The More-Or-Less Complete and True History of the Oblique Strategies

copyright 1995, Gregory Taylor

NOTE: the Oblique Strategies are copyright B. Eno and P. Schmidt 1975,'78,'79

1. What are the Oblique Strategies?

They are a deck of cards. The cards measure about 2-3/4" x 3-3/4". They come in a small black box which says "OBLIQUE STRATEGIES" on one on the top's long sides and "BRIAN ENO/PETER SCHMIDT" on the other side. The cards are solid black on one side, and have the aphorisms printed in a 10-point sans serif face on the other.

2. What is the origin of the Oblique Strategies?

The deck itself had its origins in the discovery by Brian Eno that both he and his friend Peter Schmidt [a British painter whose works grace the cover of "Evening Star" and whose watercolours decorated the back LP cover of Eno's "Before and After Science" and also appeared as full-size prints in a small number of the original releases. They could also be acquired through EG records for a brief period of time, as well] tended to keep a set of basic working principles which guided them through the kinds of moments of pressure - either working through a heavy painting session or watching the clock tick while you're running up a big buck studio bill. Both Schmidt and Eno realized that the pressures of time tended to steer them away from the ways of thinking they found most productive when the pressure was off. The Strategies were, then, a way to remind themselves of those habits of thinking - to jog the mind.

It's not clear from the text below or any other sources I've so far run across whether the cards were explicitly intended to be oracular at the outset [that is, whether or not Peter Schmidt and Eno necessarily saw them exclusively as a "single instruction/single response" kind of "game"]. The introductory cards included in all three versions of the Oblique Strategies suggest otherwise. It seems clear, also, that the deck was not conceived of as a set of "fixed" instructions, but rather a group of ideas to be added to or modified over time; each of the three decks included 4 or 5 blank cards, intended to be filled and used as needed. (as a side note, I've not met very many people who actually *owned* a real deck who actually *did* write on the cards. For me, the problem involved coming up with bits of advice I actually trusted enough to commit to the small stock of blank cards I had. I settled on two: "Think of a terraced garden" and "Gradually overwhelmed, like Venice."

Eno seems to discuss the Oblique Strategies at greatest length in an interview with Charles Amirkhanian, conducted at KPFA in Berkeley in early 1980:

"These cards evolved from our separate working procedures. It was one of the many cases during the friendship that he [Peter Schmidt] and I where we arrived at a working position at almost exactly the same time and almost in exactly the same words. There were times when we hadn't seen each other for a few months at a time sometimes, and upon remeeting or exchanging letters, we would find that we were in the same intellectual position - which was quite different from the one we'd been in prior to that. The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation - particularly in studios - tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you're in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that's going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn't the case - it's just the most obvious and - apparently - reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, "Don't forget that you could adopt *this* attitude," or "Don't forget you could adopt *that* attitude." The first Oblique Strategy said "Honour thy error as a hidden intention." And, in fact, Peter's first Oblique Strategy - done quite independently and before either of us had become conscious that the other was doing that - was ...I think it was "Was it really a mistake?" which was, of course, much the same kind of message. Well, I collected about fifteen or twenty of these and then I put them onto cards. At the same time, Peter had been keeping a little book of messages to himself as regards painting, and he'd kept those in a notebook. We were both very surprised to find the other not only using a similar system but also many of the messages being absolutely overlapping, you know...there was a complete correspondence between the messages. So subsequently we decided to try to work out a way of making that available to other people, which we did; we published them as a pack of cards, and they're now used by quite a lot of different people, I think.
-Brian Eno, interview with Charles Amirkhanian, KPFA-FM Berkeley, 2/1/80

3. How does the deck label and describe itself?

(card one)
Over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas
(signatures, if your copy is signed)
Printed January 1975 in an edition of 500
of which this is number (your number, circled)

(note: later versions note that the deck has been revised, and include the date of publication - either 1978 for edition two, or 1979 for edition three)

(card two)
These cards evolved from our separate observations on the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, sometimes they were formulated.

They can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case,the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.

