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The way in is the far out

John Cage opened the windows of the music room. He incorporated unintended as well as intended but unconventional sounds into music composition, thus acknowledging a modern electrocution of music that alters the sensorium. Music became an extension of our wired ears. The way in was the far out.

Cage created performance lectures, utilizing a multi-media approach that combined sound, text, and oral lecture with non-linear arrangement and movement of ideas, words, sentences as musical phrases, and anecdotal asides (his short-short stories approximating the Zen koan). Bulleted lines, multiple columns, and a variety of font characteristics permeate the text versions. The lectures are collected in the books “Silence” (1961) and “A Year From Monday” (1967). Cage’s initial attempts were an effort to incorporate his musical ideas into different modes of argument, so that the listener could “experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it” (“Silence,” Foreword). The lectures are measured compositions. The composer provides time values, tempo markings, directions for rhythm and pitch, and textual arrangements serving as bars and measures. Chance and indeterminacy informed Cage’s composition process:

“At Black Mountain College in 1952, I organized an event that involved the paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham, films, slides, phonograph records, radios, the poetries of Charles Olson and M. C. Richards recited from the tops of ladders, and the pianism of David Tudor, together with my Juilliard lecture…The audience was seated in the center of all this activity” (“Silence,” Foreword).

Not everyone in the audience may have enjoyed the attempt to rearrange their sensorium. Cage relates, of his “Lecture on Nothing,” “One of the structural divisions was the repetition, some fourteen times, of a single page in which occurred the refrain, ‘If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep.’ Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, ‘John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute.’ She then walked out.”

We may feel a similar response to some of today’s pervasive PowerPoint presentations. They are not written, or composed, but put together, as in “I put together a PowerPoint for today’s meeting.” The use of PowerPoint is itself a value assumption (warrant). Yet for organization and presentation of an argument for today’s reader (who has not the time, inclination, or patience for linear modes – a reader now beyond the Guttenberg Galaxy, outside the margins of McLuhan’s marginal man, a mosaic man), the persuasive possibilities of the PowerPoint slide show are hard to beat.

For a consideration of the potential ill effects of PowerPoint, see Ian Parker, “Can a Software Package Edit Our Thoughts?” The New Yorker, May 28, 2001.

Sister Maryquill’s Style Guide: An APA/MLA etc. Primer

When McCluhan wrote, in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” “…the scholar in print culture can have acceptance for his accuracy even though he has nothing to say,” he may have been thinking of Sister Maryquill’s class, in Los Angeles, circa 1957.  

Sister Maryquill’s requirements led the young scholar down a straight path toward accuracy, clarity, and conciseness before he even contemplated the writing of words or numbers. These requirements included clean, white, three hole punched, wide margin, ruled folder paper. For a page ripped from a spiral notebook, one subtracted points, minus 10%. If from the ripped page dangled hanging chads, or if chad confetti littered the floor around one’s desk, one subtracted more points, minus an additional 10%. One used red and black pencils, #2, both, for Arithmetic, blue ink pen for English. There were no other subjects. A single, 12 inch ruler, 3 hole punched, completed every student’s toolbox – no borrowing allowed.

Samples from Sister’s Guide: “In Arithmetic, divide the width of the paper from the left margin line to the right edge in half, measuring 3 inches from the top of the paper and 3 inches from the bottom, making a tiny dot with red pencil to mark your measurements. Hold your ruler vertically aligned against the dots to get plumb. Using your red pencil, draw a straight line from the top ruled line to the bottom of the page. Hold your ruler horizontally across the first ruled line. Draw over the line with your red pencil.” 

“At the top of every page write in capital letters without punctuation JMJ. On the first page, in the top, right hand corner, write your name. Under your name, write the date. Under the date, write the subject. Under the subject, write the assignment. On subsequent pages, in the same top right hand corner space, write only your name, but under your name, write the page number, only the number.”

