Improvisation and Communisation
Published on the book Undoing Property?
Edited by Marysia Lewandowska and Laurel Ptak
Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2013
(The following version is updated with corrections by Jarrod Fowler)
To speak of the product is to suppose that a result of human activity appears as finished in relation to another result, or amongst other results. We should not proceed from the product, but from activity. In communism, human activity is infinite because it is indivisible. It has concrete or abstract results, but these results are never “products”, for that would raise the question of their appropriation or of their transfer under some given mode.
—Théorie Communiste, Self-Organisation Is the First Act of the Revolution; It Then Becomes an Obstacle Which the Revolution Has to Overcome
We could see improvisation as a type of music making that takes activity as a starting point rather than focusing on a final product. Improvised practices anticipate some of the problems in regard to their appropriation—especially if we take into account its collaborative nature and the way it deals with the relationship between the self and the collective. With this text I intend to look at specific connections between improvisation and communisation in order to reconsider the notion of freedom in improvisation today and its potential to generate a collective agency beyond individual expressions. How can improvisation be a “praxis of freedom” in conditions of unfreedom?
Currently, improvisation and the type of subjectivity it proposes has more in common with contemporary capitalism than ever before, through its emphasis on risk taking, adapting quickly to unexpected situations, self-assurance in difficult situations, and coming up with different approaches and embracing a constant sense of fragility and crisis.1 Free improvisation emerged in the ’60s in Europe and the United States out of free jazz and modern classical music and is supposed to be without idioms, rules, or hierarchies between the players, as opposed to the relationship between performer and composer. Its production and reception happens simultaneously without any preparation phase. Because of this, it was thought that improvisation could challenge its own commodification more than any other type of music making. In those times, culture was breaking away from bourgeois values, and there was the possibility of a revolution in the atmosphere. In the ’60s improvisers linked these qualities to a radical political potential,2 but at some point, the limited political potential of a niche practice linked to the avant-garde tradition became clear. This was one of the key elements for the dissolution of the Scratch Orchestra,3 and why people like Cornelius Cardew stopped improvising and became members of the Communist Party of England.4
Let’s take a look at some of the similarities between the communisation discussed by Théorie Communiste and improvisation: for both are against the notion of prescriptive programs, emphasize activity rather than product, question representation, and strive toward unmediated social relations. Both perspectives challenge property relations by proposing a collective human activity beyond the capitalist subject–object relationship. I am aware of the problems of bringing together an artistic practice and a revolutionary theoretical work, but we also have to take into account the kind of political questions and engagements that improvisation has been going through since the ’60s. Théorie Communiste’s theories around communisation resonate with certain aspects of improvisation, while also problematizing and questioning improvisation’s agency today. By learning from these theories we could reinject the political awareness that was once more present around improvisation but this time, without its utopian connotations. Communisation, as used here, is the production of communism by the abolition of all capitalist social relations and the mediations that they entail: commodity, exchange, class, property, divisions of labor, the State, wage labor, and gender relations, as we understand them today. Communisation is the revolutionary process that abolishes these forms as part of the logic of the revolutionary process and the expansion of the revolution. To take into account the ideas of communisation would mean to understand improvisation neither as a form of prescription or prefiguration, nor as an exemplary vanguard of activity in the present. This is precisely the opposite of improvisation as it is historically understood by the people who have theorized it as the praxis of freedom in the present.
The Instability of Improvisation
If we can speak of infinite human activity in communism, it is because the capitalist mode of production already allows us to see—albeit contradictorily and not as a “good side”—human activity as a continuous global social flux, and the “general intellect” or the “collective worker” as the dominant force of production.
