In a recent Freestyle Friday with Dr. Fox Harrell, he made a mention of “negative freestyling”. I thought was interesting because we tend to look at freestyling as a positive experience. How could you not? Freestyle rapping is speaking, adding words to time, and at its best it makes someone feel better: either the freestyler gets a sense of accomplishment, or the listener gets a sense of joy. Additionally, the terminology that is closely associated with “freestyle” tends to have positive valence (i.e. “flow”, “free”, “rhythm”, “circle”, “creativity”, “feel”). Of course, there are freestyle battles, which can be negative depending on the seriousness of the competition, but they often take on the spirit of any other game, and are usually positive experiences. So while to “speak negatively” of something or someone is not a foreign to most of us, to “freestyle negatively” is somewhat an intriguing concept.
I interpret this in two ways. First, and perhaps more obviously, it may be simply what “negative” suggests: to take away. In the same way that freestyling is viewed as creation, negative freestyling is destruction. Dr. Harrell discussed freestyling in the context of “building culture” — adding something valuable to some community. So negative freestyling must be taking something away from that culture, or destroying it. Cancer, for example, may be a form of negative freestyle. But in the context of human activity, I would argue it’s far easier to destroy things than to create them, and in many cases it takes almost no conscious effort to do so. So this is not a fitting interpretation for me, because I feel that a critical element to human freestyling is to make order out of disorder, and requires some level of conscious effort. Perhaps this is a circular argument, and requires more thought, but it is difficult to place freestyling and negativity into the same (human) space.
My second interpretation relates to the saying “addition by subtraction,” and can imply a gain in knowledge by removing things that hide relevant information. When we dissect something, we remove pieces of an object to further understand how that object works as a whole. A sculptor may chisel away at a boulder to reveal some truth underneath. In another part of the interview, Dr. Harrell discusses “phantasms”, which he defines as blends of cultural ideas and sensory imagination (an example may be a sense of self). Phantasms are a strong influence on our everyday experiences and often go unnoticed, but art can reveal them. Phantasms can be taken apart, broken down, and dissected through mathematical subtraction (i.e. trying to understand my sense of self by looking at its cultural and sensorial components separately); or they can be built upon, expanded, and augmented through mathematical addition (i.e. trying to understand my sense of self by adding a novel component). Negative freestyling in this sense would result in a positive gain in knowledge.
Check out Dr. Harrell’s Freestyle Friday interview posted to our videos and see what you think.