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I always liked what musician Robert Fripp had to say about the creative process.  At the same time I was always leery of his devotion to the British New Age guru J.G. Bennett, one of those polymaths who becomes intoxicated by his own speculations and churns out a private Grand Theory of Everything. (Check out this blog for a nice survey of musicians and their gurus).  But, simply taken as an stimulating set of aphorisms, Bennett's theory of hazard -- as Fripp links it to creative work -- is helping me sort out some ideas I have had about uncertainty in the creative process.

As I have no intellectual respectability to lose, I shouldn't have any qualms about messing about with his ideas.

Dan Warburton's appreciation of Fripp in Paristransatlantic captures a lot of what drew me to Fripp's music:

Robert Fripp, EXPOSURE
You'll have realised by now that I had a strange, f***d up adolescence, getting off on Mantra instead of Spiral Scratch like most normal spotty teens. But I made it my business to catch up, and I'll bet that most of my fellow college students who were thrilling to The Associates and early Material are now comfortably tucked away in balding middle age listening to Bach cantatas, whereas I'm still getting plenty of teenage kicks from the Buzzcocks. But wait, this is supposed to be about Robert Fripp's grandiose - if a little self-indulgent - 1979 solo album. Solo album's a bit misleading a term for a piece of work that relies to such an extent on the appearances of various Fripp alumni guest stars - Peter Hammill, the Roches, Peter Gabriel..- but there's something compelling about Fripp's master plan here, with the Gurdjieff-inspired prophecies of his guru J.G.Bennett rapping on about the impending flood. This was the first real rock album I ever got to know inside out, a door that opened on to numerous vistas that I've been exploring ever since, and I make no apologies for remaining deeply attached to it.

Like W. James, I have have to acknowledge the varieties of religious experience, and even if Fripp's grew out of a none-too-glorious stream of 20th century occultism, it produced some very useful practices and theories (at least for creative people).

To the point:
The physicists and philosophers of the late 19th century proved that the model of the universe as a grand frictionless machine doesn't work.  Time is not reversible and actions in time, even simple chemical or physical actions, are not perfectly repeatable.  Action introduces entropy into the universe.  We are not stuck in a machine whose gears can run one way and then be flipped around to run the opposite.  Entropy, uncertainty, & probability characterize the actions of social collectives, sub-atomic particles,  molecules in gases.  (I am just paraphrasing the respectable Ian Hacking on the growth of statistics-based thinking, not just recycling the popularizations of chaos theory and quantum mechanics that have led a lot of brainiacs into making questionable application of those theories in other fields).

Action in conditions of hazard has implications for practice as such and for intellectual pragmatism.  Bennett pointed out that we live in an open universe in which we must be ready to act in the the holes or gaps provided by the world.  I thought that this was a truism until I had a look at an older and more prestigious thinker -- the rationalist Leibniz.  And here was a thinker who looked at the whole universe as a closed, frictionless mechanism.  I never really thought that strict, doctrinaire mechanistic thinking could every really be taken seriously.  As a useful fiction for carrying out engineering tasks or computing physical trajectories or formulating scientific laws for textbooks, sure.  But as a deeply held conviction about what the world was like ... c'mon!   Once again I did not take into account the alien-ness of past ways of thinking and living.

This is what the Fripp has to say about hazard in music.  I always heard risk, uncertainty, and improvisation in his music and knew that what he was about was not what people exploring pure chance and randomness in music were about. 

Fripp, Robert.  Interview.   The Boffomundo Show.  Hosts Aaron Weiner and Ron Curtiss.  1979.  8 Mar.  2008 <http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=fGNrDurc3vs>.

Fripp goes on about mechanistic philosophy before addressing the creative situation:

"If a situation is mechanistic, it is therefore, explicitly, not capable of change, and not capable of creative input."

A hazardous situation is, however, capable of such input.

"A qualitiative act, however small ... since qualitative situations are not bound by quantitative rules, a small act of quality, by your or me, is a large act.  If one can bring a qualitative [hazardous?] situation in one's life it does affect others."

As he goes on to say in the next segment: "A qualitative leap inwards expands outward in all directions."

Fripp derives his condemnation of 19th mechanistic thinking and acting from Bennett, whose education as a mathematician and engineer is (probably) more responsible for his insistence on the hazard inherent in the world than anything he derived from G. I. Gurdjieff or Ouspensky.

