An interesting remark in the preface to avant-garde composer John Cage’s 1969 book, Notations:
A precedent for the absence of information which characterizes this book is the contemporary aquarium (no longer a dark hallway with each species in its own illuminated tank separated from the others and named in Latin): a large glass house with all the fish in it swimming as in an ocean.
This aquarium metaphor immediately reminded me of another work: Walter Benjamin‘s Arcades Project.
Both represent examples of literary montage — collections where the author’s primary contribution is the compilation of materials for the works.
In the case of Notations, Cage assembled a complete compendium of graphical music scores submitted by composers. For the unfinished effort known as The Arcades Project, Benjamin researched and cited works to create, in a way, his own arcade: an arrangement of windows into 19th century France for the reader to stroll through and explore.
What are similar examples of this that you’ve seen?
View the full Notations book on Archive.org:
Path of discovery
I first learned about Notations (and John Cage, though I had to formally discover him independently more than a year later) by reading Theresa Sauer’s Notations 21. I came upon that and purchased it after being captivated by a post on Brain Pickings. (Although only very expensive re-sell or used copies are on Amazon, it appears to still be available directly from Sauer for $34.)
As for The Arcades Project, Max Fenton featured it during his week of the Snarkmarket Seminar in March 2013. He also kindly gave me a copy of the book (thanks again!) during the in-person gathering last November, which I reciprocated by giving him a copy of Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius.
And, to close the loop: I knew Max was interested in Kenneth Goldsmith, whom I learned about when fellow seminarian Tim Carmody recommended Uncreative Writing. Goldsmith, who references Unoriginal Genius early on in Uncreative Writing, helped bring Cage to my attention and rediscover the Notations connection.
2 thoughts on “Of aquariums and arcades: John Cage and Walter Benjamin”
Somewhat related to this, if you get a chance to be in Austin sometime in the next year, go see this exhibit at the Blanton Museum: http://blantonmuseum.org/exhibitions/details/converging_lines
Nice, thanks! Not sure I’ll be in Austin during that time, but would definitely go if I were.