Law in the Internet Society

Stuck on Repeat: Improvisation as a Way of Life

-- By AudreyAmsellem - 07 Jan 2018

We are stuck in constantly repeating patterns that make comfort a familiarity and the familiar comfortable. We buy the new version of the same phone as soon as it comes out, probably because we broke the screen many months ago, but also because these objects are disposable by essence. They repeat, over and over again, as our involvement with them grows. We enjoy looking at these objects and seeing the differences; the bigger screen, the better camera, while enjoying the familiarity of the software that has become easy to navigate. We don’t need to learn new techniques; it functions in the same way. The effort is minimal, the price is high.

The creative content we consume follows a similar pattern. Popular music has never been so repetitive, and Amazon reading suggestions invites us to buy similar books, with less and less opportunity for exposure to diversity. Movies and TV shows are made based on consumer’s taste and current efforts in musical A.I have the same goal; data gathering is not just used to direct a consumer towards what “he might like” but to create content he will like.

How do we create a mode of being in which repetition is not the goal? What do we have to gain from valuing diversity and improvisation? Do we want to fit in a world that is created by others for us, or do we want to create a space of freedom within this world? Why aren’t we interested in experiences outside of the familiar, of listening for, instead of listening to? What kind of society do we create when comfort is the goal over expansion of the mind?

The Internet age has allowed unprecedented possibilities for restructuring communities and the role of the individual within communities. Through consumption of creative content, the digital age has enabled a process of building cultural identity through creating our own. Identity and culture is no longer imposed, it is constructed. For the first time, we get to choose who we are, and are not bounded by the condition we were born into. The Internet started as a space made for users by users advocating the right to self-determination. The capitalist grasp over this space has changed this notion, (but did not completely destroy it) most notably by establishing the human behavior collection network, and threatening “net neutrality.”

Data gathering practices follow a way of life of repetition and comfort. But underneath this comfort is conformity of a dictated way of life: social media tells us how and what to think, how and with whom to have relationships. It not only comforts us in our habits, it creates new ones, the most striking of which is probably relationships behavior it incites. Swiping left or right, shopping for a sexual partner, what masquerades as freedom operates well inside strict constraints. Breaking the rules in this apparatus is unforgiving. I am struck to see how my friends talk about their sexual relationships the same way they talk about consumer goods. This makes sexual encounters quicker and easier, they say. The same ballet of swiping, meeting, talking points, and successful or disappointing endings, repeats, over and over again.

A few weeks ago I taught Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I first showed the original 1913 staging, and when I asked students for their first impressions, as I always do, one student told me: “I don’t like it. The music is very weird. I think its ugly.” I then showed Pina Bausch’s 1975 staging. I asked the same student: “What did you think of this one?” She said enthusiastically that she liked that one much better. The music is the same (although not quite, I could only find a ripped version of the Bausch, so it was a whole tone higher as to bypass possible copyright infringement–nothing, however, that could change the appreciation), but what is around it is different. The Ballets Russes original version was so disruptive it caused a riot in 1913. Today, it isn’t a shocking experience anymore, but does seem to provoke a form of uneasiness, of unfamiliarity. The choreography is abrupt, the aesthetics are heavy: large ill-fitting costumes, colorful background, the choreography is chaotic, the dancer’s feet turned in. Bausch’s version is light, flowing, and creates a sense of unity, something much easier to follow. There is nothing wrong with preferring Bausch version. But the question I pushed throughout the semester with my students, and that I never felt really got through is: What is the composer trying to do? What is he trying to propose to you, and how is he trying to make you feel? While the question they were always answering is: how do I feel about this? They were answering it diving into their known world, their own preferences, preferences they don’t seem interested in comprehending. The further in the 20th century we moved, the less repetition occurred, and the more I lost their attention. By the end of the semester, I was pretty disappointed with myself. I had set only one goal: I will get them to listen. But in a mode of living in which comfort, familiarity and repetition is not only the norm, but desired, how can I get them to listen for, to listen in the moment. Instead they were listening to patterns, they were repeating, while I was asking them to improvise.

Improvisation is not a random process. It spreads from a determined, fixed point to wander to multiple paths, which are not dictated by a higher force. Improvisation is a direct consequence of impulsion: unpredictable, we cannot calculate where it goes, and in it’s limitless character lies a transgression. It is dangerous for data gatherers because it does not allow predictable patterns of behaviors. It is salutary for us because we gain agency, a step closer to freedom. Improvisation is a way of life in which instead of following, we live, opening up the edge of repetition on the immensity of the possible.

This draft is full of interesting ideas. In order to strengthen it, you would need to unify the presentation of those ideas further. The piece is coherent now, in the sense that the larger idea of repetition and improvisation as cognitive modes, resulting in fundamentally different forms of mental life, is already in place. (Some might say that they are left-brain and right-brain modes of functioning, in fact; another idea that doesn't need adding to a mix already rich enough.) But the movement through a range of contexts—from the smartphone and the sexual behavior of your friends to the difficulties in teaching undergraduates to listen interpretively rather than through imposition of personal judgment, to the late introduction of the primary theme of repetition and improvisation—requires your reader already to have grasped your purpose before you have fully expressed it. A little bit of restructuring and some tightening in the editing would help to make the next draft easier for that naive reader to grasp.

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r2 - 31 Mar 2018 - 13:27:27 - EbenMoglen
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