The Inventory of Fixtures:

a series of meditations on the ‘improvisatory’

Robert Cheatham

During a particularly hard period in my life, people were constantly asking me "What’s your plan?!" Unfortunately I was never able to answer with any degree of certainty (or plan) whatsoever. Things seem clear in retrospect, there DOES seem to be a plan when you look over your shoulder, but the future…I couldn’t see even five days into the future. And I couldn’t even see how anybody else could either….still don't for that matter. Some people can make things up and make them stick on the wall and make a pattern while others just don’t have the power to throw stuff against the wall. To paraphrase an old philosopher: "I’m telling you the truth; he is improvising; she is just making things up." The further from the self, the more dubious propositions get. Like many other things in life, the questions about an improvisatory mode are always: Is it ‘true’? How ‘powerful’ is it? Where can it take me ( or how can I get from ‘here’ to ‘there’)? To use computer terminology, for many people, improvisation is not a ‘full-featured set’, but rather a default mode which can operate in case of code/score/plan failure. My view is the direct opposite of this: There is ONLY improvisation and then the subsequent forms which it takes as it becomes institutionalized and hardens into less fluid, more adamantine, power-driven, capitalized operations. Nevertheless, there is a perennial streak of improvisation which runs continuously and ur-historically alongside these frozen formations and which are available to anyone at anytime (even if a technical culture intent on ‘making life easier’ seems to cover over many of these perennial possibilities, it at the very same moment is creating other cracks which may be exploited in it’s own surface.)


It's always a question of time. Of movement (which is really a form of time). Of trying to keep the humming of the present constantly in tune.

It's also a question of being inhabited by the dead. And not just as the dead hand of the past or the shimmering hallucination of the future. (In some cultures, the concept of ‘improvisation’ would be inconceivable. The way that has been and the way to go are essentially one and the same. The dead cohabit with the living and steer the fates of the living. Modern techno culture seems to be working in the very opposite direction: everything can be constructed, can be improvised, we are working to cut loose the last few ‘anchors’- time, space, the body. ‘Improvisation’, in all these scenes musical or otherwise, is about centering and navigation in the midst of freefall, or it is about nothing other than looking over one’s shoulder.)

At times (always a question of the event of time) the present, where everything takes place, seems like a mere conversion point of temporal energies, a hinge point of hanging on, 'muddling through', ("... What are we anyway? Where did we come from? How much time do we have?" Replicant in "Bladerunner") 'Now' we never have to think about that, only when it becomes 'then', or when it's about to become ‘whatever’ in the future.

Anyway, whatever.

‘Having a plan' has always struck me as similar to 'taking a test', having to verify what one is/is up to, what one knows, testing the structural solidarity of the plan, making sure it measures up to everyone else’s plan and meshes with it ‘properly,’ making sure that everyone knows what the score is and is able to march along at the right cadence. Or at least that’s the way things used to be. And what many people have a great nostalgia for.

The big slogan thirty years ago, courtesy of Baba Ram Dass, aka Richart Alpert, was "be here now", that is, be of the moment, 'toil not, like the lilies of the field.' Presumably, that's the place of improvisation, dealing with the resources at hand. It may be that those other cultures were/are right; that there is no such thing as ‘improvisation (no matter our most fervent desire to realize such a desireless collapse of past/present/future, a place where the dead can't touch us and where futurity rounds back to the gesture of the hand grasping the wheel, never mind the destination); and perhaps Nietzsche’s dread concept of the Eternal Return weighs on all ‘free actions’, converting them (and us), eventually, into ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’, no matter the sound and the fury of the struggle

But how like a cul de sac that feels, even if it were possible (and let’s face it, it’s not really acceptable to us of the twenty first century). Writing itself (and all forms of inscription such as tech) is the scene of that dead zone AND the futural scene of urgency which is always approaching (either ’The train is leaving the station’ or ‘The train is approaching the station’…I guess the question is whether you need both or, in a hyper-technological state, whether you can get by with just the former. The whole question of the political rests on the always-continuing resolution of that event, the historical, the political and the technical having all collapsed into each other.) At any rate, the conjunction of the technological and the improvisational, on the widest scale of both, is intimate and of a long standing historical (and prehistorical) providence.


