Cage, White, Mallarmé, Silence
 A synesthetic experiment. Which color most closely resembles silence?
Speech is silver; silence is golden, as the saying goes. But meanings differ.
Composer R. Murray Schafer argues that if 'white noise' is the total
of all audible frequencies at the same time, then silence could be called
Conversely, John Cage associates silence with whiteness referring to
the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, in particular. In 1949, Cage viewed
a new series of all-white paintings by Rauschenberg. ('White on white.
The blank is colored by a supplementary white'.) What fascinated Cage was,
as Rauschenberg said, that 'a canvas is never empty'. The canvasses are
'mirrors of the air', a landing-ground for dust, shadows, and reflections,
not passive, but on the contrary, hypersensitive. The white paintings gave
Cage the courage and 'authority' to compose his silent pieces.
French poet Stephane Mallarmé makes a similar connection between
whiteness and silence. In 'The Double Session' (Dissemination, p.173-286),
Derrida refers to a sheet in Mallarmé's Livre that features
the following lines (Dissemination, p.230):
The intellectual armature of the
poem, conceals itself and - takes place - holds in the space that
isolates the stanzas and
among the blankness of the white paper; a significant silence that
is no less lovely to compose than
 In much greater detail, Derrida addresses Mallarmé's text
in which silence is an important theme (Dissemination, p.175).
Silence, sole luxury after rhymes, an orchestra only marking with its
gold, its brushes with thought and dusk, the detail of its signification
on a par with a stilled ode and which it is up to the poet, roused by a
dare, to translate! the silence of an afternoon of music; I find it, with
contentment, also, before the ever original reappearance of Pierrot or
of the poignant and elegant mime Paul Margueritte.
Such is this PIERROT MURDERER OF HIS WIFE composed and set down by
himself, a mute soliloquy that the phantom, white as a yet unwritten page,
holds in both face and gesture at full length to his soul ...
... Surprise, accompanying the artifice of a notation of sentiments
by unproffered sentences - that, in the sole case, perhaps, with authenticity,
between the sheets and the eye there reigns a silence still, the condition
and delight of reading.
 Mimique. A Pierrot story. The Pierrot character associates
silence with whiteness. The two most remarkable and typical features of
the Pierrot are that it tells its story in silence and that his face is
white (neutrality or utter coldness?). Throughout the history of the Pierrot
story, silence and whiteness are inextricably linked.
Mimique is also a text about silence, a text that often praises
silence (cf. the fragments cited above). Elsewhere in Mimique, Mallarmé
talks (in concealed terms) about the surplus value of mime, the groping
in silence. In 'The Double Session', Derrida points out that Mimique
resides between two silences 'that are breached or broached thereby' (cf.
p.223). Derrida could mean this in a literal sense:
and ends with the word 'silence'. But (of course) there is more to say.
This text on silence contains a considerable number of silences indicated
by its many commas. Derrida notes that Mallarmé regarded these commas
as pause marks and intervals that interrupt the progression of the sentence.
The commas create silences. Thus, silence is present in both content and
Like Mimique, Cage's Waiting
(Play music) can be read or heard as a 'text' that resides between two silences; the
piece begins and ends with bars that contain only rests. Where silence
is made explicit through the corporeality of the words in Mallarmé's
text, the silences in Waiting (Play music)
are strongly emphasized by its subdivision in bars. However, we must think
of Waiting (Play music) from a traditional
perspective, i.e., as starting from sounds, in order to understand the
pauses as hindrances for the progression of the music. If the pauses in
Mimique can be read as fragmentations of the story, Cage inverts
what Mallarmé aims for in this text. The notated piano sounds in
Waiting (Play music) seem to preclude
silence; they emerge from a world that is occupied by silence.
Analogously, a text could be seen as emerging from white space. Mallarmé
clearly experiments with this idea in some other texts. In his poem, Un
coup de dés [Throw of the Dice], the words are spread left and
right across the page. (Incidentally, the title of the poem nicely coincides
with Cage's method of composing through the throwing of dice.) The special
typography, the irregular interspaces bring about fragmented word islands
in a sea of white. (The typography of Cage's books greatly resembles this
work by Mallarmé.) The white seems to function as a primeval sea
from which the text originates. The words form small islands that emerge
from this primeval sea. They interrupt the whiteness of the pages. The
blank white dominates (cf. Van der Sijde, p.203).
