We, the garden of technology. We, undecidable
– John Cage, 1988
“Art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living”, John Cage once famously quipped. I hadn’t really given this line much thought until I watched a friend perform with his ensemble of free improvisationalists and began to understand – rather late, admittedly, – the creative interconnectivity of musical improvisation with aspects of political and ethical life. Encapsulated in Cage’s comment is the close enmeshment of creation and performance, fabrication and action, production and interaction, set against a modernist ontology of profound uncertainty, pertinent beyond disciplinary analytical divides. Simultaneously embracing and resisting the scientifically and technologically mediated quest for certainty in his time, John Cage, along with other experimental musicians and artists, perpetually sought to challenge a reliance on that which can be decided, by finding different disruptive and unfamiliar techniques.
These techniques are not merely aesthetic choices or practices, but rather, as forms of encounters, have also ethical and political relevance. Whether it is through shock, as in Marcel Duchamp’s work in art (Fountain – a urinal as art!), or experimentation in John Cage’s work in music (4’33 – silence as music!), such disruptions emanate propositions of drastic undecidability – albeit against an always specific socio-political background. Residing in these practices of radical alterity is a production of subjectivity, of a modus vivendi, and with it an ethico-political dimension. As Maurizio Lazzarato duly notes, such techniques are ethico-politico-aesthetic techniques to wrest with the nature of disciplinary and security societies. Embracing this transdisciplinary approach, I thus take the principles of free improvisation as a stimulus to rethink, in positive ways, how to deal with the modern modus of fluid ground, uncertainty and undecidability, in politics and ethics through the modes of sonic and corporeal interaction.
Challenging the practical turn in contemporary conceptualisations of ethics in politics was my core theme for this year’s ISA conference, so I came equipped with not one but three papers on ethics and politics. Each sought to problematize the prevalence of applied ethics in theorizing international politics more broadly and political violence specifically. The first paper develops a critique of practical ethics as the dominant way of thinking about the ethics of political violence (watch this space for more on that). The second paper considers the prevalence of ethics as a scientific-technological matter in the use of unmanned and autonomous military technology. In this third and final paper, I try to rethink ethics in trans-disciplinary ways and turn to an unlikely source: free improvisation in music. Drawing on the principles of free improvisation, I suggest, allows us to conceptualise ethics as action rather than an applied abstract concept or epithet. In other words, to overcome the shortcomings of traditional modes of theorizing ethics in political theory, I look to free improvisation in music to rethink ethics and politics in less familiar ways, through the modes of sonic and corporeal interaction. I am very much still in the process of thinking all this through, so bear that in mind if you decide to read on. Suggestions, critiques and feedback welcome!