Live improvisation by clarinettist Pete Furniss using C-C-Combine – a concatenative synthesis patch built by Rodrigo Constanzo in Max MSP. On his website, Rodrigo explains that concatenative synthesis is a form of granular synthesis employing modulation via sound sources rather than prescribed parameters (grain density, jitter, wave form, etc.) to determine how the sound grains (short samples) are played back.
Pete will be a keynote performer at the Philosophy of human+computer music 2 Workshop at Sheffield University on May 27th (Where I will also be chairing a discussion session). In last year’s workshop, some extremely stimulating discussions of computer music aesthetics were informed by input from performers and experts on the electroacoustic coalface. The second iteration is not to be missed!
Ray Brassier’s “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (written for the 2013 event at Glasgow’s Tramway Freedom is a Constant Struggle) 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 determination of an act from outside the causal order, but as the self-determination of 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. Insofar as there is a “subject” of freedom, then, it is not a “self” but depersonalized acts generated by systems capable of representing and intervening in the patterns that govern them.
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’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of linguistic action in “Some Reflections on Language Games” (1954) and the psychological nominalism in which it is embedded. This distinguishes a basic rule-conforming level from a metalinguistic level in which it is possible to examine the virtues of claims, inferences or the referential scope of terms by semantic ascent: “Intentionality is primarily a property of candid public speech established via the development of metalinguistic resources that allows a community of speakers to talk about talk” (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226).
So, for Brassier, the capacity to explore the space of possibilities opened up by rules presupposes a capacity to acknowledge these sources of agency.
There are some difficult foundational questions that could be raised here. Is thought really instituted by linguistic rules or is language an expression of pre-linguistic intentional contents? Are these rules idiomatic (in the manner of Davidson’s passing theories) or communal? What is the relationship between the normative dimension of speech and thought and facts about what thinkers do or are disposed to do?
I’ve addressed these elsewhere, so I won’t belabor them here. My immediate interest, rather, is the extent to which Brassier’s account of act-reflexivity is applicable to musical improvisation.
Brassier does not provide a detailed account of its musical application in “Unfree Improvisation”. What he does write, though, is highly suggestive: implying that the act of free improvisation requires some kind of encounter between rule governed rationality and more idiomatic patterns or causes:
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.
In (genuinely) free improvisation, it seems, determinants of action become “for themselves” They enter into the performance situation as explicit possibilities for action.
This seems to demand that “neurobiological or socioeconomic” determinants of musical or non-musical action can become musical material, to be manipulated or altered by performers. How is this possible?
Moreover, is there something about improvisation (as opposed to conventional composition) that is peculiarly apt for generating the compulsive freedom of which Brassier speaks?
After all, his description of the determinants of action in the context of improvisation might apply to the situation of the composer as well. The composer of notated “art music” or the studio musician editing files in a digital-audio workstation seems better placed than the improviser to reflect on and develop her musical rule-conforming behaviour (e.g. exploratory improvisations) than the improviser. She has the ambit to explore the permutations of a melodic or rhythmic fragment or to eliminate sonic or gestural nuances that are, in hindsight, unproductive. The composed gesture is always open to reversal or editing and thus to further refinement.
Thus the improviser seems committed to what Andy Hamilton calls an “aesthetic of imperfection” – in contrast to the musical perfectionism that privileges the realized work. Hamilton claims that the aesthetics of perfection implies and is implied by a Platonic account for which the 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)
An improvisation consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten in 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. Thus the aesthetic importance of the improvising situation seems to depend on a temporality and spatiality that distinguishes it from the score-bound composition or studio bound music production.
Yet, if this is right, it might appear to commit Brassier to a vitalist or phenomenological conception of the lived musical experience foreign to the anti-vitalist, anti-phenomenological tenor of his wider philosophical oeuvre. For this open, processual time must be counter-posed to the Platonic or structuralist ideal of the perfectionist. The imperfection and open indeterminacy of performance time must have ontological weight and insistence if Brassier’s programmatic remarks are to have any pertinence to improvisation as opposed to traditional composition.
