Featured Minds: Sowon Park

Krishnan

Sowon is joining the UCSB English Department as a faculty member in the fall, from a position as Lecturer and Tutor in English at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Last winter, she presented her ongoing research on cognitive neuroscience and literature to our department. Her talk, “Memory and the New Unconscious”, identified metaphors of the unconscious mind and discussed the contributions that literature, psychoanalysis, and cognitive neuroscience might make when brought together.

Her most recent publication is ‘Transnational Scriptworlds’ in a special issue of The Journal of World Literature 1:2 (Brill, June 2016), The Chinese Scriptworld and World Literature, that she guest-edited. In her essay, Sowon examines the relations between writing and thought by comparing the ideographic “scriptworld” afforded by Chinese characters (China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam) with the alphabetic world.

sowon

 

What are you currently working on in your research or teaching that relates to the mind?

I have been researching representations of mind in the works of Woolf, Eliot, Joyce, and Beckett for a book called Modernism and the Mind. It discusses modernist ‘stream of consciousness’ literature of the early twentieth century in the light of recent cognitive neuroscientific findings in the areas of emotion, memory, perception and cognition. Teaching-wise, there was no room within the Oxford syllabus to teach courses in cognitive literary criticism at the undergraduate level. So I am delighted to be starting a course in ‘Mind, Brain and Literature’ in the winter term at UCSB.

How did you become interested in this field?

I specialized in Modernism in Graduate School partly because I became entranced by the specific kinds of experiences that are afforded by different kinds of writing. For example, certain passages written in free indirect discourse and ‘stream of consciousness’ technique can press the world of the character up against you closer and closer till for a moment you start feeling like that character. I was curious to understand such processes better. Cognitive neuroscientific evidence has helped me gain a better understanding of what happens during reading.

What unique contributions to mind studies are literary scholars (or scholars of the arts, or of the humanities in general) positioned to make to mind studies?

Some people question whether literary scholars can engage in a meaningful way with neurobiologists and researchers in artificial intelligence. And rightly so. Complex problems arise when trying to work across the divide of the “two cultures” and they tend to be exceedingly difficult to resolve. But before the remarkable expansion of the science of mind in the late twentieth century, the field that produced the most sustained forms of thinking about the mind was literature. Literature provides a historical archive of human thinking of every kind, which sometimes challenges and sometimes enriches scientific knowledge. Ultimately, answers to the really big questions about the mind are more likely to come from a broad framework which includes the cross-cultural and historical perspectives that the literary archive provides, as well as the cognitive neurosciences.

How do you see your interests in literature and the mind intersecting with other fields of study in the humanities (such as environmental scholarship, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity…)?

Another area in which I specialize is feminist theory and literature, and that intersects with mind studies in a very direct way. Admittedly, talking about the ‘female mind’ is very controversial. For several decades exploring sex differences was taboo for fear of entrenching gender essentialism and sex discrimination. There are still many who believe that for women to claim equality, gender neutrality must be observed. Of course, deconstructing gender essentialism is highly important. But I think ignoring sex differences is a disservice to women because it so often leads to an epic disregard for women’s specific realities, leaving unchallenged a masculine norm that parades as neutral. Gender is socially constructed but the constructions are not laid upon a tabula rasa. That is emphatically not to say that there is such a thing as a ‘female brain’ which is fixed. But attending to and gaining an accurate awareness of gender-specific biological predispositions is important too. Neurofeminism is necessary.

Where do you see this field heading? What’s unanswered (or just beginning to be answered) that you are curious about?

One of the most exciting areas in mind studies at the moment, for me, is the unconscious mind. While interrogations of the unconscious are far from new, cognitive neuroscience during the last thirty years has reclaimed the unconscious as the new scientific frontier. For the last two years I have run a neuroliterary seminar series on “Unconscious Memory”. (http://torch.ox.ac.uk/unconscious). And I am keen to re-start it at UCSB as soon as I find my feet.

What does literature do for minds?