'Improvisation' always has a toolbox it pulls from: methods, skills, approaches, attitudes, scales, habitats, dictionaries -- devices that precede us and make us their own, even as we attempt to grab hold and bend them to our own singular will (and these things from the past and the future -- they have no will do they? Try to escape from them and you will understand the futility of that attempt. Rather, they appear as 'will-less will,', as evanescent as a breath and just as obdurate as its necessity. Everywhere the invisible has an iron grasp, yet a weightless figure. This is the threshold that improvisation (musical, comedic, even the moving of oneself through the world everyday) attempts to cross everywhere and which is everywhere rebuffed, even as it continually shuffles the deck, attempting to come up with ever newer patterns. A necessary struggle at LEAST to the degree of the pointlessness involved.

You get up from the table. You move. What is your destination? How are you to get there? How did you get to the table in the first place? Where do you go when you reach the door?

Everywhere the roads are laid out for us. The key always fits the ignition (or can be made to fit). The map gives us our destination. The advertisement gives us our desire: move. What map did you consult to gather the desire to leave the road. What sound track has been prepared for your journey? Whose desire has prepared you?

This is the season of the witch as far as any kind of 'theoretical' preparation for any of this goes. We often think, we improvisors, we nomads, avengers on the real, that those maps (theories, ‘conversations’ and scores) are tests. And too difficult at that. And yet where, outside of some sort of theoretical abduction, can we catch a glimpse of another perspective?

The 'job' of the improvisor is an attitude, not a skill, a mood, not a technique. So take the following as a series of moods.


Improvised Humans

The contemporary philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy somewhere asks

"Whether one can probably say that there are humans, who are more

or less real as others? Probably."

Likewise Daniel Paul Schreber was convinced that some humans were less real than others. Or maybe simply more contingent. (Schreber was a judge in Germany at the turn of the century. He succumbed to mental illness and later wrote a book which is said to have inspired much of Sigmund’s Freud’s notion of psychosis. At any rate, his effect on much contemporary theory has been nothing less than robust. Large sections of the text of Memoirs of My Nervous Illness read like a paraclete of early gnosticism in first century Rome. In many ways he was also the harbinger of a whole wave of strangeness that has swept over the culture, from alien abduction to the New Age to a contemporary culture of trauma.)

From the endnotes of Memoirs of my Nervous Illness:

"Fleetingly-improvised-men: flüchtig hingemachte Männer. These were not beings produced by sexual reproduction, but souls put down temporarily in human form directly by divine miracle. The word hingemachte indicates that they are not complete beings, but improvised, and has an anal implication as hinmachen can also mean to defecate: flüchtig (suggesting an element of punning with flechtig) refers both to their being fleetingly-improvised and that their existence was transitory or fleeting; Männer because they appeared in human shape. Their special purpose is explained later): they maintain and provide with the necessities of life the sole survivor selected to renew mankind after world catastrophes, and his offspring are sufficiently numerous to maintain themselves. Then they vanish. Their appearance therefore proved to Schreber that mankind had perished. In the English translation of Freud’s (1911) paper the fleetingly-improvised-men are translated as ‘miracled men, cursory contraptions’."

"It is possible that Cuvier’s theory of periodically recurring world catastrophes contains some truth. In such an event, in order to maintain the species, one single human being was spared–perhaps the relatively most moral–called by the voices that talk to me the "Eternal Jew". [….] The Eternal Jew was maintained and provided with the necessary means of life by the "fleetingly-improvised-men"; that is to say souls were for this purpose transitorily put into human shape by miracles, probably not only for the lifetime of the Eternal Jew himself but for many generations, until his offspring are sufficiently numerous to maintain themselves. This seems to be the main purpose of the institution of ‘fleetingly-improvised-men in the Order of the World. I cannot say whether it also perhaps served the purpose of providing souls in the process of purification with the opportunity of doing some job of work–necessary for their purification–by putting them into human form: however that may be, the purpose of the fleetingly-improvised-men was not only a mere play with miracles, into which it degenerated towards me in the latter part of my stay in Flechsig’s Asylum, during my time in Pierson’s Asylum and the early days of my stay in this asylum.*" p.74

‘*I have has some indications that before my own case, perhaps in some vastly dim and distant period of the past and on other stars, there might even have been a number of eternal jews. The voices that talk to me named some of them; amongst them occurred, if I am not mistaken, something like the name of a Polish Count Czartorisky. One need not necessarily associate this with the Polish nation of our earth, but has to bear in mind the possibility that the Polish nation may lead a second existence on some other star through the transmigration of souls."


