What We Talked About At ISA: Embracing Indecision – Free Improvisation and Ethics as Action

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!

My inquiry is set against the backdrop of a radicalised socio-political ecology in which science and technology determine knowledge and subjectivities more comprehensively than ever. In this context, a chasm has emerged in terms of thinking and ‘doing’ ethics. Increasingly, not least since the 1980s, the quest for an ethical theory that can be conceived of in the abstract and applied to a real world context appears as the focus of philosophical thought on ethics and morality. In other words, throughout the past few decades ethics in contemporary debates has been less considered as an autonomous concept, escaping all codification and inherently without ‘purpose’, as Zygmunt Bauman suggests, but is much more intent with establishing practicalities and ways of application.

This turn to applied ethics, I argue, poses problems for understanding ethics and politics comphrensively, as the search for an applicable ethical theory becomes idiomatic and obscures the possibility for thinking of ethics as anything more than a rule-book, a code to secure best behaviour. The growing authority of applied ethics, in fact, limits the very possibility of thinking and acting ethically and politically more broadly. This is the wider context of my critique which provides the basis for the paper and I wholeheartedly embrace Rosie Braidotti’s assessment that in order to conceive of an ethics worthy of our complex times, ethics should not be made more ‘practical’, but rather must take into account political agency, freedom and power, so as to accommodate not merely rational procedure but relationality to others in its fullness. Such an approach implies accountability and responsibility, acknowledges situatedness and presence, and recognises both sensuousness and aesthetics.

It requires first and foremost a rethinking of ethics as an action rather than a concept. Understood as an action, ethics becomes much more closely tied with politics as action and the two share essential aspects. In allying ethics with politics, I consider first that both politics and ethics originate from the encounter and acknowledge the responsibility that arises from this. Unlike applied ethics, an ethics of encounter must accept the unpredictability that arises out of political and social situations in order to navigate the very fluid ground of postmodernity. Excellent work has recently been done by Madeleine Fagan and Rosie Braidotti to further explore the idea of ethics as an action that resides in the encounter and I follow in their footsteps as I branch out into other subject fields with my inquiry and take into consideration the ethico-politico-aesthetic assemblage of ethics as encounter, as action.

Beach Hut 2 - Image from Ben Sweeting's work on undecidable ethics in architecture

Beach Hut 2 – Image from Ben Sweeting’s work on undecidable ethics in architecture

Applied ethics and an ethics of encounter seem to be located at opposite ends of ethical sensibilities and practices, and the techno-subjectivity shaped by quasi-scientific rationales gives precedence to the former rather than the latter in seeking to secure ethical outcomes. It relies on predictability on rational grounds. An ethics of encounter must take into consideration the very unpredictability that arises out of political and social situations, each in its own context. In Derridean terms, the moment of decision, or the ethical moment, resides in non-knowledge and thus implies an always-immanent uncertainty, in-security. Both risk and radical temporality become necessary for this ethical moment. Risk always persists but the decision only exists in the present moment; its future validity is uncertain. In the deconstructive moment of undecidability the relationship between ethics and politics becomes interesting and blurred. It is in the undecidability that politics cannot be derived from ethics or ethics from politics. For Derrida, undecidability leaves “a silence between ethics and politics, ethics and law”. This silence is crucial, and to accommodate this silence is, for Derrida, essential in allowing for the continued potentiality of decision and responsibility:

Without silence, without the hiatus which is not the absence of rules, but the necessity of a leap at the moment of ethical, political or individual decision, we could simply unfold knowledge into a program or course of action. Nothing could make us more irresponsible; nothing could be more totalitarian.

In this instance silence is not absence. Rather, it is presence and possibility; it is the manifestation of potentiality. It is when the silence is made impossible, when it is filled with a meticulously ordered logical sequence of programmes and rules, that neither ethics nor politics as action are possible.

It is here, with this sonic reference (or rather a reference to the absence of sound as a meaningful condition) that I finally come back to my trans-disciplinary endeavor: to connect ethics to the principles of free improvisation. So, why free improvisation? Free improvisation is essentially anchored in the condition of uncertainty. At home on fluid ground, it rejects engaging within rules and already constituted forms of music and aims to embrace unpredictability, uncertainty and risk. Free from the shackles of hierarchical structures, idiomatic limitations and preconceptions of tonal arrangements, free improvisation is not about outcome, but rather process. It is an action. An action that takes place in public. As such, it requires an ethical relation to and consideration of others. Rogerio Costas notes: “the only rule of free improvisation is linked to an ethic of listening and interaction.” This ethic of and as action rests on a number of principles implied in free improvisation: temporality, freedom, equality and potentiality. These categories strongly overlap with an Arendtian understanding of what politics proper requires – freedom, plurality, equality and potentiality (relating to natality, in Arendtian terms). I thus take some of the principles of free improvisation as a stimulus to rethink in positive ways how to deal with fluid ground, uncertainty, and undecidability in politics and ethics as action.

