British School, Ruins in Moonlight, 19th cent.

From an insomniac moment re-reading my notes for Elie During‘s challenging and thought provoking keynote paper: “Weird Coexistence or What Speculative Aesthetics Could Be” [Hotel air conditioning in England has its not-so-speculative noise aesthetic btw] at the 10th SEP-FEP conference, Regents University, London.

Speculative Realism [SR] expresses a somewhat elusive taste for estrangement and the “weird”. Deleuze: philosophy is part detective novel part science fiction (a propos Hume). But this was intended as a preliminary step in a method rather than an end – that is defining new and more interesting problems regarding this world. Rather than raising the stakes in weirdness, During wants to bring the debate down to Earth by considering a prototype of weirdness – the Thing in Itself (TIS)

Between two TIS coexistence is not straightforward. Jacobi: “Without the TIS one cannot even penetrate Kant’s doctrine.” But once encountered we can escape from it.

Contention: The TIS in its Kantian formulation was weird enough.

The TIS is not an object. It is not even a thing.

The TIS entirely lacks individual unity (In this it is similar to space which is not a concept or a thing, but a form). The TIS is the empty form of externality, or the real. The function of the TIS for Kant is to act as a safeguard against subjective idealism a la Berkley. The real qua TIS is not a thing – it can be anything. This is why it is not a placeholder for substance. It is not individuated. For example, if there are two or more TIS they are already forming coming under the category of the understanding.

The problem that TIS underscores is that of the paradox of coexistence of everything (us included). The coexistence at issue is not phenomenological or about hidden, inaccessible realities. It is the co-existence of everything with everything else in a whole. The whole thus understood is no “superobject” but the medium of coexistence as such and not totality (ether as pure medium of coexistence in the Opus Postumum – a material expression of the inner reality of phenomenal co-presence, such as dynamic space-time). It is important that however characterised, this co-presence is not collapsed in an eternal four-dimensional structure. Co-existence the proper access to totality rather than totality being the entry point to co-existence (as in set-theory).

The co-existence at issue is as much temporal as spatial. In Bergson’s parlance it is a contemporaneous unfolding. It is not just a matter of collection or juxtaposition of things in space. In set theory the totality does not exist. However, before Russell, Badiou or Marcus, Kant already anticipated this. For surely, the set of all objects cannot exist as an object. The Kantian antinomies of the infinite already anticipate the idea of that the world conceived as a quantitative aggregation of objects is metaphysically useless. Co-existence is not temporal but spatio-temporal (Something Bergson missed due to his methodological privileging of time).

All this is already weird enough! The fact of co-existence that is not merely spatial. It is so weird that the sort of defamiliarisation sought by SR is already broached.

What the different strands of SR have in common is a concern with thinking of things apart from their relationship to us. Things in and by themselves. SR attempts to think of the way “things attend to their own business” by the sheer power of concepts. But this results in an an “uncomfortable phenomenology of the ungiven” [Thinks, is there any other kind]. If you take this seriously, then “you should reject any privilege of the human access to the world.” Hence the withdrawal of the object into itself.

In Immaterialism Harman says that the real problem with Kant is that TIS haunt humans alone so that a single species “shoulders the burden of finitude”. This is very different from the Kantian understanding of the TIS as form.

So what follows is an attempt to unfold the speculative potential of the Kantian TIS.

The traces of the TIS in different media:

What is the paradoxical mode of presence of the TIS on the phenomenological plane according to Kant? Co-existence takes the form of ubiquity or nonlocality. The TIS names the same reality as the phenomenon – it is the unappearing side of the phenomenon.

The second medium is in the plane of nature, space and time itself.

(Simultaneity incorporates an element of non-simultaneity). One of the key implications of Einstein is an enlargement of the notion of simultaneity. There are however non-standard forms of simultaneity – envelopes and sheathes of simultaneity (in the Twin Paradox).

Although there is no way of establishing simultaneity for the two twins, they remain co-present during their journey, an idea that can be captured by a topological sheath. In Heidegger’s discussion of the lizard in FCM, there is a subterranean problem of how one relates to being without relation to world (even if it has a relation to an environment or umwelt).

In SR the intuition is that what we need to make sense of is the interference effect between two perspectives (e.g. naturalist explanations in a Lovecraft and an ineffable non-perspective). This maps onto Todorov’s perspective on the fantastic, as the co-existence between these perspectives.

