from Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, ed. Mary Margaret Sloan, Talisman House, Jersey City, 1998.



Joan Retallack

Chance and randomness did not look like very promising topics for precise investigation, and were in fact shunned by many early scientists. Yet they play now a central role in our understanding of the nature of things . . .We have seen how we idealize the world around us in physical theories, and how chaos limits the intellectual control that we have on the evolution of the world . . .we have found chance even in the properties of the natural numbers 1, 2, 3 . . .

David Ruelle, Chance and Chaos

It's your choice, of course. You can choose to take chances or not. Either way know that chance will take you for the ride of your life. Your choice is between processes of exploration and structures that take no notice.

Genre Tallique, Glances: An Unwritten Book

I've tried to determine my behavior based on what I have and haven't learned about the nature of the world. At first it was more the former. I wanted certainty. I wanted to know. I freely admit it. When I discovered that knowledge was impossible except within the rules of a very specific game, I realized that one must choose one's games very carefully--care fully about the forms of life one enters by choice. Art is always a choice. Nobody asks the artist for the art that is of real (complexly real) significance. Who would notice if you restrained yourself from this excess? Because it is an active choice (all the while being what you can't help doing if you are not to be a desolate wanderer, etc.), entirely gratuitous, your responsibility to take things to the limit is at its highest. I delight in taking chances in art, within of course strictly delimited boundaries, for, of course, very specific reasons. Am not so wild about taking chances in life. What!? You make that distinction--between art and life? Oh, I think it's quite capable of making itself, don't you?


Q: What's the question?

A: Gertrude Stein.


And in the best United States way there is a pistol hanging low to shoot man and the sky in the best United States way, and the pistol is I know a dark steel-blue pistol. And so I know everything I know.

Gertrude Stein, "I Came and Here I Am"

Q: How will we ever escape the prison house of language?

A: Through our unintelligAbilities.

Q: What?

A: What?

If knowledge has nothing to do with certainty, if certainty is instead a property of belief in the viability of the social game, then knowledge is always a tentative matter of bearings--taking in linguistic, spatial, temporal cues just well and long enough to contemplate, capitulate, or, move on.

Genre Tallique, Glances: An Unwritten Book


If, for instance, you were ordered to paint a particular shade of blue called "Prussian Blue", you might have to use a table to lead you from the word "Prussian Blue" to a sample of the colour, which would serve you as your copy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue Book

The breeze is stiff out on the know ledge. That is, "to know," as verb, is either a quite simple pedestrian act (carrying the sample of blue across the room to make the match) or something with a much more complex gravitational field, pulling one out on a ledge, drawing one toward the terror incognita between to know . . . to believe . . . to desire. The leap of knowledge, ex post facto-scripto-fix O!, even in the absurd grandeur of its errors, may require more courage than the leap of faith before it. (Fact totem?) Leaps having to do with, not suicide, but sui generous memento vivere--remembering with a jump-start that even after the fact one must live.


Knowing puts me on a ledge, gives me vertigo. Out there with the pigeons it can seem that the only choice is between retreat or some sort of perilous leap. To remain immobile would be a terrible act of faith. To remain there, here, stolid, still as Saint Simeon Stylites standing on a pole in the desert for a quarter century. . . . . This seems to be neither about knowing nor about not knowing. More to do with some preternaturally steady navigational device. (Is that a Romantic image?) I, on the other hand 'n foot in mouth, want to know/want to not know simultaneously. In this I often retreat with all the other sui generis, anarchic "I"s from the "I" that claims to know to the "we" that thinks and supposes, like Descartes retreating from je sais to the decent anonymity of the Latin cogito. Is this a cowardly (complementary) or cool blue.


The suffix ledge is of obscure origin (OED). But the Middle English forms of knowledge and ledge, edge + lay, leading to bed--lit and litter--share a common root, legge. Is, then, "to know" to pull the covers over one's head?

Does the imaginative and cognitive act of knowing or remembering enlarge ego to include world? (Belief does imply a certain I-solace, I-solation, doesn't it?) The act of knowing that can carry one to the know ledge is a poethical act of developing forms of life, incorporating, sorting through, turning toward the silences of history as silence. A turning. A navigational act in medias motion. The silent unintelligibilities of cultural DNA are not unlike all those biogenetic messages crossing crowded intersections roaring with chance. The ethical pragmatist act may be less a dubious art of remembering (as attempted reiteration) than creating a usable past while attending to the silences that surround us. Can we create a redeemable present? A complex realist poethics is the ethos of making/noticing forms of possibility, forms of life, in the silence that harbors chance.

