TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 2008

books

Branden W. Joseph’s Beyond the Dream Syndicate

AFTER HEARING LA MONTE YOUNG’S 2 Sounds at Richard Maxfield’s New York studio, John Cage—as recounted in Branden W. Joseph’s Beyond the Dream Syndicate—compared the experience to “see[ing] something through a microscope.” Consisting of two sustained scraping sounds closely miked and amplified to create a sonic envelope into which the listener seems to disappear, Young’s 1960 composition allowed Cage to “hear in the interior of the sound, in the interior of the action.” By amplifying the scraping noises and extending their duration, the piece transformed sound into an environment or architecture, rather than a temporal object—that is, into a field of forces within which the listener is one atom among others, a sustained vibration inseparable from the sound he or she no longer hears so much as transmits.

Cage’s encounter with Young’s work and its magnification, or “blowing up,” of sound is a key episode in Beyond the Dream Syndicate, isolating as it does a procedure that will come to characterize much of the work examined over the book’s long, intricate course. Moreover, it allows Joseph to conceptualize this procedure’s scale shifts, and its decomposition of form (or the sounds’ “shape”), as producing a type of perception echoing what Gilles Deleuze described in the context of cinema as “molecular” or even “gaseous” perceptions. In Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1983), Deleuze argues that there can be no phenomenology of the cinema, because the minimal conditions of the cinematic image spontaneously “suppress” the conditions of natural perception as described by Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty: the body as axis around which the perceptual field is organized, and the world as space enveloping this body. It is in this vein that one understands why Joseph says that cinema, along with sound, is a privileged discipline in the post-Cagean “audio-visual movement” that is his book’s subject. Where phenomenology roots perception in a “sensible form (Gestalt) organizing the perceptual field,” the molecular or “gaseous” perceptions Deleuze identifies as a potentiality specific to the cinema are no longer produced by the synthetic activity of a subject. What the cinema holds out as its most radical possibility is a pure perception: The subject is no longer a synthetic power organizing the visual field, but an eye lodged at the heart of a material field of differentials without poles and intensities without opposition. It is as if the eye were only the inner trembling of matter itself. To the extent that it undoes the activity of transcendental subjectivity and replaces it with an eye immanent to matter, the cinema constructs what Deleuze referred to as a plane of immanence, a fragile surface or screen purged of all subjective depth and objective transcendence. And if these types of perceptions are a tendency of the cinematic image as such, they are achieved by two cinematic “schools” in particular: the revolutionary cinema of Dziga Vertov and the experimentations of structural film. Vertov’s theory of the interval, put into practice in Man with a Movie Camera (1929), produces a constellation of micro-perceptions that alone give birth to what Deleuze calls the “molecular child,” the New Communist Man. The cinema of Michael Snow and George Landow reprises this molecular revolution (a title Félix Guattari will borrow from Timothy Leary) under different historical conditions. The pure perceptions these films release, says Deleuze, disconnect “perception from ‘doing’ or ‘acting,’ that is, they replace sensori-motor perceptions with pure optical and sonorous perceptions.” The use of techniques such as loop printing and flickering frames in structural film made it possible—Deleuze here cites not Leary, but Carlos Castaneda—to “see the molecular intervals, the holes in sound, in forms, and even in water.”

