- Subject to chance, as in “the contingent nature of the job”
- Occurring or existing only if (certain circumstances) are the case; dependent on
- A group of people united by some common feature, forming part of a larger group.
From the Latin “contigere”, to befall or to happen.
“It is useful to recall that the word ‘contingent’ has the same root in Latin as the word ‘contact’ (contingere:com-, with, tangere, to touch). Contingency is linked in this way to the sociality of being ‘with’ others, to getting close enough to touch”
Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology
I am fascinated by work that centers contingency in some way, whether intentionally, as in Georges Perec’s word games, or unintentionally, as in Duchamp’s Large Glass, which famously fell and shattered. But given the multiple meanings and implications that the word presents, it should hardly be a surprise that artworks which center contingency tend to do so by differing means. Moreover, from the perspective of the audience, the criteria by which we recognize contingency differs from medium to medium.
In the first section of Contingent Encounters (chapters 1 and 2), I first introduce the key terms and debates that I aim to engage. Then in chapter 2, I trace the uses of “contingency” throughout philosophy, critical theory, and different famous examples of contingent art. In this chapter I interrogate the different things that contingency can mean, the different things it can do, and the different criteria by which we recognize or do not recognize its operation in a given experience.
What does it mean to think about, or more importantly, through contingency? And haven’t improvisation scholars been thinking about the contingent nature of improvisation for a long time? A shortish answer:
Certainly, contingency is a central feature of improvisation for many scholars, perhaps especially those for example who think from a Deleuzean vantage, where the assemblage features of group interaction, or the irreducible affect of an improvised situation are central.
While not necessarily in opposition to these perspectives, I developed contingency as my central framework for two interrelated reasons: first, because I do believe that it allows us to think about a larger picture with more factors when considering a scene of improvisation than related terms like “emergence” or “assemblage”, which tend to focus on the intra-group situation instead of the extra-situational factors, outside of the improvised scene, that are nevertheless at play.
Second and more importantly, while I aim to build on the above-mentioned theories rather than depart from them, I do as a separate matter wish to depart from the conclusions of many analyses that acknowledge contingency in some way. That is, in many studies, contingency becomes another vacuous term along the lines of “openness”, “interactivity”, “empathy”, and so on, terms that claim to describe the ostensibly unique characteristics of improvisation while neglecting the parts of improvisation that might not correspond with these more progressive terms. In other words, contingency is put to use alongside such other descriptors to illustrate a certain point about improvisation’s “special” qualities. This is decidedly not the kind of contingency I have in mind.
As we can see in even its dictionary definitions, contingency is a multifaceted term that leads analysis in different directions, depending. I have attempted to develop a more rigorous understanding of the term than its colloquial usage allows, one which incorporates contingency’s multiple meanings together. You can read about how I understand and use contingency in this essay, which condenses and summarizes some of my arguments from the second chapter of Contingent Encounters.