This is not intended to be a criticism of Brassier’s position but an attempt at clarification. This commitment to an embodied, historical, machinic and physical temporality seems implicit in the continuation of the earlier passage cited from his text:
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. The latter arises at the point of intrication between rules and patterns, reasons and causes. It is the key that unlocks the mystery of how objectivity generates subjectivity. The subject as agent of the act is the point of involution at which objectivity determines its own determination: agency is a second-order process whereby neurobiological or socioeconomic determinants (for example) generate their own determination. In this sense, recognizing the un-freedom of voluntary activity is the gateway to compulsive freedom.
The improvising subject, then, is a process in which diverse processes are translated into a musical event or text that retains an expressive trace of its historical antecedents. As Brassier emphasizes, this process need not be understood in terms of human phenomenological time constrained by the “reverbations” of our working memory (Metzinger 2004: 129) – although this may continue to be the case in practice.
The Derridean connotations of the conjunction “event”/”text”/”trace” are deliberate, since the time of the improvising event is singular and productive – open to multiple repetitions that determine it in different ways. Improvisation is usually constrained (if not musically, by time or technical skill or means) but these rarely constitute rules or norms in the conventional sense. There is no single way in which to develop a simple Lydian phase on a saxophone, a rhythmic cell, or sample (an audio sample could be filtered, reversed or mangled by reading its entries out of order with a non-standard function, rather than the usual ramp). So the time of improvisation is a peculiarly naked exposure to “things”. Not to a sensory or categorical given, but precisely to an absence of a given that can be technologically remade.
Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, http://www.mattin.org/essays/unfree_improvisation-compulsive_freedom.html (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.
Davidon, Donald. 1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”. In Truth and Interpretation,
E. LePore (ed.), 433–46. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hamilton, A. (2000). “The art of Improvisation and the Aesthetics of Imperfection”. British Journal of Aesthetics 40 (1):168-185.
Metzinger, T. 2004. Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Sellars, W. 1954. “Some Reflections on Language Games”. Philosophy of Science 21 (3):204-228.
This is an abstract for a presentation that I will be giving in a roundtable discussion on posthumanism and aesthetics with Debra Benita Shaw and Stefan Sorgner at the University of East London on May 18 2015. Further details will be made available.
Posthumanism can be critical or speculative. These positions converge in opposing human-centred (anthropocentric) thinking. However, their rejection of anthropocentricism applies to different areas. Critical Posthumanism (CP) rejects the anthropocentrism of modern philosophy and intellectual life; Speculative Posthumanism (SP) opposes human-centric thinking about the long-run implications of modern technology.
CP is interested in the posthuman as a cultural and political condition. Speculative Posthumanists propose the metaphysical possibility of technologically created nonhuman agents. SP states: there could be posthumans – where posthumans would be “wide human descendants” of current humans that have become nonhuman in virtue of some process of technical alteration.
In Posthuman Life I elaborate a detailed version of SP. Specially, I describe what it is to become posthuman in terms of “the disconnection thesis” [DT] (Roden 2012; 2014, Chapter 5). DT understands “becoming posthuman” in abstract terms. Roughly, it states that an agent becomes posthuman iff. it becomes independent of the human socio-technical system as a consequence of technical change. It does not specify how this might occur or the nature of the relevant agents (e.g. whether they are immortal uploads, cyborgs, feral robots or Jupiter sized Brains).
Posthuman Life argues that the abstractness of DT is epistemologically apt because there are no posthumans and thus we are in no position to deduce constraints on their possible natures or values (I refer to this position as “anthropologically unbounded posthumanism” [AUP)). AUP has implications for the ethics of becoming posthuman that are generally neglected in the literature on transhumanism and human enhancement.
The most important of these is that there can be no a priori ethics of posthumanity. Becoming posthuman can only be substantively (as opposed to abstractly) understood by making posthumans or becoming posthuman. I argue that, given the principled impossibility of a prescriptive ethics here, we must formulate strategies for speculating on and exploring nearby “posthuman possibility space”.
In this paper, I propose that aesthetic theory and practice may be a useful political model for such technological self-fashioning because it involves styles of thought or creation that discover their constraints and values by producing them. This “production model” is, I will argue, the only one liable to serve us if, with CP/SP, we reject an anthropocentric privileging of the human. I finish by considering some examples of aesthetic practice that might provide models for the politics of making posthumans or becoming posthuman.