This is a very difficult question. Wittgenstein famously said in his Philosophical Investigations that if a lion could speak we would not understand it. What he means by that is that the human mind, however lofty and rational, is never detached from our constrained sensory apparatus and is shaped by our material way of life. Literature is quite obviously a distinctively human mode of interaction, produced by minds for other minds. But that can make literature sound reified and instrumental. Another way of approaching literature is to see it as the place where our embodied social existence reveals itself. Literature shows us who we are, what we are capable of, what we hope for, what we fear. If literature can be said to do anything for minds, it is not as reified objects but as a human practice, whose meaning is grounded in our senses and situated in history.

 

Selections from Sowon’s Work:

Below you will find two excerpts from Sowon’s already-published work that illustrate her ongoing research interests.  You can also find her exploration of the field in “The Dilemma of Cognitive Literary Criticism,” a chapter from English Studies: The state of the Discipline, Past, Present, and Future (2015): 67-81.  (Please email litandmind@gmail.com if you would like a PDF of this chapter.) 

From ‘Beside Thinking’, The Canadian Review of Comparative Literature (April 2014): 5-12.

(This is a special issue of the journal guest-edited by Sowon.)

The most advanced teachings of the Buddha are said to have been conducted in silence. In the Zen world, this mode of communication is known as the ‘heart-to-heart transmission’ (以心傳心), a form of meditative practice that requires the banishment of all words from the mind. By abjuring language and, consequently, conscious thought, adherents believe that they can convey truths more profound than those that logical verbal discourse can express. So the lore goes.

 

It is unlikely that this mythic practice will carry much authority with our readers. For how would one know if the message has been received, if a ‘non-thought’ can be said to comprise something as concrete as a message at all? And where would one begin to assess the depth of the truths thus communicated, check the accuracy of the deductions, analyze the efficacy of the procedure, and test the reliability of the set-up? The transmission cannot be disproved and that would seem to be as much as intellectual inquiry can establish. But before one sweeps aside this putative interaction as pre-modern mysticism or ‘Eastern’ mumbo jumbo that science has eradicated, it might be remembered that it is not only the Zen master who subscribes to and has faith in mental processes beside thinking.

 

It takes but little reflection to note that in our everyday lives we engage in a vast range of non-verbal sense-making of the world of which we have little awareness. From gauging the weather to writing an essay to falling in love, we are all dimly conscious that what may appear as decisive thoughts and deliberate actions are in no small part maintained by the unrevealed mental processes that underlie them. Implicit cognition is also discernable in a wide range of deeply-rooted cultural practices. Dancers, actors and trapeze artists are, for example, just a few of the many whose shared physical actions rely on non-declarative communication. Though it is difficult to articulate exactly what is being communicated and how, it is evident that both the mythic Zen transmissions and dizzying Cirque du Soleil acts rely upon certain ‘non-thoughts’ and the communication of these ‘non-thoughts’ as an integral part of their task.

 

However, since the implicit mental processes that lead up to, or conflict with, our conscious awareness are not verifiable or even directly knowable, there is immense difficulty in attempting to cover the range of these processes with any conceptual precision. We speak vaguely of having a gut instinct, a hunch, a premonition, an intuition, a ‘sense’ of things. This ‘intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’, as T.S. Eliot put it (Four Quartets 1944, 23), about the unsaid and the unsayable has always been of great fascination to artists and writers, not least Henry James, whose major novels would unravel without the crucial unspoken messages that hold the epiphanic structure in place. Isabel’s recognition of the role of Madame Merle in the piano scene in The Portrait of a Lady, for example, is all the more real for having been produced out of the unsaid. If the processes of the mind that are not conscious have preoccupied writers and artists, scientists have mostly regarded them with indifference, maintaining that what is not testable and falsifiable is an unsuitable topic of inquiry. However, in a strange turn of events, undeclared mental processes have become in the last thirty years a revived area of interest in a number of scientific fields. In psychology, the concern with mental processes besides rational thinking was well represented by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (2011), which advanced the idea that the human mind processes information on two levels-by means of ‘System 1’, the intuitive, emotional and fast; and ‘System 2’, the rational, logical and slow. By drawing distinctions between intuitive and logical modes of thought, Kahneman successfully put rational thought on a par with what was customarily consigned to the Freudian unconscious. Before that Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of ‘thin-slicing’ – the unconscious and rapid processing of accumulated knowledge – in his bestselling Blink (2005), which went some way to support its subtitle: ‘The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’. Meanwhile, in neuroscience, the role of the unconscious in the human mind has become the new frontier. New and ongoing discoveries in memory and perception demonstrate that very little of what goes on in the brain is actually conscious, restoring the validity of the unconscious to human cognition. As the Nobel laureate neuroscientist Eric Kandel writes, ‘One of the most surprising insights to emerge from the modern study of states of consciousness is that Freud was right: unconscious mental processes pervade conscious thought; moreover, not all unconscious mental processes are the same’ (Kandel 2013, 546).

