John Cage and the demilitarization of language

On "Empty Words" and the demilitarization of language, in a radio interview, August 8, 1974
December '15

I let it be known to my friends, and even strangers, as I was wandering around the country, … that what was interesting me was making English less understandable. Because when it’s understandable, well, people control one another, and poetry disappears –and as I was talking with my friend Norman O. Brown, and he said, “Syntax [which is what makes things understandable] is the army, is the arrangement of the army.”

So what we’re doing when we make language un-understandable is we’re demilitarizing it, so that we can do our living….

It’s a transition from language to music certainly. It’s bewildering at first, but it’s extremely pleasurable as time goes on. And that’s what I’m up to. “Empty Words” begins by omitting sentences, has only phrase, words, syllables and letters. The second part omits the phrases, has only words, syllables and letters. The third part omits the words, has only syllables and letters. And the last part…has nothing but letters and sounds.

Syntax, like

government, can only be obeyed.       It


therefore of no use except when you

have something particular to command

such as:  Go buy me a bunch of carrots.

— John Cage, M: Writings ’67–’72 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, ) from Foreword, unpaginated. ✪


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