This is the full text of my presentation at the improvisation panel at The Society of European Philosophy-Forum of European Philosophy joint conference in Dundee, 2015.
1) Introduction: Improvisation and the Politics of Technology
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, arguing 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, self-determination is reflexive and rule-governed. A self-determining system acts in conformity to rules but is capable of representing and modifying these rules with implications for its future behaviour. This is only possible if we make the rules explicit in language (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226).
Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of language and meaning (1954.) Sellars analytic pragmatism buys into the Kantian claim that concepts are rules for unifying or linking claims to cognitive significance rather than representations of something outside thought – concepts are “cooks rather than hooks”.
Sellars distinguishes a more or less automatic and unconscious rule following from a metalinguistic level with the logical resources for reflection and self-awareness. Indeed for Brassier’s Sellars, thought and intentional action emerge only with the metalinguistic capacity to make reasons explicit in “candid public speech” (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226-8). Or as he puts it: “Autonomy understood as a self-determining act is the destitution of selfhood and the subjectivation of the rule. The ‘oneself’ that subjects itself to the rule is the anonymous agent of the act.”
For Brassier, an avowed naturalist, it is important that this capacity for agency is non-miraculous, and that a mere assemblage of pattern governed mechanisms can be “gripped by concepts” (Brassier 2011). As he continues:
The act …. 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)
Now, there are criticisms that one can make of this account. For example, Brassier struggles to articulate the relationship between linguistic rules or norms and the natural regularities and behaviours on which they depend. For this reason, I’ve argued that the normative functionalism associated with Sellars and, latterly, Robert Brandom bottoms out in Davidson-style claims about how idealized interpreters (privy to all the facts) might construe a given stretch of behaviour (Roden 2015).
Brassier’s position thus depends on the conception of an interpreting subject it is not in a position to satisfactorily explain. Despite pretensions to naturalistic virtue, his world is bifurcated between a natural real and an order of thought that depends on it without really belonging to it (Brassier 2013: 104).
These issues lurk in the background in Brassier’s short text on improvisation. This claims that the act of improvisation involves an encounter between rule governed reason and pattern governed mechanisms. However, Brassier does not specify how such rules operate in music, or how the encounter between rules and mechanism is mediated.
In what follows I will argue that one reason he does not do this is that such rules do not operate in improvisation or in contemporary compositional practice. Claims about what is permissible or implied in music index context sensitive perceptual responses to musical events. These exhibit tensions between the expectations sedimented in musical culture and actual musical events or acts.
However, 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 in favour of a descriptive account of the processes, capacities and potentialities operating in the improvising situation.
This metaphysical adjustment is of interest outside musical aesthetics and ontology, however.
Brassier’s text suggests that the temporality of the improvising act is a model for understanding a wider relationship with time: in particular the remorseless temporality explored in his writings on Prometheanism, Accelerationist Marxism and Radical Enlightenment (See Brassier 2014). I hope to use this suggestion as a clue for refining an ethics that can address the radically open horizons of being I discuss in my book Posthuman Life (Roden 2014).
This paper can, then, be thought of as a staged encounter between Prometheanism and my own Speculative Posthumanism. Brassier’s Prometheanism, like Reza Negarestani’s “inhumanism”, proposes that all reasons and purposes are “artificial”: implicit or explicit moves within language games. (See Negarestani 2014b). Thus the Promethean rejects all quasi-theological limits on artificialisation and enjoins the wholesale “reengineering of ourselves and our world on a more rational basis” and (2014: 487).
Speculative Posthumanism (SP) does not propose any theological limits to artificialisation. Far from it! However, it holds that the space of possible agents is not bound (a priori) by conditions of human agency or society. Since we lack future-proof knowledge of possible agents this “anthropologically unbounded posthumanism” (AUP) allows that the results of techno-political interventions could be weird in ways that we are not in a position to imagine (Roden 2014: Ch.3-4; Roden 2015b).
The ethical predicament of the Speculative Posthumanist is thus more complex than the Promethean. Given AUP there need be no structure constitutive of all subjectivity or agency. Thus she cannot appeal to a theory of rational subjectivity to support an ethics of becoming posthuman. So what – for example – might autonomy or freedom involve from the purview of unbounded posthumanism? What counts as emancipatory as opposed to oppressive violence?
I will argue that the idea of freedom embedded in Brassier’s text on improvisation can be elucidated by comparing the obscure genesis of improvisation to the predicament of agents in rapidly changing technical systems. Thus Brassier’s treatment of improvisation retains its resonance on this posthumanist reading even if it militates against his wider ontological and political commitments.
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. they learn modal variations on the Ionian and harmonic minor scale or “rules” for chord substitution in cadences based on shared tritones. This learning enables musical performance by sculpting possibilities for action during improvisation. For example, ambiguous voicings involving tritones or fourths decouple chords from the root, allowing modulations into what otherwise distant keys to slide easily over a tonal center.