—Théorie Communiste, “Communisation in the Present Tense”
Improvisation by itself might not directly question property relations but it does pose some crucial problems—for example, with regard to intellectual property. In the United States, if you want to copyright an improvisation with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), you have to transcribe all the material to music scores (keep in mind the level of abstraction in improvised music) and divide up the ascription of authorship. For example, if the group is a trio, you have to credit 33.3 percent to each member. This conceptual problem points out the contradictions behind intellectual property and its necessity for authorship and the divisions of labor. Improvisation takes activity as its starting point, but it is a self-negating activity in that it tries to constantly undermine its own conventions. The language of improvisation is also different from other art practices that need to rely on terms such as stability, fixity, artwork, piece, and project, which inevitably presuppose an author behind the work, and a product of the work, however elusive these might be. These terms envisage an enclosed framework where there is a projection of what the work will look like, or become. This resembles a transitional mode of production, which communisation is opposed to. Instead, improvisation tries to abolish hierarchies and divisions by repudiating scores and the notion of the composer. Tony Conrad has written about his collaborative improvisations with Marian Zazeela, La Monte Young, and John Cale, between 1963 and 1965—particularly that in contrast to other types of music, what they wanted to do “was to dispense with the score, and thereby with the authoritarian trappings of composition, but to retain cultural production in music as an activity.”5 Improvisation, by emphasizing activity as radical performativity—as collective extreme attention to the last instance in which every moment can change the state of things—also proposes an anti-programmatic approach that questions moments of mediation. It does not have any transitional moment before its realization (rehearsal, composition, or preparation); its realization is immanent to its production, and there are no distinct stages in between the two. Historically, improvisation has also been very conscious about its own commodification. At the beginning of the 1970s, Cornelius Cardew talked about the impossibility of improvisation being recorded: “improvisation is in the present, its effects might live on the souls of the participants, both active and passive (i.e. audience) but in its concrete form it is gone forever from the moment that it occurs, nor did it have any previous existence before the moment that it occurred, so neither is there any historical reference available.”6 What one hears about most in improvisation is an implied sense of agency and self-containment, which is extremely questionable today as an alternativist perspective. For example, Conrad, with Dream Syndicate, conceived of what they were doing as a pragmatic activity that gives gratification in the realization of the moment.7 From a contemporary perspective, Bruce Russell goes much further when he frames his Improvised Sound Work (ISW) as an autonomous creative praxis that could generate forms of consciousness that are counter-ideological and anticapitalist.8 Writing on the Situationist practices of the dérive and détournement, he explains: “The virtue of these practices depends on the form of consciousness that they engender; the aim was to produce a new type of person to inhabit a new society. I believe that these same subjective effects might follow from the audio art practices of ISW, arising from the invention of a new medium. In particular these practices are anti-hierarchical, networked, improvised and limited to the field of restricted production, acting like Debord’s anti-Spectacular cinema as an immanent critique of culture itself.”9
Under today’s conditions, the claim that improvisation has a critical purchase over capitalism and can produce autonomous moments that are counter-ideological not only seems to feed the idea of this practice as a self-satisfying avant-garde niche, but could also be seen an act of self-investment in the form of cultural capital. We have to take into account that improvisation is also complicit with the culture industry like any other type of music making, through concerts, records, festivals, and magazines. Rather than fetishizing its claims on producing unmediated experiences, improvisation should question its own mediations both by looking at the informal habits and rules that has developed through the years and their relations to present material conditions.
There is nothing to affirm in the capitalist class relation; no autonomy, no alternative, no outside, no secession.
—Endnotes, “What Are We to Do?”
Today, ultra-left political groups have diverse ways of dealing with the notion of communisation. The term has been around for a very long time and has become more developed by ultra-leftist French political groups in the wake of May ’68. There are two main strands that take the politics of the Situationist groups as a starting point but then diverge greatly. One perspective is theorized by the post-structuralist influenced milieu around Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee: they strive toward direct action and exodus, and want to start the process of communisation right now by seceding from society. Their insurrectionist approach contains residues of the post-Heideggerian critique of technology. This strand is strongly criticized by groups like Théorie Communiste, Endnotes, Blaumachen and Riff Raff,10 who deem this approach to be, what they call, an “alternativist perspective.” Théorie Communiste’s emergence in the 1970s in France showed the influence of Louis Althusser, and thus are more structuralist and less utopian and moralistic than Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee. With a refreshing dose of antihumanism, they strongly question the possibility of subjective agency and do not claim that secession from society is possible. Théorie Communiste take a close look at the different changes in capitalism, as well as the struggles against it, and make assessments in understanding what the revolution of today could be. Less suggestive and more descriptive, Théorie Communiste are very careful to not to prescribe how the revolution should proceed as this would bring back “programmatism.”
In their analysis of the failures of previous revolutions, Théorie Communiste has come to the realization that previous working-class movements did not abolish themselves as workers nor did they destroy the value-form,11 because their agenda was to affirm labor, not to abolish it along with capital. Théorie Communiste calls this kind of politics programmatism.12 They claim that capitalism was never seriously challenged by it, and that the historical moment of programmatism has long since passed. For them, programmatism refers to any ideology that proposes measures to be taken for and after the revolution. Here you can think of unions, parties, and organizations that embrace the identity of the workers. It also refers to ideologies that prescribe a transitional program, such as first getting the means of production and then you take the State and gradually you achieve the results of the revolution, or those ideologies that put forward demands for better wages and work conditions.