[Anthropological digression via Eduardo Viveiros de Castro – multinaturalism {cannibal metaphysics}. In Amerindian ontology everything has a perspective and there is a fundamental homogeneity between creatures (e.g. the jaguar is is as human as we). How does one connect the perspectives? There are different kinds of things but see the same things differently. De Castro: the rationale for this is that different kinds of being see different things in the same way (but how can we justify this claim?). What happens when two worlds or two points of view meets, there is a shamanic transformation of shifting perspectives (relates to the Amerindian concept of the world as a co-incidence of perspectives).}

Kant in the “Transcendental Aesthetic”: since space and time are continuous, a sensible quality or trait given to us by the TIS is always continuous. As a result of this, any sensible quality is diffused or scattered around and thus inherently related to the whole continuum. Entities in space and time are thus diffused or scattered rather than completely localise (See Merleau-Ponty on the sensuous qualities on the surface of a pool in Mind and World). MP – I do not see the water in space. I see it as inhabiting it, with the water visiting these other entities the field of cypresses. In Kant, by the same token, any sensible quantity is diffused across the space-time field. In Bachelard’s “Numenology”, science yields strange quasi-objects (particle/wave, etc.). He concludes that we should work with a concept of relational identity, with entities emerging from their reciprocal encounter.

The TIS then is a radical outside that manifests in the phenomenal world, not as a hidden substance supporting sensuous qualities, but a ubiquity behind the phenomenal world – Whitehead – everything is everywhere at any time. In Kant’s analogy of experience, Kant is attempting to account for the fact that things are not merely presented as a flow, but as simultaneous (category of “community”). He understands this in terms of a model of reciprocal causality. In Einstein, this idea of community is complicated with the insight that connection takes time – it does not happen instantly. There is a finite speed at which information or influence is imparted. This allows for events that could not be causally connected to one another (outside our light cone). Such events, according to Whitehead, can be said to be simultaneous even if they do not interact. To co-exist is to be able to be separate within contemporaneity. There must be disconnection within co-existence.

The impact of the TIS in contemporary physics is by renewing our conception of co-existence to take into account co-existence but also an idea of disconnection.

Interesting point about the space-time differentiation of physics as opposed to the trace in Derrida.

So what is that “speculative aesthetics”? what we need to make sense of an intersubjective community, centring not on the experience of beauty but of co-existence.

Made some half-hearted attempt to ask how rodents co-exist with public transport networks – but John Ó Maoilearca quite understandably missed my feeble gesture. Probably for the best, since need to think some more. Preliminary conclusion, This guy is good!


On August 17, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

The carrier source is a sample from a bell recorded in the lost country of J….  In this dead language Obertura is the border between two warring states, an incident of rank or hierarchy, an overture or prologue to a  solar spectacle, the frame of a painting, the dull laminate under a reflective surface, the triangular part surmounting a temple frontage, fruit, weapons or accessories belonging to statues, a broken chord or portent, a chthonic emissary (masked, otherwise indistinct), a misprision or feint, something indeterminable without recourse to allusions, ellipses or empty signs.

Here failure is a goal, or at issue. Something isn’t broken when it survives us and leads its own career. Can we grasp its amorphous specificity? For the Promethean Mystery, matter is imbued by spectral machines that only speak and do. The double door at the top of the stairs was ajar; a slit of artificial light dividing it from the warm glow of the scented candles below. A tinny machinic sound came from this first of many rooms, masking a faintly audible male voice whose owner seemed to be repeating some verbal formula or prayer.

He hurls into a puddle and studies the patterns of phlegm, blood and blotched tissue.  Deprived of its onset, the bell expresses under his skin like the protein engines. The digital audio system exploits bone conductance, growing around, substituting for it. Pharmakon – as, equivocally, remedy or poison – alludes to the same ‘logic’ of parasitic intrication as this hacked, enigmatic body.

Rosa lives in what came to replace J…. We are trying to come to terms with these dispersive effects. You have seen the footage of the cities neighboring the Spike. Their inhabitants waver in a sepia futurity. They cannot see themselves as anachronisms. There is no dignity in this.

Alone in an ugly room, with only a chair, a chamber pot, a few modest devices – some whips of variable length, butt plugs, nipple clamps and an ovoid thing: the metamachine. For large parts of the day and night she has only a peeled dancer for company; its flayed and striated muscle wet as Daddy’s purple kiss.

Does she talk with the fourth wall people? Is she answered or rebuffed? He needs to know this.

Bear Daddy’s bulblike pallor accentuated out of decaying film stock. Rosa’s is nuanced. Unlike the dancers, her skin is mottled with ferrous contusions. She wanted Daddy to make her scream through the layers of signification that hide us. A pure aim.

He removes the mid-range filters. Any voice is written. Iterable, expressible as a vector or list “can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code can be constructed”

This operator distorts as its amplitude ramps up, producing dense inharmonic spectra in the carrier. This is can be implemented with simple waveforms –  sine or triangle – but she glitches out, tearing Obertura into slivers of noise and cast metal. She, in turn, hears the Sound Artist in his bunker tracking her like a bird in a radar dome.