Improvising tactics

Michel de Certeau was a philosopher of the everyday as well as the mystical, but in all of his work he remained committed to the escape routes which the powerless are able to carve out for themselves, the tactics they were able to use against the strategies of the powerful.

Undoubtedly he would have seen in ‘improvisation’ a tactic to enable us to move into ever freer and vaster spaces, or as he put it in "The Practice of Everyday Life" "[….] a way of thinking invested in a way of acting, an art of combination which cannot be dissociated from an art of using," what de Certeau called an ‘antidiscipline’.

The following quote is about "consumers" but we will abduct it into the land of improvisation since the language also fits the bricolage in which all nomadic producers (of necessity having to improvise, make it up as they go along) are involved in:

Unrecognized producers, poets of their own affairs, trailblazers in the jungles of functionalist rationality, consumers produce something resembling the ‘lignes d’erre’ described by Deligny. They trace ‘indeterminate trajectories’ that are apparently meaningless, since they do not cohere with the constructed, written, and prefabricated space through which they move. They are sentences that remain unpredictable within the space ordered by the organizing techniques of systems. Although they use as their material the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, the supermarket or city planning), although they remain within the framework of prescribed syntaxes (the temporal modes of schedules, paradigmatic organizations of places, etc), these ‘traverses’ remain hetereogeneous to the systems they infiltrate and in which they sketch out the guileful ruses of different interests and desires. They circulate, come and go, overflow and drift over an imposed terrain. Like the snowy waves of the sea slipping in among the rocks and defiles of an established.

"The Practice of Everyday Life" p.34

Bits and Pieces

many improvisors are bricoleurs, or tinkerers, picking up bits and pieces and and assembling them into some sort of form that coheres and forms an event different from but often referring back to the original sources but in an assemblage or collage fashion. If the therem seems to have gone out of theoretical fashion in some circles it may be because it has become streamlined into the culture at large (many samplists, turntablists, and so-called 'world musics').

"The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand, because it has nothing else

at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual 'bricolage'...Like 'bricolage' on the technical plane, mythical reflection can reach brilliant unforeseen results on the intellectual plane." (THE SAVAGE MIND, p. 17.)


The One Who Stands Above Us

The modern orchestra has often been the nemesis of improvisational musics, especially the arrival of the form know as jazz. The orchestra has most often been seen as a symptom of western industrial power forms, in fact the very height and cultural distillation of the concept of the power of one over them man (given hilarious form in one of Fredrico Fellini’s early films, wherein the members of the orchestra rebel).

Nevertheless, the form of the orchestra refuses to disappear, just as many political forms refuse to fade into history. No doubt as long as certain forms of community persist so will such mass formations, acting as a mirror back to the society which formed them. Little or no ‘improvisation’ is allowed in such aggregates. Nevertheless, improvisors remain fascinated by the dialectics of such both for what seems the antithesis of improvisation and as a part of a search for a new sort of mass musical aggregate or community: how can interaction be resolved amongst such large numbers of people outside traditional power structures. And indeed there is much to learn. The following is a section from "Crowds and Power’ by Elias Canetti:

The Orchestral Conductor

There is no more obvious expression of power than the performance of a conductor. Every detail of his public behavior throws light on the nature of power. Someone who knew nothing about power could discover all its attributes, one after another, by careful observation of a conductor. The reason why this has never been done is obvious: the music that conductor evokes is thought to be the only thing that counts; people take it for granted that they go to concerts to hear symphonies and no-on is more convinced of this that the conductor himself. He believes that his business is to serve music and to interpret it faithfully.

A conductor ranks himself first among the servants of music. He is so full of it that the idea of his activity having another, non-musical meaning never enters his head. No-one would be more astonished than he at the following interpretation of it.

The conductor stands: ancient memories of what it meant when man first stood upright still play an important part in any representations of power. Then, he is the only person who stands. In front of him sits the orchestra and behind him the audience. He stands on a dais and can be seen both from in front and from behind. In front his movements act on the orchestra and behind on the audience. In giving his actual directions he uses only his hands, or his hands and a baton. Quite small movements are all he needs to wake this or that instrument to life or to silence it at will. He has the power of life and death over the voices of the instruments; one long silent will speak again at his command. Their diversity stands for the diversity of mankind; an orchestra is like an assemblage of different types of men. The willingness of its members to obey him makes it possible for the conductor to transform them into a unit, which he then embodies.

