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.
There’s a lively debate around Scott Bakker’s recent lecture: “The End of the World As We Know It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse” given at The University of Western Ontario’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism here at Speculative Heresy. The text includes responses from Nick Srnicek and Ali McMillan.
I’ll be attending conferences at either end of our continent in September:
Posthuman Politics, 25th until the 28th of September 2014, University of the Aegean, Department of Cultural Technology and Communication, Geography Building – University Campus.
I’m presenting the same paper at both. Here’s the abstract, though the details of the argument remain to be filled in!
On Reason and Spectral Machines: an anti-normativist response to Bounded Posthumanism
David Roden, The Open University UK
In Posthuman Life I distinguish two speculative claims regarding technological successors to current humans: an anthropologically bounded posthumanism (ABP) and an anthropologically unbounded posthumanism. ABP holds:
1) There are transcendental constrains on cognition and agency that any entity qualifying as a posthuman successor under the Disconnection Thesis (Roden 2012, 2014) would have to obey.
2) These constraints are realized in the structure of human subjectivity and rationality.
One version of ABP is implied by normativist theories of intentionality for which original or “first class” intentionality is only possible for beings that can hold one another publicly to account by ascribing and adopting normative statuses (Brandom 1994). If Normativist ABP is correct, then posthumans – were they to exist – would not be so different from us for they would have to belong to discursive communities and subscribe to inter-subjective norms (See Wennemann 2013).
Normativist ABP thus imposes severe constraints on posthuman “weirdness” and limits the political implications of speculative claims about posthuman possibility such as those in my book. In this paper, I will argue that we should reject Normativist ABP because we should reject normativist theories of intentionality. For normativism to work, it must be shown that the objectivity and “bindingness” of social norms is independent of individual beliefs or endorsements. I will argue that the only way in which this can be achieved is by denying the dependence of normative statuses upon the particular dispositions, states and attitudes of individuals; thus violating plausible naturalistic constraints on normativism.
In response, I will argue for an anthropologically unbounded posthumanism for which all constraints on posthuman possibility must be discovered empirically by making posthumans or becoming posthuman. This implies a similarly unbounded posthuman politics for which there is no universal reason or transhistorical subjectivity.
Bakker, Scott. 2014. The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labor of Ghosts | Three Pound Brain. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/the-blind-mechanic-ii-reza-negarestani-and-the-labour-of-ghosts/
Brandom, R. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Harvard university press.
Brandom, R. 2001. Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Brandom, R. 2002. Tales of the Mighty Dead: Historical Essays in the Metaphysics of Intentionality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brandom, R. 2006. “Kantian Lessons about Mind, Meaning, and Rationality.” Southern Journal of Philosophy 44: 49–71.
Brandom, R. 2007. “Inferentialism and Some of Its Challenges.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74 (3): 651–676.
Brassier, R. 2011. “The View from Nowhere.” Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture (17): 7–23.
Davidson, D. 1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.” In Truth and Interpretation, E. LePore (ed), 433-46. Oxford: Blackwell.
Negarestani, Reza. 2014. The Labor of the Inhuman, Part I: Human | e-flux. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-labor-of-the-inhuman-part-i-human/
Negarestani, Reza. 2014. ‘The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman’ | e-flux. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-labor-of-the-inhuman-part-ii-the-inhuman/
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.
Turner, S. P. 2010. Explaining the normative. Polity.
Wennemann, D. J. 2013. Posthuman Personhood. New York: University Press of America.
Critical Posthumanists argue that the idea of a universal human nature has lost its capacity to support our moral and epistemological commitments. The sources of this loss of foundational status are multiple according to writers like Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles (1999), Neil Badmington (2003), Claire Colebrook and Rosi Braidotti. They include post-Darwinian naturalizations of life and mind that theoretically level differences between living and machinic systems and the more intimate ways of enmeshing living entities in systems of control and exploitation that flow from the new life and cognitive sciences. Latterly, writers such as Braidotti and Colebrook have argued that a politics oriented purely towards the rights and welfare of humans is incapable of addressing issues such as climate change or ecological depletion in the anthropocene era in which humans “have become a geological force capable of affecting all life on this planet” (Braidotti 2013: 66).
On the surface, this seems like a hyperbolic claim. If current global problems are a consequence of human regulation or mismanagement, then their solution will surely require human political and technological agency and institutions.
But let’s just assume that there is something to the critical posthumanist’s deconstruction of the human subject and that, in consequence, we can no longer assume that the welfare and agency of human subjects should be the exclusive goal of politics. If this is right, then critical posthumanism needs to do more than pick over the vanishing traces of the human in philosophy, literature and art. It requires an ethics that is capable of formulating the options open to some appropriately capacious political constituency in our supposedly post-anthropocentric age.