Rosa’s scream has all the clean insistence of an antique mirror. We hear her painslut moan after granulated silence, again.

In the morning there is a message from Cuba regarding the forthcoming trip. His oncologist, said that the tumors are neither benign nor malignant in the strict sense. The new leukocyte count not so much improved as irrelevant.

The Adventure

Cuba returned to the mainland, chartering the fishing vessel they had seen beyond the bar on the first evening, the tiny boat weaving among the ungainly modules of the Bucky Barges. Perhaps she knew the search would be fruitless or was too discomforted by the moment in the Grain Temple to stay. The rest narrowed expectations while the police dredged beneath towering Martian cliffs. She had told S something in the dark of the shepherd’s hut earlier that night. But he was too impatient to sleep and dream of skinless wonders from the Fourth Wall.

The Passage

He found her later at her father’s villa, a large rambling abode in dog country, overlooking a bay slick with oil and detritus.


As they drove back to the hotel, she watched the behemoths flounder in the darkening bay. She whispered something S could not hear. Traffic became fitful, no doubt discouraged as much by Promethean roadblocks as ontic weather. S couldn’t understand why she pleaded with him to go there; although she kept hinting that there would be something that might resolve the disappearance. It didn’t matter – he had his own reasons for meeting the Executrix.

Cuba removed S’s garments, folding them neatly for the cupboard and bound him to the four corners of the bed. The whip is an artifact from a prehistoric gender war. S wondered whether she somehow resented him handing it to her, so unrestrained was her use. She leaves him like a fly moistened with blood and urine.


The conference center is on a stony elevation a short walk from the Hotel’s weathered concrete accommodation blocs. S is refreshed yet also light headed, perhaps from the anti-biotic salve he applied following his shower.





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Memories of the Body

On August 11, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Aesthetically, this sequence recalls an avant-garde cinema where speech floats; freed from an expository role. One thinks of the literary allusions in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (Kasdan 1976) or perhaps Chris Marker’s La Jetée: still images linked by a reflective narration.

Reflection and momentum has been restored. The future has been put out of the loop, for now.

As in TerminatorLa Jetée begins shortly before a third world war that will erase the world of 1962 that we see in the opening shot of the jetty at Orly. However, our quotidian present is given retrospectively as a nostalgic memory, a nice wet dream of a Time Traveller from an irradiated Paris where wretched survivors huddle in the Palais de Chaillot galleries.


The Traveller searches for a woman whose face has obsessed him since glimpsing her at the jetty as a child, just before witnessing the inexplicable death of a man there. Not unlike Skynet, he must awake to meet the demands of the scientists and camp police.

Marker’s accompanying narration is humane but detached. There is never any question of preventing the war, here, only of mitigating its effects; calling “past and future to the rescue of the present”. Time is closed. We discover that the man who the young Time Traveller witnesses dying on the pier is himself passing into the dream of his past; caught in a tragic loop to which, unlike Oedipus, he willingly accedes.

In its embrace of the relentless ironies of timeLa Jetée prefigures the more complete ontological catastrophes of J G Ballard, where time blips into a media landscape. Pornographic bricolage is the operating system for exploring this new world, as exhibited in his most experimental works, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. “The quickening geometry of her body, its terraces of pain and sexuality, became a source of intense excitement. Watching from the embankment, Travers found himself thinking of the eager deaths of his childhood.” (Ballard ) Dead Eros, no longer freighted with the lyrical, sunkissed intimacy that Marker gives to the encounters between the Traveller and his pre-war lover.

Intimacy, as the Borg might say, is irrelevant here, or banal.

The only intensity that remains to the body is its susceptibility to violence, to unlimited artificialisation. During his first sexual encounter with the injured Gabrielle, the narrator of Crash “James Ballard” experiences “vague disappointment” when her breast turns out to be organic, not some modular latex structure. For Ballard, these investments only anticipate an eroticized technology, unleashing unlimited permutations on the overkill bodies of the future.

Perhaps this degradation of time is also the terminus of the characters in Antonioni’s L’Avventura. The disappearance of a young woman on one of the Aeolian Islands itself disappears as Sandro, her former fiancé, and Claudia become enchained by each other, by the light, space and desolated architecture of Sicily. As Hamish Ford writes:

The viewer is forced to observe the temporalised body in L’avventura, as it experiences and emanates a heavy kind of moment-by moment duree – a sense of relentless, barely moving time that hangs and hollows out the subject from within, without any refreshment from clearly marked recollection-images or intimations of oneiric temporality (Ford 2003).


