Geometries of Attention
Every philosophy, every narrative, every poem, every piece of visual art or music organizes our noticing according to its implicit and enacted geometries of attention.Dita Fröller, New Old World Marvels
It's a lovely coincidence that silent and listen are just a lettristic shuffle apart. Mid-twentieth century, John Cage conceptually and performatively redefined silence in two major pieces, "Lecture on Nothing" (c. 1950), which he called a "structured silence," and the 1952 piano composition he referred to as the "silent piece," 4'33". This latter was in fact the realization of a project begun in 1948 with the working title "Silent Prayer." The directives in both cases are, Notice where you are, Look around, Listen.
Listen to what? To the sound, music, poetry in what one has not been noticing. Silence is ambient, empty noise that as we turn our attention to it becomes full. This is more complicated than one might think, not just a matter of swiveling the head. Every structure embodies a geometry of attention that renders some things audible/visible and others inaudible/invisible. Cultures do their orientational work in large part unconsciously/unintentionally in naturalized figure-ground relations that appear to be simply the way things are. Habits of perception are difficult to inspect. Areas of experience unaccountable in the topological continuities of culture are no less difficult to locate just because we know in principle that they must be there.
How to attend to the many silences—aesthetic, historical, social—that affect everything we think and do? How to use them? This may be the principal challenge of any contemporary moment. We're confused enough already, and then there's the present relentlessly rolling in, vastly overdetermined, further complicating the past. We've only just glimpsed a pattern, and it's changing before our eyes. What's most characteristically contemporary at any moment is the least recognizable, least visible, least audible, least intelligible of all that matters. Unintelligibilities of past and present tend to blur into the reassuring and ominous white noise of dailiness. Increasingly ominous, to the degree that they're persistently ignored.
The question that must be continually addressed, if one is to live in one's times, is how to invite the most recalcitrant, even hazardous silences into the conversation. This is a complicated figure-ground puzzle that involves reconfiguring geometries of attention. For Cage, like his aesthetic and spiritual mentors Marcel Duchamp and D.T. Suzuki, the transformation of the nature of attention was the key to the constructive transfiguration of experience. Duchamp's working assumption (the one that brought on both pop and conceptual art) was that any object can be seen as art. Attention is the necessary and sufficient condition. The only thing that isn't art is inattention. Suzuki similarly taught that Zen awareness brings ordinary experience into the field of enlightenment. Intersecting in Cage's consciousness, these insights became a comprehensive aesthetic of silence, that is, of heightened attention:
I am here, and there is nothing to say.
If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment. What we re-quire is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking.… there are silences and the words make help make the silences.
I have nothing to say
and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.
This space of time is organized. We need not fear these silences,—we may love them.
"Lecture on Nothing"
Cage's "Lecture on Nothing" uses a rhythmic structure composed of measures meant to be performed as a piece of language music but with "the rubato which one uses in everyday speech." It's an effective outline of the new geometry of attention that Cage was developing in the late 1940s and early 1950s and that would formally define all his projects for the rest of his life. Whether hearing "Lecture on Nothing" or seeing it on the page, one is struck by the apertures that are built into the organization of this "space of time." They function to dramatically redirect vectors of noticing—past words, into the silence of pauses, the emptiness of structural description:
I am here.… I am doing this.… [W]e are now here.… I go on
talking.… This is a composed talk … for I am making it … just as I
make … a piece of music.… How could I … better tell … what
structure … is … than simply to … tell … about this,… this talk … which
is … contained … within … a space of time.… It makes very little …
difference … what I say … or even how I say it.… You have just …
experienced … the structure … of this talk.… 
The explicit mapping of the space-time of the talk makes it instructively prototypic as experience of silence as poetry/poetry as silence—what we don't normally notice when a lecture wholly occupies the foreground of our consciousness with its densely constructed text. The schematic form of "Lecture on Nothing" affords constant glimpses of the world outside the lecture. It conspires (breathes together) with its own alterity. And this means it is transferable to any other situation, with content composed of any other collection of details. "Lecture on Nothing" of course turns out to contain many delightful, thought-provoking, astonishing things. It's full of beautiful philosophical statements, stories, ideas, surprising references; but its formal gaps, its recursive attention to its own emptiness, foregrounds structure and turns it into a template for noticing similar relationships elsewhere—for example, among words and silence, ideas and experience, what is and is not apparent in other instances of art and of course in the course of everyday life.