Roden, David. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis”. In The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281–98. London: Springer.
Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
This piece from Una Sinnott is delicious. It demonstrates how work in the arts (here, experimental music) can feed into fundamental technologies, which can then hop between disparate applications (radio-controlled torpedoes, GPS). It’s case study in how womens’ contributions to technology get marginalised, and how patriarchy blows back.
A possibly ill-advised idea for a presentation on computer music and posthumanism entitled “Computer Music and Posthumanism”.
I will introduce two flavors of posthumanism: critical posthumanism (CP) and speculative posthumanism (SP) and provide an overview of some of the ways in which they might be explored by thinking through philosophical issues raised by computer music practice.
CP questions the dualist modes of thinking that have traditionally assigned human subjects a privileged place within philosophical thought: for example, the distinction between the formative power of minds and subjects and the inertia of matter.
The use of computers to supplement human performance raises questions about where agency is ascribed. Is it always on the side of the human musician or can it also be ascribed also to the devices or software used to generate sound events? If so, what kind of status can be granted to such artificial agents? Does their agency locally supervene on human agency, for example? I will also argue that the intractability and complexity of some computer generated sound confronts us with the nonhuman, mind-independent reality of sonic events. It thus provides an aesthetic grounding for a posthumanist realism.
SP (by contrast) is a metaphysical possibility claim about technological successors to humans. It can be summed up in the SP Schema: “Descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration” CP and SP are conceptually distinct but, I argue, the most radical form of SP converges with the anti-anthropocentrism of CP (Roden 2014). In particular, non-anthropologically bounded SP implies that the only way in which we can acquire substantive knowledge of posthumans is through making posthumans or becoming posthuman. I will argue that computer music development may have a role in this project of engineering a posthuman succession.
Roden, D. 2010b. “Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events.” Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1 (1): 141–156.
Roden, D. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis.” The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281-298. London: Springer.
Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Routledge.
Anita Mason has a contribution to the long running genre debate here at the Guardian entitled “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre”. I think her attempt to constitute this supposed center self-deconstructs spectacularly, but in a manner that is instructive and worth teasing apart.
This metaphorical representation of the literary as the universal and indeterminate hub from which determinate “rule-governed” genres “radiate” does not cohere with her criteria of demarcation between the literary and the non-literary. On the one hand, the literary can be anything; is governed by no determinate rules. On the other, dense psychological characterization is necessary for the literary since, she argues, Brave New World, and Consider Phlebas fail the test of literariness due to their lack of this attribute.
Well, you can’t have it both ways. Despite Mason’s peremptory reading of The Drowned World, Ballard’s oeuvre is famously unconcerned with character and “plot”, such as it is, incidental to one of the most profoundly literary treatments of the condition of modernity in prose. Few modern novels present a more literary and unitary treatment of their subject than Crash, for example, where a brilliantly intricate chain of metaphors and symbols explore the contingency of desire in the face of technical change.
On these grounds we would also have to exclude postmodern fabulists and experimental writers such as Pynchon, Barthelme, Robb-Grillet and Christine Brooke-Rose. So Mason’s Ptolemaic rhetoric of centrality is just a blind for her anthropocentrism. The universe of literature, I hope, is post-Copernican and limitless.
Radical art defies and transforms collective modes of understanding. Wagner’s famous “Tristan chord” segues between classical harmony, late romanticism and twentieth century atonality due to its ambiguous relationship to its tonal context. The aesthetic value of Xenakis’ Concret Ph lies partly in the technological potentials realized subsequently in granular synthesis techniques which employ global statistical parameters to control flocks of auditory events. Such sensations are, in Brian Massumi words, “in excess over experience” – suspending practices and meanings in ways that catalyse deterritorializing movement towards non-actual futures (Massumi 2005: 136). The aesthetics of excess provides a limit case of the reflective creation of value that occurs when we modify existing modes of sense-making or embodiment. It also provides a window upon the posthuman as potentiality shadowing our interactions with technological environments.
