at the moment—of "externalizing within the interior" as well. Lyotard recognizes this critique from the beginning and from the beginning dismisses it: Since he is speaking of Nietzsche, he dismisses it in terms of Nietzsche. "It is not important . . . that representation reproduces itself endlessly in . . . Nietzschean discourse." To insist on this critique is also a serious lapse" which cancels "what Nietzsche says and desires: his insistence on ending the show, the closure for representation, i.e. theology—not thematically, but in position." A thematic presentation would sustain the theatrical staging. Instead, in Nietzsche, a re-positioning. To merely stage Nietzschean discourse as philosophical discourse "means abiding in . . . the fixed interval, the system, discursiveness, the energetic . . . [at] its grayest point . . . to stop all the moments, the intensities . . . at the minimum of tension and stress, to stage yourself within the possibility of the representation that is born from this weakness. . . . which can lead to a reading of Nietzsche in turn . . . as a failure . . . But this is only possible as long as you stay . . . within this philosophic discourse . . . You  might as well put Nietzsche on a university exam, that is, within the narrowest, grayest, most tepid  of confinements." And "if you make a theory of Eternal Recurrence . . . you are doing the same thing."
    At the Cerisy Conference, Gilles Deleuze asks Lyotard what, as an alternative, as a departure from philosophical discourse, "an intensive reading of Nietzsche would be." At first Lyotard responds with what it would not be. It would not be an interpretation, it would not be a hermeneutics. It would not be another "accumulation of knowledge." Instead Lyotard begins with an aphorism from Nietzsche, from  Human, All Too Human, in which "it is always a renewed surprise for the writer to find that his book continues to live a life of its own as soon as it has abandoned him . . . .  [H]e might not even understand it anymore" but the book "seeks out its readers, kindles life, inspires joy and dread, engenders new works, becomes the soul of certain projects." And "if we now consider that all human action, and not just a book, in some way eventually determines other actions, resolutions, or thoughts, that everything is indissolubly linked to what will happen, we recognize that there exists a true immortality, that of movement. . . . [A] free thought, very powerful, fully grown into its own, will bear witness that somewhere there is an ardor of sentiment extraordinarily magnified."  "It is a matter of metamorphosis," Lyotard writes. "Intensive reading is the product of new and different intensities" where "the book itself, as non-book, . . . is simply metamorphic form . . . by no means a negative loss . . . .  [I]nsofar as it is incessant process, infinite, always displaced, decentered, shifted,  the metamorphosis acts affirmatively," as Eternal Return.
    In the return, there will be a temptation to repeat, however (Lyotard's Cerisy paper is titled Notes on Return and Capital). This leads, Lyotard says, "to what Nietzsche is for us today." Because when metamorphosis "passes through the same effects again, it establishes itself, closes up again, blocks itself in objects and subjects, les dispositifs and inscriptions, fixed quantities and intervals, structures and representations. The metamorphosis, if it is repetitive in the usual sense, that is, simply regulated" becomes "the fixed Return, that is Kapital." Eternal Return in the Nietzschean sense—and for this Lyotard will turn to Cage (though not yet)—requires "the dissolution of the unique law of Kapital, that is, of the law of value." The danger for a Nietzsche aujourd'hui—for a Cage, or for a Lyotard, for Lyotard's Cage today, within the walls of the museum—will be the law of value. On the one hand, Capital "is metamorphosis without end and without goal." It is "production as consumption and consumption as production," not only the dissolution of the old, pre-capitalist institutions, but also . . . [the] auto-dissolution of its own institutions, constantly undone and redone," the undoing and redoing "of all that is presented as stable signification . . . of things into men, of men into things, of products into means of production and vice versa, of economics insofar as it is non-political economics," and in this it "is profoundly affirmative." On the other hand, however, Capitalism offers a renewed theology, "not because it reintroduces representations and institutions that have already been destroyed, because in fact it does not do so," but because "it plunges humanity into the theology of atheism . . . the belief in (the death of) God."  Capitalism "reintroduces nothing" but it "rests on the law of value, that is, on the equality of parts in play in any metamorphosis," an insistent "equality that constitutes . . . the illusion of the Return" and "forces metamorphosis to pass again and again (always) through the same channel . . . to institute itself." This institution of itself arises from "a fear of loss (losing your possessions, your work, your earnings, your advantages, your health, the power to work, your life)." And, with a nod toward Derrida who was in the audience for Lyotard's paper a Cerisy: "the philosopher who teaches the loss of meaning and its always differed-deferred character, is the pastor of this neo-nililistic theology, the priest of the religion of merchandise."