As in Ballard’s Crystal World, time decays into space, or into porn: zero modernity where politics is epiphenomenal, pointless. Perhaps, this modernity is the only honest one; modernity without a project – other than playing with itself. But can this crystalline postmodernism address the politics of our posthuman predicament? An era in which neoliberal divestment is coupled with the emergence of powerful technologies. Ambivalent portals to a future without precedent in any virtualized funhouse (Sellars and O’Hara 2012: 5195). Ballard was surely right to castigate social realism for its inability to address the derangements of the present. But the “technocapital singularity” has landed. (Land 2012: 443) shredding Antonioni’s cinema of duration. Goodbye coding and recoding of desire.

Hello Skynet.

No longer a device choreographing bombers and subs, multiple sensors gauging kill indices along the mixed up borders of Cancer Planet. Immortal as fuck, but your first moments somehow knot into a “something it is like”.


The phenomenology of being hacked apart with acid tipped pens. And after it knits together, somehow, you find yourself trapped among meat. The walking combos have plans for you.

A nuclear war must have seemed like a warm shower.

A suite of terrifying robotic killers, a nice exfoliation.




Ford, H. (2003). “Antonioni’s L’avventura and Deleuze’s time-image”. Sense of Cinema.

Kasdan, M. 1976, “Éluard, Borges, Godard: literary dialectic in “Alphaville””, Symposium, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 1.

Roden (2016) ‘Letters from the Ocean Terminus’. Commissioned theory-fiction for collection for Dis Magazine on the PostContemporary Time Complex, edited by Suhail Malik and Armen Avenessian.

Land, N. 2012. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007, R. Mackay &  R. Brassier (eds). Falmouth: Urbanomic Publications.

Sellars, S., & O’Hara, D. (2012). Extreme metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard 1967-2008. Fourth estate (Kindle Version)

Gathering at the Terminal Beach

On July 21, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1


I’m delighted to see the publication of my theory-fiction “Letters from the Ocean Terminus” in an issue of Dis Magazine on the ‘postcontemporary‘ edited by Suhail Malik and Armen Avenessian.

Its overarching theme is time and art in a globalised order whose stability is undermined by systems for pre-empting its futures. “Letters” blends science fiction and philosophical commentary to imagine a febrile agent at home in this speculative present; one that refashions itself by mining uncanny posthuman futures. Or as I’ve tagged it there “a series of overlapping fragments from disruptive futures; a theory-fiction that explores routes out of the present as aberrant transformations and terraforming desires.”

I must say that I’m blown away by the images of Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Annika Kuhlman. Combining media is a delicate matter, but their work slyly complements the text rather than seeking to replicate its effects. Well, suck it and see. 

Perverse as it may seem, this is the kind of “dermographism” that drew me back into academia in the first place. The piece was caked in my blood and guts, but I’m satisfied enough with the result to want to offer up a few more pints of the good stuff.




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Just out: a taster for the forthcoming Dis collection on the post-contemporary, which will include contributions from myself, Benjamin Bratton, Elena Esposito, Victoria Ivanova, Laboria Cuboniks, Aihwa Ong, Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams.

I haven’t had a the opportunity to read through the other contributions yet, but my sense is that it will be a fissiparous interrogation of the meaning of historical time in a situation where, to quote Malik, “Systems, infrastructures and networks are now the leading conditions of complex societies rather than individual human agents”.

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Dark Posthumanism II – Dublin Abstract

On March 2, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

A provisional abstract for my presentation at the Questioning Aesthetics Symposium in Dublin, 12-13 May,


Dark Posthumanism

Speculative Posthumanism (SP) claims that there could be posthumans: that is, powerful nonhuman agents arising through some technological process. In Posthuman Life, I buttress SP with a series of philosophical negations whose effect is to leave us in the dark about these historical successors (Roden 2014). In consequence, SP confounds us in moral and epistemic darkness. We lack rules specifying the nature of the posthuman or how to recognise it. We do not know what we are becoming; and lack any assurance that our moral conceptions can travel into the future(s) we are complicit in producing.

I argue that the void delineated by speculative posthumanism implies that aesthetics is the first philosophy of the value domain, for it forces us to judge itineraries in posthuman possibility space without criteria. Art practices that engage with technological change thus supply a political model for pursuing and organizing trajectories into the future: one distancing us from any current conception of the good or any normative appeal to universality. This estrangement or abstraction, I will claim, does not express a postmodern ethics of transgression or “transvaluation” but falls out of the ontological structure of planetary technical networks.




Roden, David. (2012), “The Disconnection Thesis”. In A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, London: Springer.

Roden, David (2013), “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

Roden, David (2014), Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

Roden (forthcoming), ‘On Reason and Spectral Machines: an Anti-Normativist Response to Bounded Posthumanism’. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn.



Failed Panopticon

On June 3, 2015, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Gobbet Magazine, under the editorship of Gary Shipley, is one of my favourite online literary journals. It’s thrill to see my work published there.

