Mikhail Epstein

The "collective improvisation" is a heuristic model elaborated and tested in several interdisciplinary associations in Moscow which were founded and directed by this author: "The Club of Essayists" (1982-1987), "The Image and the Thought" (1986-1988), and the Laboratory of Contemporary Culture, an independent research and educational arm of Moscow Experimental Center of Creativity (1988-1990). My colleagues represented a broad spectrum of both academic and non-academic professions: philosophers, artists, poets, linguists, physicists, and sociologists.

I shared this experience of what we called "co-thinking" (Russian somyslie ) with such wonderful friends and colleagues as Ilya Kabakov (artist, essayist), Lyudmila Polshakova (philologist), Olga Vainshtein (philologist, literary scholar), Vladimir Aristov (mathematician and poet), Boris Tseitlin (physicist and literary critic), Maria Umnova (philologist), Iosif Bakshtein (sociologist, art critic), Ludmila Morgulis (mathematician), Igor Iakovenko (cultural scholar), Aleksei Mikheev (linguist) and others. Almost all of them still live in Moscow. Together we grappled with the problems of interdisciplinary thinking and experimented with new modes of critical writing, dialogical imagination and other models that attempted to break dualities between self and other, public and private, performer and audience, speech and silence in order to form new more authentic thinking communities.

Most often, the experiments involved people from a broad range of professional backgrounds writing collaboratively in groups from 5 to 15 on collectively chosen topics. The topics tended to be the most trivial-seeming ones, such as the role of garbage in civilization, punctuation marks, or sharp and cutting objects--which, it was argued, contained a more fertile scope of associations than those general ideas already elaborated and exhausted in the metaphysical and ideological traditions. To improvise means to create unpredictably in the presence of others, to liberate creativity in the process of communication and thus to make visible the importance of the daily, concrete and immediate experience that typically is considered to exist outside of demarcated cultural borders.

The goal of collective improvisation is to encourage interactions among vastly different disciplinary perspectives, life experiences, and world views. In his reflections on the intellectuals of the future, Richard Rorty remarks: "They would be all-purpose intellectuals who were ready to offer a view on pretty much anything, in the hope of making it hang together with everything else." Improvisations might be thought of as metaphysical "assaults" on ordinary things, experiments in the creative communication, or exercises in the creation of what Rorty calls "all-purpose intellectuals."

The collective improvisation can be seen as a microcosm of culture in that creativity and communication, writing and talking, are compressed into the same time and place, allowing one to be aware of the consciousnesss of others and to discover otherness in one's own consciousness, enacting new intellectual identities and creating new public dimensions for discourse.


The word "improvisation," derived from the Latin "providere," literally means "unforeseeable". To improvise means to create unpredictably. Any kind of creativity, however, shares this feature, otherwise our mental activity would be better characterized as knowledge, scholarship, erudition, exercise, training. What makes improvisation different from creativity as such which to a certain degree is also improvisational?

Usually in creativity the unforeseeable is contained in the mind of the creator himself. Loneliness is a precondition for a creative self-expression: a person seems to converse with himself, therefore the conversations with other people become irritating and disturbing for her.

Quite different is the case when the unforeseeable is contained in the consciousness of another person, where it dwells completely beyond the competence and horizon of the improvisor. The theme of improvisation is given to me by somebody else, or it can be also a mutual act of theme exchange. Improvisation is such a type of creativity that evolves between the poles of the known and unknown which are contained in different consciousnesses. This is why improvisation, as distinct from self-centered creativity, necessarily includes the process of communication; somebody suggests a topic, unexpected for the improvisor, whose task is to elaborate this topic unexpectedly for the one who suggested it. Thus, two unpredictabilities arise from the improvisation as an encounter of two consciousnesses. The specificity of improvisation is that it is creativity via communication.

Then a new question arises: if improvisation is impossible without communicaton, how is it different from communication as such?

Regular modes of communication presuppose that one interlocutor communicates to another what is already known to him. Even news communicated in such typical situations is news only for the listener but not for the speaker. Typically, communication only reproduces those facts and ideas which existed before and independently of the process of communication that therefore aims to diminish the unknown and to transform it into something known, extending it in a horizontal dimension from one person to another. The psychological value of communication comes from the fact that its participants share their thoughts and feelings, and the contents of one consciousness transfers into another.

Although improvisation is impossible without communication, it pursues quite different goals. What the listener communicates to the improvisor, when proposing a topic for his thought, is something unknown; and what is communicated by the improvisor in response to the proposed topic is also unknown for the improvisor himself. Here the unknown generates something still more unknown. Having received an unforeseeable theme, the improvisor further elaborates it in an unforeseeable way.