    By instituting itself as the law of metamorphosis, Capital turns change into "growth, the formation of Kapital, development, wanting-the-power"—an open ended list to which we might add, in this museum today, careers, expertise, the merely academic will-to-power. So that: "the only energy permitted is one with an averaged, standardized intensity that can be stored, transported and channeled" and "the force which works and creates . . . become[s] merely the work force" (although Lyotard does not mention Heidegger in this context, the Heideggerian sense of technology is at work in this description). At the same time, if Capital transforms the metamorphic force which works and creates in the work force, an alternative might be to transform the work force metamorphically into the forces which work and create. "This is the affirmation," Lyotard writes: "in relation to capitalism, to increase or preserve intensity at its most energetic in order to obtain the most energetic metamorphosis." Nietzsche imagined such a metamorphosis in a future convergence of cultures, Lyotard adds, when "the incessant agitation of Europe and America" would "meet the dissolution which comes from" Asian cultures." "I imagine future thinkers," Nietzsche wrote, "for whom European and America's perpetual agitation will be associated with Asian contemplation, the heritage of hundreds of generations . . . . [I]n the meantime, free contemplative spirits have their mission: to abolish all the obstacles that prevent the interpenetration of human beings." And to this Nietzschean hope, Lyotard added in 1972  that "this combination is already being made," that "the American current (which John Cage's name symbolizes) is that combination already," and that in this American current "you can begin to notice the combination where it is most advanced, most 'experimental,' where it creates the most experiences" with "the most fertile incompletions."
    Why Cage? "There is a movement . . . in which Nietzsche tries to cure himself of Wagnerism," Lyotard writes, and this movement seems less attuned to Cage than to Schoenberg, Cage's teacher, and from whose harmonics Cage found he needed to escape. In seeking a "cure," Lyotard suggests, Nietzsche adopts "a critical position. He is to Wagner as Adorno is to Stravinsky," and "the music that this Nietzsche awaits is the music that Schoenberg will make" where "the new form dissolves its material, but the material itself is only the residue of the old form" and "the old form has become material to be dissolved. Thus the new form is like Kapital: dissonance = dissolution of old codes," where formalization as dissonance "corresponds to the predominance of exchange value." However, Lyotard adds, "the music which the last Nietzsche needed was no longer Schoenberg-Adorno, already it was Cage" for whom "the question is no longer a question of form as critique but sound as intensity," who "abandon[s] the critical point of view" and "adopt[s] the perspective of affirmation in connection with reality."
    Here is Lyotard's characterization of Cage's experiment—of Lyotard's Cage within the walls of the museum: the experiment involves "the dissolution of the fixed intervals that have made a writing of music, that have depressed the sounds to a note." The experiment works "not only by destroying the sham domination of time that is rhythm and the general organization of the musical composition . . . but also by destroying the silence/sound relation, by showing that silence is also sound (the sound of blood in the ears, the sound of muscular contraction in the maxilla), by disrupting the relations of composition/execution, performer/listener, stage/concert hall/city, etc." Anyone who knows Cage's music will be familiar with what Lyotard is characterizing, what Lyotard's friend Daniel Charles called "Taoism . . . in rapport with the technical objects of the American West," a rapport which, as Lyotard notes, "is itself 'Taoist': not the domination of something by technique, and consequently, the domination of technique for something, but rather to let the technique be, to allow it to produce, to befriend it," because "technique is no longer a weapon or a tool in a subject/object relation, but an energetic dispositif of connection, able, for example, to produce sounds that were never produced" through the "open, experimental character of Cage's actions."
    Of course "someone will say: this is still representation; you double the noises of the modern world inside your concert hall [or fortress] . . . your happenings are a spectacle." But to this critique Lyotard responds with a reference to Klossowski (Klossowski was in the Cerisy "castle" at the time): there is always the "alternative: intensities or intentions. When intensities become intentions, you enter representation. And intensities always become intentions when they become normative rather than nomadic, merely said . . . that is, exchangeable." Then you find that Nietzsche (or Cage) has "the thesis . . . [and] that being represents itself," you "understand Eternal Return as part of the Same" (as within its category or eidos), and you "turn Nietzsche back to the Pre-Socratics" (the reference is to Heidegger who also had his representatives at Cerisy). At this point you might find that a Cage concert was always the same—that is, unless you listened.
