Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What We Already Know

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw -

- Percy Shelly, The Mask of Anarchy

Hi JP,

I completely understand your feelings about all this (we are after all doing this blog together). What this reminds me of is the conversation I often have about capital "A" Anarchy with people who don't identify as Anarchists. The common assumption is that Anarchy proposes an every-man-for-himself world with no rules and no system. Social-Darwinism, survival of the fittest, etc. To me, that's already the world that we live in, at least in terms of how Capitalism is structured and ultimately in terms of how a lot of people relate to one another. Obviously there are A LOT of rules and police-like institutions which try to regulate our behavior, but ultimately if you can get away with it, if you don't get caught, or if you have the right amount of privilege, you have no social responsibility to anyone. That's how we as a civilization have gotten into this mess.

Anarchism on the other had actually depends on Order, not chaos, to function. The idea is that everyone is free actor, but has made a consensual agreement to act in a way that is mutually beneficial and does not depend on hierarchies or the oppression of others. I've participated in a lot of anarchist projects that actually work this way, and in fact thrive because of these conditions. In my experience 5 capitalists in the woods means someone is going to go hungry, get lost or be left behind, where as 5 anarchists in the woods means everyone eats, all are being looked after and no one is left behind. One is good for cougars, the other is good for people.

Many years ago I had my mind blown by Percy Shelly's poem, The Mask of Anarchy. At first I assumed that it would be a repudiation of the masses of working class people, the barbarians at the gate. In fact it is a scathing critique of Power, detailing with rigorous condemnation the abuses of Royalty, Government and the Church. Essentially he's saying that those forces which lead to war, poverty, political and spiritual disenfranchisement in fact reflect the kind of horrible chaos that is generally supposed to be called "Anarchy".

I guess what I'm saying is that being free and having structure or systems are not mutually exclusive. I would argue that they have an integral relationship. Consent is key. If all the actors in project consent to their participation, and are not threatened with some kind of punishment or other form of coercion, then I would argue they are no less free than before. Free will never has to be compromised, nor individuality, in order for a group of people to act in their mutual benefit. My own short definition of Anarchy is "Personal liberty with collective responsibility". Again, I view anarchy as being people acting of their free will but for the benefit of everyone, where as Capitalism is people acting of their free will but for the benefit of themselves only, even at the expense of others.

So a traditional symphony is not a win-win situation, but a drum circle is. A drum circle's participation is voluntary, the roles are not rigidly defined, improvisation is possible, but everyone voluntarily playing in mutually beneficial ways (ie: in sync) make a drum circle a success for everyone. A symphony can be a a win-win I suppose, since everyone is collectively acting not as individuals but as part of a whole. Yet between the hierarchical role of the conductor and the composer, the existence of privileged members such as soloists, and the consequences of divergent or non-participation (exclusion from the symphony, a damage to career, etc) there is plenty to differentiate the two.

In the end, we all know from when we were little that sharing and playing together nicely has benefits. It's hard to play most games with other kids when there isn't some sort of agreed upon rules of the game. I'd say that half the game seems to be deciding the rules, inventing rules and breaking rules (tag, wall ball, hot lava monster anyone?). I think there are times when rules of the game give us more freedom because we know in what way we can mutually participate for the collective benefit and because the rules ARE the game. When we talked last October about this very blog you mentioned this particular game. It's maybe one of the simplest win-win games I've encountered but even this game needs some basic rules to be performed. To make it great art we begin adding more conditions and rules. The player is not any more or less free - they'll either participate or not - but for the people who play the game, the rule IS the game.

Keep it up (mutual aide, solidarity and cooperation - a win-win game classic)

An example of how selfish free will succumbs to the better nature of the game...

An example of how sometimes the players decide the rules of the game, and you just have to let them...

For more cooperative "Balloon Games" go here...


  1. believe me i understand where you guys are coming from. But i‘ve come to feel differently about a few things. and gabe‘s post reminded me of it.

    i used to think that the orchestra situation, for example, was pure spectacle, capitalist specialization and machination, alienating the audience from their own creative potential etc. BUT, it‘s as consensual as any drum circle. i mean i like a good concert every now and then, and it can feel good to perform in that staged context. at the social level, it is desired by all involved (you dont have to buy a ticket). perhaps the issue remains with a larger scale vision of how society, creativity, and skill co-exist (while spectacle performance has existed all over the world for centuries, even in romanticized egalitarian societies, often as ritual). but this is where top-down conceptualizing finds friction with a bottom-up problem.

    And this is where anarchism or any -ism risks projecting the ideological negative onto an otherwise open field. So, it‘s not so much anymore about fabricating alternatives or overthrowing the existing frameworks, but about using the tools that are available to us. and the stage or concert hall, to follow that example, and one that i am around more and more, is one of them. and so is the drum circle, or karaoke (in a latenight walmart), or bedroom pop.

    i cant help but believe that there is always an -archy at work (though it may lack a face or name), and so it comes down to a willingness to engage a ruling force (limitations, any limitation) to optimum goodness.

    remembering new york art students attacking Joseph Beuys for his exhibition at the Guggenheim. “how can you say everyone is an artist, when you are privileged to sit at this podium“. his response was “I have been given an opportunity to say what I need to say and I am using that opportunity.“ (paraphrased).

    remembering simone weil‘s comment of life in prison. tapping on the cell wall, using the wall as a means of communication. “the world is a closed door, a barrier, but it is also the way through.“

    cherishing the forum/dialogue. hope you both good in the good.


  2. Thanks Matt. I guess from where I stand alot of the crux of my interest in what I am calling "win win games" comes from a desire to explore a different format and forum for experiencing music. This week I led a small orchestra in a composition I wrote at my new home that included a potluck, I played a improvised duet at a gallery downtown, I am DJing tomorrow at a bar with 3 dancy bands. This blog is my way of saying "yes and?" I completely agree with alot of your assesment of the orchestral situation although the mitigating factors of finance and position are also things about it that affect its politics and role as a ritualized experience as compared to a drum circle...which has its own financial and political issues (who is the best drummer, who drove here in a '56 custom VW camper etc). I think from the point of view of a dirty hippy like me the latter is a slightly more managable context and that might just say something about my upbringing (in fact I know it does). Some questions tho. How much more or less of a role do certain kinds of coersion play in the music process and are they creative or destructive? How does the experience of group play make you feel as opposed to spectacle? What are the opportunities to experience each and are they on an equal footing when it comes to finance, politics, social heirarchies etc? I dunno...things to think about...
    you are awesome!!