There is an issue I have been thinking about, on and off, for about the past 15 years, but that has rarely found its way directly into my writing. My interest in this issue dates to some work I did on the American novelist Ronald Sukenick in the early to mid 00s, and I sometimes wonder whether my interest is real or more of a sense of debt to Sukenick, whose writings I encountered almost at the same time as I discovered, and inflected my understanding of, the originary hypothesis, which in turn helped me to shape some essays I wrote on Sukenick. This issue did find its way into some my writing more indirectly, especially, I think, in an essay for Anthropoetics a couple of years ago on language learning as originary ethics and thinking, as well, perhaps, as my essay on “mistakenness,” but neither essay addressed the dispute Sukenick had set up.
Sukenick set up a distinction, which he sometimes framed in terms of “games” vs. “play,” elsewhere as “French” vs. “American,” and yet other times as a “theory” vs. “experience” hierarchy. Most minimally (as a question of modes of praxis), he presented it as a distinction between “virtuosity” and “improvisation.” On one level it is an esthetic question regarding the implications of modernism, but for Sukenick, and here I agree with him, it was ultimately a moral question concerning modern civilization. In the first instance, Sukenick was pushing back against some of the esthetic tendencies that he himself was closest to (and most likely to be conflated with) and which he identified most precisely, I think, with the Oulipo group of (mostly, at first) French writers, while surely having a dominant strain of modernism in general in mind. For the virtuoso, the point of the performance is to use all of the materials, and only the materials, specific to that kind of performance in a completely integrated way—to maximize the possibilities of the form. The virtuoso is what Peter Sloterdijk studies (and energetically promotes) in his book on discipline and disciplines, You Must Change Your Life, in which he constantly speaks of “acrobats” and “tightrope walkers,” of climbing “Mount Impossible,” in a life—or, at least, civilized life—defining attempt to sustain the “vertical tension” constitutive of a being capable of distinguishing between “lower” and “higher” selves. Sloterdijk at times passes near the moral questions raised by a privileging of virtuosity, or at least briefly acknowledges that there might be such questions, but at most seems to suggest that more refined and expert performances will displace cruder, more violent ones. So, for example, as part of his disagreement with Nietzsche’s denunciation of the modern “victims’ revolution” initiated by Christianity, Sloterdijk claims that the acrobatics of the Christian performance of martyrdom, a total performance that integrated all the elements (in originary terms, the entire field of resentments) into a meaningful representation of death, was simply superior as a performance to the gladiatorial contests it rendered obsolete.
I certainly wouldn’t dismiss Sloterdjik’s account, given how unhelpful most discussions of morality are, and given what seems to me the oscillation between the esthetic and the moral in Eric Gans’s thinking. It may very well be possible to frame everything we might recognize as “morality” as the inventions of more demanding exercises. Even the reciprocity the originary hypothesis posits on the originary scene is a form of relatively rigorous self-restraint in obedience to a sign rather than reflective of anything like concern or compassion for one’s fellows (empathy, sympathy, etc.), or a sense of justice or equality—the latter is more of a deduction from the former. Indeed, I think any horizontal understanding of morality predicated upon some presumed symmetry will be fatally flawed and ultimately useless: if I behave morally to others, or treat them “as I would like to be treated” (but what if others prefer a different treatment?), it can’t really be because I see myself in them, or “feel” something towards them, and even if it was, it is the asymmetries, the other’s differences from me, that really require moral reflection (rather than just a projection of my own desires and resentments onto the other)—it must be because my relation to them is bound up with our common (“equal”) relation to some center. I train myself to raise the threshold at which I take offense to some mistreatment or misrecognition, or to lower the threshold at which I can detect another’s unease, and I do so because such exercises make possible other exercises that allow for the display of yet more practiced capabilities, like those involved in following the twists and turns of an argument, or participation in complex forms of cooperation. And it may very well be that as a result of such sustained training, more simple acts of kindness and courtesy become second nature, even incidental.
So, virtuosity can, I think, actually take us a long way. And Sukenick never really made a sustained argument against virtuosity and for improvisation—theoretical argumentation was not really his “style.” But I think his preference for improvisation was based, first of all, on a powerful intuition regarding the superiority of open over closed systems. Becoming a virtuoso requires that the performer exclude all kinds of materials as unsuitable because they would distract from the systematic inter-referentiality of all the elements of the performance. A virtuoso performance cannot handle interruption. The virtuoso is infuriated by interruption. Improvisation welcomes interruptions, readily integrating them into an evolving system. In this way Sukenick shares an esthetic understanding not only with the jazz musicians he frequently referenced but with Allan Kaprow, the inventor of “Happenings,” who conceived of an art that would itself ultimately be nothing more than a subtle interruption of the flow of everyday life, for the sake of introducing a new degree of complexity (a lowered threshold of significance) into that flow. Sukenick was also invested in a reading of the prohibition on “graven images” so central to Hebrew monotheism as sanctioning an artistic practice that refused any complete, coherent representation—anything that sought to represent the human, who, after all, was created in the image of the unrepresentable God. Improvisation, then, takes on a moral dimension insofar as we realize that at any moment we might encounter an experience, situation, or other, that would render our finest wrought exercises utterly inadequate—improvisation obeys the imperative to be respons-able or “answerable” (to be a bit Levinasian, and Bahktinian) to that possibility.