    As if Cage were the Nietzschean Übermensch (best translated in this instance not as "Overman" perhaps, but as "Afterman," or even "After-being-human,"  a "Becoming-after-human) and Nietzsche's conceit had now become an open form, Lyotard's Cage allows a rereading (within the Cerisy museum-castle-fortress) of Nietzsche's Eternal Return (or Recurrence) of the Same as repeatedly different (one might call this the American current in Lyotard's post-philosophical "discourse." We are so used to thinking of the French influence on American academic discourse in the 1970s that there is a certain pleasure in recognizing a counter-current that was also active in the 70s): "The will to power as the affirmative instinct of the singular creates the Eternal Return that is not part of the Same, that is, not part of something (God in hiding, Klossowski says)—that represents the singularities as 'intentions.' At the center of Return is nothing. There is no center. The singularities recur singly to each other, without reference to the center, to the Subject, to the Signifier. They refer, that is, they associate themselves and link themselves together. . . . It is not to represent at all. It is to associate. The empiricism of Nietzsche. But you cannot even say to associate: it is to pass from one singularity to another. . . .[It is to] insist instead on forgetting. In representation and opposition there is memory: passing from one singularity to the other, both are held together (by channels of circulation, by dispositifs, by libidinal fantasies or figures of investment). An identity, the Same, is implicit in this memory. In Eternal Return, as desire of potential, there is precisely no memory. The  voyage is a passage without a wake, a forgetting, exposures that are multiple only for discourse, not for themselves. That is why there is no representation for this voyage, for this nomadic of intensities." To which, Lyotard added, at Cerisy, in 1972, that he had "just described MUREAU, the latest simultaneous 'work' by Cage and Tudor" which he had recently heard in performance in Basel, Switzerland. When Lyotard listened to Cage and Tudor, he heard the Nietzschean  Return.
    It might be useful in conclusion—and given the context, a paper at a conference on poetry in the 70s—to offer some critique of Lyotard's Cage if for no other reason than to display a saluatory textual power over what may now seem like a dated philosophical discourse. But perhaps not (Deleuze and Guattari noted later in the 70s that whenever you are trying to swim, there will always be someone who wants to tie weights to your feet). Rather than a critique, let me conclude with an anecdote. In 1976, Lyotard, Deleuze, Guattari, and Foucault appeared with Cage at a conference in New York that was sponsored by Semiotext(e) and whose subject was Schizoculture. Advertisements in the Village Voice led many New York schizophrenics to attend what otherwise might have been a purely academic meeting. Lyotard was delighted to find that he was unable to read the paper he was delivering because more and more translators on stage and off began fighting over an adequate English version for what he was sayting in French.  Guattari was shouted off the stage for suggesting he might not read (but only speak about) the paper he was scheduled to deliver and for which the audience felt that they had paid good money to hear. Foucault was accused of being an agent of the CIA by a member of the American Communist Party whom Foucault in turn called an agent of the KGB. In the furor Foucault was unable to read his paper on sexuality which was later distributed in a semi-legible mimeograph. Cage enchanted the audience with a performance of Walden, and Cage's power was sufficently calming that Deleuze was able to read an early version of his rhizome essay with only occasional interruptions and suggest as a pragmatics "the wisdom of plants" and "the triumphal irruption of the plant is us."  During a question and answer period, Cage asked the audience to forego German philosophy and not imagine that what was happening in one moment was necessarily recurring in every other. He also said, as he often said, that he was less interested in what he understood than in changing his mind. When I spoke to Lyotard later—we spent the next week together discussing a project that has not yet been completed—he was struck by Cage's pragmatic interest in changing his mind, and it occurred to me at the time—and since—that Lyotard was writing a philosophy for a changing mind, not as philosophical discourse, which would impose the law of value that authorizes the writing as philosophical, but instead—without the impositions of that law or its textual power—as des dispositif pulsionnels (the phrase in French suggests "apparatus" and "impulse" in a way I find difficult to translate. A little like Deleuze and Guattari's desiring machiniques or the verbal impulse that for Mandelshtam transformed discourse into poetry and set the word on roads without end). I wonder in retrospect if Lyotard's project was not antithetical to itself, to write philosophy that might be cognizant of, but not in (not reduced to the normative intensities of) a philosophical discourse. A naïve hope, perhaps, since from the moment "we begin to speak here, we are within representation and within theology." Haven't we always known—don't we by now understand—that the museum has its protocols and the castle, its textual power? On the other hand, I like to think of Benjamin's response to Adorno and Scholem when they warned him that his combinations of mysticism and Marxism mixed discourses, were at odds with each other, and theoretically unsound. Benjamin agreed but said that his best insights came from this conflict that he would not even begin to resolve, that the theory might be hopeless but the pragmatics was sound. I like to think of Lyotard's philosophy and Lyotard's Cage in this way as well, as "a game to be played at the heart of theory" —or within the walls of the fortress—"not 'innovative' (deductible from a body of [discursive] axioms), but something unheard of"—like Cage's sounds—where "there is no assurance one way or other" (Économie libidinale).  Or, as Lyotard said in the 70s, in Au juste: "It is imprudent to win," but "it is always possible to tell things differently."


All translations are my own. Notes sur le retour et le capital is included as the last essay in Lyotard's Des dispositifs pulsionnels (Paris: Union Générale d'Éditions, 1973). All italics within quotations are Lyotard's.