Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom

Ray Brassier

Written for a performance with Mattin at Arika's festival episode 4 “Freedom is a Constant Struggle”, 21 April 2013, Tramway, Glasgow

Thanks to Barry Esson and Byrony McIntyre

What are the conditions for “free improvisation”?

We need to get clear on these two concepts: “free” and “improvisation”.

First freedom. We must distinguish freedom from voluntarism. Voluntarism understands freedom as the property of an act of will exercised by a self. In order for an act to qualify as free in the voluntarist sense, neither the self nor its act can be determined by antecedent causes. In this regard, the free act of will erupts ex-nihilo: it is supposed to be un-determined, whether by psychological dispositions or physical processes. It is the product of a “will” that voluntarism absolutizes into an occult force exercised by a sovereign self. Freedom is construed as the attribute of the determination generated by this self. Freedom in this sense is objectionably metaphysical insofar as it invokes entities and forces that are dubitable, at the very least. The alternative is to view freedom as an act of self-determination where it is not the self that exerts a determining power through its act, but rather the act that determines itself. In order to make sense of this, it is necessary to understand the reflexivity at work in the notion of “self-determination” not as that of the self acting on itself but instead as that of the act acting on itself. I will use the word “act” to mean this act acting on itself. The ability to act is composed out of two distinct strata of behavior: that of pattern-governed behavior on one level, and that of rule-conforming behavior on the other. The act results from the superimposition of these two levels; i.e., from the superimposition of rule-conforming behavior onto pattern-governed behavior. It is the product of the intrication of these two levels, but it cannot be reduced to either.

Pattern-governed behavior is ubiquitous in the biological and physical realms. Physical systems realize complex patterns without intending them. The pattern is incarnated by the components of the system, each part of which constitutes it, but the constitution is effectuated by something as mindless as a wiring-diagram. The latter mechanism codes for the pattern, without the structure of the pattern having to be represented by any part of it. Thus the turns and wiggles performed by a dancing bee occur for a reason—to communicate information about flowers—without this reason being intended: the bee has no mind with which it can intend to realize the dance:

What would it mean to say of a bee returning from a clover field that its turnings and wigglings occur because they are part of a complex dance? Would this commit us to the idea that the bee envisages the dance and acts as it does by virtue of intending to realize the dance? If we reject this idea, must we refuse to say that the dance pattern as a whole is involved in the occurrence of each wiggle and turn? Clearly not. It is open to us to give an evolutionary account of the phenomena of the dance, and hence to interpret the statement that this wiggle occurred because of the complex dance to which it belongswhich appears, as before, to attribute causal force to an abstraction, and hence tempts us to draw upon the mentalistic language of intention and purposein terms of the survival value to groups of bees of these forms of behavior. In this interpretation, the dance pattern comes in not as an abstraction, but as exemplified by the behavior of particular bees.1

What does it mean to say that the bee’s wiggling is part of a dance? Or to explain its wiggling by saying that each wiggle occurs because of the dance? To say this is to say that organic movement happens for a reason—it has an adaptive function—but this reason (or function) is not represented in the brain of the organism motivated by it. This is to distinguish between doing something for a reason and doing something because of a reason. The ability to do something because of a reason arises from the capacity to do something for a reason. Yet it should not be confused with it.

The capacity to be motivated by a reason is a disposition rooted in more rudimentary dispositional mechanisms. Both rule-governed and pattern-governed behavior are generated by conditioning: just as pattern-governed behavior is the relaying of biologically determined dispositions, so rule-conforming behavior is the relaying of culturally acquired dispositions. Insofar as behavior is dispositionally conditioned, one must have acquired the relevant dispositions to be able to act. But although both are dispositional, neither biological habit nor social custom is rigidly deterministic. They are adaptive mechanisms, capable of re-calibrating when confronted with un-anticipated circumstances. This kind of adaptive improvisation is common throughout the biological and cultural domains. It is necessary but not sufficient to constitute an act. But it is not free. Yet the free act is not opposed to biological habit or social convention; these provide its enabling conditions—but only if the relevant dispositions are properly configured. Instinct and conformity are biological and social dispositions respectively. They correspond to the levels of pattern-governed and rule-governed behavior. Just as rules are a sub-species of patterns, conventions are a sub-species of instinct. But one must acquire the ability to conform to a rule before one can become able to act because of a rule: the ability to obey is the prerequisite for the ability to command. Where these are absent, the tyranny of instinct holds sway. Selfhood is tyrannical precisely insofar as it is merely a congerie of drives. The act supplants the tyranny of the impulsive self with the rule of the subject. But it is the act itself that is subject. It is no-one’s. Through its self-determination, subjective compulsion takes over from selfish impulse. This de-personalization is the condition for action. It compels it. For this self-determination to occur, mechanisms must acquire the ability to represent the rules governing their own behavior in such a way as to perceive the governing pattern as such. There is a transition from the level of rule-governed dispositional response to the level where the rule is recognized as a rule. This recognition changes the rule from a constraint into a motivating reason for action. Through this transformation, mechanisms learn to perceive the configuration determining their behavior as a reason for acting. Recognition requires an involution wherein the code-generating pattern is responded to as code by a sequence of the pattern itself. Recognizing the code that generates rule-governed conformity converts mechanical impulse into the compulsion to act. The involution that grounds recognition is a purely mechanical reflexivity. Acquiring the appropriate recognitional capacities is a matter of possessing the right sorts of competence. This involution of competences is the key to the transformation through which selfish impulsion gives way to anonymous compulsion. This is the key to a materialistic understanding of autonomy.

Autonomy is badly misconstrued when it is castigated as an individualistic or libertarian fetish. 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. To be subjected is to act in conformity with a rule that applies indiscriminately to anyone and everyone. One does not bind one’s self to the rule; the subject is the act’s acting upon itself, its self-determination. 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.

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. 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.

1 Wilfrid Sellars ‘Some Reflections on Language Games’, 208.