Relay Conversation The Reading Room #22 – In the thick of things (part 2)

Conversation with Flora Reznik (FR), Andrej Radman (AR), Sissel Marie Tonn (ST), Lila Athanasiadou (LA), Marcel Cobussen (MC) and Jonathan Reus (JR)

Illustration by Sissel Marie Tonn

Editor's note

The Reading Room is an event series produced in collaboration with Stroom Den Haag and the Instrument Inventors Initiative. Since 2015 we have been organizing this series with the intention of creating a platform for close-readings and discussion of theoretical texts among an ever-growing diverse community of artists, cultural practitioners and individuals interested in intellectual discourse. For every session we invite guest readers to share their knowledge and guide the community through texts and themes within their field of expertise. The Reading Room is made possible with financial support from Stroom Den Haag and the Creative Industries Fund NL.

As discussions in The Reading Room are so ephemeral, in 2017 we are looking into ways of recording traces of these events. Our 2017 season begins with the first edition of an interview series entitled ‘Relay Conversations’, created in collaboration with the guest readers. These interviews are conducted as conversational relays between the three organizers; artists Jonathan Reus, Flora Reznik and Sissel Marie Tonn, and the guest readers.

While there has been much written and said about the value of improvisation in discussions about innovation and creativity, there seems to be no prescriptive formula for improvisation itself. The aim of this cluster of The Reading Room is to make improvisation slightly more knowable. While we acknowledge the many traditions and theories of improvisation within music genres, this cluster will focus on ways in which improvisation is relational, existing within a physical space occupied by players and potentials to act. Through this perspective, we will work to deconstruct the persistent idea of the improviser as a freewheeling subject, or navigator, and instead emphasize a model of subjectivity that is constantly shifting in the exchange of energies between human and technological players.

For this discussion we had the pleasure of being joined by three guest readers from music and architecture: philosopher of music and auditory culture Marcel Cobussen, as well as two theorists with a focus on architecture and spatial perception, Lila Athanasiadou and Andrej Radman. With their guidance we immersed ourselves into various conceptual tools for thinking of improvisation as a relational process.

In the first session of this cluster focused on musical improvisation we read an excerpt of The field of musical improvisation, by Marcel Cobussen, Ray Brassier’s “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” and David Roden’s “Promethean and Posthuman Freedom: Brassier on Improvisation and Time”. In this occasion we studied the texts “What is Relational Thinking?” by Didier Debaise and “‘Absolute Surfaces’ and Absolute Domains of Survey” by Raymond Ruyer.

“What is Relational Thinking?” introduced us to Simondon’s philosophy through some of his key concepts such as “the pre-individual nature” and “regimes of individuation”. We had the chance to scrape the surface of his very complex body of work, by shifting from the primacy of the individual as a given to the primacy of the relation over the individual. The ‘being-individual’ is produced by a singular assemblage of practices which by no means are proper to men, and in turn opens up to new individuations. This doesn’t mean that there is no role for people to do significant things. Through collective participation (transmission of know-how), nature is constructed, and therefore the conditions for certain emergences are facilitated. In Debaise’s words, “This is the methodological principle of Simondon’s approach: in each situation encountered in experience, it is to invent and to construct a plane which increases its dimensions and puts into perspective the manner in which it is constituted and relates to other elements of experience.”


“‘Absolute Surfaces’ and Absolute Domains of Survey” by Ruyer points at the lack of need to posit a trascendental sphere of reality to give fundament to existence. Through his notion of absolute surfaces he emphasizes the self-constituent nature of the plane of immanence. A brain, for example, does not equal the consciousness of the “I”, since it is a materiality whose capacities exceed its representational abilities.The brain functions as the self-survey membrane that connects environment with the interiority that contracts matter and turns itn into a mnemonic theme. While primary consciousness is the ground for the secondary sensory consciousness, it is not given in advance, is is made. Ruyer suggests, the “I”, consciousness  as a unity “is endowed with ubiquity” as while perceiving the world, the “I” is everywhere and nowhere in particular, it is a self-survey without a subject Absolute domains are forms that actualize a trans-spatial potential and permit the modulation of behavior in terms of potentialities and possibilities. In this sense, freedom is not defined by what an act does, but by what it can do. And what it can do relates to a field that needs no external observer to become intelligible.