A DICE THROW
EVEN WHEN CAST IN ETERNAL
UP FROM A SHIPWRECK
at a tilt
flaps a hopeless
early falling back in the struggle to trim its flight
and covering the spurts
cutting down the leaps
 According to Mallarmé, meaning always
is the effect of a play
between the words. The white of the page
is thus charged with meaning; moreover, it is the precondition for any
meaning to emerge. Furthermore, the open spaces in Un coup de dés
indicate that the text cannot coagulate into any definitive meaning; the
words refer to one another, but together they do not form a closed structure.
Mallarmé calls his typographical play 'espacement' [spacing], a
term Derrida adopted in his text, 'Différance' (Margins of Philosophy,
p.3-27). 'The movement of signification is possible only if each so-called
'present' element, each element appearing on the scene of presence, is
related to something other than itself' (Margins, p.13). A sign
refers to something other than itself; therefore, it stands in relation
to what it is not. 'An interval must separate the present from what it
is not in order for the present to be itself, but this interval that constitutes
it as present must, by the same token, divide the present in and of itself
... this interval is what might be called spacing, the becoming-space
of time or the becoming-time of space' (Margins, p.13). Both Mallarmé
and Derrida emphasize the role of space, of whiteness, in the determination
of meaning. In Dissemination, Derrida addresses this issue in different
words: 'Languages, as we now know, are diacritical realities; each element
within them is in itself less important than the gap that distinguishes
it from other elements' (Dissemination, p.250).
The space between words, the gap, the white, becomes the precondition
for a text to appear as text. From the diacritical, Derrida will later
draw another consequence, namely, 'a certain inexhaustibility [of meaning]
that cannot be classed in the categories of richness, intentionality, or
a horizon'. The dissemination, the infinite dispersion of meanings, escapes
the author's intentions similar to the way that (composed) silence escapes
the composer's compulsion to control the world of sounds. Un coup de
dés 'reveals' this dissemination in the abundant white, the
spaces between the words. The text joins the white and complies with the
blank in the same way the prescibed musical sounds join the already existing
silence in Waiting (Play music). Silence.
Not an unarticulated nothingness. No meaningless absence of sounds. Silence
must be re-thought. Through whiteness.
 Many of Mallarmé's poems feature a polysemous play on the
concept of white. Words such as 'snow', 'swan', 'virginity', 'foam', 'frigidity',
'glacier', and 'paper' are all associated with whiteness. Two possible
entrances towards the white seem to unfold. First, the white seems to become
a set theme in the associative chain (just as silence becomes thematic
in Mimique), a semantic concept. 'The 'blank' appears first of all,
to a phenomenological or thematic reading, as the inexhaustible totality
of the semantic valences that have any tropic affinity with it', says Derrida
(Dissemination, p.252, my italics). An inexhaustible totality. Although
inexhaustible, Derrida seems to assume a totality with regard to the semantic
valences. Polysemy. Second, in Un coup de dés, Mallarmé
does not write about whiteness. Rather, he shows it making it visible through
the typography. A non-thematic position. Un coup de dés attempts
to make something visible that cannot be expressed in words, something
that escapes wording. Derrida calls this 'the blank as a blank between
the valences, a hymen
that unites and differentiates them in the series' (Dissemination,
p.252). Thus, Mallarmé's whiteness relates to both the totality,
however infinite, of the polysemous series, and to the spaced splitting
of the whole, the writing site where such a totality is produced. However,
the latter is not just one extra valence, a meaning that enriches the polysemous
series, an extra signified or signifier. Neither is the blank the transcendental
origin of the series. Derrida calls this whiteness the 'non-theme of the
spacing that relates the different meanings to each other' (Dissemination,
p.252). The blank comes neither before, nor after the series; it intervenes
between the semantic series in general; it liberates the effect that a
series exists. Whiteness as/is différance.