(And then she said, Yes. No. You can't persuade someone to smile.)

The feminine (what do women want? etc.) as we understand it in the intercourse of culture may be nothing more or less than the zone of the unintelligible. Is the feminine the permanent clinamen, the swerve out of the masculinist canon?

Epicurus, first--among those whose words are still with us--to throw a technical swerve, called his theory of knowledge canonic. The swerve that makes change possible is the clotted moment of collision between what's expected and unexpected, a crisis of unintelligibility, a moment of indeterminacy. A moment that invites the making of meaning. If the unintelligible/indeterminate is itself the locus of the clinamen or swerve that makes change and meaning possible, then what is to be the pedagogy of the impressed?

Ego ergo sum? In the post-cogito omne animal triste blue note world where distinctions between knowledge and belief, knowing and feeling, image and reality seem to have lost their edge, this tidy circle might seem to suffice. In the post-cogito blue-funk exploding cartoon that is our blue note world, smallnesses and introversions of depleted categories create more surface tension than internal combustion. It seems much too late to return to psychology, epistemology, metaphysics for strenuous definitions or defecations of isolates like "I," "to know," and "to be." Here we are folks up to our fool necks in unintelligibility. Are we fool hardy enough yet to become Global Village I-diots? The muteness and the mess in unintelligibility is the elliptical silence of what we have not yet cared to notice. What--to acknowledge our limitations--we can not notice in the grip of certain given unintelligible moments. All the while distracting ourselves by perfecting that match of the color samples. Co-Ordinating, Or . . . . .


Look at that blue, you said, detaching the color from the sky as if it were a membrane. A mutilation you constantly sharpen your language for. I had wanted to begin slowly because, whether in the direction of silence or things have a way of happening . . .

Rosmarie Waldrop, Inserting the Mirror

Here's a puzzle. The art of John Cage, who was primarily interested in the inter-permeability of art and everyday life, is pegged in our society as arcane, elite, and inaccessible. The patterns of interaction between order and disorder in Cage's art directly relate to the way every complex system in the world functions--from weather to whether (human history). A Cage concert, print, poetic text affords us the opportunity to savor the material realization of this dynamic ambiguity. (Historical, yes, epistemological, sexual, spiritual, et Al et Alice.) It can be an enormous pleasure, a wonderfully exhilarating experience, but it is one for which we are not prepared by the conventions of mainstream education and culture. It is just this fact that makes what Cage has to offer at one and the same time so urgently relevant and so difficult for audiences to take in, so unintelligible.

I think we all know quite well and yet obscurely that we are initiated by our educational systems into sensibilities designed to be receptive to (and to reproduce) the cultural values they embody. (This knowledge really puts us out on a ledge!) Those values have not until recently had much to do with positive aspects of complexity or with learning to live constructively in a world where we must inevitably experience an intermixture of control and unpredictability, the familiar and the unintelligible. Neither have they nurtured us as active participants in the making of culture. In fact we have been trained to be an audience of consumers, a Baudrillardian tribe of spitting imagists, trading in a stylized (simplified and trendily packaged) iconography--stop-watch freeze-frames of experience, rather than the complex realist processes of experience itself. We lack unintelligAbilities.

Imitating not nature but her processes: What does this mean now? When Cage decided mid-twentieth century that he wanted to follow an aesthetic of imitating, not nature, but her manner of operation, to create not static mirror images, but temporal evolutions where material and dynamic principles interpenetrated, he was in touch with the developing history of ideas--both directly and indirectly, as they tend to permeate the culture at large

--during a time when the understanding of "nature's processes" has been undergoing dramatic developments. This is the century of the uncertainty principle, the incompleteness theorem, quantum mechanics, particle-wave complementarity, the space-time continuum, fractal geometries, nonlinear studies, sciences of complexity, and deterministic chaos . . . . . That is, among other things, there has been a recognition of the active role of the observer in shaping what is observed, of space-time dynamics that bring Western thought a bit closer to Eastern notions of synchronicity, of the necessity for multiple descriptions of the same event, of the dynamic interrelation of order and disorder in all complex systems, and of the enormous role played by chance in every aspect of the physical universe. It is these processes which Cage's art in some cases seems to have unconsciously foreshadowed, in other cases quite consciously imitates. In this, Cage of course is not alone. There are aspects of these dynamics in Dada, in the art of Duchamp, Stein and others, but Cage as a composer was the first artist to create time-evolution systems (performances) whose structure draws on and connects all these principles.