Relay Conversation

JR: Marcel, in the second session we got quite deep into Simondon’s concept of ‘individuation’ (via Didier Debaise). And in the process I feel we drifted quite far from the topic of improvisation. Not that unpacking this concept wasn’t valuable, but I’d like to try and pull it back to earth and consider music improvisation again through this concept – which I understand as very similar to the notion of ‘becoming’, individuals constantly being redefined through the process of interactions with their environments. In particular I’d like to address one aspect of music improvisation that I find particularly important: the idea of agency.

In the second Reading Room I brought up one of Mischa Mengelberg’s solo piano improvisations as an example to ground some of our discussions, and I asked an open question, ‘how one would read this performance through a relational perspective?’. You remarked that Mengelberg is in a way ‘playing against history’, in the sense that he is in a dialogue with the ‘actants’ (Latour) of jazz music’s particular language (in this example he wanders offhandedly through whistled and played melodies until coming into a jazz standard).

But I must confess that this leaves me unsure of where to place the performer’s agency as a very real subjective experience. If improvisation is, as you stated in the Reading Room (and refuting Brassier), ‘never a creation ex nihilo’ and is rather an ‘ability to find new ways of inhabiting old forms’. There is still the act of ‘inhabiting’ to contend with.

As an improviser, and as an electronic musician who is extremely critical of digital interfaces, I am always questioning how to occupy an instrument (a sort of habitat). For me it is never a passive experience, but more like squatting a building that may or may not be abandoned. Especially with a new (digital) instrument, a programming language, or even a found object with little-to-no musical context and history, there is a process of play and experimentation that seems crucial to take into account. How do you think ontological theories of becoming such as Simondon’s and relational theories like those in The Field of Musical Improvisation help make sense of this subjectivity?

MC: Yeah, what a great performance by

Misha; I love his timing, his touch, his searching for harmonies and melodies before entering more familiar terrain every now and then (e.g. the Blues with its well-known patterns).

In The Field of Musical Improvisation I argue that a subject – in your example Mengelberg – is acted on by norms, conventions, cultural forces, and prior practices that he has not chosen or developed himself. The blues, the be-bop patterns, the division of functions between left and right hand, the seating position behind the instrument, even the “free” outburst at a specific moment (± 2’04’’ – 2’06”) – they all belong to the tradition of (jazz) piano playing. As Judith Butler writes, it is in relationship to being acted upon that a subject itself acts.

However, and here is some common ground shared by e.g. Butler, Stuart Hall, and scholars dealing with musical improvisation, the subject is not completely determined by or dependent on these practices. Within these forces, practices, norms, and conventions, he has or can create for himself a certain freedom by bending or breaking them, by operating outside of their frames, by inhabiting old forms in relatively new ways. 

Misha’s alternation between whistling and playing the melody, his pseudo-guilelessness articulated in his approach of the piano, his playing with one hand while reaching out for a coffee, his careless whistling – they all play on and with (rather than against) the existing tradition; Misha is very well aware of this tradition; he uses and misuses it, he transforms or transcends parts of it, while – necessarily so – leaving other parts in tact.

In this sense, what you subsume under the denominator “subjectivity” is certainly present here as well as in (almost) all improvisation practices, but, nevertheless, I am quite hesitant to use that word myself. For 4 main reasons:

a) I’m not sure whether the subject – often, as in your question, replaceable by “human being” – is the most appropriate “quantitative unit.” The improvising subject/human being “consists of” mind, consciousness, unconsciousness, intuition, fingers, feet, muscles, ears, etc. which all interrelate and (re)act in different ways each time, e.g. to input from the outside. In other words, perhaps sometimes another unit might be more relevant as a point of departure to think about improvisational practices.