 

Against this background, this special issue on ‘Beside Thinking’ considers the range of meanings of what it is to know without thinking and how this mode of unconscious cognition has functioned throughout literary history in various cultures, alongside, beyond and against thought. While the idea of an unconscious has been a central concept in literary studies since at least the nineteenth century, with a great deal of specialized meaning accrued around it, there is still little agreement on what ‘not-thinking’ is. This special issue asks what the relation is between thought and ‘non-thought’, whatever its meaning, and discusses how thoughts define, regulate, and enable the concept of ‘non-thought’ in literature.

 

From ‘The Feeling of Knowing in Mrs Dalloway: Neuroscience and Woolf’, Contradictory Woolf: Select Papers from the Twenty-First Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf (May 2012): 108 – 114.

The chief task of the novelist, Woolf stated, was to convey the mind receiving “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, composing in their sum what we might venture to call life itself ” (Essays 3, 33). Novels should not merely provide the data that a character is processing in the mind—the shower of atoms—but express the experience of that data, to “record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall” (Essays 3, 33). So Woolf represents to the reader not just the information of what a character may see, hear, smell, taste and touch but the process of what it feels like to have that sight, sound, smell, taste and touch and the kind of thoughts and memories they trigger, making us acutely aware that while only some mental processes are conscious, all mental processes are physical. This produces in the reader a perceptual mimesis of consciousness which approximates the process of the sensations and cognitions of lived experience.

 

Likewise, Damasio (2000)’s discovery about how the body-loop functions in the normal mind was that the feelings generated by the body are an essential part of rational thought. Rationality requires feeling and feeling requires the body. So the body and the mind are actually indivisible. He asserts that we live inside this contradiction of anatomical reality: rationality produced from the flesh. Long before Damasio, Woolf wrote continually of mind depending upon flesh. For example, in “On Being Ill” (1930) Woolf observed that although

 

literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of glass through which the soul looks straight and clear…On the contrary the opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant. (4)

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That we do not have a body but are a body is a fact of our existence she captured … which is one of the reasons her prose feels so alive. Feelings and thoughts are never immaterial: they are formed through the body. She begins Mrs Dalloway (1925) with the squeak of Rumplemayer’s men taking the doors off the hinges, triggering in Clarissa the physical sensation of plunging into open air 30 years before when she burst open the French windows at Bourton, the memory of which feels like being flapped and kissed by the waves of the sea. Woolf presents physical sensations as a vehicle for knowledge, undercutting the presumed opposition between reason and emotion. And emotions are suffused with highly discriminating responses to what is of value to each character. The following is Clarissa Dalloway’s famous “feeling of knowing” from Mrs Dalloway: “Only for a moment; but it was enough. It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores. Then, for that moment, she had an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed… the moment” (MD 24). What may seem like contradictory cognitive processes—thinking and feeling—in the conceptual scenography of the “two cultures” are reshaped into a continuum of “feeling of knowing” in Woolf, as they are in the experiments of Damasio. … By incorporating feeling into epistemology, Woolf guides the reader’s mind through the structure of the somatic responses that gave rise to the thoughts of the characters; this in turn creates “as-if” responses in the reader as to how another mind thinks, how another body feels.

Announcements: New Faculty, New Director, New Theme

As a new academic year approaches, Literature and the Mind is pleased to welcome new faculty and a new initiative director.

