The Problem of Where to Begin


Ornette Colman

“Let’s take it from the top.” This musical expression reveals a simple, ordinary truth: the only place to start is at the beginning. It is precisely at this, genetic point where things become most difficult. There is no widespread agreement on where the song begins. No one seems to know the intro. We don’t even know whether we’re in tune with each other or not; and some (fashionably) reject the very existence of music. How, then, can we begin?

There have been many philosophical attempts to get at this beginning—or to get around it completely. The result has been something like a negative attunement: we only share the fact that we don’t share very much. We have no foundational, genesis stories or realities to wrestle with and chew on; and this has become our foundation. This is kin to the harmony of some forms of free jazz, where everyone is so far gone, so “out,” that they dwell in a radical, rooted unity.

I am not convinced that this chaotic and wild sort of attunement can sustain the rigors of our subjects and objects of inquiry. I am not selling it as an axiom or a solution. My opinion of it, like my opinion of most free jazz, tends to think that it is too shaky. I am simply trying to describe what I think we have to work with. I don’t know if these ingredients go together at all, whether they will be good for us to eat or whatnot: but I do think that we cannot escape the fact that this is what confronts us in this early stage: the problem of where to begin.

We do not know where or when or how to begin. Everything is guesswork. I, for one, have very little confidence in the terms of this discussion: from Formative Justice to that nebulous and slippery term, ‘education.’ But there is so much work to do. Who has the patience—or the indifference—to sit around wait for a good place to start? Our task is everywhere and it is obvious and concrete. So, perhaps, there is something—a provisional foundation—that gives us (or at least myself) enough traction to start.

For me, it is this: there are people in this space who are serious, who have been working on their instruments for longer than I have; with skill, dedication, and sophistication; with whom I am very excited to improvise. This is where it all begins for me.

You are invited to this space to too. Join us! It’s a jam session.

So, where do we begin?

About Sam Rocha

Sam Rocha is an assistant professor of philosophy of education at the University of British Columbia.
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2 Responses to The Problem of Where to Begin

  1. Oh, and here are the links to Ornette Coleman and the Grateful Dead:

  2. On Free Writing, or on not beginning but continuing, again….by leaping into the flow of a tradition…like free jazz….Ornette Coleman….Grateful Dead

    The online writing group that I’m part of has recently been discussing ‘free writing,’ so I decided to go for something like a free write. For some reason I’ve decided to write in sme kind of real time sequence as Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free Jazz part 1’ is streaming. Hence, I’ve included a link to this music. I’m very much inspired by imrpvoisitonal music, especially jazz and the Grateful Dead. (note: I’m making small typos as I wrtite this and trying my best to resist the temptation to correct them as I go along. From what I understand doing a free write means just that, to write freely without concern for grammar, spelling, etc. but I’ve become to accustomed to back spacing when I make mistakes, that it’s hard to resitst thetemptamtion to correct myself). So I decided to write along with the Ornette Coleman et al’s jam, thinking that ten mins is a decent amount of time to do a free write. [do pauses count? How would one record a pause? Is free writing a non-stop process? The jam seems to be continuous, although it’s not clear to me that aside from the drummer, and probably the bass player, that everyone is playing all the time. In fact at this point in the jam (6:15) is just trumpet with bass and drums. So about a minute ago I paused…..but the pause it’s not inscribed in the writing? Should I symbolically represent that with something like……………….? One of my students in my online class does that, althought I’m not sure if it’s met to represent pauses in her thinking? I have asked her? I saw that free writing is supposed to be a stream of consciousness, which I take to be a non-rational flow of ideas. By non-rational I mean something like it hasn’t been planned out in advance. So I’m just writing whatever is……emerging..I wanted to say just a moment ago that I’m going to blog at some point about my distance learning classes, because they are unbelievable productive learning spaces, and I have a sense that my students are getting more out of these courses than the students who take face to face……(AND THAT’S ALL I WAS ABLE TO COMPLETE IN TEN MINUTES)

    Hmmmmmm…..I’m not sure how I feel about free writing? ……….I’m still in the modality, despite the ten minute experiment….kind of how it feels after a day at the beach, when you’ve spent lots of time in the ocean, bobbin with the waves, and later you feel the waves still moving you. I’m still in the modality of the free write, where….I lost my train of thought….oh yeah, I’m not sure how I feel about this process? It’s definiltely a bit more radical than the way I usually write when I am in the modality of writing a paper or lecture or something for the academic community. I try, initially, anyway, to be a bit uninhibited so as not to produce boring writing. And that’s because I have become increasingly …..[STOPPING TO STREAM ANOTHER PIECE OF MUSIC…..FOUND THIS LINK from ’72….which seems to be in synch with the Dead Zone’s revisiting of Europe 72, only this is from August 72…details, details]

    Ok, so I musing about this larger concern/project that I’ve really thrown myself into, which is an attempt to push back against the stultifying forms of academic writing. Some friends/colleagues who are reading this blog are familiar with this effort, and have been very supportive. The book that’s scheduled to come out this year is an example of my attempt to push back, and it was initiated out of a kind of exasperation with the confines of academic writing. I won’t go into the details of Being and Learning, and only bring it up here to make a contrast between the daily writing experiment that produced it and what I’ve just experienced in the ‘free write’. That is, when doing the daily (min one hour, one page of text) experiment for a calendar year, my main goal each day was to tune into the speculative space where I’d left off the day before….and, over time, that speculate space seemed to be some kind of topos, a particular kind of time and place where I would ‘go’. I suppose folks call it the ‘zone’ and others the ‘flow’. Whatever term you want to use to describe it, that place became, more or less, the content of the book itself because I was, essentially, doing a kind of phenomenology of the speculation zone. Listening to the Dead jamming, and I suppose I was trying to do with philosophical writing what they and others do when then get into what I recently heard described on the radio (by Mike Gordon of Phish) as the Dead’s ‘zen-like place’. So, yeah, the goal each day was to try and locate that space, and doing that required a lot of energy, a lot of focus, concentration. The free write seems to be working in another kind of way. [JAM ENDED….NO MORE MUSIC] It seems less concerned about locating a zone. My sense from the discussion the online writer’s group has been having on the topic is that the free write is a kind of exercise to stimulate the process, and, in some cases, as a way to unblock a writer who is struggling. I noticed when I was looking up ‘free write’ on Wikipedia that the process has been used with elementary school kids. I might try it with my undergrads this semester.

    Final thoughts……the free write seems to place one in a vulnerable place, because there’s little or no editing, and who wants to put something out there that seems to be so raw? But therein is one of the challenges of blogging as opposed to writing for professional publication; that is, in my case, I understand this blog as a kind of complement to my academic work, and, at times, it has to work as a space for an alter(native) ego….or a place where I can put out drafts, proposals, rough cuts, unedited work.

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