What Cage hears in 2 Sounds and in Young’s work more generally are these intervals and these “holes” in sound. Joseph will make this “aesthetic of immanence” and its deployment among a group of artists who work in Cage’s wake the prevailing theme of Beyond the Dream Syndicate. Indeed, what is most ambitious about this book is its attempt to account for the expanded field of minimalist practice (including dance, music, theater, and film) with an idiom and conceptual framework no longer dominated by those of phenomenology, structuralism, and Frankfurt School Marxism. By identifying a strand of Cagean minimalism that tends toward producing a plane of immanence, Joseph can then supplement the official minimalism of specific objects and strong gestalts with another, minor minimalism whose practitioners found themselves, according to Joseph, “struggling above all with the legacy of John Cage, whose impact on art and music is still little understood.” This strategy of supplementation is described by the author in Deleuzian terms as both a “deterritorialization” of received history and as a “minor history” (borrowing the phrase from Mike Kelley while also echoing Deleuze and Guattari’s “minor” literature) that would replace the Hegelian categories of mediation and totality with errant, point-by-point reconstructions of networks of “continual differentiation,” which are knotted together but not synthesized. In this way, Joseph reflexively attempts to apply the procedure Cage identifies with Young: the staving-in of a historical category’s formal envelope through a meticulous stringing-together of atoms of the real. This type of historical labor nevertheless requires what Slavoj Žižek calls “vanishing mediators” to assure the passage from threshold to threshold.

If at the conceptual level this threading-together is performed by a notion of immanence, at the narrative level it is performed by artist, musician, and filmmaker Tony Conrad. Joseph’s minor history shadows the consecrated dates of official minimalism (a term perhaps pointedly lowercased throughout the book), beginning in 1959 not with Frank Stella’s “Black Paintings” and their deductive structure but with the meeting of Young and Conrad in Berkeley, California; it concludes with a long, important analysis of Conrad’s “structural” film, The Flicker, 1966. Along the way we encounter a set of engagements with Cage’s legacy: Young’s auditory experiments, Robert Morris’s early gray plywood sculptures, Henry Flynt’s “creep personality,” and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1962–63) form the kernels of consecutive chapters in which Conrad is a kind of intercessor. Joseph makes clear that what distinguishes his “more radical group of minimalists”— including “Conrad, Young, Robert Morris, Walter De Maria, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer, for example, but not necessarily Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, or Donald Judd”—is that the field of practices they braid together forms an “audio-visual movement,” a phrase in which the intervention of the technical supplement should echo. What Joseph proposes by placing special emphasis on the chapters addressing Young’s music and Conrad’s structural film is to identify this “minor,” electric minimalism with a set of conditions that Deleuze diagrammed in his discussion of the cinematic image: a minimalism in which it is no longer a matter of “sensible form (Gestalt) organizing the perceptual field”; a minimalism that is no longer defined by a dialectic of the body and what it encounters in the space—perceptual and institutional—enveloping it.

By “blowing up” a limited set of sound elements through amplification and sustained durations, Young’s minor minimalism precipitates a radical shift in scale. What is peculiar about this operation (this problem of scale, so crucial for Morris and minimalism in general, is not developed by Joseph) is that it breaks so cleanly with the procedures associated with the minimalism of Judd and Morris. Claiming to bypass the economy of part and whole (and all relations between parts) by equalizing them through modular structures and open-ended mathematical progressions, the procedures identified with “major” or institutionalized minimalism aimed at generating open structures joining intervals and edges while denying any closure. This purging of all internal relations pushed the work toward the space of the lived body confronting it and of the architectural frame containing it. And in turn, this 1:1 scale promised a continuity between the space of the work, deprived of all interiority, and the “actual” space of the body, of action, and therefore, it is implied, of history and politics. Young’s minimalism seems to break with the sensorimotor schemes that assure the passage between perception and action in favor of a molecular perception, in which the actual is opposed not by an illusionistic or metaphoric depth or interiority, but by a virtuality characterizing Joseph’s aesthetic of immanence. On this plane of immanence, we do not pass from part to part in an empirical accumulation of one thing after another. Rather, we enter a space in which individual elements suddenly appear larger than the set to which they at once belong and which they supplement, and where the path to the Outside passes through the molecular or the infinitesimal.

