A Primer On Oblique Strategizing


Editions 1-3

The Oblique Strategies are a deck of cards. Up until 1996, they were quite easy to describe. They measured about 2-3/4" x 3-3/4". They came in a small black box which said "OBLIQUE STRATEGIES" on one of the top's long sides and "BRIAN ENO/PETER SCHMIDT" on the other side. The cards were solid black on one side, and had the aphorisms printed in a 10-point sans serif face on the other.

That was then, and this is now. There is now another set of the Oblique Strategies in existence, and it looks nothing like this; perhaps the best way to think of the differences between the earlier versions and the fourth edition deck is by analogy. Where the earlier versions were a quiet, well-dressed neighbor who, once you got used to her/him, turned out to be a funny, intriguing, and frighteningly prescient friend, the 1996 version is the equivalent of going to the other apartment on your floor to ask directions to someplace and discovering a large, noisy party full of tipsy graduate students attempting some kind of fashionable dance en masse who pause only to give you advice in a half-dozen languages.

But I digress. Perhaps it's best to attempt a description of their intention and function.

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) 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 is not clear from any sources I've 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 first 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.

Eno discusses 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

An introduction to the Oblique Strategies can be found in the deck itself. This is how each of the first three decks labels and describes 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.

Edition 4
Other editons
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Editions 1-3
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Editions 1-3  
Obl ique Strategies © 1975, 1978, and 1979 Brian Eno/Peter Schmidt
This web page © 1997 Gregory Taylor