4. A word of acknowledgement to those who have gone before

A number of us over the years (John Lorch, Rob Stanzel, Mike Metlay, John Drukman, Dan Maghrak, and others) have entered and puzzled over the contents of the decks. Unsurprisingly, queries for the contents of the Oblique Strategies decks have been a perennial feature of - spread over countless newsgroups and mailing lists [and now, the Web]. What's usually wound up happening is that the list that one of us transcribed for posting some great age ago shows up again & again - often with stuff missing or altered. Mike Metlay was bright enough sometime in the 80s to slightly alter the contents of the cards so that they'd fit on a single line for CRT users, but he was careful to point out that he'd left off the occasional attribution - which this listing restores, incidentally. But when the stuff got reposted,the disclaimers got hacked off [understandable, given that some folks didn't want to bother with anything but the words on the cards].

There were also some interesting missteps in the dreary and grueling business of actually typing in the content of a deck, too; one version of the deck published includes the aphorism, "Is the information correct?" instead of "Is the intonation correct?" So, this particular posting is an attempt to actually put together a more-or-less definitive and complete listing of the Oblique Strategies cards -all three versions of them. As far as any of us are aware, I'm the first one in net.history to actually find myself in a position to sit down and go over all three versions. I am grateful to Hal Sundt for his help in letting me finally sit down with a copy of deck one - the final bit of the puzzle that had eluded us for all these years (a decade by my count, perhaps longer). Having said that, onward.

5. What are the contents of the Oblique Strategies decks?

Each of the three versions of the Oblique Strategies decks varies slightly, as suggested by the introductory blurb which comes with the deck. And that is the case - each subsequent version of the deck added cards, dropped some, and reworded or edited existing Strategies.

The untimely death of Peter Schmidt while on holiday in Spain in 1980 meant that no later versions of the Oblique Strategies could be made as a collaborative activity between Eno and his friend and teacher. In the event that a fourth edition of the Oblique Strategies is ever undertaken, it will be Eno alone who does it. Eno offered the following appreciation of his friend Peter Schmidt:

Looking back now at Peter Schmidt's work, I find myself thinking "This looks very contemporary" and "How did he cover this much territory this quickly?" And, inevitably, I ask "Why didn't anyone really notice?"

Well, I know that the 'neglected genius' is a mythical character. It's very unusual for real talent to be completely ignored. Peter was a real talent, and he was not completely ignored. Instead, he was regarded as something of an interesting curiosity, even a gifted eccentric, but certainly somebody at the margins of culture rather than at its centre. However, even in the few years since his death, there has been a major shift of values in the painting world. One of the results of this has been, in my opinion, to relocate Peter's work: it now looks very prophetic.

Perhaps this reassessment wouldn't have made much difference to Peter anyway. For someone who watched many conspicuously lesser talents rise to positions of respect and influence, he was remarkably free of envy. His work was very much a personal inquiry, a continuous questioning of deeper and deeper assumptions, a delight in finding himself in new territory without answers, and thus innocent. We are always innocent, unless, from laziness or for convenience, we decide to overlook the novelty of the moment, this particular now. It seemed to me that Peter was more capable than anybody else I have ever known of following that understanding through in his actions. He was always alert to those little byways of thought that might open out onto whole new vistas,and he followed them with a quiet kind of courage and with the very minimum

He wrote to me once, "In a roomful of shouting people, the one who whispers becomes interesting." By the mid to late seventies, voices were being raised. The streamlining of the art-world's selling machinery and the general Schnabelization of artistic behaviour was in full cry. Paintings and artistic egos were growing by the acre, and the business of marketing them had crossed over into real estate.

Peter seemed to pay very little attention to this cacophony. His work was changing too, becoming smaller, crisper, more alive. And as everyone else seemed to be switching back to oils and canvas (the guarantee of "real art.'), Peter became fascinated by watercolours and paper (a certain sign of dilettantism). In the short term, such an unfashionable decision firmly located Peter among the Sunday painters. From today's perspective, that assessment seems about 180 degrees off: his work is full of seeds, any one of which could form the basis of a healthy artistic career (and many of which probably have).