b) Subjectivity is (almost) always inter-subjectivity, precisely because

subjects are to a large extent determined by Butler’s norms and practices or Foucault’s epistemes or Bourdieu’s habitus, to mention only a few. And as Jean-Luc Nancy convincingly argues, being is, first of all, being-with, being-with-others; this is our existential fundament.

c) Often subjectivity is understood as a form of control by a subject over his environment, whereas – and here I follow Simondon – I argue in favor of the idea that individuals constitute themselves from the relations which are interwoven before their very existence. Misha becomes a pianist in the relation established with the piano; he becomes a jazz musician when constructing his solo on the basis of the jazz tradition; he becomes a maverick because he deviates from certain conventions; etc.

d) What I like in Simondon’s theory – and I see a connection here with New Materialism, Object Oriented Ontology or Ecology – is that, through this idea of individuation, the individual, the subject, the human being no longer is given priority. The subject is one actant among many others; and even in improvisation, so often considered as a primarily human activity, many things happen between actants that exceed the involvement, let alone the control of the human subject.

Dear Lila, as I was quite puzzled by the selection of Raymond Ruyer’s text on consciousness and the I as the unity of consciousness in a session on improvisation, I would like to pose this open question to you, simply to learn from what you have to say about it: how do his ideas somehow contribute to the discourse on/around improvisation (perhaps specifically outside the musical domain)?

To be a little bit more specific: on p.99 Ruyer makes a rough tripartition between organisms’ consciousness and their environment: for protozoan’s, the guiding Ideal is the organic type. For animals with a nervous system and sensory organs, the guiding Ideal is both the organic type and the environment closely connected to this type. For humans the guiding Ideal is the world of essences and values, detached from the human organic type. But, Ruyer writes, in these three cases, consciousness is not an inert domain; it is organizing.

Now what interests me here is how consciousness as an organizing principle and the human ability to deal with “essences and values” can form, inform, and transform certain ideas on improvisation. Can you help me just a little bit?

I am always questioning how to occupy an instrument (a sort of habitat). For me it is never a passive experience, but more like squatting a building that may or may not be abandoned.

LA: Your question taps into the very core issues Ruyer is dealing with and in order to properly respond I would first have to locate his practice within a genealogy of thinkers like Hans Driesch, Henri Bergson and Gilbert Simondon amongst others who were invested in complicating the matter/mind dualism by engaging with the real, observing how life emerges out of both the materiality of the brain (or what can act as a brain) and the vibrancy, the incorporeality of matter without any of the two imposing a structure on the other. Ruyer was invested in questions of life, and how it can produce and continue itself within a process of continuous creation. This creativity of life is tied in with intuition which, as we discussed in both sessions, is a process at play within any improvisation act.

Ruyer is trying to disconnect the brain as an organ to the “I” as the locus of consciousness and reason. In order to do that he looks into how brains are formed, and how embryos act as brains in the way that they do not require an external perspective or sensory organs to negotiate with their environment. Instead they have an “absolute-self-survey” that requires no gap between thinking/acting, it is a “no speed limit” continuous process. What is important for improvisation in this account is that the embryo is able to form itself without having knowledge of itself or its actions. It has the ability to act as a brain in the midst of a process of creating one. 

For me that is one key element to pick up from Ruyer; the ability to do, to act within improvisation without prior deliberation, without a representation of a thought within reason. Improvisation is as much about having consciousness (not as “unity of individuality” but of the “non dimensional self-survey”) as it is about creating one. 

That points to what Ruyer refers to as “consciousness” that is an organizing principle that articulates relations between things that pre-exist it. In the chapter Absolute Surfaces and Absolute Domains of survey there is a nice sentence  where Ruyer quotes J.W. Dunne: “the mind which any science can describe can never be an adequate representation of the mind which can make that science”. The mind, he suggests has a materiality that cannot be merely reproduced by external observation, it is created through a different process that cannot be reasoned or replicated. A parallel could be drawn here as well with improvisation as an act of consciousness emerging. Even within your FMI, one can describe an act as an external observer, analyse the perceivable relations and trace the assemblage of the improviser(s), instruments, stage, audience, traditions and expectations but one cannot simulate the act. There is much more that escapes any discursive attempt to capture it.

