Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Mifune’s stick and the reasons for randomness

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Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo

Today I read a wonderful piece on Aeon by Michael Schulson on the uses of randomness, which is the best thing I’ve seen on this topic in a long time. I talk a lot on this blog about incorporating chance into the creative process, but I’ve gained some new perspectives from Schulson, who emphasizes the value of randomness in deciding between equally plausible alternatives in situations where reason doesn’t confer a meaningful advantage. The Kantu of Borneo, for instance, base the decision of where to establish their annual farming sites on the appearance in the forest of seven species of bird. The anthropologist Michael Dove assumed that these birds were providing subtle ecological clues to the farmers, but after further observation—and decades of reflection—he realized that the birds supplied a form of randomness. There were few rational reasons for choosing one spot over another: the vagaries of drought, pestilence, river levels, and other variables meant that the suitability of any particular location couldn’t be predicted in advance. Randomness allowed the Kantu to pick a diverse set of farming sites, which, in the long run, worked better than following a set of more structured but misleading rules.

Schulson goes on to illustrate his point with numerous other examples, from the use of oracle bones by Naskapi hunters to the rituals of the Azande of Central Africa, who would poison a chicken and base their decisions on whether or not it survived. (Of the latter, the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard wrote: “I found this as satisfactory a way of running my home and affairs as any other I know of.”) Schulson also quotes political theorist Peter Stone, author of The Luck of the Draw, who argues that randomness is most useful in what he calls the sanitizing effect—a means of leaving both good and bad reasons out of the picture. Individual rolls of the dice may result in better or worse choices, but over time, the outcomes are smoothed out into something resembling a neutral result. “Sometimes,” Stone concludes, “the danger of bad reasons is bigger than the loss of the possibility of good reasons.” The most obvious application is the practice of sortition, in which officials are elected by lottery. This prevents power from being concentrated into any one person or family—or into a class of career politicians—and while it might seem problematic in theory, in practice, it seems to work pretty well, or no worse than anything else.


Even if you aren’t willing to go so far as to organize your country, or your life, by drawing lots, the article hints at an expect of randomness that I hadn’t sufficiently appreciated: it provides a stimulus for action in situations when any action at all is preferable to the alternative. The first draft of a novel is a great example. Every manuscript has to be cut, massaged, and rewritten in later stages to end up in a publishable form, but that process depends on the existence of a critical mass of raw material. When you’re writing a first draft, the real risk isn’t generating a few pages of bad description or a subplot that doesn’t work—it’s getting so hung up on the outcome that we never finish. A bad draft can always be improved, but first, it needs to exist. And if a procedure like drawing tarot cards or casting a hexagram can push you into doing something when you’d prefer to dither, it’s worth a try. It’s a little like using a diving rod to figure out where to dig for water. Even if you discount the dowser’s intuition, in many parts of the world, you’ll find water if you dig deep enough anywhere. Dowsing provides a means of selecting among the possible alternatives, and if you don’t have more scientific methods available, it’s better than nothing.

This doesn’t mean that the creative process should be totally random, and in fact, I’ve found that there are useful rules that can be relied upon to come up with decent first drafts. (In some ways, the “rules” of writing are good for precisely that and little more.) And there are also moments, both in writing and in life, when prudent inaction is preferable to mindless activity. Given the inertia and doubt endemic to a writer’s existence, though, it’s generally better to have a system that prods you to work rather than the other way around. Randomness provides us with exactly that kind of nudge, whether we cast it in mystical terms or simply as a practical exercise. When we use randomness, we’re a little like Mifune at the beginning of Yojimbo: he comes to a crossroads, throws a stick in the air, and follows where it points. He ends up in the middle of an adventure that he couldn’t have anticipated—but once he’s there, he uses all his resources of cunning and experience to survive. Randomness isn’t a substitute for reason, but at least it gives it somewhere to go. As the Cheshire Cat observes, we’re bound to get somewhere if we only walk long enough, but only if we start walking in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

July 15, 2014 at 9:58 am

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