According to Théorie Communiste, the end of programmatism came about with the capitalist recuperation of the struggles of the ’60s and ’70s, especially when some of the demands made by the Autonomia movement in Italy (like breaking away from Fordist rigidity) helped to shape the strain of neoliberalism we have today. “Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome”: this subtitle from their booklet synthesizes the problem neatly. Any prefiguration of how a postcapitalist society might look gets neutralized, absorbed, and valorized, thus helping capitalism to overcome its own internal contradictions. This is even more acute for artists when we have internalized the law of value in our brains to such a point that even if we do not know exactly what we are doing; we can already speculate on potential value in its different forms (cultural, experiential, economical). By now it is clear that we cannot anticipate the revolution by having an agenda. We will have to improvise, as we really do not know what the world would look like without value-form.
Under today’s financial capital, the role of the worker is losing prominence. As Michael Hudson argues, the circuit no longer appears as money-commodity-money but money-money,13 which means that that the proletariat is no longer as important for the creation of value as it once was. We also have the production of a surplus population, which cannot be integrated into the circuit of commodity production. The process of individuation and fragmentation that capitalism is generating through debt also helps to annul the programmatist view that we can strive toward the revolution (and ultimately communism) through a process of the appropriation of the means of production. Under this rubric we can also take Théorie Communiste’s theory as a strong critique of the notion of the commons. Often, the discussion of the commons resembles the alternativist perspective, as if it was a possible to have an ongoing balance between private property and the commons. As Karl Marx, after David Ricardo, shows us: “The subjective essence of private property, private property as activity for itself, as subject, as person, is labor.”14 Following this, Théorie Communiste’s reply to the commons argument would be that unless you abolish labor and the value-form of capitalism completely, they will keep reproducing themselves. The abolition of the value-form would also imply a process of self-abolition, as our subjectivity—as we conceive it today—is, to a great degree, produced by capitalism. This is not pessimism or a catastrophic perspective, but a realist one that comes from an analysis of the failures of previous class struggles. There is no ethical or responsible way of dealing with capitalism. Taking into account Endnote’s quote above, we cannot assert ourselves positively under today’s conditions, and, without abolishing the value-form, we cannot abolish property.
Another key term to understanding Théorie Communiste’s work is their use of the notion of periodisation.15 According to them we are living in specific historical times in capitalism, which makes the alternativist and programmatist position obsolete. This historical rupture emerges from the distinctions between what Marx called “formal and real subsumption,” and, more specifically, what they term the “second-phase of real subsumption” in the ’60s and ’70s. In his drafts for Capital, Marx differentiates formal subsumption, in which capitalism appropriates old forms of production and integrates them into the circuits of capital, from real subsumption, which no longer relies solely on labor processes but also produces the conditions for it through technological innovation and the social organization of labor. In real subsumption, capital no longer formally subsumes labor into its valorization process, but reshapes the whole process entirely for its own interests. In this process, the reproduction of the proletariat and the reproduction of capital become increasingly interlocked. Through real subsumption, capital “integrates the two circuits (of the reproduction of labour-power and the reproduction of capital) as the self-reproduction (and self-presupposition) of the class relation itself.”16 Debt accelerates this process in a feedback loop, a cannibalizing un-reproductive process where “we only create value for capital through the extraction of our debt (which is to say, we create no value—not because of massive, if unorganized, waves of defaults and bubble deflations, but because that’s not where value comes from).”17 Currently, this never-ending abstraction of capitalism is reaching a universality that we have never seen before. However, today this is done negatively through the increase of debt, which is shaking the labor theory of value. That is, labor is expressed in value, and the measurement of labor duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product.
The traditional understanding of commodity fetishism—as the inversion where humans are dominated by the results of their own activity—might well be translated today as the notion that humans are dominated by the needs of their own self-investment. This clearly goes in hand with Théorie Communiste’s understanding of real subsumption as ever-evolving and always in crisis: “The real subsumption of labour (and thus of society) under capital is by its nature always unfinished. It is in the nature of real subsumption to reach points of rupture because real subsumption overdetermines the crisis of capital as an unfinished quality of capitalist society.”18
These are two key assertions: (1) that the reproduction of the proletariat is linked increasingly with the reproduction of capitalism, and, (2) the unfinished quality of real subsumption, which constantly pushes the expansion of capitalism, questions our personal and collective agency more than ever.
But, our own commodification is not only happening at the supra-personal level (sociocultural and economical), but also at the infra-personal level. As with the commodification of consciousness, historical materialism meets eliminative materialism.