Paradox? Most of what we think of as the critical attitude, critical theory, in the West is devoted to identifying contradictions. This is done with the underlying assumption that we can understand the world in terms of clearly definable, internally self-consistent sets of rules that follow the law of non-contradiction. Nature follows no such law. Very simple, artificially enclosed systems may indeed work with high degrees of internal consistency (or integrity) but the more complex the system, the more it intermingles with other systems, the more it is part of the interpermeability of nature, the closer we are to our own everyday experience, involving countlessly multiple vectors, levels, etc. Literature should surely fall, by chance and intention, into this latter condition, yes/no? Ah, "surely," sleight of rhetoric the reader should rightly resist. Let's consider this matter in the form of a question: are the cultural forms that oversimplify, romanticize, lyricize, smooth over, palliate, pacify . . . in collaboration with the continuing intellectual holocaust of stereotyping, classifying, and obliterating that is racism, sexism, nationalism, ethnic hatred, homophobia, self and tribal aggrandizing meanness and greed? What!?


I, along with everyone else, work at the intersection of chance and intention. The selective use of chance procedures merely foregrounds what is at work in all that we do and experience, whether or not we wish to turn our attention to it. The results of "chance operations," as Cage liked to call them, are just that, nothing more, nothing less than a turning of attention toward the silences that lie beyond the habits, desires, fears of our intentionally directed eyes and ears. What results from the use of chance procedures may shock or delight. The light in delight is that of the sheer given. Nature's processes operating independently of our opinions about them. The stars before we herd them into constellations. Ah, but don't worry, one needn't forego the pleasures of constellations to invite chance into the conversation.

The selective foregrounding of chance makes it possible to bring to light and sound things that are otherwise potently absent or ominous. Perhaps because we've tended to be uncomfortable with things outside what we take to be the realm of control, we miss/ignore/deny the circumstantial evidence that chance is all around us. Hence the silences--feminine, phobic, phallic--wherein lie unmined energies of chance. Is it primarily fear (biological conservatism) that has so firmly tied our attention to simple periodicities and regularities, that has led us hear harmony only in simple color-coordinated chords? Probably, improbably enough. (It is after all the characteristically chaotic rhythms of the normal brain that neurophysiologists credit with all our abilities for complex innovative thought and action.) But it's our ability to operate outside regularities, that takes us toward the discoveries and enactments of imagination, the play and invention that we like to identify as the characteristically human contribution to the fractal intricacies of our universe. Every now and then an artist gives us the breath-filled resonances of more complex chords.

Recently there has been receptivity to the idea of chance as it comes to us via the non-linear, complex sciences in, for instance, the scientific redefinition of "chaos." Natural selection is of course a principle always involving contingency, but the name we have given it may reinforce myths of the rule of intentionality--the heavily disguised, heavily breathing Personified Nature "selecting," what is best in the long-run: a teleological faith that has brought science closer to religion than many of us like to admit.

The unpredictable aesthetic micro-climates created by Cage's precise, complex and selective uses of chance operations occur within highly intentional, rigorously patterned frameworks. In this way they are true to the current understanding of complex systems like weather as pattern bounded, local unpredictability. The procedural use of chance is likewise a local transformation of its global presence into a strategy that makes it visible in the material detail of the art. To allow chance and complexity--the two elements that take us beyond single point (self-asserting) perspective into the workings of a world larger than self alone, a world view in which we can experience our reciprocal alterity with nature, is to invite the very particular kind of pleasure that only certain forms of complex realism afford. Chance delightfully complicates language (and the media of the other arts) into a kind of fractal coastline, a permeable border between one and others minds and natures.


--où n'avoir plus égard qu'au ciel bleu

L'oiseau qui le survole en sens inverse de l'écriture

Nous rappelle au concret, et sa contradiction

--now only attentive to the blue sky.

The bird that flies over it opposite to the act of writing

Recalls us to the fact, and its contradiction

Francis Ponge, "Le Pré"



Francis Ponge, The Power of Language, intro. & trans., Serge Gavronsky, University of

California Press, Berkeley, 1979.

David Ruelle, Chance and Chaos, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford,


Gertrude Stein, How Writing is Written, Black Sparrow Press, Los Angeles, 1974.

Genre Tallique, Glances: An Unwritten Book, Pre Post Eros Editions, Paris and

Washington D.C., frothcoming.

Rosmarie Waldrop, The Reproduction of Profiles, New Directions, New York, 1987.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, Harper & Row, New York, 1965.


Parts of this essay intersects with Retallack's "Blue Notes on the Know Ledge" (Poetics Journal #10) where other directions open up and epistemological issues are foregrounded.