But how does one prepare to be unprepared? This is the kind of question my essays on “attentionality” and “mistakenness” were trying to answer. One must, in a somewhat Beckettian manner, keep trying. It certainly involves, for one thing, a more abstract kind of exercise, aimed at practicing the lowering and raising of various attentional thresholds. But it also requires a desire and perpetual search for interruptions (which I, at least, enjoy) as well as (far more unnatural and unpleasant for me) a willingness to interrupt, to break the flow. Here, improvisation converges with the “speaking your mind” I explored in my previous post. There is no more powerful interruption than someone speaking their mind, which no one ever really, completely, expects (or could predict). Speaking your mind is necessarily improvisational because it takes place on that boundary or at that moment when the demand to mind your speech threatens to obscure an intuition you live by. You can’t know when that is going to happen, you don’t even know that it is happening until you find yourself speaking your mind, saying things you are hearing yourself say as much as you are saying them. Moreover, speaking your mind prompts others to improvise, to speak their own minds, whether it be because they feel through your speech the exposure of a nearly buried intuition of their own, or they detect in your speech an implicit demand that they mind their own, setting their own internal scenery in motion.
To the extent that we mind our speech, our fear that the return of our shared attention to the object of our unsettled disputes will inflame and embitter those disputes is greater than our faith that such renewed attention will convert those disputes into a new mode of exchange, or a newly improvised and synchronized social performance. Sometimes that fear is justified, and insisting that everyone speak their mind all the time would have self-cancelling effects. But if the fear is persistently, and to the point of paralysis, stronger than the faith, the community, or mode of shared attention, is essentially defunct. The Object to which all members of a civilized community attend is the imperative to become a virtuoso (a specialist, a professional, an expert) while simultaneously becoming improvisational (a generalist, an amateur, a de-differentiator, but, most of all, a broken, always incomplete human being in training). We were virtuosos on the originary scene insofar as putting forth the sign implied a kind of conformity and standardization; we were improvisers insofar as behind that sign was exposure and vulnerability, which must be displayed but never can be displayed “perfectly” because perfection or completeness would refute exposure and vulnerability (and thereby paradoxically enhance them). Civilization restores this duality, which ritualized and politically sanctioned forms of virtuosity obscure. Now, we expect a return on our disciplined performances, without necessarily being disciplined in our expectations. Virtuosity can easily become a pretext for non-recognition, on the side of the virtuoso, and an arbitrary means of exclusion from the standpoint of the less disciplined (there is always something idiosyncratic, something of the acrobat or tightrope walker, even in the most staid, established professions—the medical profession, for example, could easily be very different than it is without impairing its primary function). Only the spreading courage of mind-speaking improvisation (which can itself, no doubt, become an excuse for shoddiness) can re-reveal the center (the unrepresentable model of our shared performances) as, at a minimum, something we could all talk about. The risk is that we discover that we are no longer sure about who that “all” is. The more common and perceptive our performances of each others’ performances become, the more we might find that the other’s exercise, the thing he or she is best at and most applied to, narrows the scope of our own improvisation intolerably (I suppose the virtuoso finds intolerable what he perceives as a lowering of standards). The moral response to that is to keep pressing against the limits of improvisation by interrupting, respectfully, virtuosic closure, but at a certain point a threshold is reached where it becomes more moral to preserve the tension between virtuosity and improvisation itself (at such times a certain clownishness might be necessary). What I see as the higher morality of improvisation is that the virtuoso cannot recognize the boundary and dispute as one worth preserving: what falls outside of the accomplished performance is simply failure and incompetence.
The dispute between virtuosity and improvisation is internal to civilization. Civilization is under assault today, from both Islamic barbarism and savagery and the internal neo-barbarism and decadence of the victimocracy. But the self-defense of civilization cannot entail a mindless unity and conformity; rather, it requires that we sustain and even open further our foundational disputes. This is not a luxury—we need both those committed to aristocratic and acrobatic excellence, the “engineers” of Derrida’s deconstruction of Levi-Strauss in “Sign, Structure and Play,” who both exclude the majority and set an example for them; and we need improvisatory bricoleurs, who study the on the spot conversion of resentments into deferrals and disciplines and thereby more fully embody the originary structure. The virtuosos speak their mind from the standpoint of technical rigor; the improvisers speak their mind when expertise is fetishized. It’s only the improvisers, though, who really discover and invent, whether it be vaccines, software, neutrinos or anti-terror strategies. And barbarians and savages virulently oppose both, because virtuosity and improvisation demand a discipline that precludes the perpetual score-settling and hostage-taking they crave. But, one might say, cannot a terrorist be a virtuoso? Does not jihad require a good deal of improvisation, taking one’s chances as they come, getting inside the enemy’s “decision loop”? I would concede the point, because in these cases they are focused very closely on us, and so this one interface of theirs with civilized order exposes their lack of civilization everywhere else (a similar analysis would apply to the victimocracy, whose concentrated talent pertains to detecting the weak point in civilized institutions)—and makes them extremely vulnerable to the far more comprehensive virtuosity and improvisation of which the civilized are capable. Therein lies a civilized morality—not primarily in denouncing the Muslim terrorists as evil, but in finding ways to expose and exploit their more general indiscipline. At any rate, both the jihad and the victimocracy are major interruptions in civilized life, and as such call more for the present-mindedness of improvisation than the pinpoint precision of virtuosity.