This is what geometries do—they organize the vectors of our attention, establish relations between abstract directionalities, insides and outsides, enabling us to notice certain things we could not otherwise. The ancient Egyptians used geometry to locate landmarks buried in mud or displaced by floods. Benoit Mandelbrot noticed that complex natural forms like trees, rivers, and coastlines can be modeled with
What Cage discovered was that the more minimal and permeable the disciplined process or structure, the more it reveals about the world outside its perimeters. With the right orientational vectors, the qualities of lightness and permeability place it in conversation with its immediate environment. Like all formally constructed aesthetic experience, art that lets silence into its composition is, in its own artifice, an invasion into the conditions of a given space-time. But its relation to that space-time is, importantly, one of reciprocal alterity rather than erasure or denial. What lies outside its structuring geometries is always the major area of investigation.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Cage was working on these ideas, as always, in collaboration with others—at Black Mountain College, as well as in New York City—with Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, M.C. Richards, and Robert Rauschenberg. Fuller and Richards shared, to the greatest degree, Cage's social concerns, but it was Rauschenberg's white paintings (1951–52) that became for him an iconic example of a minimalist use of materials in maximalist service to an art of ordinary experience.
Like Cage's 4'33", the white paintings foreground ambient activity (the visual ambience of light and shadow) wherever they are placed. What seems at first empty becomes, with attention, so full one cannot take one's eyes off them. Since the play of light is live, happening at the moment of one's looking, one doesn't want to miss any delicious nuances. It is like watching the continuous change of light on water. Yes, it is, and with this realization comes another—that you don't need the paintings to have this experience. You needed them to show the way—to stimulate your museum-quality attention—but what has enraptured
This was not how Cage began. In the 1930s and early 1940s his explorations of silence had been focused on contemplative, even mystical, experiences in which silence in music was valued as a quieting of the mind so that the divine could enter. This was a geometry of the receptive mind/soul characteristic of Indian (Sri Ramakrishna) and medieval Christian (Meister Eckhart) spiritual philosophy. The divine comes from an unspecifiable zone beyond the threshold of ordinary perception. Silence is the clearing of that threshold for its arrival. If one were to draw a diagram, the vectors of attention would be directed off the page toward an implicitly radiant spiritual horizon. The geometry of radiance is omnidirectional, making specificity and focus impossible.
Cage's redefinition of silence shifts it not only from empty receptivity to active, disciplined attention (in which the empty becomes full while remaining empty) but also away from the notion of silence as indicative of absence and longing. The silent that transliterates into "listen" marks the always present possibility of things previously unremarked. From the 1950s on, Cage's new geometry of silence requires a different sort of diagram, one in which events from the ordinary world enter into precisely composed apertures, by chance and intention, filling the foreground with a newly identifiable material presence that, as it comes into audibility/visibility, collapses background and foreground into one. From the 1950s on, the traceries of this geometry are what all of Cage's scores (as well as his visual art) present to the performer-auditor-viewer for realization.
Our legitimated geometries of attention determine the kinds of ambient information we find disturbing or confusing or unintelligible. If postmodern theory has taught us anything, it is that the internal logics and internalized values of cultures frame naturalized prospects that obliterate, miniaturize, or exoticize all things outside their scope. They create horizons of social silence and monodirectional alterity. John Cage's Copernican paradigm shift in aesthetics has direct implications for social and historical
It is not the romanticized angel of history but the very pragmatic angles of attention that should occupy us. What this implies is that we need to devise projects that in their sustained attention and collaborative scope adjust the distribution of silences, that is, the distribution of value and power. Consciously redirecting our noticing entails cultivating disciplines that are difficult and anxiety laden, as well as tonic and nourishing. To intentionally devise methods of bringing silence into one's work, as Cage did with his selective use of chance operations, is to acknowledge the dire limitations, even the dangers, of relying uncritically on habitual practices, familiar perspectives. This is as much about taking pleasure in intricate strangeness as it is about survival. Can it be that the best way to adjust geometries of attention is to be, like Cage, playfully and purposefully curious? To begin with questions, to undertake every project as an investigation? A new geometry of attention is a new choreography, a new music, a new visual art, a new poetry, a new science, a new mix of genres, that is, a new form of life.
That John Cage found ways to use the fact that pure silence doesn't exist, to redefine silence as sound, and to turn that figure/ground shift into an open window on our world is a major contribution to the health of our uncertainties, the power of constructive curiosity. The worldwide influence of Cage's work has vastly enlarged the field of improbable possibilities.
Silence is in us, a constituent principle of all our habits and perceptions. What we don't know about ourselves in these complex times is equaled only by the radical independence of all that does not reflect our most cherished self-images. Is it that to come to love silence is to finally experience one's own otherness, one's own mongrelism, one's own un-intelligibility in playful and grave reciprocity with the rest of the world?