According to Joseph, Young’s blow-up technique reveals the molecular intervals in sound only to produce a sonic environment or architecture that becomes “its own world” (as Young said in his “Lecture 1960”) and therefore becomes a new enclosure, reconstituting “the totality and objecthood that Cage sought to dissolve. . . . Young, in other words, sought to restore the transcendence Cage sought to dismantle.” One of the more rigorous aspects of Joseph’s book is the way he shows how each of Cage’s molecular children attempts to extend or surpass the Cagean wager, with all the dangers such ambitions court: the chief peril being a relapse into new forms of transcendence. Joseph argues that “against the backdrop of a Cagean aesthetic . . . thoroughly allied with the plane of immanence,” the strategies of figures such as Young and Morris seemed to have resulted in the “reconstruct[ing]” or “recover[ing]” of “transcendent structures.” The case of Morris, a kind of double agent in this story, is said to be “analogous” to Young’s insofar as his theoretical work’s emphasis on “shape” and strong gestalts echoes Michael Fried’s formalism. This shape that is “never literally experience[d],” says Morris, is nevertheless an “actuality against which the literal changing perspective views,” produced by movements of the body around the piece, vary—a presence whose pressure is felt by the body it addresses in a direct and immediate way. The specific actuality of the given shape is neither a literal surface encountered in the world nor a subjective illusion, representation, or projection. Whereas for Husserl this tension between two actualities structures all “natural” perception, it is recoded, Joseph tells us, in an important 1969 essay by Annette Michelson, who posits a dialectic of resistance in which the contingency of the body perpetually subverts the stability of achieved, ideal (even if “actual”) shape. From here, it is possible to cast this dialectic in overtly political terms, as does Maurice Berger, for whom strong gestalts become ciphers of institutional power against which an equally ciphered body militates.

Joseph largely countersigns this reading of Morris—a reading proposed by Morris himself in his “In the Realm of the Carceral,” 1978. But the novelty of Joseph’s argument is to demonstrate how this dialectic of power and subversion or critique does not account for the disciplinary model of power Michel Foucault formulated in the early ’70s: that is, a model of power and politics that supplements the sovereign, “repressive” power localized in institutions with a power that immediately invests the body itself. “Seeing Morris’s viewer’s corporeal engagement within the act of perception as inherently ‘subversive’ functions,” Joseph emphasizes, “only to the extent that power is understood to operate exclusively in sovereign, transcendent form.” From the point of view of discipline, the body is not a point of resistance to power but the privileged site of its immanent production. Where Berger, for example, will identify the body as a “site of desublimated freedom,” Joseph argues, the body is, to the contrary, the privileged “site of power effects” in a society dominated by disciplinary techniques. If Joseph’s first important initiative is to account for the singularity of post-Cagean minimalism by deploying the conceptual language of immanence, the real stakes of this move are made clear when the “aesthetic of immanence” is grafted onto a diagram of power more supple than those of current “institutionalocentric” (Foucault’s term) theories. Such theories depend on sovereign (or transcendent) forms of power to the neglect of power’s disciplinary (or immanent) articulation. In the case of Morris, then, Joseph stresses that “what was being modeled . . . was not so much a dialectic of subversion as an oscillation between two distinct but coterminous loci of power: the despotic form and the disciplined body.”

Joseph largely countersigns this reading of Morris— a reading proposed by Morris himself in his “In the Realm of the Carceral,” 1978. But the novelty of Joseph’s argument is to demonstrate how this dialectic of power and subversion or critique does not account for the disciplinary model of power Michel Foucault formulated in the early ’70s: that is, a model of power and politics that supplements the sovereign, “repressive” power localized in institutions with a power that immediately invests the body itself. “Seeing Morris’s viewer’s corporeal engagement within the act of perception as inherently ‘subversive’ functions,” Joseph emphasizes, “only to the extent that power is understood to operate exclusively in sovereign, transcendent form.” From the point of view of discipline, the body is not a point of resistance to power but the privileged site of its immanent production. Where Berger, for example, will identify the body as a “site of desublimated freedom,” Joseph argues, the body is, to the contrary, the privileged “site of power effects” in a society dominated by disciplinary techniques. If Joseph’s first important initiative is to account for the singularity of post-Cagean minimalism by deploying the conceptual language of immanence, the real stakes of this move are made clear when the “aesthetic of immanence” is grafted onto a diagram of power more supple than those of current “institutionalocentric” (Foucault’s term) theories. Such theories depend on sovereign (or transcendent) forms of power to the neglect of power’s disciplinary (or immanent) articulation. In the case of Morris, then, Joseph stresses that “what was being modeled . . . was not so much a dialectic of subversion as an oscillation between two distinct but coterminous loci of power: the despotic form and the disciplined body.”