As with many good artists, one's admiration for Peter's work increases with familiarity. To follow the threads that are woven through his work, to watch the way that they cross and mesh with new threads and with older ones picked up again is to see a graceful and brilliant dance in motion. That this same pace and brilliance characterized his everyday life came, at first, as something of a surprise. He never raised his voice.
-Brian Eno, May 1987 (printed in "Opal Information #5)

The purpose of this document is to provide a listing of the complete contents of all three versions of the Oblique Strategies. While my interest in doing so is scholarly, readers may be interested in constructing their own "meta-set" of all three editions of the decks, or in looking at what is added or deleted. You're free, of course,to simply go through and strip out all the accompanying prose and put stuff into a "fortune"-type program. As a courtesy, I'd appreciate it if you credited my work in assembling this list. The next portion of this project for me will be putting together a nice Hypercard stack whose cards actually typographically reflect the real cards,includes some background information, and will allow you to select from any of the three editions for your own use. It seems like the sort of shareware that should be done and might be pretty classy, but my current work schedule is such that I probably won't get it done next week.

For the sake of clarity and convenience, I have broken up the description of the Oblique Strategies decks into the following sections:

A. The "core" Oblique Strategies.

These cards occur in all three versions of the Oblique Strategies decks. I'm not making any notes about typos here (e.g. Diter vs. Dieter Rot) These cards remain unchanged through all three printings.

Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities 
Don't be frightened of cliches 
What is the reality of the situation? 
Are there sections?  Consider transitions 
Turn it upside down 
Think of the radio 
Allow an easement (an easement is the abandonment of a stricture) 
Simple subtraction 
Go slowly all the way round the outside 
A line has two sides 
Make an exhaustive list of everything you might do and do the 
   last thing on the list 
Into the impossible 
Ask people to work against their better judgement 
Take away the elements in order of apparent non-importance 
Infinitesimal gradations 
Change instrument roles 
Disconnect from desire 
Emphasize repetitions 
Don't be afraid of things because they're easy to do 
Don't be frightened to display your talents 
Breathe more deeply 
Honor thy error as a hidden intention 
Only one element of each kind 
Is there something missing?
Use `unqualified' people
How would you have done it?
Emphasize differences 
Do nothing for as long as possible 
Bridges   -build   -burn 
You don't have to be ashamed of using your own ideas 
Tidy up 
Do the words need changing? 
Ask your body 
Make a sudden, destructive unpredictable action; incorporate 
Consult other sources   -promising   -unpromising 
Use an unacceptable color 
Humanize something free of error 
Use filters 
Fill every beat with something 
Discard an axiom 
What wouldn't you do? 
Decorate, decorate 
Balance the consistency principle with the inconsistency principle 
Listen to the quiet voice 
Is it finished? 
Put in earplugs 
Give the game away 
Abandon normal instruments 
Use fewer notes 
Repetition is a form of change 
Give way to your worst impulse 
Trust in the you of now 
What would your closest friend do? 
Distorting time 
Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame 
[blank white card] 
Ghost echoes 
You can only make one dot at a time 
Just carry on 
(Organic) machinery 
The inconsistency principle 
Don't break the silence 
Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them 
What mistakes did you make last time? 
Consider different fading systems 
Mute and continue 
It is quite possible (after all) 
Don't stress one thing more than another 
You are an engineer 
Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics 
Look at the order in which you do things 
Go outside.  Shut the door. 
Do we need holes? 
Cluster analysis 
Do something boring 
Define an area as `safe' and use it as an anchor 
Overtly resist change 
Accept advice 
Work at a different speed 
Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them 
Mechanicalize something idiosyncratic 
Emphasize the flaws 
Remember .those quiet evenings 
Take a break 
Short circuit (example; a man eating peas with the idea that they will 
           improve his virility shovels them straight into his lap) 
Use an old idea 
Destroy  -nothing   -the most important thing 
Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency 
The tape is now the music 

B. Cards which are unique to the first edition:

Each of the three editions of the Oblique Strategies contains a number of cards which appear only in a particular version of the deck. In the case of the first edition, there is really only *one* Oblique Strategy which doesn't reappear in some form or other later on - the rest of the unique cards for the first edition are modified by being rewritten in some way for inclusion in later editions. Two cards from the first edition deck actually disappear from the second edition entirely and reappear in a more generalized form in the third and final edition. These cards are described in section C below:

Be dirty 

C. Cards which are modified for the second and third editions:

In addition to the addition of the new Strategies, the second printing also revises some of the aphorisms in ways which seem to render the oracular advice in a way which seems more or less specific. The listing of these cards will describe the original first edition version and the modification.