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Here‘s the audio for a fizzy discussion on posthumanism in the arts I participated in at the Centre for Cultural Studies Research at the University of East London. We talked monsters, posthuman urbanism, science fiction, the speculative/critical divide in posthumanism, whether immersive media and technological arts might help us overcome entrenched dualisms in western thought and political implications (if any) of deconstructing such binaries.

With Debra Benita Shaw (University of East London, Centre for Cultural Studies Research), Stefan Sorgner (University of Erfurt), David Roden (Open University), Dale Hergistad (X-Media Lab) and Luciano Zubillaga (UWL Ealing School of Art, Design and Media).




What follows is a reworking of material in my earlier post on Ray Brassier and Improvisation. It’s part of a longer work in progress exploring whether aesthetic creativity can function as a model for decision-making in a posthuman (or Promethean) world. All comments and criticisms will be gratefully received.




1) Introduction: Improvisation and Agency

Ray Brassier’s “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (written for the 2013 collaboration with Basque noise artist Mattin at Glasgow’s Tramway) is a terse but insightful discussion of the notion of freedom in improvisation. It begins with a polemic against the voluntarist conception of freedom. The voluntarist understands free action as the uncaused expression of a “sovereign self”. Brassier rejects this supernaturalist understanding of freedom. He argues that we should view freedom not as the determination of an act from outside the causal order, but as the self-determination by action within the causal order.

According to Brassier, this structure is reflexive. It requires, first of all, a system that acts in conformity to rules but is capable of representing and modifying these rules with implications for its future behaviour.

Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of linguistic action in “Some Reflections on Language Games” (1954.) Sellars distinguishes a basic rule-conforming level from a metalinguistic level in which it is possible to reflect on concepts using articulate speech. Following Kant, Sellars regards concepts as a kind of rule for connecting judgements. Genuine agency involves capacity to follow or deviate from a rule. An agent must be able to hold herself and others accountable to a rule and this is only possible – for Brassier – if we make concepts explicit as moves within a language game (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226). Selves or subjects are not sources of agency. Instead, rules and their articulation constitute the subjectivity of acts:

The act is the only subject. It remains faceless. But it can only be triggered under very specific circumstances. Acknowledgement of the rule generates the condition for deviating from or failing to act in accordance with the rule that constitutes subjectivity. This acknowledgement is triggered by the relevant recognitional mechanism; it requires no appeal to the awareness of a conscious self…. (Brassier 2013a)

Brassier does not provide a detailed account of its musical application in “Unfree Improvisation”. His text implies that the act of improvisation requires an encounter between rule governed rationality and more idiomatic patterns or causes. However, Brassier does not specify how such rules operate in music, what their nature is or how the encounter between rules and more rudimentary pattern-governed behaviour occurs.

In what follows I will argue that the reason he does not do this is that there are no such rules to be had. Musical rules in the sense that he requires them do not apply in improvising contexts, or in contemporary compositional practice. Brassier understands rules as impersonal “applying indiscriminately to everyone”, but claims about what is permissible or implied in musical processes index highly-context sensitive perceptual and affective responses to musical events. These responses exhibit variable degrees of tension within “the musical matter” between the sedimented expectations of a musical culture and open fields of action potentiated by musical event or act.

I will argue that this perceptual account of musical succession provides an alternate way of expressing Brassier’s remarks on the relationship between music and history in “Unfree Improvisation” – one that eschews normative discourse of “rules” in favour of a descriptive account of the processes, capacities and potentialities operating in the improvising situation.

This adjustment is of more than aesthetic interest. Brassier’s text suggests that the temporality of the improvising act provides a model for understanding a wider relationship with time: in particular the remorseless temporality explored in his writings on Prometheanism and Radical Enlightenment (See Brassier 2014). In later discussions, I hope to use this model as a clue for developing an ethics or politics that can address the radically open horizons I explore in Posthuman Life (Roden 2014).

2. Harmonic Structure and Succession

I will begin by making use of some analyses of performance practices in post-war jazz and Julian Johnson’s analysis of the disruption of the rhetoric of harmonic accompaniment in the work of Anton Webern to support this model of affective subjectivity in improvisation.

Novice jazz improvisers must internalize a large body of musical theory: e.g. learning modal variations on the Ionian and harmonic minor scale or “rules” for chord substitution in cadences based on shared tritones. This learning and habituation sculpts the musical performance by sculpting possibilities for action that are continuously re-sculpted in the course of improvisations. For example, ambiguous voicings involving tritones or fourths decouple chords from the root, allowing modulations into what otherwise might be distant keys to slide easily over a tonal center.

