Academic journal article Liminalities

Improvisation, Posthumanism, and Agency in Art (Gerhard Richter Painting)

Academic journal article Liminalities

Improvisation, Posthumanism, and Agency in Art (Gerhard Richter Painting)

Article excerpt

At the end of the introduction to the two-volume The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2016), George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut suggest that the next frontier of critical improvisation studies will be its engagement with the posthumanities. They note a number of promising parallels between critical improvisation studies and the posthumanities: both research endeavors cover a wide variety of topic areas, include a diversity of approaches, cherish interdisciplinarity, and have "already begun (and will continue) to bridge the two cultures of science and the humanities" (20). These affinities, Lewis and Piekut contend, will allow critical improvisation studies to make "significant contributions" to the posthumanities. They point specifically toward concepts "like adaptation, selforganization, uncertainty, translation, and emergence," which figure prominently in the posthumanities, and which "could be profitably viewed through an improvisational squint" (20). This article will take up Lewis and Piekut and explore in more detail affinities between critical improvisation studies and a school of thought within the posthumanities called critical (or radical) posthumanism.

Critical posthumanism, which is most closely associated with the work of Stefan Herbrechter and Cary Wolfe, is a theory-oriented, self-reflective strand of posthumanism that conceptually and in its ethos builds on post-structuralist and cybernetic theories. It neither partakes in speculations about how science and technology might alter the human biology, nor does it dream about a dystopian or utopian future dominated by machines, cyborgs, drones, or the like. Instead, critical posthumanism focuses on conceptual issues. It wants to develop modes of thinking that break with the patterns, dichotomies, and dead-ends created by the anthropocentrism of the humanist tradition. This puts it in dialogue with critical improvisation studies which has long noted how improvisation challenges traditional conceptions of human agency. I will draw on the German painter Gerhard Richter's approach to painting and his reflection on art to examine how agency in improvisation and art relates to what Pramod Nayar describes as posthumanism's predominant concern: the "radical decentering of the traditional sovereign, coherent and autonomous human' (Nayar 2).

Which Posthumanism?

Before turning to the question of agency, however, I want to offer a bird's-eye view of the vast and uneven terrain posthumanism covers. Much like improvisation studies, posthumanism remains a hodgepodge of (often incompatible) theories, concerns, topics, and ideas with equally divergent social, cultural, scientific, ethical, political, and artistic interests. This diversity is a consequence of each field revolving around a broad and multifaceted topic: improvisation can be found in all the arts, is part of everyday life, can invade any structured activity or discipline, and extends even into non-human activities (computer programs, animal behavior, collectives). Posthumanism expands over an equally vast terrain, manifesting itself on multiple planes. It is most visible in its cultural representations, as a topic of literature, movies, computer games, the news, and the entertainment industry; it exists as an acknowledged social phenomenon, a consequence of the pervasiveness of bio-, media-, and digital technologies in contemporary society; and it is the subject of extensive academic and semi-academic publication efforts. What further complicates the terrain is that, unlike the theory-oriented (or theory-averse) schools of thought that dominated academia over the last fifty years, posthumanism has neither developed nor agreed to adopt a particular theoretical framework for itself. This has led to the proliferation of variants of posthumanism-'anti-humanism, critical posthumanism, dystopic posthumanism, mediated posthumanism, methodological posthumanism, panhumanism, radical posthumanism, transhumanism or humanity+, not to mention antecedents in poststructuralist theory, early postmodernism, cybernetics, systems theory, cyborg studies, or outliers such as Object Oriented Ontology. …

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