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  • On Monotony:Repetition, Invention and Poetics in Christensen and Stevens
  • Angela Carr (bio)

The hum of a ceiling fan, the mechanical grind of an escalator, Pilates repetitions, treadmills and stationary bicycles, waiting room Muzak and its tedious refrain: such experiences of monotony are ubiquitous. Continuous, unchanging, regular, repetitious: truly predictable, the sameness of monotony is particularly unbearable for it does not stop. Its tedium is an expression of its unbending relationship to time, an excessive duration. Monotony never wavers, never falters, never surprises. Monotony cannot seduce; there is no attraction of fleeting adventure or freedom in monotony, which is absolute prolongation without hesitation or variation, entirely anticipatable.

Monotony is often a cause of boredom, yet it is not reducible to a socially affective state. In the absence of variation or difference, monotony operates as pure time, divested of the human. While, on the one hand monotony epitomizes the assembly-line dullness once associated with the end of art, it has now come to represent a formal quality we expect from contemporary conceptual or anti-aesthetic movements.1 This essay accounts for various, anomalous and formally generative examples of monotony in cultural production and traces monotony as an unlikely poetic trope in critical discourse, specifically through an analysis of literary texts by Wallace Stevens and Inger Christensen.2

Monotony and the Vitality of Poetry

The problem of monotony as a modern phenomenon is expressed most clearly in the field of music theory because monotony is a form of rhythm. In an essay titled “On the Current Relationship between Philosophy and Music,” Theodor Adorno posits monotony as an emergent limit circumscribing all new music. In particular, Adorno addresses a problem arising from the categorization of musical types that occurs alongside a contemporary crisis in classical music. Tuning from radio station to station in search of “some serious music, or as it is known in the sphere of informed barbarism, ‘classical music,’” Adorno notes, “the mere fact that it takes place amid the monotony [of pop music] as one category among others means that it in turn appears, even its difference, as simply another facet of that monotony” (427). Adorno’s ‘monotony’ defines a quality of [End Page 31] pop music that is rhythmically uniform, commodified and therefore contrasted to what he perceives as ‘serious’ music: specifically, classical music performed and heard live in a traditional venue. The radio, a medium that supports a listening experience that is asynchronous with performance, with its capacity for mass diffusion of musical recordings, comprises one component of the apparatus at fault for the sad fate of classical music. Adorno implies that classical music becomes monotonous as a result of its new context and media of dissemination. Thus, rather than inscribing monotony as an inherent quality of a certain type of music, Adorno posits it as a contingent quality affecting all contemporary music. For Adorno, ‘monotony’ expresses a characteristic of recorded music in general, of which classical music is simply one type.

Adorno’s critique presumes a uniformity of performance among the technological apparatuses that produce recordings and a transparent or neutrally non-intervening medium of dissemination, implying that an audio recording is nothing more than a watered-down version of a live performance. However, upon further reflection, it becomes apparent that the repeatability of a recording is not continuous with the repeatability of a performance—of any sort, whether of classical or pop music in the example above. According to Jonathan Sterne, this is because:

[r]ecording is a form of exteriority: it does not preserve a pre-existing sonic event as it happens so much as it creates and organizes sonic events for the possibility of preservation and repeatability. Recording is, therefore, discontinuous with the ‘live’ events that it is sometimes said to represent (although there are links of course).


If the recording medium and the radio offer the possibility of repeatability for the first time, it is a repeatability that applies to the recording itself, not the performance, reframing modernism’s distinctions between high and low art against a field of emergent technology.

For Adorno, the recording medium produces a type of music that is, by virtue of its having been recorded, monotonous...


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