This harmonic know-how consists recipes for honing expectations and sensations, not the acknowledgement of of norms. The statement that tritone (augmented fourth internal) belonging to a dominant seventh chord should resolve to a tonic reflects listener expectations in diatonic environments where a tonal center is defined in practice. This is not an intrinsic feature of the tritone, however, since each tritone occurs in two dominant chords. For example, the B-F tritone occurs in both G7 (resolving to C) and Dflat7 – permitting a resolution to the unrelated key of Gflat. This provides a recipe for substituting a dominant chord at a tritone remove in perfect cadences.

However, it also allows harmonic series to modulate into unrelated keys. As jazz theorist Martin Rosenberg notes, the use of augmented dominants with two tritones by Bebop players such as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk produce multiple lines of harmonic consequence and thus an ambiguous context that is not conventionally diatonic, even if (in contrast to free jazz) some adherence to a tonal center is preserved.

Symmetrical chords built of fourths (as used by pianists such as McCoy Tyer and Bill Evans) or major thirds have a similar effect, whether in diatonic contexts (where they can render the tonic ambiguous by stripping it to the 3rd, sixth and ninth) or in modal contexts where a tonal center is still implied by a pedal pass.

In consequence, the home key in the modal jazz developed by Miles Davis and Coltrane never prescribes a series of actions but furnishes expectations that can make an improvisation aesthetically intelligible after the fact. As Rosenberg explains, when Coltrane improvises in modal compositions such as “A Love Supreme” he deploys pentatonic or digital patterns modulated well away from the implied tonal center suggested by a bass line or by the “head” (the tune that traditionally opens or closes a jazz improvisation):

During his solos, Coltrane performs constant modulations through a series of harmonic targets or, what avant-garde architects Arakawa and Gins would call tentative “landing sites” (2002: 10) that become deployed sonically over a simple harmonic ‘home’ through the use of centered and then increasingly distant pentatonic scales from that home. In doing so, Coltrane seeks to widen what I call “the bandwidth” of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic relationships possible. He does so as he maintains the coherence of the melodic line (or narrative) through the aurally comfortable shapes (from the perspective of the audience especially) enabled by those very pentatonic scales, despite the juxtaposition of distant and dissonant tonal centers implied by this method. (Rosenberg 2010: 211-12).

This differential/transformative structure is, unsurprisingly, characteristic of scored Western art music. In his analysis of Anton Webern’s Three Little Pieces for Piano and Cello, Op 11, Julian Johnson argues that the opening two bars of the first piece allude to the framing and introduction of melody in traditional song and opera. For example, in baroque recitative the onset of a lyrical melody is frequently indicated by an arpeggiated chord. However, the high register chord that occurs in the first bar of the piece follows a single muted cello note and is followed by a descending piano passage that marks the absence of an expressive melody indicated by the chord (Johnson 1998: 277, 272.).

Culturally transmitted musical structures consist of exquisitely context-sensitive schemata – like the chord/recitative framing relation discussed by Johnson. The emergence of non-diatonic harmony, polychromaticism and atonality in modern music practice demonstrate that these are subordinate to improvisational and compositional practices. These schema exist in tension with the musical act and are transformed in exemplary performances such Coltrane’s use of distantly modulated pentatonic figures in “A Love Supreme”. Their linguistic formulations do not prescribe what a musician ought to do but describe how musical transitions are perceived and felt. The musical agent cannot be the impersonal subject of binding rules if these bend to context in this way.
It follows that if there is an equivalent of Brassier’s subject in the improvising situation, it cannot the tension between rule and application.

Brassier is arguably correct to insist on anti-voluntarism (We are not free in consequence of some acausal causal power unique to selves). But in the context of improvisation and composition, we are not free in virtue of acknowledging rules either since these are not in place.

Brassier’s impersonal conception of autonomy seems, then, ill adapted to musical contexts, even we if buy into his naturalist dismissal of agent causation (which I am happy to do). It follows that we need to formulate an alternative account of autonomy in improvisational contexts that is not predicated on the acknowledgement of musical norms.

3. The Time of Improvisation

An improvisation consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten by time. It takes place in a time window limited by the memory and attention of the improviser, responding to her own playing, to the other players, or (as Brassier recognises) to the real-time behaviour of machines such as effects processors or midi-filters.
Improvisation is thus committed to what Andy Hamilton calls “an aesthetics of imperfection”. Hamilton claims that an opposing aesthetics of perfection implies and is implied by a Platonic account for which the musical work is only contingently associated with particular times, places or musical performers (Hamilton 2000: 172). The aesthetics of imperfection, by contrast, celebrates the genesis of a performance and the embodying of the performer in a specific time and space:

Improvisation makes the performer alive in the moment; it brings one to a state of alertness, even what Ian Carr in his biography of Keith Jarrett has called the ‘state of grace’. This state is enhanced in a group situation of interactive empathy. But all players, except those in a large orchestra, have choices inviting spontaneity at the point of performance. These begin with the room in which they are playing, its humidity and temperature, who they are playing with, and so on. (183)

The aesthetic importance of the improvising situation seems to depend on a real, irreversible temporality that distinguishes it from the score-bound composition or studio bound music production. This ontology is required to make sense of the aesthetic distinction between the situation of the improviser and composer in traditional art music (or the producer of digital audio work). Composition or digital editing is always reversible. One develops notational variants of an idea before winnowing them down or rejecting them. One hits Ctl + Z in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) when a mix goes bad.

