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Deconstructin(g) Jazz Improvisation: Derrida and the Law of the Singular Event

Sara Ramshaw

Published: 2006-12-02

Taking as its point of departure the improvised jazz-text collaboration between Ornette Coleman and Jacques Derrida at the 1997 Paris La Villette jazz festival, this article critiques the dominant positioning of Western law and jazz as that which is either completely devoid of improvisation (law) or founded solely upon such (jazz). By reading Derrida’s texts on law and justice in tandem with his views on invention, the impromptu nature of improvisation is confronted and its relation to both jazz and law is interrogated. In his work on law and invention, Derrida probes the problematic relation between the singular and the general in order to challenge the supposed uniqueness of invention, along with the universality, which is said to propel occidental law. These observations, when applied to the critical study of improvisation, disrupt the prevailing understanding of the “extempore” and illustrate how improvisation so defined can be neither total in jazz nor totally absent in law. Instead, the singular (extempore) event exists solely as aporia in both fields. This unpacking of the aporetic nature of singularity reveals not only the inevitability of legal invention, but also the necessity of the “jazz form”. Beyond this, however, and perhaps shedding some light on Derrida’s participation in the “improvised” event described above, there exists an openly responsive dimension to the both jazz and law. This dimension, although never complete or absolute, glances towards the singular other and keeps alive the possibility of creativity, ethics, democracy and justice in Western law and society.

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So one of the things that improvisation has come to mean in the context of highly technological performance is that improvisation is the last claim to the legitimate presence of a human in the performance of music.

– Bob Ostertag