A Dream of Reason- IV Part 5 Person, Context, Action

Person, Context, Action (1984)
Conformity, Improvisation and Contextual Creativity

Persons together with interpretative interpersonal contexts generate action through our co-constitutive human determinate potentialities for “conformity,” “improvisation,” and “contextual” (a.k.a. “directly reconstructive”) creativity.”


In conformity interpretative contexts program action.… Conformity rigidly follows and obeys. It enacts the given. People have “nothing of their own to say”: “spoken not speaking, danced not dancing.”

Improvisation is open to personal style and responsive to the unique moment…. It enables nuanced sensitive gestures that neither mechanically follow nor directly challenge received interpretative contexts.[1] Improvisation (not conformity) is our usual relationship to institutionalized contexts of experience, discourse and action.

We can directly address and reconstruct the categories and situations that contain us. Without the co-constitutive determinate potentiality for contextual creativity humanity could never have constructed our first order of life: or if by miracle constructed, it would have held us entrapped forever (as bees in instinct).

We (the human species) compose the music to which we dance and write the scripts we enact.

Contextual creativity and improvisation are as natural as conformity. They are co-constitutive

generically human determinate processing potentialities

2. Some Field Dynamic Models

2.1. Contained Centripetal

2.11. Theme


The centripetal model – traditionally dominant in United States sociology – privileges conformity. The person is naturally drawn towards the center of the group. Acceptance is naturally rewarding.

A central assumption is that “the contained” is naturally patterned (programmed) by that which contains it. – The containing configuration is usually termed “system.” The modifier “sub” reoccurs (e.g., subsystem, subculture, subgroup).

Towards the bottom of the container-contained hierarchy, the primary group programs the person. In sociology the person is the most subordinate part shaped by all that contains it. In psychology it is a system that programs (and tames) its components.


If we are entirely programmed by our socio-cultural contexts, the flexibility of action depends upon the structure of these contexts.

In one professionally popular variation action is controlled by values, norms and roles. Values are general imperatives. Norms translate values situationally. “Respect your elders” is a value. “Stand up when an older person enters the room” is a derived norm. Roles are “normative ganglia.” Action is directly oriented to and programmed by roles. There is little flexibility of response…. Personal integration depends upon “socio-cultural” integration.

Cybernetics demonstrates that conformity need not always produce inflexible responses.… One example, chess an enterprise traditionally thought to be inherently “open” and beyond final resolution through calculation – “a city” on the border between art, craft and play – is about to be conquered and, in principle, closed forever as a field of human species aspiration, through computer programs capable of triumphing over all human players. – Programming is conformist.

One can imagine humanity as both conforming and (through triggers, layered codes, meta rules, etc.) coping flexibly with diverse situations.

2.12. Sideline

It is biased (distorting), insensitive and unimaginative to routinely, unquestioningly, interpret human processes through machine (including cybernetic) metaphors…. Sociology-psychology can best contribute to the study of “artificial intelligence” by exploring our life together and apart in its own terms.

2.2. Centripetal-Centrifugal


We posit, along symbolic interactionist lines, that both autonomy and integration are natural to human existence. (The dominance of either extreme requires a search for new explanatory patterns.)

Erving Goffman explores personal-autonomy-as-field-process within “open areas” as “presentation of self in everyday life” and in institutionally rigidly controlled spaces as “secondary adjustment” (1962, 188-320).

Native American vision quests and Proust writing Remembrance of Things Past are (whatever else they also are) extreme manifestations of a normal and natural rhythm of withdrawal and return.


“Breaking,” the attempt of assembly line workers to control the amount and pace of work through direct action without the intervention, often without the existence, of “unions,” demonstrates the persistence of the desire for personal autonomy at the heart of the machine principle (Kakar, 75-100).


            Now in the United States the taken-for-granted and for the most part unconscious effort required to maintain individuality is enormous. Yet it is especially when long accepted limits are transgressed by the powerful (as in the struggle of workers against Taylor’s “scientific management”) that autonomy becomes a matter of explicit desperate concern.


Alvin Gouldner (1954) argues that workers in labor disputes often employ a rhetoric of narrow economic “rationality” to articulate and disguise – to address without addressing – issues of autonomy and power (54).