Another point that Ruyer brings forward is that matter already contains the conditions of life. 

This renders the act of creation not a closed system, but a saturated open one. Within improvisation that would suggest indeed that the improviser is “a pilot pushing buttons” as Andrej suggested during the session, someone who would tap into a theme  that precedes the subject and emerges out of the assemblage that carries the act. The word “carries” is important here, as the act is not “released” as Brassier suggests or enacted but neither is produced ex-nihilo. This  brings us to a conceptualization of the brain as pure mediality that merges the spatial equipotentiality of the membrane that Ruyer describes as primary consciousness on the protozoan together with a pattern that is transversal and guides the processes without overcoding them.

Now, to refer to the particular excerpt you’re quoting from, it is important to elucidate what is the “I” and the guiding Ideal that Ruyer juxtaposes or posits as two extremities in the same field of survey. The guiding Idea is the transversal dimension that is trans-spatial and a-temporal, it is the theme or species memory while the I or “x organic individuality” is a form that belongs to a subject. Consciousness is organizing in all three cases, for protozoan as primary consciousness is subjectless but it can still self-survey their form and perpetuate the guiding Idea that is life. In the case of the animals, consciousness  is both primary, but also its product a secondary

The embryo is able to form itself without having knowledge of itself or its actions. It has the ability to act as a brain in the midst of a process of creating one. 

consciousness that is sensorial and suggests a subject, organizing its needs according to its environment. For humans he suggests that secondary consciousness is in the “world of essences and values” as we tend to abstract our experiences of senses into patterns of the mind. As long as the “essences and values” do not remain static as platonic ideals but shift then improvisation can take place. At the same time, the “representational” consciousness needs to be “parasitized” by the surprise of the sensorial  that holds so much more that can be discursively expressed or abstracted in the “world of essences”.  

Simondon’s relational thinking, as presented in Debaise’s text, suggests that there is no temporal sequence between individuation and individuals by highlighting the simultaneity of the production of relations and individuations. This account resonates with Karen Barad’s intra-action where through the encounter or the event both subject and object are co-produced. The spatio-temporal implication of this account complicates concepts such as interaction/interactivity that are based on actualized individuals. I was wondering whether this complexification is fruitful in the kind of technical/human assemblages you are entangled in Jon.

JR: Thanks Lila. Simondon/Debaise’s metaphysics is still pretty far over my head, or at least it’s a lot to grasp from just this

one text. First, I wouldn’t say interaction/interactivity in the technical sense (dealing with interactive digital systems, software, etc..) is so far away from this idea of co-production and individuation. Take Latour’s Actor-Network theory, just to give one example that is used often when talking about technical mediation: Latour’s idea of the assemblage is very close to the kind of individuation I think Simondon is talking about, but is not so much invested in the temporal aspect of becoming: that constant reinventing of the individual as it feeds back and feeds forward onto itself. It’s almost a kind of cybernetic mentality.

I think the placement of experience ‘in the system’ is crucial, e.g. as proposed by Ruyer’s reference to Flatland. Interaction takes its popularity from computing. Licklider is probably one of the most notable early figures here – but in general, ‘interaction’ was a response, maybe even a rebellion, in the 1960’s against the black-box. The Turing Machine, as defined by Turing in On Computable Numbers, is a ‘set and forget’ mechanism. There is no room for contingency. This makes the mathematics of drawing conclusions about algorithms much easier, but also creates a fully deterministic system. The interaction rebellion led to new theories, even an ‘extended Turing Machine’ that takes into account external input and temporary halting states, but inputs are discrete and enumerable, interim results still heavily deterministic.

At least in terms of the behavior of the machine, however, the larger-scale aggregates are unpredictable, and here is where Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory finds its friends in sociology.