The complexity of the work he performs means that he must be alert. Presence of mind is among his essential attributes; law-breakers must be curbed instantly. The code of laws, in the form of the score, is in his hands. There are others who have it too and can check the way it is carried out, but the conductor alone decides what the law is and summarily punishes any breach of it. That all this happens in public and is visible in every detail gives the conductor a special kind of self-assurance. He grows accustomed to being seen and becomes less and less able to do without it.

The immobility of the audience is an much as part of the conductor’s design as the obedience of the orchestra. They are under the compulsion to keep still. Until he appears they move about and talk freely among themselves. The presence of the players disturbs no-one; indeed they are scarcely noticed. Then the conductor appears and everyone becomes still. He mounts the rostrum, clears his throat and raises his baton; silence falls. While he is conducting no-one may move and as soon as the finishes they must applaud. All their desire for movement, stimulated and heightened by the music, must be banked up until the end of the work and must then break loose. The conductor bows to the clapping hands; for them he returns tot he rostrum again and again, as often as they want him to. To them, and to them alone, he surrenders; it is for them that he really lives. The applause he receives is the ancient salute to the victor, and the magnitude of his victory is measured by its volume. Victory and defeat become the framework within which his spiritual economy is ordered. Apart form these nothing counts; everything that the lives of other men contain is for him transformed into victory or defeat.

During a concert, and for the people gathered together in the hall, the conductor is a leader. He stands at their head and with his back to them. It is him they follow, for it is he who goes first. But, instead of his feet, it is his hands which lead them. The movement of the music, which his hands bring about, represents the path his feet would be the first to tread. The crowd in the hall is carried forward by him. During the whole performance of a work they never see his face. He is merciless: there are no intervals for rest. They see his back always in front of them, as though it were their goal. If he turned round even once the spell would be broken. The road they were travelling would suddenly cease to exist and there would be nothing but a hall full of disillusioned people without movement or impetus. But the conductor can be relied on not to turn round, fir, while the audience follows him behind, in front he is faced by a small army of professional players, which he must control. For this purpose, too, he uses his hands, but here they not only point the way, as they do for those behind him, but they also give orders.

His eyes hold the whole orchestra. Every player feels that the conductor sees him personally, and still more, hears him. The voices of the instruments are opinions and convictions on which he keeps a close watch. He is omniscient, for, while the players have only their own parts in front of them, he has the whole score in his head, or on his desk. At any given moment he knows precisely what each player should be doing. His attention is everywhere at once, and it is to this that his owes a large part of his authority. He is inside the minds of every player. He knows not only what each should be doing, but also what he is doing. He is the living embodiment of law, both positive and negative. His hands decree and prohibit. His ears search out profanation.

Thus for the orchestra the conductor literally embodies the work they are playing, the simultaneity of the sounds as well as their sequence; and since, during the performance, nothing is supposed to exist except this work, for so long is the conductor ruler of the world.

Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti, pp. 395-6

Truth Is a Pathless Land’

I’m not sure whether ‘freedom’ is the be-all and end-all of music. It is certainly the cornerstone of what we think of as the western, technical way of life. No one pursued this exacerbation of individual freedom more than Jeddi Krishnamurti. In most respects his viewpoint can be conceived as diametrically opposed to Canetti’s composer/conductor above. It is perhaps true (or perhaps not) that a certain amount of constraint is necessary for the production of art. Undoubtedly if there is constraint it must be within parameters chosen within the confines of individual freedom. And not least of all, it is entirely unclear to me whether in fact ‘truth’ is the goal of art. Nevertheless, the following must resonate deeply for any ‘culture of improvisation’:

"Man cannot come to it [truth] through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophic knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection. Man has built in himself images as a fence of security religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these images dominates mans thinking, his relationships, and his daily life. These images are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man. His perception of life is shaped by the concepts already established in his mind. The content of his consciousness is his entire existence. This content is common to all humanity. The individuality is the name, the form and superficial culture he acquires from tradition and environment. The uniqueness of man does not lie in the superficial but in complete freedom from the content of his consciousness, which is common to all mankind. So he is not an individual."


