Performers in the Song of the Universe - [A Thought on Human Agency]


part one: John Cage's theory of music

There is a song by a composer named John Cage called “4’ 33’’ ”. 

Now, please note, there is a lot of debate about this song with a large group of people claiming it isn’t actually a song and a lot of people naming that it is brilliant. 
And within that, anytime someone says that this isn't a piece of music, it is always met with Cage’s response that, “Everything is music.” 

The premier of this song happened in August of 1952 — it was a relatively anticipated debut by a composer that was successful while known for being a bit edgy…which is exactly what you experienced if you showed up for that premier in Woodstock, New York.

Today, you can listen to a recording of the song being performed and experience what that first audience did in 1952 — something of a historic moment in the history of music.

Here's what happened:

The performance begins and you can hear the performer walking up to a piano. The performer sits down, arranges the music, and then takes the lid to the keys and shuts it - thus beginning the piece. Which means the performer doesn’t actually play any notes on the piano. Instead, the performer takes a timer, hits the button making a quiet beep, and proceeds to just sit there. 

In the meantime, everyone else in the room is sitting and watching and waiting. You hear some coughing, some shuffling in seats, some sniffling, and any other ambient sounds being made in the room. Then, at that first debut where everyone has showed up to hear this new piece of music, you begin to hear people whispering and there is even an audible whisper of, “When is he going to start?” 

Finally, when movement one is finished, the performer hits the timer, opens the lid of the piano, shuffles the sheet music (which I believe are just blank pieces of paper with a reminder to hit the timer and close the piano lid), and begins the next movement by again closing the lid, hitting the timer, and proceeding to sit there. 

Once movement three is finished and the timer is hit for the final time, the performer stands, bows to the audience, and the song is finished with the timer reading after its final stop:


So there is a theoretical question here - is this actually a song?

But there is also a larger question being asked - what is music?

And for John Cage, he was making a point - every noise, even silence, is a song. 

Which means, the person sitting at the piano wasn’t the only performer that August night in 1952. If you showed up to this unusual premier, you were not spectating a song…you witnessed a compelling argument Cage was making about the world:

You are not the audience…you are actually the performer. 

You are not the audience of the story of the world.
You are not spectating or watching or passively witnessing the song that is our universe.

You are an active participant in it.

part two: a way to understand human agency

The question of human agency is, simply put, "Does the world happen to you or do you have a role in the world?" 

To be fair, there is a little both / and here. Certain things, without your input, happen. However, if there is a notion that it is only "certain things" as opposed to "all things," then we must assume you have some input. Especially in theology, there have been many prospects pushing that we are more akin to marionettes - beings with no capability, at the whim of a divine string puller who has predestined our every move. While most serious theologians would never go that far, worldviews and philosophies have offered a world without free will; without any human agency.  

Assuming you are still reading and, therefore, decided to read these words, I suppose you don't fully buy the puppet master or predetermined computer sequence concept that we are all just artificially undergoing actions or thoughts or experiences that have been previously plugged in (unless the sequence pre-determined that you would read this...hmm...). I'll leave this debate to actual philosophers because the pragmatic implication of either system would still involve you carrying out a role with, at least, some sort of agency.

The implication would mean the difference between an audience spectator and a performer. 

In another metaphor, being the character within the story of the world or being an author of said story. 

The point John Cage was attempting to make with music is parallel with the question of human agency. Wherever you fall philosophically, is it not more healthy, impactful, and responsible to acknowledge the power of human capability? You can assume that you are just a character in the book with the story already set or you can see yourself as someone with immense propensity to cultivate the very unfolding of that story. You can see yourself as someone who simply sits and listens to the song being played with no control or no value to add or you can see yourself as contributing to the complex totality of the performance.

While our culture has conditioned us, especially form the entertainment industry, to be pure consumers without much control simply looking in on what the main characters decide. From government to sociology to economics, we have good reason to feel like there is an invisible hand and people of actual power who have made the decisions and we simply have one option of automated response. 

Whether a big puppet master in the sky or via a sense that we don't have much say, this is the question we must address:

Do we have agency?

Are we characters or authors? Spectators or performers?

part three: an argument from communication theory

There are five principles of communication that reflect the law-like reality of human interaction. One example is that “All communication is continuous” — essentially that everything you do is a communicative act. This is what we would call non-verbal communication.

But the final principle affirms the power of human agency:

All communication is irreversible.

Everything you do and say and think creates something permanent.

Not only is everything you do a communicative act, it is now a part of the world forever. Your life builds the world we find ourselves in. Every movement of your life affects the ecosystem of our reality.

No matter what, you will leave marks on the world.

The question isn’t whether or not you perform the song.

The question is, “How are you going to contribute to it.”

You have the immense propensity to play the song, to contribute to the story, and to perform with your life the unfolding reality of our existence. If we can assume even the slightest semblance of autonomy, then the concern moves from capability to a concern of content. Human Agency isn’t the question we should be asking about. If every act, word, and thought somehow contributes impact to the landscape of the world, what matters, then, is what you do with your agency — because you are a part of the audience and the audience is actually the performers.

part four: what this means for us

First, you have responsibility.

Simply by being a human, you have been given the gift of life and it is powerful. You have the power to destroy or to bring flourishing. Agency in itself is morally neutral — we are trusting you will use your responsibility well. 

Second, we need you.

If each human being has this potential & this gift that will certainly impact things in irreversible ways — then we need your gifts.

We are less without you.

We need you to use your energy and time to contribute to this music. We need you to actively do something with your agency and authorship that adds to the story. You have the immense propensity to play the song, to contribute to the story, and to perform with your life the unfolding reality of our existence. 

The song will only be made if you take part in it.

We need you to be a performer in the song of the universe.