After three years of dedicated and welcoming leadership, Julie Carlson will step down from her position as Director of the Literature and Mind Initiative.  With her guidance, we have explored “The Value of Care” and “Improvisation,” putting insights from mind and literary studies into conversation with students and scholars in disciplines across the university.  (Stay tuned for reflections and resources on “Improvisation,” coming soon).  As we move into the fall, Kay Young will take up the Initiative Director position, and will lead our group in studying “Intersubjectivity.”  More details will be announced as the 2016-2017 academic year gets underway!

This past winter, UCSB’s English Department held an exciting job search for a full-time faculty position in the field of cognitive literary studies.  We saw many excellent candidates and learned about cutting-edge research in this field; and we are happy to have Dr. Sowon Park of Oxford University join our department and Literature and Mind in the fall.  Here is a brief overview of Sowon’s interdisciplinary research:

Sowon S Park specializes in British Modernism, Political Fiction, World Literature, and the relationship between Literature and other forms of knowledge, in particular Cognitive Neuroscience. Before coming to UCSB, she taught at Oxford University for over a decade, where she was Lecturer and Tutor in English at Corpus Christ College.  Her previous academic appointments were at Cambridge University and Ewha University, Seoul.  She has also held visiting appointments at UCSD and ZFL, Geisteswissenschaftliche Zentren, Berlin.  She received an M.Phil and D.Phil in English from Oxford.  Recently, she was awarded a four-year AHRC grant to work on “Prismatic Translation’.  Her latest publication is a special issue of The Journal of World Literature that she guest-edited, titled, The Chinese Scriptworld and World Literature (June, 2016).  She has published her academic work in The Review of English Studies, ML!, ELT, European Review, Arcadia, Neohelicon and Comparative Critical Studies.  She has been President of the ICLA Research Committee on Literary Theory since 2014 and is the founder and convenor of the Unconscious Memory Network.

We look forward to sharing more of Sowon’s research, pedagogical interests, and perspectives of literature and the mind soon.

Reflections on Improvisation

Chryssa Varna, "Renders in a Row," from "Industrial Improvisation"

Ramiro Gomez, "Claudia y Patricia"

Text by Julie Carlson, with commentary by group participants.  Image credit: Chryssa Varna, from “Industrial Improvisation”, and Ramiro Gomez, “Claudia y Patricia”

Literature and the Mind has embarked on a two-year study of improvisation. Long associated with the impromptu, the ad hoc, the spontaneous, and the ensemble, improvisation currently is a popular topic in an array of disciplines because of the alternatives it poses to conventional and canonical standards of thought. A key feature of the phenomenology of improvisation is a series of dialectical paradoxes (i.e., tradition/innovation; structure/caprice; trust/risk; solo/group) that enlist modes of thinking that are embodied, post-formal, co-creative, and psycho-eco-analytic and thus that advance our group’s prior investigations of talking cures and theories and practices of care. Another key element is that improvisation is a life practice of virtually every type of creature, study of which demystifies “human” and “being” and intensifies cross-species collaborations, including display behaviors. This past year we read authors and invited speakers who discuss improvisation within disciplines such as performance studies, cognitive neuroscience, psychoanalysis, and biosemiotics. But in considering these various extensions of the history of thought, our particular interest was to stay focused on perspectives that emerge from improvisation’s two chief domains: performance arts and aggrieved communities.   Both domains, we believe, not only create things that enliven thought more de/constructively than most other perspectives but also, by approaching “thought” from two of its alleged underbellies, place into conversation and tension the different forms of sociality and society-making that the improvisatory tactics of the arts and the aggrieved envisage. If one powerful definition of jazz is “the sound of surprise,” improvisation, then, challenges us to reformulate trust in contexts where its being broken is a foregone conclusion. At the same time, improvisation in the arts and by the aggrieved demonstrates how crucially thriving remains tied to surviving and vice versa.