Can themes from music improvisation transfer to other artistic research practices?

ST: Dear Jon, Thanks for your question. I found the Reading Room sessions on improvisation very inspiring, even without having much knowledge or skill in the field of music. I think we have been unpacking concepts and modes of thought that for me seem very close to the act of creativity itself, and which are thoughts I can transfer to experiences within my own artistic practice. Andrej mentions earlier in this interview: Every improvisation is a genesis and as such exceeds the improviser’s power of representation. For me this resonates very well with the artistic process. Perhaps not the final artwork, as the sentence alludes to a time-based aspect that might not necessarily be available to the audience the same way the act of listening to a musician improvising is. But when it comes to process, to the act of moving away from one’s’ references, sources of inspiration, even from old work and one’s own style, there is a sense of time-based improvisation that I think is very similar. Having done my formal education in the ‘Master Artistic Research’ (at the Royal Academy in Den Haag) I have been

challenged to think a lot about what kind of ‘knowledge’ artistic practice may or may not produce. Without going into this (often politized) discourse too much I do think it is an exciting question to ask for anyone interested in process. Because there is doubtlessly a kind of thinking-feeling of what happens – as Brian Massumi calls this process – and which I have a hard time finding a better description for. But if I have to try, it is a state of curiously circling further and further away from what you know, what you have come to know in the process, a truly joyful state (because you are birthing something that wasn’t there before) which at the same time is terrifying (because you might end up creating something you hate, and then a lot of effort just went into disappointing yourself).

Marcel writes: Improvisation is always moving, always changing, always de- and reterritorializing. Hence, improvisation has no clear identity but is at work in each and every music making, and each time differently”. So what does the improviser come to know? I think in the creative process, and the process of improvisation there is a connection to the unknown, or the not-yet-known, a connection to something below the radar of conscious thought. As audience I enjoy work that keep open different possibilities of knowledge simultaneously, the sense of the multiple layers of knowing – some of them which the artist did perhaps not fully know herself as she made it. I dislike work that aims to tell me everything – then I’d rather read a book or watch a documentary.

Can the work of art de-and re-territorialize itself after the process of creating has ended? Can it continue to move and be moved within the world as it has left the hands of the creator? I think these are beautiful and inspiring questions to ask, even outside the realm of music and time-based work in general.

I’d like to end my answer with a quote from my tutor and dear friend, artist/philosopher Sher Doruff, which for me describes this kind of ‘knowing’ in such a precise way: If we can think and feel the framing of experience through practice as a predominant research method, we insist on sensation and intensity as real facts of experience. The making of an artwork, from a research perspective, then could be said to employ a framing process that has scratch-like tendencies, a back-and-forth re-searching or slowing down of chaos to abstract qualities, intensities and assemblages of meaning through sensation”.  (Doruff: “Artistic Res/Arch: The propositional experience of mattering”).

Dear Andrej, in the Reading Room you were mentioning the concept of the ‘porous membrane’ of the body, as a concept relating to the work of philosopher Gilbert Simondon. Individuation and the work of Simondon in general came up during the Reading Room sessions, and I’m curious how thinking of the body as a state of becoming relates to Improvisation and the kind of spatial thinking it affords?

AR: Representational theories postulate an isolated and autonomous ‘subject’ which is set apart from its environment and is thus utterly dependent on the process of mental representation. Furthermore, this process is often seen to be staged for another interiorised ‘subject’ (the homunculus thesis + infinite regress). This is surely an error. As Massumi puts it, ‘zone of indeterminacy’ is glimpsed in the hyphen between the stimulus and response (S—R): “Thought consists in widening that gap, filling it fuller and fuller with potential responses.” The task of the architect, as I see it, is to widen the gap between perception and action, for what is affordance if not the hyphen between the two? This is not Simondonian, but close enough. Affordance is J.J Gibson’s neologism that deals with this porosity that you refer to. It is neither subjective, nor objective. In contrast to binary logic, one should always proceed from the middle or the milieu, both conceptually and literally. Both in musical and architectural improv. As explained by Isabelle Stengers, Deleuze deliberately plays on the double meaning of this French term which stands for the middle and the surrounding. Proceeding from the middle is arguably the best way to undo the habit of thinking in terms of formal determining essences and sensible determined things. As Simondon was well aware, the tradition tends to forget a sort of middle, an intermediary. And it is at the level of relation that everything gets done (and I mean this rather literally, not at all metaphorically). Relata do not precede relations.