Now, free improvisation is notoriously difficult to define with idiomatic language, as it escapes codification by its very nature. So in trying to capture free improvisation, I begin by recounting my first encounter with free improvisation. The performance takes place in a disused church annex. On stage are two musicians, one works on a piano but never touches the keys of the piano. Rather, he has connected the strings of the piano to a set of digital transmitters with which he creates and modifies the sounds produced through the piano. Connected also to the inside of the piano are two iPods and various shapes and home-made implements that I can’t identify. The other musician keeps a saxophone and a transistor radio nearby, both of which are connected to an amplifier. He also wears a whistle around his neck. The performance begins with the ‘pianist’ (for a lack of a better word) creating sounds that cannot be identified as piano sounds, in irregular intervals, the saxophonist engages with the sounds, at times by scratching the sides of his amplified saxophone, by switching on the radio, by placing the radio in the saxophone in various ways. The pianist ceases and resumes his sound-making with no clearly discernible pattern.

The two artists interact, yet not in a call-and-response manner – not taking turns, but each contributing in unexpected ways, at times claiming sonar space, at times giving it. At times both artists play, at times both are silent. In these moments of silence, the audience inadvertently becomes involved as artists by contributing various unintended sounds – coughing, shuffling, rattling keys, breathing. Within what at first seemed an almost unbearable cacophony of random sounds, some less pleasant than others, an ethico-politico dimension unfolds which embraces ‘error’ and risk, yet relies on a respectful and responsible engagement with one another so as to no descend into combative anarchy.

Piano+ set up - Sebastian Lexer

Piano+ set up – Sebastian Lexer

Free improvisation, although related to the general genre of improvisation in music, sets itself apart in that it comprises a potentially infinite number of modes and expressions. To delineate between free jazz or improvisation in music and free improvisation, Derek Bailey uses the terms idiomatic and non-idiomatic. The former relies still on preconceived forms and modes of music. The latter aims to embrace indeterminability, uncertainty and transience in its most radical sense. Free improvisation is concerned with activity and processes, aiming to shed memory and predefined ideas of structures, patterns, tones or even materials. It is not ‘noise’. Free improvisation is not just every sound you hear in the streets; it resides in the public encounter of collective assemblages and the individual. Improvisation is in the present, not the future. There is a multitude of ways in which it could be paraphrased and so I draw Costa’s comprehensive summary to offer an idea of the ethos of free improvisation:

We could say that free improvisation is only possible in the context of a question to overcome the idiomatic, the symbolic, the representation, the gestural, the systematic, the controlled, the foreseeable, the static, the identified, the hierarchical, the dualistic and the linearized in favour of the multiple, the simultaneous, the unstable, the heterogeneous, the motion, the process, the relationship, the living, the energy and the material itself.

Free improvisation thus crucially encapsulates temporality, uncertainty, in-ascertainability, plurality, and potentiality of infinite options. Within this potentiality resides the notion of freedom, as I explain in the paper through Agamben’s notion of potentiality.  These aspects resonate strongly with Arendtian categories of politics proper and, by extension, my conception of ethics as action. It is through teasing out the parallels, and the emphasis on responsibility in theories of the principles of free improvisation, that I seek to expand how we think about ethics and politics (and what that does to our thinking about ethics).

The coming into being of political action, not unlike the coming into being of free improvisation, comprises an ethical dimension in its very inter-subjectivity, temporality, uncertainty, undecidability and potentiality. Politics, understood as management and administration based on optimal processes and desired outcomes, cannot consider potentiality. It is absorbed with the absolute. Ethics, understood as guidelines and codes cannot recognise the infinite capacity of human acts and actions toward one another. In Agambian terms, this considerably delimits not only freedom, but more importantly, responsibility. For Agamben and others, it is precisely in the recognition of potentiality that responsibility can reside. The idiomatic reference to rules, directives and idioms, yields a reduction of personal responsibility contrary to an engagement in the heuristic dialogue which promotes individual responsibility for one’s own actions and their relation to one’s surrounding.

In finding responsible ways forward, the free improvisation theorist Eddie Prevost turns to William Blake’s notion of ‘minute particulars’. For Prevost it is these that should serve as the philosophical foundation for assuming ethical and political responsibility. This is where my own expositions become somewhat fast and loose and I am not sure quite yet what to do with all the worms I’ve un-canned. So I confess that this exploration requires much more thought and analysis. My core aim here, however, is to highlight different approaches for allowing the undecidable to be part of our inter-active human lives, so that a reopening of the categories ‘ethics’ and ‘politics’ becomes possible. By embracing contingency and learning to maneuver the fluid grounds of (post)modernity, we can try to actively resist a formulaic and at times absurd algorithmic codification of violent acts as ethical acts. We can perhaps also find tools to resist the delimiting of freedom to act politically. Especially in a strongly technologically-mediated present. Rather than hiding behind the questionable authority of science and technology for an ever-greater number of human affairs, ethics as action, I argue, facilitates contestation and more meaningful political participation.


4 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: Embracing Indecision – Free Improvisation and Ethics as Action

  1. Pingback: What we Talked About At ISA: Embracing Indecision – Free Improvisation and Ethics as Action | The Disorder Of Things | word pond

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