How to Cut the Cake

Or: The Blank Canvas Sphere

Imagine you have a cake. A perfectly round cake from a cake pan.

The time has come to cut that cake into pieces; the guests are waiting.

The cake gives no indication as to how it should be cut. It is round, without any flaws. I proceed to make the very first cut. This first cut will not result in a piece of cake yet but will provide a reference for the second cut and consequently the first piece of cake. From there on, every cut will result in another piece of cake and each of those cuts will be influenced by the previous cuts until eventually, I have divided the entire cake into pieces of similar size. The nature of the first cut is more or less arbitrary and all consequent cuts have a sense of randomness as well, although less extreme, as I now refer to the previous cut.

The very line that I cut, the molecules that I separate, are hardly calculated but the position of the cut is far less arbitrary. That very first cut serves as a reference for all cuts yet to be made.

I could have cut the cake in a different way.

Everything could have been different.

Let us add more complexity to the example. Instead of departing from the assumption that I am entirely free in my decision-making, without any influence, let us look more closely at the things that do actually impact my first cut of the cake and all consequent ones.

Am I right- or left-handed? What objects are in the room and particularly close to the cake? What is the position of the cake in the room1, and which way is the cake orientated? What kind of knife do I have at my disposal? What type of cake am I dealing with?

All further cuts are also influenced by how many pieces are required and who I am sharing this cake with. And so on…

In the end, the decision always resides with the person cutting the cake. I can start that first cut apparently however I like, but I will be unlikely to escape the influences underlying the situation at hand.

What if I decide to place the second cut in no relation to the first? Is that possible at all? What if I decide to not cut in a straight line, but lead my knife chaotically through the cake? What if I smash the cake with a hammer and all that is left is but a pile of crumbs instead of neat pieces?

Perhaps only a mad person would be moved to do so.

With each cut, I am separating what was connected before. If I want to eat that cake, then what was intact moments ago is severed; by a knife, by a hammer, by my hands or my mouth. Irrespective of how much control I intend to exert, to some degree this process will always be arbitrary.

As I do eat pieces of cake from one direction to the other, the shape of those pieces indicates the way in which they may be eaten. It will hardly be possible to eat a piece of cake from the inside out, only if I was to divide it again could I eat from what was the middle of the original piece of cake, which of course won’t be the middle of the newly divided portion of cake anymore.

No matter how I go on, the first dividing act on the cake has a significant influence on any further actions.

The first word that departs my lips in a conversation sets the tone for its continuance. The first note played in an improvisation directs its unfolding. Arbitrariness is our constant companion. To be aware of this is the key.

I am a blank canvas on which arbitrariness applies its colours. This is where systems, dogmas, ideas, beliefs and methodologies are created. Some of these might be, or appear to be, truer than others. But if we step back far enough, any apparent certainties vanish, except for that of arbitrariness. The Big Bang – an act of arbitrariness. My birth - an act of arbitrariness. The way the letter ‘F’ is formed – an act of arbitrariness. As arbitrary as the early European colonisers were drawing borderlines throughout Africa. In this world of arbitrariness I live, I believe in particular things, with the certainty that nothing actually is certain.

So, I start painting the things I believe onto my canvas and an image of ‘I’ starts forming, a character so to speak. And then I get lost. I get lost in the painting2, thinking that it is showing me, what I am, the things I believe in, the things I consider right or even the things I am certain that they are the truth. This is how I start thinking in a certain way that, in close collaboration with arbitrariness, attempts to create a detailed image of who I am. Over time the paint starts drying. There will be no blank canvas left. The paint will be dry and I am complete. Arbitrariness has done its deed.

Hey, look here, this is me. Ah, so this is you. No other way but this. You can contemplate the image now, either like it or not, but you cannot change it. Just like I cannot alter it. You, the spectator, cannot truly interact with it. You can merely accept it.

But what if I was more careful with my paints, what if I was to throw a spanner in the works of arbitrariness? Not let it rest, but instead, each time I experience the array of colours and something forming on my blank3 canvas, I wipe that paint away again. All there will be left is the blank space. Nothing else. The non-arbitrary from where I start my journey into the land of the arbitrary. My castle in the forest of Arbitraria. There, I have no expectations, there I am simply a blank canvas, nothing is predetermined yet. The first cut of the cake is not made yet. I am not ‘I’, but something. The letter that spells I4, still floats loosely in space and has not been defined and connected yet. Now I can be painted, become an ‘I’, but only for a short amount of time and soon enough I wipe that paint away again. This way I can be everything and at the same time be nothing.

Now perhaps the cake is not actually round and the canvas not a flat surface, but spherical instead – it is the canvas sphere that gets painted.

But when I cut the sphere cake, I don’t necessarily stand outside of the cake, but anywhere, inside or out, wherever I like and I can set the initial cut where and however I would like to. This very first cut will continue to influence all others and I am now conscious of how I am submerged into something that is beautiful. The world. Or to better grasp it – our spherical earth.

And here I am, ready to cut a piece of cake, to satisfy my desire to understand, to have a point of reference, to make a cut, somewhere, anywhere within this sphere. Like the arbitrariness that applies its paint anywhere within me, the canvas sphere. Maybe it has found a point within the sphere where it prefers to place its paint, but arbitrariness remains arbitrary.

So I end up with blank parts and those covered in paint. The colourful parts will attract the most attention, where there is colour something seemed to have sprung into being, even my own attention gets drawn to those parts. Quickly, before the paint can dry I have to wash myself, submerge my canvas sphere into a cleansing bath.

I then allow arbitrariness to commit its random acts and again I will return my canvas to its blank state and we continue to play. Until no paint will adhere to my canvas sphere any longer and I remain a blank space, return to where I came from. From nowhere. And from arbitrariness. To become one with it.

Joseph Bartz


Originally written in German

Translated by Heike Qualitz and Joseph Bartz, with the help of Markus Kerr

  1. 1) In German „Raum“ means both space and room, I later decided for „room“, although I first liked „space“ more. I stay a bit undecided. ↩︎
  2. 2) In German the Word "Bild" that means "image" is also used when you talk about paintings. Although we have an equivalent word to painting, which is "Gemälde", the word Bild is used more often, than Gemälde. Therefore this and the following sentences work better in German because the word Bild means both image and painting. ↩︎
  3. 3) In the German version the word used here (and in the title) is not "blank", but "white". I used white in German instead of blank, because for blank in German you would say "leer", which means also "empty". The word empty implies a lot of things and opens up a whole discussion, therefore I used "white", as the blank canvas is usually white. Some people told me that saying the canvas is white creates also problems (if the canvas is white, than there is already something on the canvas etc.), I do ignore that for now. In English blank works better than in German. Heike Qualitz who helped me translate chose this term and I think it was a good choice in the English language. ↩︎
  4. 4) In German I is "Ich", the sentence in german says: the letters I, C and H still float loosely in space... ↩︎