It is a state of curiously circling further and further away from what you know, what you have come to know in the process, a truly joyful state (because you are birthing something that wasn’t there before) which at the same time is terrifying (because you might end up creating something you hate, and then a lot of effort just went into disappointing yourself).

Dear Flora, can you make explicit the connection between Debaise’s plea for relational thinking and Cobussen’s field of musical improvisation? Can the field (as an emblem of relationality) become a useful figure for challenging the phenomenological tradition and its (reductionist) primacy of consciousness? Can it be used to go beyond the given (phenomena) to the question of how the given is given (e.g. Ruyer’s panexperientialism where the condition and the conditioned are mutually determined)?

FR: Cobussen’s field of musical improvisation is linked to Latour’s actor network theory. In this framework, “actants such as musicians, instruments, acoustics, audience”, and even the norms of a musical genre affect each other and therefore it is the network in itself what determines the qualities of the improvisation. Even though one change in one of the actants alters the field of possibilities for all the players, this doesn’t mean that the actant decided freely upon that occurrence. There is a primacy of the relations over the actants (he choses not to use the word ‘actor’ as it denotes the source of an initiative or a starting point). An act is always complex: any unit of analysis can be broken up into more and more parts. In words of Cobussen, “each actant is at the same time also a network: (…) the actant piano can be unfolded into strings, hammers, keys, pedals, body, etc”. What makes the improvisation is a potentially infinite but determined amount of variables: the instruments, the space, the audience, the speakers, the cables, the past

rehearsals, the history of music learned at a conscious or unconscious level by the players, and so on. This notion of complexity can be the key to link to Debaise’s relational thinking. Through it, we access the truly interesting question for both authors: not what things are, but what they can do. According to Cobussen: changing a certain development in an improvisation, for instance by starting to play a radically different pattern, will simultaneously alter the field of possibilities for all players, including the one who started the transition”.

But there might be a main difference between the two authors, namely that in Cobussen’s text  the field as a product has primacy over its production, or how the field is constructed. Cobussen’s field is the representation of the relation and does not provide any questions of production or labour or “how the given is given”. Debaise’s plane of nature relates to Deleuze’s plane of immanence, where all real distinctions are flattened, a self-organizing process in which actuality and virtuality are co-determinant. It’s as if when Cobussen cites Latour saying “attachments are first, actors are second”, Debaise would answer: “well, the plane of nature is first, attachments are second, actors are third”. In this sense, there is an emphasis in Debaise’s take on Simondon in trying to understand how things come to be the way they are, under the notions of scheme and regimes of individuation. In Simondon’s terms: “This is why it is insufficient, for understanding techniques, to start from constituted technical objects; objects

appear at a certain moment, but technicity precedes them and goes beyond them; technical objects result from an objectivation of technicity; they are produced by it, but technicity does not exhaust itself in the objects and is not entirely contained within them.” Nor does it relate to the subject: “Technicity presupposes that an action is limited to its results; it is not concerned with the subject of the action taken in its real totality, nor even with an action in its totality, insofar as the totality of the action is founded on the unity of the subject. The concern with the result in ethics is the analog of the search for a howin the sciences; result and process remain below the unity of action or of the whole [ensemble] of the real.” (This quote was suggested to me by Andrej Radman, who took it from here:

Still, I think both authors are aiming towards a common goal, which is, as Andrej’s question suggested, to go beyond what is given, the mere phenomena. A relational act differs from agency understood in phenomenological terms in that an experience is no longer only triggered by the intention of an individual subject alone (the problem of the demiurge, as Andrej mentioned in the previous conversation). Husserl could not conceive a way of experiencing that is not giving sense (Sinnegebung). Levinas, being a student of Husserl,  states that there is a way of relating to that which I cannot fully represent, because in the very special case of the relation to an “other” 

(a term that I do not intend to develop here), the other is not simply present, it is not given to me. This relation is not a relation of knowing, it is not representable and it needs not (and cannot) be founded. On the contrary, this relation drills through my horizon of expectation, it surprises me, it is disorienting and humbling.

