Since the seeds for this project were first planted, explaining — and reexplaining — what we mean by the terms improvisation and ethics has been a constant source of intrigue. Attempts to define them have often followed confusion regarding if, why, and how they relate.
The confusion is legitimate; the words are perpetually contested and historically contingent. These, and many other concepts at work in the project, behave differently in our fields of anthropology, artistic research, music, and philosophy. They also mean often radically diverse things to nonacademics. Thus, there is a risk that the title of our project, and its fundamental relational problem, may come across as a non sequitur, along the lines of ‘Saxophones and the Ten Commandments’, or ‘Moonbeams and Staples’.
With this lexical bramble in mind, we recognize the potential value in clarifying our language. At the same time, we resist definitions before the fact; the goal of the project is, after all, to develop our understandings of improvisation and ethics through the research process, in action. Our terminology must take root and evolve in ongoing work.
The present ‘drifting lexicon’ aspires to both clarity and conceptual mobility without compromising on either account. On the one hand, it should function as a practical glossary: a key to other pages on this website and to our publications. On the other hand, it must be taken as a site of the research process itself, where new insights manifest as changes to the definitions offered below.
The lexicon, as all pages in the Writing in Process section of this website, is assembled collectively by members of the research team. The voices of different authors and the dates of their contributions are marked. Likewise, readers are welcome to submit comments on the content, which will appear alongside our contributions. Click on the eye button above to see these marks and comments, or to make a comment yourself.
Agency, in broad terms, describes an entity’s capacity to act on or affect another entity, but is more usefully restricted to the types of beings or agents that explicitly will a particular event into occuring.
However, the notion of ‘will’ is complicated by forms of emergent ‘collective agency’ that can be observed, for example, in group improvisation, as well as in the acts of other-than-human individuals and groups.
We provisionally define ‘agency’ as the capacity to effect change on one’s environment towards a particular telos, while remaining agnostic about whether the agent(s) themselves need to be conscious of that telos in themselves.
Contingency – the sense that what is performed, while far from arbitrary, is but one of a number of creative possibilities – has been identified as an essential element of improvisation. Contingency can be thought of ‘what could have been otherwise’, and has been embraced in the creative process by, for example leaving space for (co-)creators to improvise, or introducing random elements that push the creative process in unforeseen directions, or through various other techniques.
Drawn from contemporary feminist theory, diffraction is used figuratively in contrast with reflective rationality, to denote a mode of consciousness and thought which is more attentive to difference and the generative effect of modes of thought themselves. Key thinkers who have developed the notion of diffraction include Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, and Minh-ha. Despite the potential of the concept of diffractive thought to emphasise difference, it nonetheless retains the occularcentrism characteristic of rationalist onto/epistemologies.
We follow philosophical anthropologists like Charles Taylor and Alisdair MacIntyre to conceive of ‘ethics’ in a broad sense — describing the values disclosed in the enactment of a situated ‘form of life’. Our concern is less with universal moral values, but rather with how particular conceptions of ‘the good life’ – which includes aesthetic values — emerge in a community and are attained through practice, as well as how the particular ‘virtues’ which enable this life are developed, sustained, and transmitted in that community.
Ethos is a Greek word meaning Character that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology. In the anthropology of ethics, building on evidence from ethnographic material, the homogeneity of such an ethos across any community is questioned. However, the question then becomes how personal ethical striving becomes shared. Further, the Greeks also used this word to refer to the power of music to influence emotions, behaviors, and even morals. Ethos, referring to the credibility of the speaker in rhetoric, is one of the three artistic proofs or modes of persuasion, which include ethos, pathos, and logos. These categories of action and skill elide the Greek subordination of musicality as lesser than logos, so by working by means of artistic research with musicians we explore how such foundational concepts in the understanding of the ethical, the collective ethos and the effectiveness of these in political/ethical debates might need reformulation.
Musician and scholar George E. Lewis identifies improvisation through its ‘“warp signature,” the combination of indeterminacy, agency, choice, and analysis of conditions’ (2013, 17). Lewis’s characterization is noteworthy for integrating both a transdisciplinary perspective and an attention to the indices of unique practices rather than intrinsic structure.
We embrace anthropologists Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold’s four-part view of improvisation as generative, relational, temporal, and ‘the way we work’ (Hallam and Ingold 2007). Their reminder that the ‘improvisational creativity of skilled practices is foundational’ (14) to work in all domains helps bridge musical practice and broader human capabilities.
The term other-than-human is widely used across the social sciences, and humanities which are concerned with the so-called ‘Anthropocene’ or ecological matters. The term refers to any thing, person, entity, being, organism, animate or inanimate, that is non-human. An alternative term is non-human, however other-than-human was developed for two reasons. First, the term non-human tends to reproduce the anthropocentric assumptions that both these terms (the non-human and the other-than-human) aim to move away from. Second, for many of the ecologically informed approaches that use these term, humans are also composed of multiple relations, some of these being distinctly separate organisms or lifeforms, which are nonetheles essential in the human make up.
‘Reflective’ thoughts or actions are those of which there is a gap for ‘consideration’ of various, possible causes of action. Traditionally, such thinking has been called ‘linguistic’ or ‘conceptual,’ where language is considered the medium or extension of thought. We argue for a broader conception that goes beyond the explicitly linguistic to include activities such as visualisation and imagination, acts which nevertheless distinguish the subject of thought as a subject, acting on an object, and with an awareness – however implicit – that things could be otherwise.
‘Reflexive’ actions are those where the thought or intention are expressed directly in the act itself, without being mediatised by verbal or other reflective (‘higher order’) thoughts about the object of the action in itself. In reflexive acts, there is little to no consciousness of objects as objects; the experience is rather of being immersed in a situation where the agent responds directly to perceptual affordances.
From an anthropological perspective, an understanding of the self is to be developed ethnographically. Anthropologists have found that the notion of the self is highly culturally variable. For instance as well as the notion of the self as an individual, common in industrialised ‘Western’ sociesties, there is the self understood as a partible person, composed on multiple relations, which is characteristic of Melanesian societies. Further, although the notion of the individual person has its roots in European antiquity, anthropologists have found that there are many variations in people’s understandings of personhood, both historically and currently, across Europe and the ‘West’, as well as the possibility of having multiple senses of personhood depending on the context of action.
The anthropology of ethics draws in part on Michel Foucault’s work on the technology of the self to explore how people from different ways of life strive to lead ethical lives. Anthropologists have found, however, that unlike Foucault’s examples from Greco-Roman philosophies from the early Roman Empire and Early Medieval European monastries, very often a person’s telos is either fragmented or eclectic, and most often changes over time.
Techne is an ethical virtue generally translated as ‘skill’ or ‘craftsmanship.’ In more contemporary terms, it describes the ‘embodiment’ of a skill to the point where, through extensive practice, its bearer no longer necessarily needs to reflectively deliberate what to do or follow explicit rules, but rather directly perceives and adjusts their actions, as guided by the work.
‘Virtue’ derives from the Greek arete ‘excellence,’ and we embrace this broader notion that stretches beyond traditional ‘moral virtues’ to include technical skills and other forms of knowledge and action. Virtues are that which make a particular ethical ‘form of life’ possible; they are the necessary skills required to build, inhabit, and perform that form of life, and their holders present exemplars that transmit those ethical values – either through direct teaching, or through imitation and aspiration.