At the Microphone

At a conference called “Schizo-Culture,” held at Columbia University in 1975, the speakers were magnetic and illustrious: William Burroughs. R.D. Laing. John Cage. The audience—graduate students, artists, writers and freelance intellectuals. Later on, “Schizoculture,” organized by Sylvère Lotringer, would be billed as the conference that launched French theory in America.

The gathering took place in a lecture hall or auditorium that seated about 300 people, a raucous, animated group, who heard, for instance, about psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and were told that “the unconscious is structured like a language.” R.D. Laing said that graduate students were the most depressed population in any society.

All day, men—no women—took the microphone and spoke. There was always a buzz in the audience, whispers, an audible hum of excitement. Then it was time for John Cage. He walked onto the stage and began to speak, without the microphone. He stood at the center of the small stage and addressed the crowd. He talked, without amplification, and soon people in the audience shouted, “We can’t hear you, use the mic. We can’t hear you.” John Cage said, “You can, if you listen.” Everyone settled down, there was no more buzz, hum or rustling, there was silence, and John Cage spoke again, without the microphone, and everyone listened and heard perfectly.

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