Because of this orientation, our group is especially drawn to centers like the International Institute for the Study of Critical Improvisation at the University of Guelph in London, Ontario who consider improvisation as a social as well as aesthetic practice. (Thanks to George Lipsitz, the UC Santa Barbara Center for Black Studies Research is pursuing a partnership with them.) Their projects endorse Muhal Richard Abrams’ assertion that “improvisation is a human right” and emphasize how theories and practices of improvised music offer models for human rights discourse and struggles that do not proceed from enlightenment concepts of autonomy, order, and individualism but instead from cooperation, negotiations of difference, risk-taking, and trust.   We thus started the year by reading chapters from one of their several book publications, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights and the Ethics of Cocreation, co-authored by Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, and George Lipsitz, and discussed with George Lipsitz (UCSB Department of Black Studies and Sociology) various arts-based community-revisions that are pursuing rights along more poetic lines of justice (e.g., Project Row-Houses in Houston, Free Southern Theater Institute, Students at the Center in New Orleans). But we also wanted our discussions to complicate what this “living-together” through improvisation entails by considering it from the perspectives of the undercommons, a collectivity for whom the concept of rights is bankrupt and whose joy in existence requires not playing with institutions, and of a psychoanalysis that counts living together as a singular creature one of the most problematic features of living. So we invited as our first two speakers Fred Moten (Professor of English, UC Riverside) and Philip Ringstrom (psychoanalyst and faculty at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis), who are the most creative improvisational thinkers we know in the fields of jazz and black radical thought and of psychoanalysis. Our second set of speakers, Grisha Coleman (Professor of Movement, Computation, and Digital Media, Arizona State University) and Ann Randolph (playwright, sketch comedian, improv instructor), pursue these impulses specifically through bodies of non/thought, each of them expert at using arts of the body to expand spaces for remaking a feel of togetherness.

 

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GUESTS/ SPEAKERS

24 November, 2014: FRED MOTEN

Co-sponsored with “Anti-Racism Inc.” of the American Cultures in Global Contexts Center

Image by Mike Tofanelli

Image credit: Mike Tofanelli

“When Literature and the Mind chose as its focus of study improvisation as a life practice that crosses species, foregrounds the arts, and crafts dis/order, we were channeling Fred Moten—and not just because his work is all about the topic and his writing is the most creative and innovatory that we know. It’s also that the things that he studies—jazz, the avant garde, the black radical tradition, the undercommons, fugitivity—are improvisations so that attending to them in the way that he does already puts us in this space, if we can hear what he is saying. There’s the rub. This is a challenge because mostly we encounter Fred through reading, not hearing, his writing, which is difficult and which means to be difficult in part because writing is not the preferred medium of the things he studies, all of whom and which have been defined as “thing” and as “nothing” by western can(n)ons of thought. So Fred writes from beyond the subject/object division, in the break or gap out of which differential somethings are generated, and without spending time—or wasting precious time—objecting to subjects and institutions invested in a symbolic order that perpetuates its relay race, even rat races also known as white flight. Fred’s words make readers go elsewhere, hear other voices and voicings, the noise and shimmer of movement, so that readers have a sensuous experience of absence, a sense of the surround of this sound, this place, this train of feeling. This requires returning words to their matter, the materiality by which loss moves—yo mama—and to the fantasy of the hold, the holding pattern, something that blackness and black study is in, not on its way toward or seeking to escape from, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require ongoing planning.

If reading typeface can conjure all this, Fred’s writings suggest, imagine—pick up on—what hearing jazz, walking downtown, dancing do. Here is the undercommons, where study happens apart from the sobriety, professionalizing, and criticizing that to his and Stefano Harney’s joint ears ruin universities and rob thought of the capacity to improvise. To me what is so powerful about Fred’s work is how its theorizing and embodying of improvisation connect improvisation and blackness as a life practice, a fugitive planning that we are in to the extent that we are in the dark and are comfortable being there: nothing new and always avant garde, not a choice but also not subjection or subjectifying, a sense surround. ‘Can this interplay of the refusal of what has been refused, this undercommon appositionality, be a place from which emerges neither self-consciousness nor knowledge of the other but an improvisation that proceeds from somewhere on the other side of an unasked question?’ ‘Let’s share so we can differ, in undercommon misunderstanding. Our undercommonness is that we have no standing. That’s all it is, that’s where it’s at, in the open we keep making.’”

