A few weeks ago I wrote about the Duchy of Lancaster and how this institution uses ambiguity as a tool in its armoury of protecting privilege. Then, last week Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator David Davis made the following claim about Britain’s negotiating position. Responding to criticism that the Governments position is unclear he said:
You will find it difficult sometimes to read what we intend, That’s deliberate. I’m afraid in negotiations you do have constructive ambiguity from time to time.
So it seems a good time to revisit the idea of ambiguity in politics. As some of the more destructive ideas have emerged from the world of contemporary art it is useful to see how ambiguity, disguise and misperception is exploited in this domain. We can then see more clearly how they have been deployed to unsettle and confuse us.
Potential Images; Imprecise and Disturbing
In his book Potential Images: Ambiguity and Indeterminacy in Modern Art, Dario Gamboni writes that
Ambiguity may be defined as the character of what is susceptible to different interpretations. It can also be said to express the character of ‘what belongs to two interpretations’ and of ‘what lacks precision and disturbs’.
Lacks precision and disturbs will be recurring themes. Gamboni was writing about the visual arts but makes it clear that ambiguity is widespread and present in all contemporary art to some degree. Partly as a result of the methods of communication employed and partly due to greater familiarity with sonic art on my part I shall focus on how the ideas work out in music.
The use of misperception is not new. Three hundred years ago the Baroque composer J.S.Bach, for example would often place a bass note briefly at the start of a phrase knowing that the listener will unconsciously ‘hear’ it for the duration of the phrase. A little later on a favourite trick of Mozart was to miss out important notes altogether, again knowing that the listener will unconsciously fill in the missing note without realising they have done so.
What Can Free Improvised Music Tell Us?
But one contemporary form of music which evolved in the 1960s has elevated the art of ambiguity and disguise to new levels (check out artists AMM, Evan Parker or The Spontaneous Music Ensemble for a start). In so called Free Improvisation the performers play with literally no score and no pre-arranged materials and often become adept at hiding behind or mimicking the sounds of their fellow performers in a live gig. The aim is to confuse the listener both as to the source of the sound and the intention behind it. Why would they do this?
There are a number of reasons but I’ll focus on the ones which directly relate to the signals and communication used in politics to confuse us. Lets start with what is known as a gesture. This is simply a unit of sound, maybe a single note or a short series of notes. Imagine the first two notes of the famous Jaws movie theme. That is a very dark and threatening indeed! So a gesture, by its very nature, carries information about the gesturer. A threatening shark! But your favourite musician in any style will convey information about themselves. That’s why you listen to them.
Free improvisation, however, has a strong collectivist ethic at its core, encouraging performers to suppress their egos and find ways of disguising gestures in order to minimize this information. They don’t want you to know about them as individuals because all they want you to care about is the music as a whole. Anonymity is important and in certain groups the aim is to achieve it so perfectly that even the performers themselves don’t know who is making which sound! This may seem strange? It’s actually very cathartic (compare it with Tibetan chanting, for example).
The second reason for using disguise and ambiguity in performance art is to unsettle the audience. The mere act of not knowing who is making which sound compels the listener to try and guess, forcing them to think for themselves and become unwitting participants on the musical event. As they are drawn into the performance they becoming a participant in the process.
Deploying the Ideas in Contemporary Politics…..
All this talk about gestures, ambiguity and disguise may seem at first to be a world away from contemporary politics. But it is not. The concepts have been used for a long time and people versed in the methods of modern art are using them right now! With this brief exposition of the ideas we are better placed to see how it works.
As filmmaker Adam Curtis has described in various documentaries (see this short film for an example), the aim of using ambiguity and disguise is to engender a feeling of powerless. The world seems simply too complex and you are supposed to give up trying to understand it. Curtis has brought to our attention an important exponent of these concepts, Vladislav Surkov who is one of President Putin’s advisers. Surkov is a central figure in Putin’s entourage, helping him maintain power for 15 years. Although ambiguity has been used for centuries, he has deployed the ideas in completely new ways as a direct result of his background in the avant-garde art world.
Surkov has made the approaches I have just described the very stuff of politics. He has effectively toyed with perceptions, stage managing conflict and creating oppositions that seems to undermine politics and social structure. Surkov has reportedly funded both extreme Left and Right Wing movements in Russia and beyond as subterfuge, to keep people guessing. Remember the free musician’s idea of disgusising their sounds so the audience is uncertain as to its origin? Also remember that you are also invited to make your own decision as a partner in the process. But in this environment how can you be sure you have made the correct decision, especially as the next move may be to undermine your choice!
….In Many Countries and Circumstances
As Curtis says:
Everything we’re told by journalists and politicians is confusing and contradictory. Of course, there is no Mr. Surkov in charge [In Britain], but it is an odd, non-linear world that plays into the hands of those in power.
Surkov may be an arch exponent of the new politics of misperception through disguise and ambiguity but remember that the establishment has been using less sophisticated versions of these tactics for centuries. But today the methods are sophisticated. We are told that we live in an age of austerity, that foodbanks are unavoidable. Yet at the same time hundreds of billions of pounds are pumped into the upper layers of the economy to support the stock market and keep asset prices at an unreasonably high level for the wealthy! Similarly we are told that the country has ‘maxed out the credit card’ with the implication that Government finance is like personal finance. It is not, this is simply more misperception so that we cannot really be sure where to apportion blame for the economic mess.
Finally, how many people were really at Trump’s inauguration? Fake news, accusations of fake news and fake accusations of fake news!! Disguise, ambiguity, misperception, multiple interpretation. It’s all in a day’s work for the modern visual and performing artist!