"Freedom is not a reaction; freedom is not a choice. It is mans pretense that because he has choice he is free. Freedom is pure observation without direction, without fear of punishment and reward. Freedom is without motive; freedom is not at the end of the evolution of man but lies in the first step of his existence. In observation one begins to discover the lack of freedom. Freedom is found in the choiceless awareness of our daily existence and activity."


Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophic knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection. Man has built in himself images as a fence of security religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these images dominates mans thinking, his relationships, and his daily life. These images are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man. His perception of life is shaped by the concepts already established in his mind. The content of his consciousness is his entire existence. This content is common to all humanity. The individuality is the name, the form and superficial culture he acquires from tradition and environment. The uniqueness of man does not lie in the superficial but in complete freedom from the content of his consciousness, which is common to all mankind. So he is not an individual.

Thought is time. Thought is born of experience and knowledge, which are inseparable from time and the past. Time is the psychological enemy of man. Our action is based on knowledge and therefore time, so man is always a slave to the past. Thought is ever-limited and so we live in constant conflict and struggle. There is no psychological evolution.

When man becomes aware of the movement of his own thoughts, he will see the division between the thinker and thought, the observer and the observed, the experiencer and the experience. He will discover that this division is an illusion. Then only is there pure observation which is insight without any shadow of the past or of time. This timeless insight brings about a deep, radical mutation in the mind."

J. Krishnamurti


O.K., ‘Whatever’

Silence can be a vexing thing; it can be either a non-response or a response, an answer or a question. It would seem that from there one could get any place. Perhaps the perfect improvisatory gesture would be precisely the complete open-endedness of silence, a gesture which would nevertheless only make sense if it did eventually ‘come to its senses’ and renounce possibility for actuality. That’s certainly what the technical state continually trumpets, action and actuality, production and coming-into-being.

The mystical, and even a large degree the artistic, seem to have need of the refractory period of silence/potentiality/non-action/no-mind (as the zen monk might put it) which is a complete non sequitur for the machine. One might even say that such moments are definitive of the difference between the uncanny fragility of the human and the frightening (but all too canny) inexorableness of the machine and the technical in general.

It’s all about keeping that threshold moment open AS a threshold, an ‘about to’, rather than an immediate ‘is’ then ‘has been done’. It is also about maintaining the singularity of one’s being. The great philosopher of the singular, the threshold, and the ‘whatever’ is Giorgio Agamben; this is from The Coming Community:

"So too in a face, human nature continually passes into existence, and it is precisely this incessant emergence that constitutes its expressivity. But it would be equally plausible to say the opposite: It is from the hundred idiosyncracies that characterize my way of writing the letter p or of pronouncing its phoneme that its common form is engendered. Common and proper, genus and individual are only the two slopes dropping down from either side of the watershed of whatever. As with Prince Myshin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, who can effortlessly imitate anyone’s handwriting and sign any signature, the particular the generic become indifferent, and precisely this is the ‘idiocy,’ in other words, the particularity of the whatever. The passage from potentiality to act, from language to the word, from the common to the proper, comes about every time as a shuttling in both directions along a line of sparkling alternation on which common nature and singularity, potentiality and act change roles and interpenetrate. The being that is engendered on this line is whatever being, and the manner in which it passes from the common to the proper and from the proper to the common is called usage — or rather ethos."


"(What is astonishing is not that something was able to be, but that it was able to not not-be.)"


"Whatever adds to singularity only an emptiness, only a threshold: Whatever is a singularity plus an empty space, a singularity that is finite and, nonetheless, indeterminable according to a concept. But a singularity plus an empty place can only be a pure exteriority, a pure exposure. Whatever, in this sense, is the event of an outside. What is thought in the architranscendental quodlibet is, therefore, what is most difficult to think: the absolutely non-thing experience of a pure exteriority,

It is important here that the notion of the ‘outside’ is expressed in many European languages by a word that means ‘at the door’ (fores in latin is the door of the house, thyratein in Greek literally means ‘at the threshold’). The outside is not another space that resides beyond a determinate space, but rather, it is the passage, the exteriority that gives it access — in a word, it is the face, its eidos.

The threshold is not, in this sense, another thing with resect to the limit; it is, so to speak, the experience of the limit itself, the experience of being-within an outside. This ek-stasis is the gift that singularity gathers from the empty hands of humanity."