 

2 February, 2015: PHILIP RINGSTROM

Photo by Mark Gerald

Photo credit: Mark Gerald, from “In the Shadow of Freud’s Couch”

“Involved in the school of thinking called ‘Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy’ that foregrounds the relationality of personhood in intrapsychic and interpersonal domains, Phil Ringstrom likes to speak of the ‘committee of the mind’ in describing psychic processes. He thus brings into clinical settings awareness of the startling number of persons and self-states present when allegedly two or three are gathered. In a recent interview celebrating the publication of his new book, A Relational Psychoanalytic Approach to Couple’s Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2014), Phil states that ‘couples psychotherapy may be the best modality for introducing new patients to psychodynamic psychotherapy,’ better initially than the more usual individual therapy, especially for those individuals who enter therapy with little familiarity with psychoanalysis. He gives as example the often-impoverished or astonished reaction of a patient to the invitation to describe how the analyst’s late arrival affected and is interpreted by him or her as opposed to the richly-elaborated response that a husband is ready to offer in responding to his wife’s late arrival to the session. More generally, his approach there, and in the work that we have read for today, is to supplement the analyst’s empathic introspective approach to the patient’s discourse with an enactive approach that attends to implicit as well as explicit modes of communication and draws on close observation of present moment encounters between analyst and analysand.

When we were first drawing up lists of potential invitees for our focus on improvisation, at least 3 people immediately said ‘you have to invite Phil Ringstrom.’ His mode of relational psychoanalysis draws on literary dimensions of the mind both in its attention to improvisation and to structuring features that analytic process shares with drama and theater.   Phil’s attention to the committee of the mind, and his attempts to ensure that these various constituents are heard, benefit from drama’s externalization of self-states into distinguishable but interacting dramatis personae. What he calls a relational ethic around which he organizes a therapeutic session helps to keep the role of analyst closer to that of a co-actor or player than director, observer, or critic. His writing fosters our ongoing interests in improvisation and its cross-disciplinary artistry, especially what we have been reading about the musical edges of therapeutic dialogue (Steven H. Knoblauch) and improvisational jazz as embodying the sound of surprise. His stance is theory-play, where a session becomes ‘a dramatic piece that neither of us would imagine on our own.’”

 

4 March 2015: GRISHA COLEMAN

Co-sponsored with Hemispheric South/s

EchoSystem-banner

“Ever since declaring improvisation our focus, we in Literature and the Mind have been eager to have Grisha Coleman here for the ways that her life, career, and practice coordinate several of the modes and theories of improvisation that we’ve been studying: music, theater, psychological and physical movement, forms of philosophy that privilege the senses, and forms of activism that stem from the undercommons. Currently Professor of Movement, Computation, and Digital Media at the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the School of Dance at Arizona State University, Grisha is also a dancer, composer, and choreographer of live performance and experiential media systems. She danced in the early 1990s with the Urban Bush Women and founded the music performance group Hotmouth, which toured extensively in the late 90s. Several of us already encountered one of her modes of thinking in the noon-hour movement workshop she conducted, ‘Embodying the Improvisatory,’ where we experienced ourselves as bodies in space that individuate and flock, rest and move, in a sense-surround where the body is no longer perceived or treated simply as the way to carry around one’s brain.

I first learned of Grisha’s work through Stephanie Batiste, who knew her at Carnegie Mellon and who collaborated with Grisha on a four-person panel called ‘Fat Black Monkeys: Systems Thinking and Critical Culture in the Choreography of the Other.’ The panel engineered a conversation on primates, big data, obesity, performance, and black speculative fictions in order to explore the function of choreography within and beyond the context of dance and of humans. Their focus on data bodies, technological bodies, racialized bodies, animal bodies aimed to highlight kinds of tactical bodies and choreographic thinking that cross species and times. Her amazing installation project, echo::systems, on which Grisha will be speaking today, highlights her other interests and expertise in computation and in environmental studies and activism. One project, ‘36 Walk: a case study of reciprocity in movement and computation,’ joins the kinesthetic and choreographic system that comprises a dance event with the procedural, algorithmic systems that compose the ‘bones’ of computational tools. ‘Echo::systems’ trains this coordination of movement and computation onto concern with the environment, in an effort to regain forms of connection with the land and to move persons to care more for and about it. This is kinesthetic (and kin-aesthetic) ecocriticism that promises to transform how we act in spaces.”
1 April 2015: ANN RANDOLPH: Improv Practicum

