Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ray Brassier: Idioms and Idiots

In 2008 Ray Brassier was part of an improvisational musical quartet - where a CD was released of their performance.
We did something together: a concert. We want to try to explain it to ourselves: What happened exactly? How did it happen? And why? … We want to recount the story of the process, but not only that; we also want to recapitulate all the discussions that took place before and afterwards (right up to the present), articulating the questions posed by the concert – questions that are both abstractly theoretical and very concrete. Our hope is that in doing so, the experience of the concert will allow us to attain a better understanding of the representation of art in art.

Idioms and Idiots and its accompanying CD released on Mattin’s w.m.o/r label by the quartet of Ray Brassier, Jean-Luc Guionnet, Seijiro Murayama and Mattin himself. Ignoring the actual music for a moment, the text, which apparently took two years to develop, its a complex, often rather high-brow evaluation of an entire musical event, which took place as part of the NPAI Festival in Niort, France in 2008.

The leaning of the text towards quite heavy philosophical analysis clearly stems in part from the inclusion of Ray Brassier as part of the quartet. Brassier is a philosopher, a thinker and writer, and not a musician. Yet he has been brought into the quartet to play the guitar here, despite having had only a very distant past relationship with the instrument and having never improvised in front of an audience before. In doing this the group challenge the notion of the improvising musician, but also they were determined to separate him during the concert from what an audience might expect from a philosopher placed in this position – no speech, no reading, just trying to improvise alongside the others.

So all four musicians have contributed to the text, but I suspect the bulk has come from Brassier. I found the booklet easy to read in places, tough to penetrate in others, but at the heart of everything sits the notion of creating music that avoids the idiomatic, strives for something that the musicians hope to be as close to really improvised in the moment as possible, and avoids listener expectations. The end product of this process, the music recorded and released on CD (and also available for free here) does not seem to matter to the musicians as much as the process and thought that has gone into creating it.
One can see the original link to the Idioms and Idiots 2008 event HERE, or download the CD of the event, including Brassier's participation in the improvisation HERE.  More recently he was involved with the "Freedom is a Constant Struggle" improvisation, see HERE.

I write about this because Enemy Industry blog has a post up (HERE) covering "compulsive freedom," or the role of improvisation, freedom, creativity, and spontaneity in the work of Ray Brassier.  Citing for example the following, Brassier is quoted as stating,
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...
Here we find that it is not subjectivity but the "subject" which is the aim of any desubjectivation. Or, according to Enemy Industry's commentary, "determinants of action become 'for themselves.' They enter into the performance situation as explicit possibilities for action."

To my mind, Brassier's naturalism has always been "process" oriented and such couldn't be more clear than in his writings on freedom and improvisation (see HERE).  When I say that he draws on the process tradition by speaking about and articulating the sort of creativity born within mechanisms of freedom, or "compulsive freedom" as it were, as it is found in process, pragmatic naturalisms, he is not drawing upon process philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead or Charles Hartshorne (their theological commitments aside).  To make this point we find that Brassier's simultaneous retrieval and sharp critique of one Henri Bergson sets the stage exactly for what Brassier takes creativity, spontaneity, and freedom to be: a pillar of agency utilized by determinants of action who are constrained if not even themselves created by specific mechanism and rules of action. Yet Brassier's naturalism is not confined to a confrontation with Bergson.  For Brassier, freedom is "embodied, historical, and physical."  It involves concepts, language, and mechanism of concepts and language.  Again, citing Brassier in his process-naturalism,
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...
This is indeed a Sellarsian - not Whiteheadian - naturalistic account of subjectivity and freedom, one that inversely states that objectivity itself is process - a process that creates subjectivity which in turn takes itself to be a creating subject.  So, it is Sellars to whom we must turn.

Interestingly, then, it is a non-Whiteheadian process philosophy that seems to be informing Brassier's naturalism as it is currently stated.  But Brassier is articulating a process philosophy nonetheless.  The question is how best might we interpret it.