This is a breaking point in the Modern project: what has primacy is being affected, a resistance to the will to dominate and assimilate that constitutes me as a subject responsible towards the other. Even if Levinas’ other is necessarily another human, this opened the door to ways of thinking that discarded human intention as the only way of acting. Taking it way further, Deleuze will propose an utterly non-anthropocentric, post-humanist approach. As Andrej puts it: “Consciousness is not of something, it is something”, operating among other things. Consciousness modulates, it is acting as much as it is being affected. It determines as much as it is determined.  

From the relational thinking perspective, both objects and subjects influence each other. And I would emphasize, following Marcel, even things that are not strictly speaking objects are actants: norms, memories, ideologies, desires, things that have been forgotten, silence!, etc. In terms of temporality, Cobussen’s act also differs from the “present-point” of phenomenology where the primal impression occurs: the performance is not happening just now, it is influenced by a wide past and a range of possibilities. It untangles a time to come very different from a phenomenological future (which contains no more than a possibility already present in the present, ‘representable’).

Andrej, I would like to shoot a last question back at you. Indeed, this change on the focus from what is to how things become opens the door to go beyond the given, and this seems politically promising. And I wonder if this connects somehow with a part of Debaise’s text that I found very difficult to grasp and we didn’t get the chance to discuss in our meeting: he mentions that “the plane of nature is a construction”. How so?

AR: ‘The plane of nature is a construction’ may sound bizarre only if we start from a loooong tradition of seeing nature as an invariant (stable) ground for the variant (contingent) human action. But what if the culture was nature all along, as one recent publication’s title spells out? < might as well turn it around).

Debaise offers a three-step programme for getting out of the bad habit of the Nature-as-Ground and Culture-as-Figure formula (also known as the bad habit of anthropocentrism):

1) Extend the notion of nature (to include the incorporeal albeit real) pre-individual singularities.

2) Consider nature as the virtual (‘actually possible’ capable of various individuations).

3) Extend individuation beyond being-individual (which is an asymptotic, i.e. effectively unattainable condition anyway.

Recently, Steven Shaviro provided an insightful list of no less than 22 (twenty two!) theses on nature (from the ‘Afterword’

of his superb Discognition (London: Repeater Books, 2016), pp. 216-223). 

Let me quote a few of them that will help me substantiate the claims from above:

1) We can no longer think of Nature as one side of a binary opposition. In an age of anthropogenic global warming and genetically modified organisms, not to mention Big Data and world-encompassing computing and communications networks, it makes no sense to oppose nature to culture, or a “state of nature” to human society, or the natural to the artificial. Human beings and their productions are not separate from Nature; they are just as much, or as little, “natural” as everything else.

2) We must think of Nature without any residual anthropocentrism: that is to say, without exempting ourselves from it, and also without remaking it in our own image. Human beings are part of Nature, but Nature is not human, and is not centered upon human beings or upon anything human.

3) Above all, we must avoid thinking that Nature is simply “given”, and therefore always the same – as opposed to a social realm that would be historical and constructed. Rather, we must recognize that Nature itself is always in movement, in process, and under construction. (…)

4) Nature is all-encompassing, but it is not a Whole. It is radically open. (…)

5) (…) The radical unknowability of Nature is not an epistemological constraint; it is a basic, and positive, ontological feature of Nature itself.

Find ‘Relay Conversation The Reading Room #21 – In the thick of things (part 1)’ here.