However, the philosopher Ray Brassier makes urgent the necessity of agency, even if we would need to reconsider what the self is. Brassier expands on private conversation: “The point is that the manufacturing of consciousness and hence of selfhood—i.e. the objectivization of subjectivity—can only be challenged via a correlative objectivation of subjectivity; one that reinscribes the latter in the objective realm but as a pivot between reason-less processes and conceptual norms: rationality is a collectively instantiated and distributed capacity which can be funneled into agential vectors at crucial sensitive points—the point at which an intervention is required—only insofar the constitution of an agent is not subordinated to the activity of a self or group of selves.”19
Arika, an organization in Scotland that has been producing experimental music, film, and art events since 2001, has become increasingly wary of the supposedly self-inherent critical potential of improvisation and experimental music in general. They rightly claim that music is not just music and that is always a product of rich and complex social philosophical, political, and economic factors. Some of their ideas point toward this negative improvisation in the sense that they not only question how the notion of value has produced a specific context, but also how our own process of subjectification is part of this valorization. In order to counter this, they suggest artists should “cultivate processes of uncreativity so as to guard against the production of selves as commodities. […] Actions that seem to lack in any artistry whatsoever: uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as your art or your own province and precepts; information management, databasing, and extreme process as methodologies; and boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionlessness as an ethos.”20
Following non-philosopher François Laruelle, Jarrod Fowler is a musician and scientist who extremized Arika's suggestions even before they were formulated.21 Scheduled to perform at the final concert of Arika’s Kill Your Timid Notion festival in Dundee, Scotland (2010), Fowler did not disclose his methods either before or during the festival. On the day of the final concert, Fowler struck himself from the event by suspending spatiotemporal conditions of performance, while inconsistently maintaing attendance as a member of the general audience. Thus, Fowler's performance was a non-performance. My guess is that many audience members were entirely unaware of the non-performance. However, for the attendees who were aware, the non-performance opened a can of worms. Fowler drastically undermined not only concert conventions, but also himself as a performer—he did not provide concert-goers with sounds, but instead with his identical absence and presence. From traditional improvisation, this does not give much to experience: perhaps ambient and bodily sounds, or an anecdote that one might share with friends. However, Fowler's non-performance expands improvisation, and directly and radically questions equivalent forms of value.22 While Fowler’s non-performance may be problematic in its accessibility and risks descent into obscurantism, his strike challenged established roles of performer and audience, and brought fragility to the situation—both in terms of the organizers and the audience—while proposing alternate methods for hypothesizing about what experimental music production might mean today.
Artists or musicians engaged in negative improvisation deal in the dialectical process between being human capital on the one hand, and being a subject on the other. This functions in a similar way to communisation’s insistence on abolishing identities in the world of capital instead of refining them. This negative improvisation is no longer based on individual freedom; rather it is based on a questioning of freedom while also reconsidering what individuality and collectivity could be. All this is being done while subverting the artist’s role as a musician or improviser (i.e., no longer being a specialist). Following Brassier, if improvisation wants to claim some agency it will need to: (1) distinguish agency from selfhood; (2) distinguish rational “hetero-autonomy” from freedom in the spontaneist/libertarian sense; (3) materialize cognitive labor in such a way as to expose the commodification of immaterial labor.23
Improvisers embody the precarious qualities of contemporary labor—both in their practice and in their everyday life. The question would be how to incorporate them into a practice of improvisation
that could materialize our anxieties. Today, our crisis is not only an economic one but also a cultural one. If there is a practice that should acknowledge this, and be able to take this crisis as potential in its extreme fragility, it is improvisation. Out of this it will need to generate a form of agency that goes beyond the improviser’s self. It could resemble the general intellect that Théorie Communiste mentions, but one that it constantly questions its own parameters and undermines its own conventions without shying away from confrontation. Rather than experimenting with instruments it would be experimenting with our own selves, material conditions and broader social relations. This negative improvisation would accelerate situations to the point of mirroring our impossibilities and our limitations by producing situations where one is confronted with the negativity of our times. Out of this negativity this improvisation will try to generate a form agency that would link freedom with collective rationality rather than with individual expression.
Thanks to Marina Vishmidt, Anthony Iles, Ray Brassier, Liam Sprod, Marysia Lewandowska, and Laurel Ptak for their comments and suggestions.
1 For a detailed argument on the connections between improvisation and contemporary capitalism see Matthieu Saladin,
“Points of Resistance and Criticism in Free Improvisation: Remarks on a Musical Practice and Some Economic Transformations,” in Noise & Capitalism, eds. Anthony Iles and Mattin (Donostia: Arteleku Audiolab, 2009); available for download at http://www.arteleku.net/audiolab/noise_capitalism.pdf.