This harmonic know-how consists recipes for honing expectations and sensations, not the acknowledgement of norms. The statement that a tritone (augmented fourth) 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, though, since each tritone occurs in two dominant chords. For example, the B-F tritone occurs in both G7 (resolving to C) and Dflat7.
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, not surprisingly, 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, in turn, by a descending piano passage, bathetically marking the absence of the expressive melody portended by the chord (Johnson 1998: 277, 272.).
Culturally transmitted musical structures consist of exquisitely context-sensitive patterns of expectation– like the chord/recitative framing relation discussed by Johnson. These exist in tension with the musical act and are transformed in exemplary works. Their linguistic formulations do not prescribe but indirectly describe how musical transitions are perceived and felt. Thus in the context of improvisation and composition, we are not free in virtue of acknowledging or declining musical norms since these are not in place.
Brassier’s conception of autonomy seems ill adapted to musical contexts, then, even we if buy into his naturalist dismissal of the sovereign self. Thus if we are to tease out the implications of his text for posthuman agency, 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 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 audio processors or midi-filters. It thus consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten by subsequent acts.
Improvisation is thus committed to what Andy Hamilton calls “an aesthetics of imperfection” as opposed to a Platonism for which the musical work is only contingently associated with performances or performers (Hamilton 2000: 172). The aesthetics of imperfection celebrates the genesis of a performance and the embodying of the performer in a specific time and space.
If improvisation is a genesis, it implies an irreversible temporality. Composition or digital editing is always reversible. One develops notational variants of an idea before winnowing them down or rejecting them. One hits Ctl/Cmd + Z in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) when a mix goes bad.
An improvisation, by contrast, is always a unique and irreversible event on the cusp of another. An omniscient being would be incapable of improvising because its options would be fully known in advance. Unlike the improviser, it could never surprise itself. Its act would be fully represented before it took place and thus reversible.
It follows that an improvisation must exceed the improviser’s power of representation. The improvising agent must work with things or processes that it cannot entirely control or fully know. Paraphrasing Amy Ireland’s discussion of H P Lovecraft and Michel Serres in her excellent paper “Noise: An Ontology of the Avant-garde” improvisation requires a “para-site” – an alien interloper capable of disrupting or perverting the prescribed order of events. In Serres’ retelling of La Fontaine’s tale of the country rat and the city rat, this might be the Master who interrupts the rats’ nocturnal feast and sends the country rat scurrying home. Yet from the human position, it is the rodent feast that interrupts the Master’s sleep. The take home moral of this – for Ireland – is that the context in which a disturbance counts as noise requires a subjectively imposed norm that distorts the radical otherness of an inhuman reality to make it comprehensible for a human subject (Ireland 2014; Roden Forthcoming).
With improvising subjectivity, however, parasitism is the rule – the noise that actualizes an always-tentative decision in real time performance. This sensitive, yet tenuous agency implies a complex disunified subject in the dark about its complexity. As the tagline to Scott Bakker’s ultra-dark near-future thriller Neuropath has it: we are not what we think we are (2010, 2014).
Brassier veers towards such a model at the end of his article. It is, in any case, implied by his naturalistic proposal for explaining the evolution of reasons in terms of the organization of pattern governed physical systems. The freedom of improvisation requires, as he puts it, “an involution of [or reciprocal interaction between] mechanisms” to compose the (“not necessarily human”) agent of the act.
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 (My emphasis)
The claim that there is a potential act needing to be “released” in a given music setting might appear to impute rule-like structure or normativity to the improvising situation: something that ought to be. However, this claim does not cohere well with context sensitivity and underdetermination of musical expectation described in the previous section.
So what, then, is the nature of the paradoxically compelling, selfless freedom that falls out of this interaction between pattern recognizers, pattern generators and effectors? If we exorcise the specters of transcendental thought –Brassier’s own normative functionalism included – how, if at all, do we conceptualise he calls “the subjectivity of the act” or its “self-determination”?
I think clues about this selfless self-determination can be gleaned from improvising situations we know about. The real of the improvising situation might be all protean complexity, but as with other aspects of the world, we have techniques for coping with that complexity. And these work (more or less).
For example, in a field study of post-hardcore rock musicians, Alec McGuiness provides a vivid example of musicians using a procedural learning technique to prime a series of musical riffs over which their intentional control is fairly limited. Songs are built by associating riffs with riffs, but, as one informant explains, are varied in performance when it “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 a distributed response to a “felicitous performance”. This is a collective judgement expressed though performance act itself rather than by application of formal musical rules (of which the performers are largely innocent in any case).
The phenomenology of this act is also dark. All experience is, I have argued elsewhere, striated with “darkness” (Roden 2013; Roden 2014 Ch. 4). Having it only affords a very partial insight into its nature. We are not normally aware of it because, as Bakker writes, consciousness “provides no information about the absence of information.” Experience seems like a gift because we are unmindful of the heavy lifting required to produce it. We are in the dark about the dark.
The “state of grace” felt in felicitous improvisation is, then, an artifact of our technical underdevelopment. A technics like chaining riffs enables a groove but not groove control. It allows us, in Brassier words, to do “something with time” even as time “does something with us” (2014: 469).