Thus, improvisation is distinct from creativity in that it incorporates the communication with a different consciousness; but it is also distinct from communication in that it includes an act of creativity, i.e. the production of something unprecedented and unforeseeable. Typically, the communication with another person distracts from the act of creativity and, vice versa, the act of creativity inhibits or impedes the process of communication. In improvisation, however, creativity and communication strengthen rather than neutralize each other. Improvisation unifies creativity and communication as two modes of transcending one's own consciousness. In creativity, this transcendence acquires a vertical dimension, since it is addressed to a higher plane of oneself, whereas communication is a horizontal transcendence, whereby an individual relates himself to another individual.

Thus, improvisation is the intersection of the horizontal and vertical modes of transcendence. Through improvisation the otherness of another person gives an impetus to and opens the perspective for my own creative self-transcendence. The encounter with the consciousness of other people and the discovery of otherness in one's own consciousness are the two mutually stimulating processes in improvisation.


Overall, in the period of 1982-1987, we have conducted 72 improvisations, approximately one per month. The most regular participants in our sessions were the physicist Boris Tseitlin, the mathematician Vladimir Aristov, the literary scholar Olga Vainshtein, the philologist Mariia Umnova, the sociologist Iosif Bakshtein, and the housewife Liudmila Pol'shakova. The same sessions were occasionally visited by dozens of guest participants.

Each of us attempted to approach a chosen topic from the standpoint of one's own discipline, the latter being understood broadly enough to include non-academic venues of thinking, such as of a housewife. Very often, however, we exchanged our perspectives, so that a physicist performed as a linguist, and a literary scholar converted into a theologian or an economist.

Generally, the preference was given to more concrete, narrow, and trivial topics, such as "hockey game," "birthday parties," or "weather conditions," because they contained a richer scope of associations than topics already elaborated and exhausted in metaphysics, such as "good," "evil," or "freedom." The old logical rule says that the more narrow the concept, the richer its content; therefore, the most general concepts such as "substance" or "spirit" are almost empty. That is why we tried to approach issues which belonged to ordinary life and, consequently, proved to be "no one's" in terms of their relevance for specific sciences and disciplines. It was surprising to discover how much interdisciplinary consciousness has in common with the ordinary, lying outside the demarcated cultural borders.

For example, one topic that caused unexpected intellectual animation was prompted by the fact that the first improvisational session occurred in the spring time, when people changed their heavy winter hats to lighter coverings. As we wrote about hats and how they can be viewed and used in heroic, tragic, comic, and idyllic aspects, this juxtaposition of everyday objects with the categories of traditional aesthetics allowed the participants to achieve a double effect: on the one hand, the high concept was ironically estranged and reduced to the trivial, on the other hand, the trivial object was elevated to the rank of an "eternal idea." This "double-think," the ambivalence of ascending and descending interpretations, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of interdisciplinary thinking. The improvisors used to call themselves "metaphysical soldiers," implying that the "generals" of metaphysics like Hegel or Kant prefer to concentrate on the most general aspects of being and observe it from the highest, "mountain" perspectives as befitting commanders-in-chief, while we, like rank and file, are thrown into the thickness of the ordinary and are responsible for a metaphysical explanation of the most trivial things, such as spoons and forks, berries and fruits, which will never attract the mind of a generalist.

A general concept, on the communicative plane, presupposes the ascension of various minds to a point of consent and universal harmony which was believed to be the highest goal of metaphysical contemplation in Plato and Hegel. On the contrary, ordinary things are ordinary precisely because they cannot be reduced to one general idea. Interdisciplinary improvisation offered a variety of ideas that could resonate with the given concrete object, but none of these ideas could encompass the object completely; therefore, the difference of ideas was justified by the opaque nature of the object itself. A hat torn away by somebody from his head and trampled by his feet would mean a gesture of heroic despair and determination, whereas the same hat put on the grass would signify an idyllic state, where the top and the bottom are brought to the same level. These were only two of the numerous ideas that helped us to explain "the eternal essence" of the hat and still not exhaust it, because the hat is far from being simply an eternal idea or a disciplinary term. No concept could be completely adequate to this ordinary object; rather, its comprehension demanded the deployment of newer and newer concepts.


We tried to alternate various modes of improvisational technique in the intellectual dynamics of the communal body. The most regular kind of improvisation included 6 stages:

1) discussion of the topics suggested by the participants, choice of one of them, and distribution of its various aspects among participants (each chooses his own personal and professional angle on the subject) (approximately 30-40 min.);

2) writing individual essays (1 hour);

3) reading and oral discussion of essays (1 hour);

4) writing a post-essay improvisation as a comment on or a summary of what had been written and discussed before. (15 min.)