2 Frederic Rzewski, a member of Musica Elettronica Viva (a group formed in Rome in 1966 that conceived music as a collective, collaborative process, with improvisation and live electronic instruments), puts it neatly: “Free music was not merely a fashion of the times, and not merely a form of entertainment. It was also felt to be connected with the many political movements that at that time set out to change the world—in this case, to free the world from the tyranny of outdated traditional forms.” Frederic Rzewski, “Little Bangs: A Nihilist Theory of Improvisation,” in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, eds. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2004), 268.
3 The Scratch Orchestra was an experimental music ensemble with an emphasis on improvisation. No musicianship was necessary and anybody could join. It was formed in 1969 by Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons, and Howard Skempton, and ended in 1974 mainly because of political disagreements between different factions that developed in the group. The Cardew’s Ideological Group was more inclined toward party politics, while the Slippery Merchants had more of an artistic and anarchic approach. Hanne Boenisch’s 1971 film Journey to the North Pole documents some of the discussions and tensions that emerged in the orchestra.
4 As Anthony Iles mentioned to me while reading this text, they did not want to be thought as “softies” or “hippies,” so they went for the most authoritarian branch of leftist politics at the time!
5 Tony Conrad, “LYssophobia: On Four Violins,” in Audio Culture, 316.
6 Cornelius Cardew, “Towards an Ethic of Improvisation” (1971), in Cornelius Cardew (1936–1981): A Reader, ed. Edwin Prévost (Harlow: Copula Press, 2008), 126.
7 Conrad, “LYssophobia.”
8 Bruce Russell, “Exploding the Atmosphere: Realizing the Revolutionary Potential of ‘the Last Street Song,’” in Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics and Politics of Noise, eds. Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan, and Paul Hegarty (London: Continuum, 2012), 245.
9 Ibid., 252.
10 Théorie Communiste, Endnotes, Riff Raff, and Blaumachen publish Sic – International Journal for Communisation. See http://sic.communisation.net.
11 “For Marx, the value-form is an expression of the dual character of labour in capitalism—its character as concrete labour appearing in the use-value of the commodity, and its character as abstract labour appearing in the value-form.” “Communisation and Value-Form Theory,” Endnotes 2 (April 2010), http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/4.
12 For a detailed explanation of programatism see Théorie Communiste, “Much Ado About Nothing,” Endnotes 1 (October 2008), http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/13.
13 Michael Hudson, “From Marx to Goldman Sachs: The Fictions of Fictitious Capital, and the Financialization of Industry,” Critique 38, no. 3 (2010); available at http://michael-hudson.com/2010/07/from-marx-to-goldman-sachs-the-fictions-of-fictitious-capital1/.
14 Karl Marx, “Third Manuscript: Private Property and Labor,” available from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/epm/3rd.htm.
15 For a critical account on periodisation see “The History of Subsumption,” Endnotes 2 (April 2010), http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/6.
17 Marina Vishmidt in exchange with Neil Gray, “The Economy of Abolition/Abolition of the Economy,” Variant 42 (Winter 2011), http://www.variant.org.uk/42texts/EconomyofAbolition.html.
18 Théorie Communiste, “Théorie Communiste Responds,” Aufheben 13 (2005).
19Ray Brassier in an e-mail to the author, February 2013.
20 Arika and Glasgow Open School, “Collective Manifesto Attempt 1,” handed out at Instal 10 in Glasgow, 2010.
21 Fowler runs the website http://www.nonmusicology.com. Since 2010, Fowler, in collaboration with Masafumi Ezaki, Kieran Daly, Moe Kamura, Taku Unami, etc., has "performed-without-performation" indistinguishable non-musical experiments in Japan, France, Norway, and the United States.
22 Benedict Seymour points out the connections between these types of practices and fictitious capital. In opposition to previous improvisational practices, Fowler makes you aware of today’s crisis. The point then would be how to take it further in a collective way. See Benedict Seymour, “Short Circuits: Finance, Feedback, and Culture,” Mute 3, no. 1 (July 2011), http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/short-circuits-finance-feedback-and-culture.
23 In an e-mail to the author from February 2013, Brassier expanded on this: “Cognitive labour retains the capacity to expose its own commodifying mediation. This is not to say it can miraculously undo it; but if the necessity of linking theory to practice means anything it means that the need to understand and explain capitalism already presupposes a crucial link between cognitive and practical efficacy.”