However, if this is self-determination but not rule-governed rationality, what is it? I think we can understand this better by utilizing a conception of autonomy that is not exclusive to discursive creatures (as is the case with Kantian or Sellarsian self-determination).
In Posthuman Life, I call this “functional autonomy”. This idea helps articulate an unbounded speculative posthumanism because it applies to any self-maintaining system capable of enlisting values for its functionings or of becoming a value for some wider assemblage. A functionally autonomous system might be discursive and social; it might be a superintelligent but asocial singleton that only wants to produce paperclips. It might be something whose existence is utterly inconceivable to us, like a computational megastructure leeching the energy output of an entire star.
A diminution of functional autonomy is a reduction in power. Arthritis of the limbs painfully reduces freedom of movement and thus the ability to cultivate agency in other ways. Acquiring new skills increases “one’s capacities to affect and be affected, or to put it differently, increase one’s capacities to enter into novel assemblages” (DeLanda 2006: 50).
To be sure, success at improvising is not like acquiring a new skill. However, it requires that the agent embraces and is embraced a reality and time that interrupts any settled structure of values and ends.
This embrace might seem atavistic, divorced from the Promethean prospectus for engineering nature in compliance to reason. But this assumes that the means for engineering nature are compliant. In Posthuman Life I argue, to the contrary, that the systemic complexity of modern technique precludes binding technologies to norms. Modern self-augmenting technical systems are so complex as to be both out of control and characterised by massive functional indeterminacy – rendering them independent of any rules of use.
As the world is re-made by this vast planetary substance any agent located in the system needs to maximize its own ability to acquire new ends and purposes or bet (against the odds) on stable environments or ontological quiescence. Any technology liable to increase our ability to accrue new values and couplings in anomalous environments, then, is of local ecological value (Roden 2014: Ch. 7). This is not because such technologies make us better or happier, but because the only viable response to this deracinative modernity is more of the same.
In this “posthuman predicament” agency must be febrile, even masochistic. The agent must tolerate and practice a systemic violence against itself and its world. Thus improvisation – because it necessarily embraces and is embraced by the involuted mechanisms of performance – rehearses our tryst with the ontological violence of the hypermodern.
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 These determine how one ought to move from one position in the game to another (language-transition rules), assumes an “initial position” in the game – say, by observing some state of the world (language-entry rules) or exits the game by intentionally altering a bit of the world (Sellars 1954, 1974). In the case of assertions, the language-transition rules correspond to principles of material inference such as that allowing us to move to x is coloured from x is red. Language-entry rules, on the other hand, are non-inferential since they are made on the basis of reliable dispositions to discriminate the world (Sellars 1954: 209-10). As Robert Brandom puts it, statements like “This is red” (uttered in response to red things) are “noninferentially elicited but inferentially articulated” (Brandom 1994: 235, 258).
 For example, Robert Brandom cites the conditional (if… then…_statement as “the paradigm of a locution that permits one to make inferential commitments explicit as the content of judgements” (Brandom 29914: 109)
 Compositional prescriptions are regularly honored in the breach: “For hundreds of years musicians have been taught that it is good to resolve a large leap with a step in the other direction. Surely at least some composers followed this advice? The statistical results from von Hippel and Huron imply that for each passage where a composer had intentionally written according to post-skip reversal, then they must have intentionally transgressed this principle in an equivalent number of passages. Otherwise the statistics would not work out.” (David Huron, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, p. 84-6). However, the post-skip reversal heuristic is, it seems, applied by musician listeners, which makes sense given that it is easier to apply than a more accurate regression to the mean heuristic – which would require the listener to constantly infer the range (tessitura) of the melody (Ibid.).
 “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)
 As she writes: “Looking from the inside out, the transcendental conditioning of experience establishes clarity by admitting certain contents of an unknowable site of primary production; yet from the outside in, the transcendental conditioning of experience is itself a degenerative noise that degrades the clarity of its external input, rendering it unintelligible and ultimately inaccessible to internal modes of apprehension. What, for the observer-as-subject is clarity, for the observer-as-object is noise. As Niklaus Luhman once remarked: ‘Reality is what one does not perceive when one perceives it’ “ (Ireland 2014)
 For example, while improvising in the first eight bars of Miles Davis’ “So What” I might decide (more or less consciously) to play some digital patterns in the home key then transpose these up a minor third. I might have a conception of how I’ll land in the home key of Dm: say by transposing down a tone to Eflatm, resolving to Dm with in a semi-tone descent. This will leave much to be resolved on the fly as my body engages the keys. What patterns will I employ? Will they be varied melodically or rhythmically during the root movement from D to F to E flat? Will they employ chromatic elements (outside the related modes) that further muddy the sense of tonality; will I (at the last) refrain from taking that timid semi-tone resolution, instead repeating or varying the modulation into more harmonically ambiguous terrain?
 For example, space technology, nanotechnology, or the use of brain computer interfaces –