The classroom stapler was reserved for special occasions. For regular, daily work: “When submitting work of multiple pages, fold the top left hand corner down, creating an equilateral triangle, rip the paper inward from the center of the outside edge, and double back the top side.”  

In Sister Maryquill’s English class, thesis stated, theme explored, but within the confines described above: blue ink on proper, white folder paper; writing aligned neatly against the left, red margin; double-spaced, cursive – all under the watchful eyes of JMJ. But there was more preparation required of the English paper, for every sentence required diagramming, properly, to avoid its being stricken. One used red pencil and ruler for the lines of the diagram, and blue ink pen for the words. Of course, there were many violations other than improper diagrams that warranted striking sentences, and many paragraphs starting with a dozen sentences or more ended with none.

Time for recess.

Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

Louis Menand, in his review of Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” suspects “the whole thing might be a hoax.” (New Yorker, June 28, 2004.) Menand corrects with comments Truss’s misuse of commas: “Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases,” and elsewhere, while he also finds nonrestrictive clauses missing commas. That’s not all he finds wrong (the controlling error in Truss’s book, in Menand’s view, is that she repeatedly violates the very rules she claims hold value), and so he asks, reasonably, “Why would a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation?” Menand’s answer is that Truss’s true topic is not punctuation but declining literacy skills and values. Menand’s true topic is that mastery of punctuation and grammar rules doesn’t necessarily produce style, what he calls “voice”: “There are probably all kinds of literary sins that prevent a piece of writing from having a voice, but there seems to be no guaranteed technique for creating one. Grammatical correctness doesn’t insure it. Calculated incorrectness doesn’t, either. Ingenuity, wit, sarcasm, euphony, frequent outbreaks of the first-person singular-any of these can enliven prose without giving it a voice. You can set the stage as elaborately as you like, but either the phantom appears or it doesn’t.”

The problem is that most readers either don’t recognize errors or ignore them if they do recognize them, or they recognize errors and do respond to them but their response is rendered useless by the fact that the general reader can’t discern a difference between the passage with the error and the same passage with the error corrected – so no one seems to be the wiser or not for the error recognized and its correction inserted. We either get the joke or we don’t, and if we don’t, it’s not the same experience having it explained to us. For a discussion of reader response to rules violated we should read Joseph M. Williams’s article “The Phenomenology of Error.” Williams, like Menand, also makes use of writers violating their own rules, and not just writers like Truss, but the venerable E. B. White, whose “Elements of Style” is a classic now in its fourth edition, and the practical George Orwell: “…I am bemused by the apparent fact that three generations of teachers have used this essay (“Politics and the English Language”) without there arising among us a general wry amusement that Orwell violated his own rules in the act of stating them.”

“It don’t matter,” you  might be saying, “I amn’t one of those. Just give me a few rules I can understand and apply to get me through the long night of this paper” (if you happen to be writing one) or “these papers” (if you happen to be correcting a stack).

Williams did not argue for a rejection of rules. At the same time, he did not think the presence of a rule in a handbook requires us to honor it. Perhaps we should spend more time not correcting errors but commenting on what’s right in a paper (a student’s paper or students peer reviewing). But we might still have the same problem – Williams deliberately inserted about 100 errors into his original paper, so that he could ask his readers if they on a first reading noticed any of them. If a majority of readers, he reasoned, recognized the same errors on a first “non-reflexive” reading, those errors would be the ones we should all read for first: “In short, if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find. But if we could read those student essays unreflexively, if we could make the ordinary kind of contract with those texts that we make with other kinds of texts, then we could find many fewer errors.”

If we expect to learn to write by learning the rules… – but if we don’t know the rules, and we still managed to write something effective or even with Menand’s “voice,” how did we do it?

For more of Williams’s ideas see his “Clarity and Grace or Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” and the U Chicago writing site. There is a useful list of “articles on error analysis” at the IUB campus writing program site.

Menand, Louis. (2004, June 28). Bad comma. New Yorker.

Williams, Joseph. (1981). The phenomenology of error. College Composition and Communication, 32.