Co-sponsored with the College of Creative Studies

Lit & Mind Graduate Student-sponsored event: Organized and introduced by Rebecca Chenoweth

Ann Randolph, "Loveland" (photo by Teresa Wood)

Ann led us in our group’s first graduate student-sponsored event. When we thought about what direction we wanted to take our study of improvisation, many of us hoped we could use our event to put the ideas we’ve encountered so far into physical and verbal practice, by participating in improvisation as it’s understood in theater and even in everyday life. And when we looked for someone who could lead us in this workshop while adding more to our understanding of improvisation, it was clear to us that Ann’s background, focus on narrative form, and enthusiasm would make her the perfect fit.

Ann is an award-winning playwright, storyteller, sketch comedian, and improv instructor. Her latest solo show “Loveland” was awarded “best Solo Show” by SF Weekly and LA Weekly, and “Best Original Script by the SF Bay Critics. Her previous solo show, “Squeeze Box,” was produced by Mel Brooks and the late Anne Bancroft, and it was also awarded “Best Solo Show.” She is also a popular spoken word artist, winning the LA Moth storytelling competition and featuring on NPR, PBS, and the BBC.

As a sketch artist, she has performed her original material with renowned performance groups like The Groundlings and The Midnight Show (connected to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater), and has worked with the likes of Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, and the creators of “Reno 911.”

Ann drew on this extensive performance and writing background to lead others in workshops on topics ranging from “writing your life,” to “finding the funny in our darkest hour,” and “the healing power of story.” Ann helped us to engage the performative aspects of improvisation (as we did in Grisha Coleman’s movement workshop), and to consider how improvisation can be put into practice in everyday life.

 

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TALK/BACK

Each of our speakers was invited to talk about how improvisation figures in their lives, work, and ways of being. One of our underlying questions in focusing on improvisation is how to keep (or to make) life on the ground(less), especially our lives in the university, a source of creativity, of fun, a space that is receptive to un/thinking.   Here are some reflections on and reactions to their remarks.

 

FRED MOTEN

Fred describes what he was doing in In the Break as highlighting improvisation as a method of deconstruction. That book features resources in the black radical tradition that give a clue as to how to move through the nervous position that Adorno characterizes as an oscillation between two impossible modes of being in order to propose improvisation as a counter-neurotic, a pseudo-philosophical intervention. Then four or five years ago, he says, he became increasingly interested in the word “nothing,” by way of trying to remove the traces of agency in uplift-related phrases like “making something out of nothing” or “make a way out of no way.” His interest is in considering nothing as a different form of sociality and has begun thinking about global mysticism in relation to nothingness. This relates to his opposition to subjectivity and his rethinking of consent, expressed in “consent not to be one,” where consent is not tied to a subject or a subjective but instead is a framework in which we live. If sociality is structured not by self/other but by consent not to be one, then shame and a whole lot else isn’t necessary.

 

PHIL RINGSTROM

Phil’s writing and therapeutic practice challenge the longstanding proposition that an analytic stance of abstinence, neutrality, and anonymity is best suited to eliciting the patient’s unconscious. His mode is improvisational in line with his concept of psychoanalysis as a theory of play, in which the session becomes a dramatic piece that neither analyst or analysand would be able to imagine on their own. Describing several of his cases, he shows how privileging a participant-participant model of interaction allows for the analytic “third” to gain voice and enter the scene more readily. Binaries of dominance/submission or emergence/anxiety interfere with the improvisational, so part of his practice is to come down from the “perch” of neutrality and risk the presence of the present and all that is present in it.

Phil Ringstrom visited Santa Barbara as I was working my way through the “foundations and interfaces” section of the Lit and Mind qualifying exam reading list—although I don’t think it was timing alone that made his visit foundational to me. As I floundered in many different definitions of psychoanalysis and beliefs about how to practice it, Phil Ringstrom helped me to feel, for the first time in my studies, what psychoanalysis could be. Phil Ringstrom peppered his conversational discussion with anecdotes from his sessions that he jumped up and delivered in entertaining solo-performance style. The scenes he shared with us not only demonstrated how delightful it must be to be in analysis with him, but also how much he cares for the people he sees. Committing to play with someone in an imaginative improvised scene not only facilitates psychoanalytic work but also is affirming in itself.

