10 ABBREVIATED THESES ON THE POLITICAL VALENCE OF IMPROVISATION

I’m copying a twitter thread that I posted yesterday, minus the inevitable typo that appeared there. It is useful, for sure, to try to distill an entire argument into short format like this. But it clearly comes at the expense of any nuance. I’m saving the nuance for the book. In the meantime, here is what we might call an academic subtweet, aimed at a particular line of thinking:

1. Sometimes improvisation is bad, as in really really bad, and this doesn’t get talked about enough in improvisation scholarship, which as a rule tends to focus on the cases in which improvisation is COOL. But sometimes improvisation is not cool at all; sometimes it is not cooperative, for example, or it makes people feel really uncomfortable or excluded; sometimes it results in absolute devastation for certain people, as when the occupant of the white house says some shit that just occurred to him, and people suffer as a result.

1.5 But we don’t build theories of improvisation around THOSE kinds of improvisations, because the implication is that they don’t really “count” in our understanding of this term.

2. If some improvisations are really bad, and others are really good, and all points in between, what this means is that the only commonality across absolutely all examples of improvisation is contingency.

3. If improvisation is fundamentally contingent, it therefore does not guarantee any bit of the traditional tropes with which it has been conflated, including freedom, democracy, or spontaneity.

4. That being said, improvisation always manifests in particular socio-historical circumstances, some of which have, historically, utilized improvisation in order to powerfully articulate progressive visions for the future–most obviously and importantly, for example, the free jazz movement of the 1960s, when the Black Arts/Black Power movements were associated with those musical practices. So what is the harm in theorizing improvisation from those specific historical circumstances?

5. Doing so ignores point #3, and in doing so, actually serves to obscure the way that power, agency, and aesthetic practice are connected. In other words, that music was at any point effective in articulating a particular political vision is because of the people in those circumstances, not because of anything that has to do with improvisation per-se. To fetishize improvisation is to lose track of the particular participants who bent it to their purposes in response to specific, contingent circumstances.

6. The danger here is not just a bad version of history, where improvisation becomes the powerful social force rather than the people who made it so; the danger is also about formulating bad theory for the future. It ‘s not improvisation that matters, but who is improvising, how, and under what circumstances. To lose track of this is to lose track of the operation of power, falsely universalizing a certain capacity to resit hegemony while ignoring the social particularities that make improvisation unevenly available [or differently necessary].

7. Alternatively, when we take this revised understanding of improvisation seriously (i.e. that it is fundamentally contingent) [improvisation] reveals itself as more or less identical with our experience of life itself. In other words, we improvise whenever there is contingency, and life is never not contingent.

8. Therefore, improvisation as a socio-theoretical concept is not particularly useful, and might actually be harmful in terms of understanding the world critically.

9. Or is it?

I hope to address point #9 by the end of the book.

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