John Cage and W.R. Bion: An Exercise in Interdisciplinary Dialogue
Adela Abdella (2011)
‘I was destroying something for them, and they where destroying something for me’ (Kostelanetz, 1988, p.131) said the musician John Cage, while working in collaboration with his orchestra.
The purpose of this paper is to gain some understanding of the nature of the concept of negative capability (coined by the poet John Keats in1817), and its relation to my project. Negative capability is the concept of the fostering of uncertainty, or having openness to the unknown and to embrace the value of an uncertainty of outcome while engaged in this collaborationist research project. The author converges psychoanalytical theory and practise with the production of self-portraits and their interpretation, this mimics the process in the consulting room and it is here where it is common for the analyst to tolerate this unknowing, holding both his own and clients anxieties while in search of new knowledge. During this process of thinking, new ways of experiencing are offered, a journey to more authentic experiences and of personal growth.
‘Creative people who possess the capacity for negative capability in high degree seem to conceive of themselves as part of the macrocosm and to lack that sense of opposition between their ego and both the outside world and their own unconscious which renders the majority resistive to their own imaginative potentialities. This enables them to allow themselves to make imaginative statements which have both private and universal meaning’ (Rycroft p,167)
The therapeutic exchange is a form of interdisciplinary dialogue, but describing it in terms of both comprehension and understanding is but a dangerous illusion. This is a thesis of both an artist and psychotherapist who seeks to enter into a dialogue between these two fields of knowledge, the holding of an auto-reflective attitude towards photography, which demands the freedom to use and recreate inherited knowledge in a personal and innovative way. It proposes also to use this creativeness in analytical thinking with that of the interpreted photographic self-portraits and their display.
In discussing two seemingly different practices, that of analytical practice and music composition, in her paper, John Cage and W.R. Bion: An Exercise in Interdisciplinary Dialogue (2011), Adela Abdella discusses some creative similarities,
‘…looking for meeting points, listening to other disciplines and to our own echo during this dialogue, putting our theories and models to work in such a way as to let them grow through contact with other fields of knowledge’ p475
In this paper, Abella draws comparisons with the work of the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion and John Cage, a composer of avant garde music. Abella argues that in both cases, they propose that spontaneity is an illusion while searching for a new and the unknown (p. 480), a disruptive state where physic pain is synonymous with creative and psychic growth. The contrary reluctance to face the unknown ’taking refuge in certainty’ (Bion 1967a p. 158) has a defensive, disruptive character without potential.
Cage states that the ‘changes that had taken place in this century… are such that art is not an escape from life but rather an introduction to it’ (Kostelanetz, 1988, p. 226).
‘I want to give up the traditional view that art is a means of self expression for the view that art is a means of self-alteration, and what it alters is mind… We will change beautifully if we accept the uncertainties of change’ (p. 230)
In comparison, Bion’s view of psychoanalysis is
‘In psychoanalytic methodology, the criterion cannot be whether a particular usage is right or wrong, meaningful or verifiable, but whether it does, or does not, promote development’ (Bion1962b p. ix)
Bion and Cage are advocating the suppression of the creativity of the artist to allow in that which is the creative in the reader; as also happens in the therapeutic exchange. Then the project becomes a collaborative project as the joint narrative unfolds. Cage would acknowledge that the performer allows for the self expression of the audience, Bion would restrict the intervention of the analyst’s activity, a non-expression or silent attitude of the analyst, in order to leave as much space as possible for the patients personal worlds.
The function of the images produced and the documentation of their reception is not to seek awareness per se, but to change the mind so that they can be open to experience, to allow other possibilities; those that haven’t otherwise been considered. This is the nature of the search for new knowledge, to open our eyes to the complexity of personal imagery, to work in an environment that cannot be simply or quickly satisfied. Openness to the new and unknown, free of memory, although taking advantage of it. Images that are too emotional or too intentional try to dominate people, they try to engage the readers to such an extent that they cut off this unconscious interdisciplinary dialogue. Of course, one of the problems with interdisciplinary comparisons is that there will be different results when realised among other fields; the same idea can have different destinies, depending on the creative personality of the one applying it and the one who reads, the medium of the field allowing different realisations of the same artwork.
In Cage’s thought provoking statement ‘The function of art is to hide beauty; that has to do with opening our minds, because the notion of beauty is just what we accept’ (p 85), highlights the importance of drawing conclusions too soon of a collaborative process. Bion would say the trying to search for the patient’s truth, instead of resting on the dangers of known truths. ‘We are incapable of learning if we are satisfied’, indicates Bion.
‘The verbal expression can be so formalised, so rigid, so filled with so many existing ideas, that the idea I want to express can have the life squeezed out of it’ Bion 1967a, p. 141) Although art production and awareness fosters curiosity, the problem for Bion is that the use of language impedes. ‘The over stifling nature of words can create there own illusions’. Cage says ‘when you succeed in defining and cutting things off from something, you thereby take the life out of them. It isn’t any longer as true as it was when it was incapable of being defined” p119
A disciplined attitude to the work, allowing discovery, uncertainty and being in unfamiliar territory will open up new opportunities, the need to avoid too quick, too superficial and thus too partial understandings is unhelpful, the paradox of mental discomfort keen to contribute, struggle to read, to frustrate the process of the revealing of knowledge or not. ‘The shaking up of certainties to reveal ready made truths enliven a blunt and stifled mind’.
The work of this thesis is to provide or underpin a piece of interdisciplinary dialogue, both enriching and also in this process limiting it. Questions raised will be, are there substantial convergence between the production of self-portraits and there interpretation and are these on a superficial level or do they, viewed through the lens of psychoanalytical theory, convey some fundamental aspects of thinking of both producer and reader?
Keats’s theory of negative capability, where the ability to allow oneself to be ‘in uncertainties of emotions in universal terms, distinguishing between the universal and the individual’, is the nature of this project and having negative capability as the intuitive process of being in an uncertain state, in that the hope that new meaning as outcome will emerge, is of value. where art meets life.
Spencer Rowell 2012