This morning I found a link to this new essay by Steve Fuller in my inbox, which is worth the read. Anyone who has heard Steve speak will have to grant that he knows what he's talking about. This sharp little paragraph about the "sins" of improvisers made me smile:
they refuse to say exactly what they know or know exactly what they say. On the one hand, they present the established as if it were novel. That's plagiarism. On the other, they present the novel as if it were established. That's bullshit. From this unholy alliance of plagiarism and bullshit, the improviser conspires to make a virtue out of unreliability.
When I hear the word "improvisation" I usually reach for my gun. One of the problems with making a virtue of improvising is that, as Steve sort of suggests, you have to be a genius to pull it off. At the very least, you have to be an accomplished practitioner of your art. You have to have mastered your discipline.
Consider two of my favourite anecdotes from the history of jazz. The first is familiar to fans of Charlie Parker. In 1937, at seventeen, Charlie Parker was thrown off stage in Kansas City by Jo Jones, who picked his cymbal off its stand and threw it down at Parker's feet. "Don't bullshit me," we can almost hear Jones saying.
If this story had been told in the context of "the growth of science" (about someone like Galileo, for example) history would be brought in to vindicate Parker and villify Jones. Jones would be said to have gotten Parker wrong; he didn't understand his genius, it would be said. But that's not how the story is told in jazz history. Jones, a recognized master of his art at the time, is presumed to have been right. The unproven Parker, for his part, is humiliated but—and here's the point—the story (however mythical it may be) marks the exact point at which Parker really gets serious about practicing. He learns how to play the blues in all twelve keys, and every conceivable tempo. He resolves to get better.
Another story, involves Charles Mingus and the LSD guru Timothy Leary. They were shooting a movie in the mansion of Billy Hitchcock. At one point, Leary wanted to throw out the script and improvise. Mingus's response was to the point: "You can't improvise on nothing, man." (Santoro 2000: 270-1) [Note, Sept. 2, 2010: This paragraph has been rewritten in line with Santoro's account, which is quite different from how I had remembered reading it when I first wrote this post. I've found other versions in which Mingus adds, as I also remembered, "You've got to improvise on something."]
The point, in both cases, is that imrovisation can only be successful ("interestingly wrong", as Fuller puts it) on the background of a great deal of mastery and, yes, planning. Improvisation cannot be an alternative to discipline, it can only ever be a supplement. Indeed, one is tempted to drop Derrida's name here and call it a dangerous supplement: improvisation and discipline need each other. They need each other to death, as it were, like speech needs writing, like the PowerPoint presentation needs the prepared text.
Steve's basic point is sound enough: there are a lot of "reliable" academics out there who need to get free of the text and learn to improvise. But if they don't do this it is because they want to get their references right, and they want to get the details of whatever they are talking about right. The solution to their stylistic problems is not just to start plagiarizing and bullshitting. They'll get a cymbal thrown at their feet (or their audience will at least wish someone would do it). What they actually have to do is rehearse what they know, internalize it, make it their own.
Also, I think Steve leaves out the equal and opposite diagnosis of contemporary public speaking in academia. There are more improvisers out there than he suggests, and they are not always a joy to watch. Many of them are as full of shit as the speakers he complains about are devoid of vital intelligence. These people would do well to prepare a text and check its accuracy before presenting their views in public. They get away with it because people like Jo Jones don't end up at the universities.
(Maybe there aren't enough Jesuits. As Steve's personal background suggests, perhaps we need to make a Jesuit education a prerequisite for a career in academia. Ezra Pound suggested we be soused in scholasticism for a goodly term before opening our mouths. We need to learn what the words mean.)
So, yes, let's change the culture (go ahead; reach for your gun too). We need to make improvisation a more common feature of academic life. But there's sheet music even in jazz and there is certainly such a thing as talent. What we really need to do is to raise the bar for the demonstration of talent, we need to establish higher standards for what we are going to count as a successful academic "performance".
We are going to have to call bullshit (and, yes, plagiariasm) more often. Instead of approving of improvisation and 'breaching' as such. We need to applaud it when it works ... and boo it off the stage when it does not. We certainly need to practice our scales.