The book’s remarkable final chapter on Conrad’s film The Flicker complicates this schema still further, describing yet another form of power that Deleuze, following William S. Burroughs, identified with postdisciplinary societies of “control.” The Movement-Image argues that only the suppression of the conditions of natural perception—embodied subject, gestalt, horizon—made possible the formation of a plane of immanence and its molecular perceptions. Because the cinema in the expanded sense is said to unhinge perception from the body as a privileged point of reference, it can be targeted as a key site for the implementation of contemporary forms of biopolitics that locate power’s origin and application not in the body but in what Marx once called the “social brain”: perceptions, affects, language. Joseph’s reading of The Flicker describes this new neuropolitical order. In a departure from P. Adams Sitney’s canonical discussion of the film in terms of its overall “shape” and medium-specificity, Joseph frames it as an aesthetic intervention shadowing the cybernetic models and biomedical experiments of the ’60s, particularly Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine and Manfred L. Eaton’s “Bio-Music.” Whereas the notion of shape still belongs to the field of phenomenological perception and the intentionality of embodied consciousness, The Flicker’s alternating, stroboscopic fields of black and white flash at a rate of between six and sixteen pulses per second, inducing involuntary perceptual effects ranging from nausea to hallucinations to (as the film’s opening sequence half-cheekily warns) epileptic seizures.

Joseph is right to underline the ambiguous nature of a project echoing the emerging biopolitical forms of behavioral modification and deconditioning—forms that bypass consciousness to act directly on neurophysiological structures. While classical models of power describe processes of subjectivization requiring acts of imaginary misrecognition, say, or corporeal discipline, Conrad’s biocinema seeks to short-circuit these processes altogether, resembling a form of “affective programming” modeled on the feedback loops of information technologies. This cinema decomposes molar perceptions in order to constitute a plane of immanence that—far from being free of the effects of power altogether, as Cage’s anarchist politics insisted—instead precipitates what Joseph specifies as a “micropolitical” confrontation whose strategies no longer obey the dialectics of subversion. In a politics whose front line is the cinema, power circulates as a virus that taps directly into the neurological grid itself, with no need to produce a subjectivity that would resist the power it simultaneously reproduces. This viral form of control is in fact secreted by the very organism it attacks, a process that traces an autoimmune spiral in which the living matter of contemporary post-Fordism—we molecular children—can no longer distinguish friend from foe, power from resistance, political action from a fatal attack on its own defenses.

In his late essay on the societies of control, Deleuze affirmed that these new, molecular wars should elicit neither fear nor hope, only the search “for new weapons.” Beyond the Dream Syndicate claims to show us exactly where those weapons are to be found when, after a beautiful exposition of the cinema’s role in the micrological network of contemporary bio- or neuropolitical techniques, Joseph suggests that the hero of our minor history manages to successfully “detourn or deterritorialize” these techniques. It is unclear whether such tropes, now a little tired, mean much in our contemporary political space. Joseph hedges less when he invokes, as the final lines of his chapter on Conrad, the “microthin” or even unlocatable distinction between two alternatives Deleuze elsewhere suggests await us: a “disturbed brain-death or a new brain.”

Jason Smith teaches philosophy and aesthetics in the graduate studies in art program at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA.

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Branden W. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 488 pages.