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Actors call it “performing without a net;” jazz players term it “blow,” and yet for others, “improvisation” is about working with what is available. Consider, for example, the Pecha Kutcha Research Exchange (February 20, 2008). While some contributors creatively negotiated the technological glitches by making on-the-spot adjustments, others, including Jem Mackay and me, were less successful at implementing an imaginative plan B. While there were many factors contributing to our flop performance, overarching them all was our inability to improvise. Accordingly, I have come to recognize improvisation as an integral aspect of discursive practice.

Dialogue is intrinsically responsive. At its best, it is an open-ended process that unfolds through interpersonal exchange. At its worst, it is one-sided monologue resistant to give-and-take interaction. To avoid the latter and explore the former, I propose to cultivate the skill of improvisation by using the methods described in R. Keith Sawyer’s text Creating Conversations: Improvisation in Everyday Discourse.

There are at least two differences between Sawyer’s methods and what might be called strategies of “persuasion for personal profit” espoused in self-improvement books such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. First, Sawyer’s approach critiques dominant culture by recognizing creative conversation as a non-elitist, highly accessible vector for expanding the cultural field. Second, his techniques not only emerged from Sawyer’s scientific research into conversation, creativity and improv theatre but also his twenty years of practical experience as a jazz musician. A key theoretical influence on Sawyer’s methods is Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar, which, according Sawyer, “…explains how we can create an infinite variety of sentences out of a finite vocabulary.” Sawyer’s emphasis on improvisation in day-to-day experience is also indebted to Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, specifically his sense that day-to-day interaction is performative and thus potentially creative, an idea also explored by Judith Bulter in her theory of gender as a performative act.

Some of the most useful heuristics described in Creating Conversations include the following:

  1. Yes, and…: This two-step approach involves accepting the material introduced in the prior utterance and then adding something new. The aim here is to think generatively rather than critically by starting one’s response with “Yes, and…” rather than “But…,” “No…,” “I don’t think so…” or some other response.
  2. “Don’t write the script in your head” or “Stay in the moment”:Anticipating what to say next is a form of pre-scripting. One function of this self-centric strategy is to produce coherent utterances indicative of a centred self. Improv, on the other hand, is less concerned with being socially acceptable, preferring instead to be creative by staying in the moment. Used in conjunction with the other four methods, this approach comprises a non-planning, non-directing mindset.
  3. Listen to my group mind:What differentiates improvisation from scripted performance? “The unique, defining feature of jazz improvisation,” writes Saywer, “is the importance of group interaction.” Responding in a way that “thinks with the group”—that advances the group’s thought process—begins with being sensitive to both group’s psychology and the purpose of conversation. Consequently, listening to one’s group mind requires being in tune with group dynamics, specifically the interplay between the individuals comprising the group and the group as a whole.
  4. Overcome scrip-think:Script-think is the misconception that conversation is largely scripted. Sawyer aligns overcoming scrip-think with both Pierre Bourdieu’s critique of structuralism and “regulated improvisation” described in his Outline of a Theory of Practice and Michel de Certeau’s ideas about improvisation, strategy and contingency outlined in his The Practice of Everyday Life. Simply put, overcoming script-think entails embracing and experimenting with day-to-day conversation as a semi-structured phenomenon comprised of script fragments, such as the familiar greeting script: “Hello, how are you?”.
  5. Transcend a centralized mindset: Closely connected to script-think, this method attempts to overcome widespread perception that complex group behaviour is produced by a central controller. Sawyer gives the example of scripts and improv theatre: most audience members believe that improv theatre is actually scripted when in fact it is neither scripted nor rehearsed. Transcending the centralized mindset involves accepting the self-organizing or generative potential of dialogue, something Sawyer terms “collaborative emergence.”

To engage with these approaches, I will a) seek out appropriate situations in which to practice (such as, Future Reflections brainstorming sessions); b) practice these heuristics; and c) self-observe and critically reflect on if/how this conscious practice enriched the dialogue in question. From time to time, I will also compare and contrast the efficacy of my conscious practice with my unconscious practice, bearing in mind the veritable impossibility that my conversations in my research can ever be genuinely natural given my own biases as a researcher. While the criteria for determining the significance of my improvisation will be assessed on a case-by-case basis in keeping with each project’s local interest, some of the general questions propelling my critical reflection more generally will include the following:

  1. In what ways does my working responsively impact the collaboration’s engagement in the task at hand?
  2. If/how does it make the task more or less enjoyable, productive and creative?
  3. To what extent is my improvisation able to keep discussion open, thereby creating space for other interlocutors to express and explore both their own ideas and the ideas of others?

It is not my intention to prescribe improvisation as a “best practice” for the collaborations comprising my research. Consequently and alluded to throughout this discussion, I understand this process as a tool for individual authorship. At times, however, improvisation may also be useful for group work. It was through a tacit version of the “Yes…and” approach, for example, that Future Reflections developed the idea of personifying the collaboration as an interlocutor in the radio play, interview and dialogue comprising our publication submission for Future (Re)turn for the Detours lll conference in Torres Vedras, Portugal (2007). Based on this and other precedents, I may introduce improvisation as a working practice for collaborative production.

Introduction: Some Reflections on Method

Overarching Method: Dialogical Epistemology


Attentive Listening

Self-observation/Critical Reflection-in-research and Critical Reflection-on-research

Towards a Web 2.0 Sensibility

Methods Archive

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