5) reading and discussion of these meta-improvisations. (20-30 min.)

6) collection of all written materials of the given session into a coherent whole, a trans-individual text.

Another type of improvisation was more fragmented: each one started to write his own topic, without preliminary discussion, and ten or fifteen minutes later the sheets of paper moved from left to right and continued moving periodically until the topic, initiated by each participant, made the full circle incorporating the contributions of all other participants. For example, one wrote about the perception of time, another about the theater scene, the third about domestic animals, and as a result all six or seven topics came to be interpreted by six or seven participants. Instead of six or seven essays, we produced thirty-six or forty-nine fragments, arranged in six or seven thematic groups.

More obliging and sophisticated was the third type of improvisation which complicated the task of the second type: each participant had to interpret the theme of the other participants by relating it to his/her own theme. For example, A started his round of writing by discussion of the role of money in the contemporary world; another, B, quite independently from A, launched the topic "the attitude of a person toward his/her own name"; and C initiated the problem of the contemporary village as a remainder of a pre-urbanist type of mentality. When B received A's paper, he had not only to continue A's discussion of money but to treat this problem through its association with naming, and C had to add the village aspect to the topics of money and names. Sometimes the connections proved to be artificial, but in a number of cases the improvisation succeeded in demonstrating how a given problem contained logical or metaphorical intersections with all other problems, however arbitrary their initial choice might be.

One of Anaxagoras's sayings might best explain the meaning of our endeavors: "In everything there is a part of everything." The same insight came almost at the same historical period from another part of the globe, China: "There is no such thing that would not be that and there is no thing that would not be this" (Chuang Tzu). The third aphoristic argument comes from the leader of French surrealism, Andre Breton: "Every thing can be described by means of any other thing." Indeed, in the third type of improvisation, where all topics, independently launched, had to be convincingly linked, the name proved to be the universal sign of social exchange in the same way as money was a universal sign of economic exchange. And the lack of money, circulating in the village, proved to be an analogue of the absence of surnames and the dominance of patronymics (even at the expense of names) in the village community.


A next step in the evolution of collective improvisations was the project of the lyrical museum that involved interpretation not merely of concrete concepts and images but of singular things. Like some other of our projects, it was first designed to be realized in a public space, as an exhibition in a gallery, but a series of tacit political resistances led us finally to implement this project in the apartment of one of our participants, to the benefit of the entire project.

A singular thing as compared with a class of objects is still more opaque to reflection; it is difficult to identify the idea of a hat, but it is practically impossible to spell out the idea of this unique hat which belongs to Vladimir or to Lyudmila and hangs on the wall of his or her apartment, as a potential exhibit in the lyrical museum.

The ultimate impossibility of a rational assimilation or verbal representation of a specific material object adds still another dimension to transcultural consciousness, which operates not only with signs and symbols but also with singularities, inasmuch as they are transcendental to consciousness and, therefore, cannot be presented in the system of culture otherwise than through their own authentic being. In the lyrical museum, verbal descriptions of objects are exposed along with the things themselves, so that through the diverse levels of their semiotic representation, and through the varieties of metaphoric associations and conceptual interpretations, the singularities of these things could be posited in their irreducibility to concepts and signs, as occupying a distinct trans-semiotic space.

Things are selected and presented in the lyrical museum on the following assumptions:

A traditional museum semioticizes things by rendering them as signs of other realities, such as ancient civilizations or great people's lives and achievements, whereas the intention of our museum was the desemioticizing of things, the disclosure of the irreducible gap between their silent singularity and those multiple signs that claim to represent them. The lyrical museum aims to discover in mundane objects, such as kitchen utensils or children's toys, that level of experience which resists metaphorization or even signification and, in so doing, allows us to escape conventional perceptual habits and restore the materiality of an everyday thing, typically shrouded in ideological or commercial projections. In the lyrical museum, descriptions of objects were presented along with the specific object itself--the actual spoon, or hat, or candy wrapper--so that through the diverse, multidisciplinary levels of semiotic representations and varieties of metaphoric associations, the sigularities of these objects could be posited in their irreducibility to concepts and signs.

The purpose of these and other experiments was to reinvest the daily, the quotidian, with dignity, solidity, integrity, and wonder. In the time of collapse of communism--the most extraordinary utopia of the past--we felt our duty to create a utopia of the ordinary rather than reject utopianism as such.

Some topics of Moscow improvisations (72 improvisations, 1982-1987)

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