N-Determination

This week, I’ll be traveling to give a paper at this graduate student conference, hosted by the comparative literature department at UC-Irvine. The conference theme is on my very favorite subject: indeterminacy.

Approaches to indeterminate procedures are the link in my work between music and politics. In both areas, attempts to intentionally design procedures that will have an unknown result have become crucially important. In improvised music and in democratic politics, this unknown outcome is, at least in theory, the defining characteristic of such practices. This has been the connection that has interested me from the beginning.

Around the same time that I started researching this connection, a small book called The Medium of Contingency came out, signalling a sort of “intellectual moment” in which contingency became fully legitimated as a subject worth studying in its own right. My paper sort of picks up from this point, discussing some of the problems with studies of contingency as they are, and arguing that we have to develop a more precise language for discussing indeterminacy.

Doing so is not just a matter of better understanding artistic practices like Cage’s indeterminate music, or an improvised performance; there are actually political stakes bound up in this question as well. For example: in a world of globalized capital,  economic determinism is a logic wielded by nation-states to enforce certain policies that have drastic consequences on the ground, as in European austerity, as in Scott Walker’s evisceration of higher education. This is the problem determinism on the one hand. On the other hand, its opposite–this romantic notion of complete indetermination, of total freedom or openness–is at the same time used justify or mask the ills instigated by particular policies. Thus the “free market” is a perfect utopia, so long as we deterministically insist on deregulating it. Either way, there is a claim being made about what is or should be determined, and what is not or shouldn’t be.

At the same time, in aesthetics, indeterminacy is often spoken about interchangeably with “chance”, “contingent”, and other words like “open” in reference to art that somehow performs an indeterminate procedure, in spite of the fact that designing an indeterminate procedure is in each case the construction of a very particular relation between potentials and results. In fact, actual contingency is always too much for us, and claims at its invocation belie the precise sense in which indeterminacy is operating.

Finally, the event and the emergence have stood out as important concepts in philosophy and the sciences, respectively. The definition of an event that Žižek gives in his new book is “An effect that seems to exceed its causes”, and seems to me applicable both to a sudden event (the French Revolution) as well as a gradual emergence (the evolution of human biology). Not only is the language vague here, but neither category has anything to say about the types of contingencies that compose the everyday, unpredictable life of humans. This is what Hannah Arendt calls “action”, and I think more attention must be paid to its fundamentally uncertain role in artistic, political, and social practices.

At any rate, I’ll post the paper up here after the talk. This is mostly so my footnotes will have a chance at being read, since they can’t factor into my presentation. Everybody knows how I love footnotes. They must have their day.

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