 

GRISHA COLEMAN

Grisha’s multi-media art and performance installation “echo::systems” works to strengthen people’s capacity to listen as the land talks back. Acknowledging the profound disconnect between what science says and how people perceive what science says about the emerging global environmental crisis, “echo::systems” brings together environmental science, technology, and performance art in an effort to help individuals recover a relationship with the land. Part of this involves denaturing how we act in spaces by providing digitally mediated images of a particular ecosystem at an action station, where an individual’s movement on a treadmill activates real and imagined data drawn from cultural, historical, and ecological information of the given habitat (the entire project includes Abyss, Desert, Forest, Prairie, Volcano). The claim is that this denaturing helps invigorate how we act in those spaces because it provides a kinesthetic and immersive rather than observational and detached experience of space. Moreover, the treadmill makes individuals walk but not move, providing an embodied reflection on differential expenditures of energy. As with other Sense Labs that our group has been studying, Grisha’s “echo::systems” dis/orients minds and bodies in space in the hopes of granting those spaces more time.

Grisha’s interactive art installation of the “Desert” should draw attention to the disconnect between the climate controlled experience of Coleman’s participant-audience living in Phoenix and the life-threatening journey of those attempting to immigrate to the U.S. through the deserts surrounding that asphalt metropolis. Coleman invited Phoenix residents to walk on treadmills while viewing footage she had filmed of the nearby deserts. She incorporated their experiences into her performance that focused on the connection between desert spaces and spiritual journeys.

 

While Grisha visited us, she also led members of Literature and the Mind and Hemispheric South/s in a Movement Workshop, the first of two encounters that we had with theatrical, dance, and generally embodied forms of improvisation. We followed these wordlessly, focusing on our own movement and that of our neighbors. Rather than directing us to move in a particular pace or direction, Grisha invited us to decide what felt “fast” or “slow” to us, and to maneuver in relation to those around us without being entirely guided by them. This workshop helped us to consider movement in relation to our environment, which is a crucial aspect of the “echo::systems” installation; and more broadly, it challenged us to consider the extent to which our minds are embodied.

 

ANN RANDOLPH

Ann first recounted aspects of her life-story as an unintended journey toward improv artistry through a series of improvisatory (aka last-ditch) responses to persistent roadblocks to achieving her goals. In effect, these thwartings suggested to her that the real problem was the idea of life as moving toward a defined goal rather than as ongoing movement in accordance with consideration of where a prior move takes or simply lands one. She then led us through a series of improv exercises. One had us moving through imagined apertures with different parts of the body taking the lead in order to experience what mental/emotional stances emerge when the arm or pelvis or chest leads the body. Pairing off, we then did a series of exercises in relaying speech, responding to the other’s statement “Please don’t go” with “I have to go” back and forth over and over. A final free-write began with the prompt “I knew it was over when” or “how I got my name,” which each of us then read aloud—a striking experience of how intimately one can know another whom one doesn’t know in the conventional sense and of how rarely such encounters happen.

Ann Randolph’s initial solo-performance lured me to into a false state of comfort by inviting me to play my accustomed role of audience member. She then raised the stakes by inviting us to do curious things with our voices and bodies. Some requests seemed natural to me—I guess I do walk around leading with my hips or head. The further her directions pushed me from my own-self-performance, the more challenging they were to follow——I can’t remember the last time I shouted at someone, and it did not feel good during her workshop. These wild and silly activities, however, did loosen something in my mind because when she asked us to write the words came tumbling down like flight attendants fear luggage will from overhead compartments on turbulent flights. While it was frightening to share my personal writing, the willingness of others to share—as they participated in all the other activities—made it possible for me to share mine. I am grateful for the commitment of the group to play and share.

 

 

To add to these thoughts, please email Rebecca Chenoweth or Julie Carlson.