This contingency is amplified in another radical art work, J G Ballard’s novel Crash. As I wrote back in 1999:
In Crash the technology of the car has become the adjunct to a violent sexuality. Its erotic focus and ideologue, Vaughan, is an ambulance chasing ex-TV presenter whose career as a glamorous ‘hoodlum scientist’ has been cut short by his disfigurement in a motorcycling accident. Marking the parameters of vehicle collisions and casual sexual encounters with Polaroid and cine camera, Vaughan is a social being of sorts, assembling around him a crew of co-experimenters whose sexuality has been activated by ‘the perverse eroticisms of the car-crash’. The novel’s narrator ‘James Ballard’ recounts his induction into the crashpack; first through a motorway accident, then via a succession of techno-erotic duels and excursions, culminating in Vaughan’s attempted ‘seduction’ of the actress Elizabeth Taylor in the environs of London Airport . .
It is only in so far as Vaughan ‘[mimes] the equations between the styling of a motor-car and the organic elements of his body’ (Ballard 1995: 170), modulating the symbolic requirements of Ballard’s narrative with his histrionic body, that he can remain its primary sexual focus. . . These impersonal ‘equations’ mediate every affective relationship between the characters and Crash’s residual city of multi-storey car parks, airport termini, hermetic suburbs and motorway slip roads. They are expressed in a language of excremental objects – ‘aluminium ribbons’, Gabrielle’s thigh wound, Vaughan’s sectioned nipples, torn fenders, scars, etc. – whose very lack of quotidian function commends them as arbitrary tokens in the symbolic algebra (Roden 2002).
Crash thus construct an internally referential system of desire around sites, surfaces and interstices of late twentieth century technological landscapes (Roden 2002). But despite its contemporary setting, the novel does not describe this world: it potentiates it. Crash exhibits the contingency of human subjectivity and social relationships given its irrevocably technological condition.
A similar claim is made about the work of the Australian performance artist Stelarc in Massumi’s “The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason”. Massumi argues that the content of Stelarc’s performances – such as his series of body suspensions or his hook-ups with industrial robots, prosthetic hands and compound-eye goggles – is nothing to do with the functional utility of these systems or events. They have no use. Rather their effect is to place bodies and technologies in settings where their incorporation as use-values is interrupted. Of the compound eye goggles that Stelarc created for his work Helmet no. 3: put on and walk 1970 he writes: “They extended no-need into no-utility. And they extended no-utility into ‘art’” (Massumi 2005: 131).
Stelarc’s somewhat elliptical rationale is to “extend intelligence beyond the Earth”. His performances decouple the body from its functions and from the empathic responses of observers – even when dangling from skin hooks over a city street, Stelarc never appears as suffering or abject. They register the body’s potential for “off world” environments rather than its actual functional involvements with our technological landscape. Space colonization is not a current use value or industrial application, but a project for our planned obsolesce:
The terrestrial body will be obsolete from the moment a certain subpopulation feels compelled to launch itself into an impossible, unthinkable future of space colonization. To say that the obsolescence of the body is produced is to say that it is compelled. To say that it is compelled is to say that it is “driven by desire” rather than by need or utility (151-2).
These performances embody a potential that is “unthinkable” because aesthetically disjoined from our phenomenology and world. But, as Claire Colebrook suggests, we have been incipiently “off world” since the dawn of the industrial era:
We have perhaps always lived in a time of divergent, disrupted and diffuse systems of forces, in which the role of human decisions and perceptions is a contributing factor at best. Far from being resolved by returning to the figure of the bounded globe or subject of bios rather than zoe, all those features that one might wish to criticize in the bio-political global era can only be confronted by a non-global temporality and counter-ethics (Colebrook 2012: 38).
The counter-final nature of modern technique means that the conditions under which human ethical judgements are adapted can be overwritten by systems over which we have no ultimate control. Posthumanity would be only the most extreme consequence of this ramifying technics. An ethics bounded by the human world thus ignores its already excessive character (32).
Ballard, J.G. 1995. Crash. London: Vintage.
Massumi, Brian. 2005. “The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason: Stelarc.” In Stelarc: The Monograph, Marquand Smith (ed). MIT Press: 125-192.
Roden, DAvid 2003. “Cyborgian Subjects and the Auto-destruction of Metaphor.” In Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, Jane Arthurs and Iain Grant (eds). Intellect Books: 91–102.
Colebrook, Claire 2012. “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth.” Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41 (1): 30–39.