Andrej Radman has been teaching theory courses and design studios at TU Delft Faculty of Architecture and The Built Environment since 2004. In 2008 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Architecture and joined the research and teaching staff of the Architecture Theory Chair. As a graduate of the Zagreb School of Architecture in Croatia, Radman received a Master’s Degree with Honours and a Doctoral Degree from Delft University of Technology. His current research focuses on New Materialism in general and Ecologies of Architecture in particular. Radman is a production editor and member of the editorial board of the peer-reviewed architecture theory journal Footprint. He is also a licensed architect with a portfolio of built and competition-winning projects. In 2002 Radman won the Croatian Association of Architects annual award for housing architecture in Croatia. His latest publication, coedited with Heidi Sohn, is Critical and Clinical Cartographies: Architecture, Robotics, Medicine, Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

Lila Athanasiadou is a freelance writer and researcher with a background in architecture. She has organized and moderated seminars and lectures at TU Deft and Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art and has presented her work in academic conferences at KTH, Stockholm, Goethe University in Frankfurt and the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallin. She has worked as an architectural consultant in Italy and Belgium and as a research assistant in MVRDV think-tank, the Why Factory . She currently leads the Corporeal Discourse program at the Master of Interior Architecture CORPOREAL at ArtEZ Academy of the Arts. Her work explores feminist and queer pedagogical practices and intersections of digital data with human and territorial bodies.

Marcel Cobussen is Full Professor of Auditory Culture and Music Philosophy at Leiden University (the Netherlands) and the Orpheus Institute in Ghent (Belgium).
He studied jazz piano at the Conservatory of Rotterdam and Art and Cultural Studies at Erasmus University, Rotterdam (the Netherlands). Cobussen is author of several books, among them The Field of Musical Improvisation (LUP 2017), Music and Ethics (Ashgate 2012/Routledge 2017, co-author Nanette Nielsen), and Thresholds. Rethinking Spirituality Through Music (Ashgate 2008). He is editor of The Routledge Companion to Sounding Art (Routledge 2016, co-editors Barry Truax and Vincent Meelberg) and Resonanties. Verkenningen tussen kunsten en wetenschappen (LUP 2011). He is editor-in- chief of the open access online Journal of Sonic Studies ( His PhD dissertation Deconstruction in Music (Erasmus University Rotterdam 2002) is presented as an online website located at

Sissel Marie Tonn is a Danish artist living in The Hague. She works with multi-media installation, textiles and writing, and her processual approach is driven by a great deal of curiosity and the possibilities of building relationships across fields. Her work revolves around an interest in structures of attention and perception within ecologies undergoing subtle or profound changes. Within this discourse her work explores these environmental (often humanly induced) changes, extending the public debates towards epistemological issues connecting these events to the body and its sensing of presence. She completed a master in Artistic Research at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 2015 and will be a resident at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht in 2017.

Jonathan Reus is an American musician, researcher and curator whose work blends machine aesthetics with free improvisation. His broader research is into instruments and instrumentations, and their potential to bring new insight into knowing the world. Jonathan is associate lecturer of Computing and Coded Culture at the Institute for Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media in Leuphana University, Lüneburg, where he has created teaching methods for hybrid coursework blending science, mathematics and cultural studies. He is also a lecturer in performative sound art at the ArtEZ academy of art in Arnhem.

Flora Reznik is an Argentinian artist based in The Netherlands. She studied in Universidad del Cine (FUC), obtained a diploma in Philosophy (University of Buenos Aires), while she worked as a video editor in film and TV, and co-funded the contemporary arts magazine “CIA”. In The Netherlands she graduated from the ArtScience Interfaculty department, in The Royal Academy of Art, and currently co-curates the artist initiative Platform for Thought in Motion, while she develops her work as an artist in the fields of video, performance, installation and text. She is busy with the notions of physicality, territory and time.

From the curators of the Reading Room: Thank you again to Andrej Radman, Lila Athanasiadou and Marcel Cobussen for their insights both in The Reading Room and in this piece! We hope to welcome you both back in Den Haag. And special thanks to all the participants that joined in this gathering.