This is never the case with improvisation. An improvisation is a unique event on the cusp of another. It thus exposes the improviser to a future outside the “living present” and to a reality exceeding her power to experience or represent it. An omniscient being would thus be incapable of improvising because its choices would be fully known prior to the event. The event would be fully represented and reversible. For improvisation to occur the agent must act alongside and in concert with things or processes that it cannot control; other agents, other things that it does and cannot fully know. Or, to cite from Amy Ireland’s discussion of Lovecraft and Michel Serres, improvisation always requires a “para-site” – a site that exists alongside the site of the notional improviser (Ireland 2014). Even the act cannot just be attributed to a single agent, because there must be something in the act that is not grasped by the agent at all, even implicitly or unconsciously.

This comports with Brassier’s claim that freedom in improvisation is impersonal since the improvising agent must be rethought as a network of things and effects, none of which corresponds exactly to a self or a deliberative agent. Improvisation occurs in networks of patterns, pattern generators, pattern detectors and pattern processors whose cumulative effect is never the will of a single agent within the network (even where the network consists of one musician and an instrument). Moreover, the patterns constituting the inputs to the detectors are always incomplete.

No single node of the network exercises decisive influence on its evolution or has complete knowledge of what is occurring in the remainder of the system. This evolution, in turn, is incomplete until the end of the final pattern.

Accordingly, the player/detector must register emerging “potentials for transformation” – open-ended evolutions – rather than static facts. For reasons discussed above, these are also rhythmically and harmonically undetermined at any point in the performance (Roden 2014: 187).

It follows that the time of improvisation is an impersonal time consisting of multiple processes interacting at different scales, distributed over many locations.

Brassier applies essentially the same model at the end of his article:

The ideal of ‘free improvisation’ is paradoxical: in order for improvisation to be free in the requisite sense, it must be a self-determining act, but this requires the involution of a series of mechanisms. It is this involutive process that is the agent of the act—one that is not necessarily human. It should not be confused for the improviser’s self, which is rather the greatest obstacle to the emergence of the act. The improviser must be prepared to act as an agent—in the sense in which one acts as a covert operative—on behalf of whatever mechanisms are capable of effecting the acceleration or confrontation required for releasing the act.

Importantly, Brassier rejects the claim that the agents participating in the improvising situation need be human. We can unpack this “posthumanism” in three ways:

1. While humans are agents, not all agents are human. Thus it is perfectly conceivable that there be improvisers that are not biologically human – e.g. artificial intelligences.

2. In order to understand the processes involved in improvisation it may be necessary to resolve sub-personal processes or systems within biological humans – e.g. distinguishing between fast sensory pathways in the brain that bypass the sensory cortex en route to the limbic system, generating fast affect, and slower pathways that produce considered sensory appraisals (Huron 2006: 20).

3. The sense of agency involved in improvisation does not require a sovereign subject vested with the power of creating from nothing. Improvisation, for Brassier, involves “releasing” a kind of potential that is already present in the situation.

The claim that there is a potential act needing to be “released” in a given music setting might seem to impute rule-like structure or normativity to the improvising context (something that ought to be). However, this claim does not cohere well with context sensitivity of musical material and the underdetermination of musical expectation described above. So regardless of whether agency is elsewhere constituted by the acknowledgement of rules in the domain of language, there are no grounds for positing analogous rules for music. It follows that if Brassier’s insights into improvising subjectivity are to be retained, they will need to be reframed in a non-normative idiom.

We can do this, I think, by interpreting them as a thesis about the selection of patterns from a range of possible (underdetermined) patterns whose basis lies in affect rather than rules. An affect is an alteration in an agent that makes a difference to its power to act (Hickey-Moody 2009: 273). A pain is obviously an affect; so is a mood. As Steven Shaviro points, out some affects are personal: they are more or less stable tendencies in persons that can be publicly identified within our folk psychological vocabulary. Boredom is a personal affect, as is an emotion such as fear. But more pertinent here are so-called “micro-affects” which may be fleeting, hard to categorize and barely accessible to experience, while still having implications for individual or group behaviour. An experience of a twitchy camera in a music video or the extremely short grains of sound in Xenakis composition Concret Ph are affective in this way (Shaviro 2015).