Braidotti’s recent work The Posthuman is an attempt to formulate such an ethics. Braidotti acknowledges and accepts the levelling of the status of human subjectivity implied by developments in cognitive science and biology and the “analytic posthumanism” that falls out of this new ontological vision. However, she is impatient with what she perceives as a disabling vacillation and neutrality that easily follows from junking of human subject as the arbiter of the right and the good. She argues that a posthuman ethics and politics need to retain the idea of political subjectivity; an agency capable of constructing new forms of ethical community and experimenting with new modes of being:
In my view, a focus on subjectivity is necessary because this notion enables us to string together issues that are currently scattered across a number of domains. For instance, issues such as norms and values, forms of community bonding and social belonging as well as questions of political governance both assume and require a notion of the subject.
However, according to Braidotti, this is no longer the classical self-legislating subject of Kantian humanism. It is vital, polyvalent connection-maker constituted “in and by multiplicity” – by “multiple belongings”:
The relational capacity of the posthuman subject is not confined within our species, but it includes all non-anthropocentric elements. Living matter – including the flesh – intelligent and self-organizing but it is precisely because it is not disconnected from the rest of organic life.
‘Life’, far from being codified as the exclusive property or unalienable right of one species, the human, over all others or of being sacralised as a pre-established given, is posited as process, interactive and open ended. This vitalist approach to living matter displaces the boundary between the portion of life – both organic and discursive – that has traditionally been reserved for anthropos, that is to say bios, and the wider scope of animal and nonhuman life also known as zoe (Braidotti 2012: 60).
Thus posthuman subjectivity, for Braidotti, is not human but a tendency inherent in human and nonhuman living systems alike to affiliate with other living systems to form new functional assemblages. Clearly, not everything has the capacity to perform every function. Nonetheless, living systems can be co-opted by other systems for functions “God” never intended and Mother Nature never designed them for. As Haraway put it: ‘No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language’ (Haraway 1989: 187). There are no natural limits or functions for bodies or their parts, merely patterns of connection and operation that do not fall apart all at once.
Zoe . . . is the transversal force that cuts across and reconnects previously segregated species, categories and domains. Zoe-centered egalitarianism is, for me, the core of the post-anthropocentric turn: it is a materialist, secular, grounded and unsentimental response to the opportunistic trans-species commodification of Life that is the logic of advanced capitalism.
Of course, if anything can be co-opted for any function that its powers can sustain, one might ask how zoe can support a critique of advanced capitalism which, as Braidotti concedes, produces a form of the “posthuman” by radically disrupting the boundaries between humans, animals, species and technique. What could be greater expression of the zoe’s transversal potential than, say, Monsanto’s transgenic cotton Bollgard II? Bollgard II contains genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that produce a toxin deadly to pests such as bollworm. Unless we believe that there is some Telos inherent to thuringiensis or to cotton that makes such transversal crossings aberrant – which Braidotti clearly does not – there appears to be no zoe-eyed perspective that could warrant her objection. Monsanto’s genetic engineers are just sensibly utilizing possibilities for connection that are already afforded by living systems but which cannot be realized without technological mediation (here via gene transfer technology). If the genes responsible for producing the toxin Bt in thuringiensis did not work in cotton and increase yields it would presumably not be the type used by the majority of farmers today (Ronald 2013).
Cognitive and biological capitalists like Google and Monsanto seem to incarnate the tendencies of zoe – conceived as a generalized possibility of connection – as much as the” not-for-profit” cyborg experimenters like Kevin Warwick or the publicly funded creators of HTML, Dolly the Sheep and Golden Rice. Doesn’t Google show us what a search engine can do?
We could object to Monsanto’s activities on the grounds that it has invidious social consequences or on the grounds that all technologies should be socially rather than corporately controlled. Neither of these arguments are obviously grounded in posthumanism or “zoe-centricism” – Marxist humanists would presumably agree with the latter claim, for example.
However, we can find the traces of a zoe-centered argument in Deleuzean ethics explored in the essay “The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible” (Braidotti 2006). This argues for an ethics oriented towards enabling entities to actualize their powers to their fullest “sustainable” extent. A becoming or actualization of power is sustainable if the assemblage or agency exercising it can do so without “destroying” the systems that makes its exercise possible. Thus an affirmative posthuman ethics follows Nietzsche in making it possible for subjects to exercise their powers to the edge but not beyond, where that exercise falters or where the system exercising it falls apart.
