‘Doing’ monstrosity: Two conferences, four minutes of free improv and the death of ‘data’

Forgive me for coming over all Deleuzian, but I want to try to follow a line of flight that escapes when I thread two recent conferences and a free improvised music gig into the same thought string. I’ll blame Rachel’s superb post (see the video below) if I must, because the imaginative risk that she takes there inspires the link that I want to make. The link is monstrosity, but anyway…

The first conference, Contested Democracy, was at the Institut du Monde Anglophone at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3, during 20-22 Sept. The second, The Riots: One year on, was a week later at London South Bank University. The bit of free improvised music was a video clip of a performance by two improvising musicians, Mick Beck and Phil Marks, which I brought as my contribution to the data discussion convened by Maggie.

Both conferences were exploring how the academy might respond to recent events – the occupy movement, the riots – that have expanded the conventional boundaries of protest and the political. Specifically, they welcomed cross-disciplinary contributions. In response, I put papers to both in collaboration with two colleagues who are outside my own ‘official’ field of education and social research but are linked to my work as an improviser (watch this video if you want to know what I get up to when I’m ‘out’). My collaborators were Gary Anderson, a performance artist based at Liverpool Hope (instigator of The Free University of Liverpool) and Gill Whiteley at the School of Art at Loughborough (see her website ‘bricolagekitchen‘).

Our papers – on monstrous practices of dissent – tried to work with the idea of the monstrous (both riots and occupations have been described negatively as ‘monstrosities’ in media coverage) but from a Deleuzian perspective.  According to Deleuze, “State Philosophy”, as he called it, might, when approached from ‘behind’ (in Deleuze’s notorious formulation) give birth to positively ‘monstrous’ progeny in the radical form of non-representational ‘nomad thought’. Our papers worked methodologically, therefore, out of a space between social science (ethnography, certainly) and art practice that Rachel’s work also seems to inhabit. Indeed, I’d argue that Rachel’s blog post is a superb example of the critical power of monstrosity that we were trying to conjure (I hope that’s flattering Rachel?)

Now, free improvised music (not often easy on the ear, it has to be said) works in the same way, too. It, similarly, tries to come up behind the orthodoxy of ‘Sate Philosophy’ in music with the aim of liberating a kind of nomadic monstrosity. And in that – whatever one thinks of it aesthetically – it resonates with how some of us are trying to ‘do’ research non-representationally.

And that is what, in sub-Deleuzian mode, I was trying hard not to explain – but rather to show – at Maggie’s data session.

Geoff Bright

One thought on “‘Doing’ monstrosity: Two conferences, four minutes of free improv and the death of ‘data’

  1. Interesting post Geoff; it does seem to be the case that what one might term ‘basic’ empirical ethnography no longer has the power to illuminate or disturb. It just describes what we all already know – from TV documentaries, the internet, etc, etc. It is almost as if 50 years of mass communication plus the privileging of the individual story, the individual narrative (‘human interest’ in journalism and ‘voice’ in cultural studies/human rights discourses etc.) has rendered traditional ethnography obsolete – the original power of ethnography has been adopted by the media and rendered routine – we are all ethnographers now – we are no longer in the same position as when Park, Roy, Becker et. al. were writing in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Different forms of knowledge production and reporting are required in order to disturb and provoke. For an interesting artistic take on this ( or least what I think is ‘this’) see Kara Walker’s piece on black (American) history in Manchester City Art Gallery’s ‘The First Cut’ exhibition.

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