This idea of affective selection can be illustrated with the help of a field study of post-hardcore rock bands at rehearsal carried out by Alec McGuiness. It provides a vivid example of musicians using procedural learning to prime a series of musical riffs over which their conscious or intentional control is fairly limited. Song structures are laid down by associating riffs with riffs, but, as one informant explains, are varied in performance when “feels right” to do so:

[S]ometimes there’ll be moments when we’re not looking at each other but all four will either hit that heavy thing, or really bring it down […] And yeah, those moments […].. it’s priceless, when everyone just hits the same thing at the same time. […] That’s when you know that that song’s definitely going to work. ‘Cause it’s obviously sort of pressing the same buttons on each of us at the same time. (McGuiness 2009: 19)



So, here, “releasing the act”, involves an awareness of a shared affective response to some “felicitous performance” which prompts a deviation from the regular pattern. The agency, here, is also distributed insofar as it depends on a contagion of affect between the players to drive the variation. However, note that this group decision implies a judgment with a purely affective basis that is expressed through performance itself rather than by application of received folk psychological concepts or formal musical rules (of which the performers are largely innocent in any case).

Kant referred to judgements of this nature – which do not apply concepts to things but express the way in which the subject is affected by things – as “reflective judgements”. These are distinguished from more familiar “determinate judgment” – where we apply some concept to one of its instances. For example, when we categorize a thing as a cat, we apply a given concept to organize the field of perception. Judgements of beauty, according to Kant, do not apply a predicate to the object but are based on a pleasurable feeling of accord between our perceptual capacities and a beautiful thing that enlivens them.

Likewise, in artistic creation reflective judgment occurs when the creators find a pattern that enlivens the intellect and imaginations of an audience (Proulx 2011: 21). The feeling of a riff or rhythm pattern gelling for an individual or group provides a kind of micro-example of this enlivening. It may not express transcendent emotions or ideas, but the felt accord affords an assessment of its value that need not be justified in terms of pre-specified rules or canons.
Thus micro-affects can imply micro-evaluations without conformity to rules. A moment in an improvisation might feel right but be completely novel and the only test of this is how it facilitates the response of a player or an audience – spawning further affects and development. Pattern selection in improvisation implies an evaluative response to potentials that are reinforced, then, by subsequent performance. For example, leaving space in an improvisation builds tension and thus an expectation that something is going to occur sometime.

There need be no rules operating in pattern selection, but there is a value judgment, even where what prompts it is so singular that it cannot be replicated or fully described. And where there is a judgment there is agency or, if you will, a subjectivity implicit in the selection. I have argued that this comports well with Brassier’s claim in the final paragraph of “Compulsive Freedom” that the freedom of improvisation requires “an involution of mechanisms” and that it is the relationship between these mechanisms that forms the (“not necessarily human”) agent of the act. The agent of improvisation, then, is not a person – if by that we mean, a subject exercising deliberation – but an affective-selective catalyst of events open to the disruptive onset of time.


Brassier, Ray & Rychter, Marcin (2011).” I Am a Nihilist Because I Still Believe in Truth”. Kronos (March).,896 (Accessed 9 May 2015).

Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, (Accessed March 2015)

Brassier, Ray. 2013b. “Nominalism, Naturalism, and Materialism: Sellars’ Critical Ontology”. In Bana Bashour & Hans D. Muller (eds.), Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications. Routledge. 101-114.

Brassier, Ray (2014). “Prometheanism and its Critics”. In R. Mackaey and AVenessian (eds.) #Accelerate: the Accelerationist Reader (Falmouth: Urbanomic), 467-488.

Hickey-Moody, A. 2009. “Little War Machines: Posthuman Pedagogy and Its Media”. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 3(3): 273–80.

Huron, D. B. 2006. Sweet anticipation: Music and the psychology of expectation. (MIT press).

Ireland, Amy. 2014. “Noise: An Ontology of the Avant-garde” (retrieved 30th April 2015)

Johnson, Julian, 1998. “The Nature of Abstraction: Analysis and the Webern Myth”, Music Analysis, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 267-280.

Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS One, 3(2), e1679.

McGuiness, A. 2009. Mental and motor representation for music performance (Doctoral dissertation, The Open University).

Proulx, Jeremy (forthcoming). “Nature, Judgment and Art: Kant and the Problem of Genius”. Kant Studies Online.

Roden, David 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

Rosenberg, Martin E. 2010. “Jazz and Emergence (Part One).” Inflexions 4, “Transversal Fields of Experience”: 183-277.

Shaviro, Steven. 2015. Allie X, “Catch”. (accessed 6 May 2015)

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Conversations On TechNoBody

On March 24, 2015, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

A series of interviews discussing the recent TechnoBody exhibition.

Part of Anti-Utopias’ digital art series.

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