To live intensely and be alive to the nth degree pushes us to the extreme edge of mortality. This has implications for the question of the limits, which are in-built in the very embodied and embedded structure of the subject. The limits are those of one’s endurance – in the double sense of lasting in time and bearing the pain of confronting ‘Life” as zoe. The ethical subject is one that can bear this confrontation, cracking up a bit but without having its physical or affective intensity destroyed by it. Ethics consists in re-working the pain into threshold of sustainability, when and if possible: cracking, but holding it, still.
So Capitalism can be criticized from the zoe-centric position if it constrains powers that could be more fully realized in a different system of social organization. For Braidotti, the capitalist posthuman is constrained by the demands of possessive individualism and accumulation.
The perversity of advanced capitalism, and its undeniable success, consists in reattaching the potential for experimentation with new subject formations back to an overinflated notion of possessive individualism . . ., tied to the profit principle. This is precisely the opposite direction from the non-profit experimentations with intensity, which I defend in my theory of posthuman subjectivity. The opportunistic political economy of bio-genetic capitalism turns Life/zoe – that is to say human and non-human intelligent matter – into a commodity for trade and profit (Braidotti 2013: 60-61).
Thus she supports “non-profit” experiments with contemporary subjectivity that show what “contemporary, biotechnologically mediated bodies are capable of doing” while resisting the neo-liberal appropriation of living entities as tradable commodities.
Whether the constraint claim is true depends on whether an independent non-capitalist posthuman (in Braidotti’s sense of the term) is possible or whether significant posthuman experimentation – particularly those involving sophisticated technologies like AI or Brain Computer Interfaces – will depend on the continued existence of a global capitalist technical system to support it. I admit to being agnostic about this. While modern technologies such as gene transfer do not seem essentially capitalist, there is little evidence to date that a noncapitalist system could develop them or their concomitant forms of hybridized “posthuman” more prolifically.
Nonetheless, there seems to be a significant ethical claim at issue here that can be used independently of its applicability to the critique of contemporary capitalism.
For example, I have recently argued for an overlap or convergence between critical posthumanism and Speculative Posthumanism: the claim that descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical augmentation (SP). Braidotti’s ethics of sustainability is pertinent here because SP in its strong form is also post-anthropocentric – it denies that posthuman possibility is structured a priori by human modes of thought or discourse – and because it defines the posthuman in terms of its power to escape from a socio-technical system organized around human-dependent ends (Roden 2012). The technological offspring described by SP will need to be functionally autonomous insofar as they will have to develop their own ends or modes of existence outside or beyond the human space of ends. Reaching “posthuman escape velocity” will require the cultivation and expression of powers in ways that are sustainable for such entities. This presupposes, of course, that we can have a conception of a subject or agent that is grounded in their embodied capacities or powers rather than general principles applicable to human agency. Understanding its ethical valence thus requires an affirmative conception of these powers that is not dependent on overhanging anthropocentric ideas such as moral autonomy. Braidotti’s ethics of sustainability thus suggests some potentially viable terms of reference for formulating an ethics of becoming posthuman in the speculative sense.
Badmington, N. (2003) ‘Theorizing Posthumanism’, Cultural Critique 53 (Winter): 10-27.
Braidotti, R (2006), ‘The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible”, in Deleuze and Philosophy, ed. Constantin Boundas, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2006, pp. 133-159.
Braidotti, R (2013), The Posthuman, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Colebrook, Claire 2012a.), “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth.” Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41 (1): 30–39.
Colebrook, Claire (2012b.), “Not Symbiosis, Not Now: Why Anthropogenic Change Is Not Really Human.” Oxford Lit Review 34 (2): 185–209.
Haraway, Donna (1989), ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’. Coming to Terms, Elizabeth Weed (ed.), London: Routledge, 173-204.
Hayles, K. N. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Roden, D. (2010). ‘Deconstruction and excision in philosophical posthumanism’. The Journal of Evolution & Technology, 21(1), 27-36.
Roden, D. (2012). ‘The Disconnection Thesis’. In Singularity Hypotheses (pp. 281-298). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
Roden, D. (2013). ‘Nature’s Dark domain: an argument for a naturalized phenomenology’. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 72, 169-188.
Roden, R (2014). Posthuman Life: philosophy at the edge of the human. Acumen Publishing.
There’s a very interesting and instructive conversation between Daniel Rourke and new media artist Hito Steyerl at Rhizome. Reading Steyerl’s remarks on Renais’ and Marker’s migration from Celluloid to Web I imagined them evoking perplexity and amusement in cold degenerate matter storage long after the death of our sun.
There’s an epic flame war over at Three Pound Brain in response to Scott Bakker’s discussion of Levi Bryant’s Object Oriented Ontology. I’m sitting this one out like my hero Custard the Cat. In part because, I’m just too busy and in part cos’ I don’t want to distract Scott from the trudge to Golgotterath and the moral necessity of euthanizing our immortal souls.