 Derrida criticizes the limited idea of 'thematicism' to interpret
Mallarmé's work. 'If we can begin to see that the 'blank' and the
'fold' cannot in fact be mastered as themes or as meanings ... then we
will precisely have determined the limits of thematic criticism itself'
(Dissemination, p.245-6). This may immediately refer to the non-thematic
white of a page (a 'falling outside of the text'). But Derrida also points
out something else. He attempts to show that Mallarmé's word associations
do not only refer to meanings; therefore, they can only unjustly be called
thematic. Derrida addresses (as does Mallarmé) the material aspects
of a word, something a thematic approach does not usually do. 'Thematicism
necessarily leaves out of account the formal, phonic, or graphic 'affinities'
that do not have the shape of a word' (Dissemination, p.255). Phonic
or graphic affinities. Mallarmé plays with connections such as 'cygne'
[swan] and 'signe' [sign], or 'vol' [flight] and 'voile' [veil or sail].
This is where the words hesitate between sound and meaning, and where the
musical character of Mallarmé's poetry becomes apparent. A non-discursive
sonority. At times, this creates a paradoxical situation. For example,
blankness or whiteness can connote both virginity (the virginal white of
a page) and sexuality (the naked skin of a white woman). It differs from
itself in the same way as silence differs from itself (the other) in Cage's
Noise, Silence, and Sound).
Mallarmé's poetry is a play of articulations, a re-inscription
within sequences that can no longer be controlled. An example. 'White'
does not comprise the essence of 'swan', because 'swan' equally determines
the value of 'white'. 'White' and 'swan' have different connotations. The
inexhaustible expressiveness of these words is caused by their mutual interaction
(that only increases when other words are added to the chain). Each word
is the trope of the other (cf. Van der Sijde, p.227). There is no center
'hors-texte', no transcendental signified that can keep this endless dissemination
under control. (A change from polysemy to dissemination.)
'If there is no such thing as a total or proper meaning, it is because
the blank folds over' (Dissemination, p.258). But this folding
over is not a chance event that happens to the blank from the outside.
It is within the blank as well as outside of it.
 Can we make an analogy with Waiting (Play music)?
A first reading might suggest that the opening and closing bars of Waiting (Play music)
coagulates into a thematized silence. The silent bars take up an equally
important part of the rhythmic structure of Waiting (Play music)
as the bars that contain notes indicating that Cage treats both in an equal
fashion. The theme is silent, i.e., the composer cannot determine the theme.
The theme is infinitely open because every performance fills it with the
random sounds of the environment. This silent theme will not be limited
or controlled. However, it is alternated in a horizontal movement with
a theme from the composer's hand. Silence and sounds take turns, relieving
each other in time. Therefore, they are juxtaposed to each other in more
than one way: 'non-sounds' vs. sounds, non-intention vs. intention, open
theme vs. closed theme, nature vs. culture, life vs. art, etc.
Cage, however, not only composes with silence, he also composes
in silence. The silent parts and the written notes of Waiting (Play music)
both join an always already present silence, always already resounding
sounds. Silence and (musical) sound are no longer each others antagonists.
They are no longer engaged in a sequential play. Silence does not only
harbor an infinite abundance of sounds. Important in this second reading
is that silence has nestled itself in the musical sounds. Silence does
not stop when Cage's premeditated sounds resound. 'Silence has invaded
everything, and there is still music', says Cage in For the Birds.
Silence was always already present and it remains present. This is the
non-theme of the duration. In the silent parts of Waiting (Play music),
a silence on silence opens. Silence is colored by a supplementary silence;
it differs from itself. ('White on white. The blank is colored by a supplementary
I call this silence of the second reading arche-silence. Waiting (Play music)
is situated between silence, a thematization of silence (the general rests),
and arche-silence, the rising and dissolving of differences and meanings
(between silence and silence, silence and sound, sound and sound, etc.),
the folds in the musical syntax. Arche-silence is the possibility of conceptuality,
of a system within which every concept refers to other concepts. However,
this arche-silence is not the origin (in the traditional sense of the word)
of these differences. It is not an in-different presence because it is
itself always pervaded by differentiation. The arche-silence does not precede
these differences. Everything 'starts' with the differentiation. Différance.
Thus, there can no longer be a matter of origin. Arche-silence is silence
as differentiation: 'The blank [silence, MC] refers to the non-sense of
spacing, the place where nothing takes place but the place. But that place
is everywhere; it is not a site fixed and predetermined' (Dissemination,