A mechanistic universe produces a block-y whole where all parts are welded to each other.  There is no space, no growth or evolution..  Change, contingency, and choice can enter only by the aid of a supernatural force outside of the system.  Individuals in such a system only have freedom through souls or gods.  They would be in a situation like that described in Leibniz's "Discourse on Metaphysics" (1710)

XIII: As the individual concept of each person includes once for all everything which can ever happen to him ... it can be seen, a priori the evidences or the reasons for the reality of each event, and why one happened sooner than the other. But these events, however certain, are nevertheless contingent, being based on the free choice of God and of his creatures. It is true that their choices always have their reasons, but they incline to the choices under no compulsion of necessity.

The material universe of mechanistic thought is a plenum, a solid and unified thing ruled by material ones, where all parts affect all others and an omniscient observer could know "what has happened and what will happen" ("The Monadology" [1714], §61).  Even Leibniz's appeal to God doesn't offer much freedom as spiritual entities are subject to final causes.  This is a spiritual subjection instead of a material one.

Bennett's alternative, worked out in his multi-volume Dramatic Universe, and in his journal Systematics, is much more attractive.  The presence of physicist David Bohm and other academics in the pages of Systematics gives that journal an aura of respectability but the signs of mysticism are never far.  

Here is A.G.E. Blake's gloss on hazard:

The elementary structure of hazard has three components: firstly, that the state of affairs has in it "holes" or "gaps" which make indeterminacy a real feature of existence; secondly, that the different lines of action which can arise or be taken have associated with them different degrees of potentiality for significant future events; thirdly, that a deci­sion or commitment has to be made, which is critical for the outcome of the "moment of decision". The notion of hazard sheds new light on the meaning of value as a real component of experience and suggests that values have no concreteness apart from hazard.

Disregarding values, hazard is important for an understanding of anything which can gain or lose coherence in the course of time. There­ fore science should provide many examples of the role of hazard in progress. Science by its very nature cannot be a static thing: if it repeats or even consolidates the past, it is in decay. Science looks forward and seeks to bring about a future of potentiality — for itself and for the community that sustains it. Because of this, scientists are tempted to take up the mantle of prophets.

(there it is, the hidden mystagoguery)

Blake's gloss is far more instructive than what Bennett himself offers in his article dedicated to the subject:

Hazard requires two distinct concepts for its definition. One is the concept of purpose and its attainment and the other is that of uncertainty and unpredictability. A situation is one of HAZARD if it is associated with a purpose the attainment of which is subject to an unknown degree of uncertainty .The thesis, that will be developed in the present note, asserts that progress cannot occur in the absence of hazard and hence, by the very of hazard itself, must be unpredictable and uncertain. The thesis is almost self evident in the case of biological evolution, but is commonly disregarded in human affairs. There has until recently been an almost mystical belief in the inevitability of human progress. The twentieth century has done much to dispel the illusion.

Bennett's actual comments on hazard and organization don't add up to much.  His disciple Fripp's comments about how artists are to organize and sustain their work in the contemporary environment are far more useful and far clearer.

I keep trying to think outside the boundaries erected by mechanistic and deterministic thought.  I keep trying to follow James, Peirce, and others in abandoning "necessity" as an intellectual category.  It seems that when you make that renunciation and take that step outside of the box you end up walking in the trackless wastes of nihilism or surrendering to the rankest kind of mysticism.

But even esteemed representatives of the philosophic tradition, like Leibniz, end up leaning on metaphysical crutches. And metaphysics and mysticism (suitably watered down to meet my tastes) are a hell of a lot more interesting than the neo-positivisms of Dawkins or Pinker.

I gotta get more coffee.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 3rd, 2008 09:18 pm (UTC)
Just wanted to say
I agreed with you
Aug. 4th, 2008 02:09 am (UTC)
Re: Just wanted to say

A number of typos and hasty formulations clouded my meaning but I hope that I have cleaned them up.
Sep. 24th, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
thank you
thanks much, brother
Sep. 28th, 2008 06:54 pm (UTC)
well done
thats for sure, man
Oct. 9th, 2008 06:12 am (UTC)
Nice text.
well done, brother
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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