We suggest that this displacement is an instance of a generically human dynamic. If the rules governing interaction are so completely controlled by one participant as to be held outside debate, then issues of autonomy and control will be displaced into other contexts and manifestations [e.g., mental and psychosomatic illness and (as often in prisons) violence]…. In the United States the basic “precontractual agreement” between “labor” and “management” is that labor accept exclusion from active participation in planning and organizing production and distribution in return for a (not necessarily decisive) influence on the (narrowly conceived) costs and conditions of employment.


Autonomy and identity are linked. – When identity weakens then others’ definitions, interpretations and assumptions might press against and pierce the wounded self…. One might be exiled from one’s mind, inhabit oneself as an occupied country and/or become one’s own mortal enemy.


Ralph Ellison:

One of the most insidious crimes occurring in this democracy is that of designating another, politically weaker, less socially acceptable, people as the receptacle for one’s own self-disgust, for one’s own infantile rebellion, for one’s own fears of, and retreats from, reality. It is the crime of reducing the humanity of others to that of a mere convenience, a counter in a banal game, which involves no apparent risk to ourselves. (124)

One manifestation of passion for autonomy in an area controlled by others is struggle for “a breathing space.” A breathing space may (but need not) be a specific area (e.g., a teacher’s lounge, a church, a garden…a room of one’s own). It may be affectionate contact with a friend or lover.[2] – It may, as in Judaism, be a sustaining pattern of ritual (e.g., Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur).

For Albert Camus “drawing limits” is crucial to “rebellion,” and rebellion is crucial to the human condition; to be human is, whatever else it also is, to rebel against mortal limitations and interpersonal oppression.

Rebellion need not manifest itself in overt political struggle…. Those who fought back in the Warsaw ghetto, those who went to their death singing love of God (aloud or silently in their minds), parents who comforted their children until the final separation, Jews who kept Passover, those who risked their lives to give witness on scraps of paper, those who aided one another in the shadow of torture and death, all rebelled against Nazi projections.



The passion for autonomy desires to shape as well as be shaped by – and to freely inhabit – our life together and apart. It does not naturally seek to propel itself beyond the gravity of the human condition out past the borders of language. (Such movement would deviate from expectations based on natural-immanent dynamics and thus encourage a search for new explanatory patterns.)

2.3. Group-Person

Following Simmel we posit person and group as autonomous dynamic foci…. The one-sided triumph of either side would deviate from expectations based on generically human dynamics and thus encourage a search for new explanatory patterns.

The group would reduce the person to his/her role as group member…. The person would transform the group into the means of his/her development.

The involvement of every gesture with both dynamics inhibits all absolute outcomes. It opposes the nightmare of eternal tyranny (e.g., as in Orwell’s 1984) and all dreams of earthly paradise.

2.4. The Multi-Centered Model

The multi-centered model posits pattern autonomy as a co-constitutive dynamic of the personal-interpersonal field [applicable at all points on all levels (e.g., intra-psychic and intergroup].

The group-person model appears as a special case.[3]

This orientation might at first glance suggest the unchallenged dominance of conflict. Yet conflict and solidarity (strife and love[4]) are interdependent. Without solidarity all points would remain disconnected: there would be no patterns to conflict.

Species capacities for mediation (including but not limited to synthesis, improvisation and   contextual creativity) enable resolutions of opposition that are not either/or, conquest or annihilation. There can be dialogue, negotiation and re-construction.

Exert from A Dream of Reason by Avron Soyer, Continue Reading A Dream of Reason V. IV: Entering through “Personal-Interpersonal Dynamics”The Personal-Interpersonal Field Revisited


[1] In an earlier draft we model improvisation on the performing artist…. There is a connection. Yet,


  1. There are performances (e.g., in jazz) not bound to texts or (musical) scores.
  2. There is direct orientational reconstruction in performance traditions.


The concept of performance is of inherent intellectual interest. (A “free standing” academic specialty, “performance theory” is now in the process of institutionalization.)

[2] Recognition that “a breathing space” need not be a specific geographical area helps avoid confusion with biologically determined “territoriality.”


[3] Influences include the tribal notion of mana, Jung’s vision of an image haunted world, conflict theory, Gouldner’s concern with “reciprocity and autonomy”(1959) and Zigarnick’s gestalt psychological experiments on the persistence of unfinished tasks in memory.


[4] We are indebted for this image to Empedocles.




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Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

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