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Reviewed by:
  • Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the American Experimental Tradition
  • Steven Gould Axelrod
Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the American Experimental Tradition. By Christopher Shultis. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press. 1998. xxiii, 180 pp. $50.00.

Christopher Shultis has written an old-fashioned study of an avant-garde icon. Silencing the Sounded Self places John Cage in an “experimental tradition” whose founding texts are Henry David Thoreau’s Journals and Walden. Unlike Emerson, who in this analysis appears less the mentor than the counter-opposite, Thoreau produced nonhumanist, nondualistic texts that seek to coexist with rather than to control nature’s reality. Thoreau’s texts attempt to listen to nature’s sounds and silences rather than arranging or interpreting them. This tradition of being open to existence runs from Thoreau through William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, and Louis Zukofsky, finally culminating in John Cage’s experiments with chance operations in his music and writing. Shultis favorably compares the Thoreau-Cage branch of the “experimental tradition” to an alternative branch beginning with Emerson and continuing through Charles Ives, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Ed Dorn. This latter branch makes the error of testing hypotheses already formed. In the discursive universe of this book, a priori reasoning is the great bugaboo and self-abandonment is the beginning of enlightenment. Silencing the Sounded Self makes some valuable contributions to American cultural study. It helpfully places literary and musical texts in relation to each other, bridging a gap academic disciplinarity tends to keep forbiddingly wide. The book appropriately highlights Thoreau as a forerunner of postmodernism. And it ends very strongly, providing illuminating commentary on a clutch of fascinating Cage works. These range from musical compositions, such as 4′33″ and Variations III, to written texts, including “Diary: Audience 1966,” “Mureau,” and (above all) “Empty Words.” Nevertheless, the book seems in some ways to have emerged from a time capsule. For one thing, it evokes a pre-Bloomian notion of influence. Its analysis finds no anxiety in Cage’s tributes to Thoreau and no misprisions in Cage’s [End Page 594] creative work. This study has little interest in reading against the grain or in peeking under the surfaces of Cage’s project. Furthermore, its methodology replicates that of phenomenological existentialism. Thinkers such as Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Butler, and Haraway do not show up in these pages. Stanley Cavell does appear, but only to be caviled with. Instead we find references to books by William Barrett, Norman 0. Brown, and Hyatt Waggoner. Silencing the Sounded Self venerates “nature” and looks skeptically on the human “self,” without interrogating either of those terms. They are simply givens—coherent and known. In this book the linguistic turn and the poststructuralist revolution have not taken place. Silencing the Sounded Self maintains that dualism mars the work of Emerson, Ives, and Olson, whereas it is absent from the work of Thoreau, Williams, and Cage. Although one might contest that argument, particularly its second half, the more important point is that the formula itself reveals dualistic thinking. Indeed, almost everything in this analysis comes in pairs, with the latter term privileged: Emerson/Thoreau, Ives/Cage, self/nature, control/coexistence, dualism/nondualism. Predictably, the book itself is divided into two parts, with each of those parts divided in two. As useful and thought-provoking as Silencing the Sounded Self certainly is, it remains a paradoxical study. It defends postmodernism in a nonpostmodern vocabulary, its ideational content undermined by its method.

Steven Gould Axelrod
University of California, Riverside

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pp. 594-595
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2005
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