Imagine the music as a moving chain or caterpillar 
(this card reappears in editions 2 and 3 as: 
What are the sections sections of?    Imagine a caterpillar moving)

Intentions   -credibility of -nobility of -humility of 
(this card appears in editions 2 and 3 as a reordered list: 
Intentions   -nobility of  -humility of   -credibility of) 
Imagine the music as a set of disconnected events 
(in editions 2 and 3, there is a substitution: 
Imagine the piece as a set of disconnected events) 
What are you really thinking about just now? Incorporate 
(in editions 2 and 3, the command is removed 
What are you really thinking about just now?) 
Assemble some of the instruments in a group and treat the group 
(in editions 2 and 3, this is generalized 
Assemble some of the elements in a group and treat the group) 
Shut the door and listen from outside 
(in editions 2 and 3, this is shortened 
Go outside.  Shut the door.) 
Is the tuning appropriate? 
(in editions 2 and 3, this is restated as 
Is the intonation correct? ) 

D. Cards which are modified for the second editions, then vanish:

In addition to the addition of the new Strategies, the second printing also revises some of the aphorisms in ways which seem to render the oracular advice in a way which seems more or less specific. The listing of these cards will describe the original first edition version and the modification.

Look at a very small object, look at its centre 
(this is altered for edition 2 [and omitted from edition 3] 
A very small object   Its center ) 
Children's voices -speaking -singing 
(this is slightly altered for edition 2 [and omitted from edition 3] to 
Children -speaking -singing ) 
Feedback recordings into an acoustic situation 
(this is altered in edition 2 [and omitted in edition 3] to 
Feed the recording back out of the medium ) 

E. Cards added for the second and third editions:

As you can probably tell, the greatest change in the Oblique Strategies occurred with the release of the second edition of the deck in 1978. In addition to the rewriting of several of the first edition cards, eleven completely new cards were added to the deck.

Towards the insignificant 
Simply a matter of work 
Not building a wall but making a brick 
Revaluation (a warm feeling) 
The most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten 
Idiot glee (?) 
Be extravagant 
State the problem in words as clearly as possible 
Disciplined self-indulgence 
Always first steps 
Question the heroic approach 

F. Cards added for the second edition and omitted from the third edition:

Several of the cards added for the second edition only lasted one generation.

Lost in useless territory 
Always give yourself credit for having more than personality 

G. Cards in editions one and two which vanish from the third edition:

Faced with a choice, do both (given by Dieter Rot) 
Tape your mouth (given by Ritva Saarikko) 
Get your neck massaged 
Do the washing up 
Convert a melodic element into a rhythmic element 
Spectrum analysis 
Twist the spine 
Left channel, right channel, centre channel 

H. Cards which "skip" a generation and are modified for the third edition:

Two Strategies appear in the first edition, are dropped from the second edition, and then reappear in a slightly modified form in the third edition.

Lowest common denominator check -single beat -single note -single riff 
(this is omitted from edition 2 and reappears in edition 3 as 
Lowest common denominator ) 
Listen in total darkness, or in a very large room, very quietly 
(this card is omitted from edition 2 and reappears in edition 3 as 
In total darkness, or in a very large room, very quietly)

I. Cards which appear in the third edition only:

The third and final edition of the Oblique Strategies deck was published in 1979. This version of the deck adds nine new cards in addition to the two reformulations listed above.

Would anybody want it? 
Retrace your steps 
Go to an extreme, move back to a more comfortable place 
Once the search is in progress, something will be found 
Only a part, not the whole 
From nothing to more than nothing 
Be less critical more often 

6. Is that all?

Yes, it'll have to do for now. You would, I think, be correct in seeing the material posted here as being part of a larger project. But I wanted to get this out in the meantime. I welcome any corrections or suggestions you might have on the contents or the scheme I've used for describing the cards. You can feel free to make quotational use of this posting, but I would prefer to be asked and cited when you do. The same can, of course, be said for the Strategies themselves; Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt should always be cited at the originators and copyright holders of the contents of the Oblique Strategies.

I'm still

As nearly as I can tell [barring attacks of boneheadedness], this really *is* a definitive listing of the Oblique Strategies - *all* of them. Thanks for your patience.

With every good wish,
Gregory Taylor

copyright 1995, Gregory Taylor

[Eno icon] Back to silence, back to nothing