Academic journal article Liminalities

Improvisation in Disruptive Times

Academic journal article Liminalities

Improvisation in Disruptive Times

Article excerpt

Introduction: When "Disruption" Meets "Improvisation"

In the last few years, we have been told with increasing frequency that we live in an age of "disruption". This appellation has come to be used in variegated contexts. Start-up entrepreneurs regularly proselytise the "revolutionary" capacity of technological culture to "scale up" innovation, in ways that dramatically alter, or disrupt, established systemic modes of organisation at a global level. For example, one is liable to encounter references to the "disruption economy", or else the "gig economy", in relation to technology startups such as Uber and Airbnb. Meanwhile, beyond a strictly technological purview, one can also witness how recent shifts in the global political landscape have been given the disruption label - most dramatically with the election of the businessman and TV celebrity Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America, in November, 2016.

In the case of technological culture, consider how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs tend to identify themselves as "disruptors" - a view encapsulated by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg's mantra that to innovate is to "move fast and break things" (Taplin 2017, viii). In terms of global politics, the unconventional circumstances that propelled Donald Trump from the campaign trail to the White House, alongside his own unorthodox and eminently unpredictable approach to office since the election, has led to him being described as a "disruptor-in-chief' (Friedman 2017, Chapter Nine). To muddy the waters, the contexts in which one encounters these disruption tropes often tend to bleed into each other. This is exemplified by the involvement of technological start-ups in the Republican primaries in the runup to the November 2016 election, notably the London-based firm Cambridge Analytica, whose techniques of "behavioural microtargeting" via social media were mobilised to garner support for Republican candidate Ted Cruz and were subsequently used by Donald Trump as part of his election campaign (Sterne 2017, 253).1

The abundance of references to disruption in contemporary corporate, media and political discourse forces us to ask: what might meaningfully be understood by this term? Clearly there is no straightforward answer to this question. In the case of Silicon Valley tech culture, to disrupt is to interfere with existing systemic modes of accomplishing given tasks, on a global scale. In contemporary politics, celebrities-turned-politicians "disrupt" the established political order. Meanwhile, the term's reach continues to grow, across an expanding range of discourses, from anti-terrorist policing to popular culture. The rhetoric of disruption is evidently fungible and thus amenable to a range of diverse scenarios, the term itself scalable to a point where it is in danger of becoming an empty signifier.2

The contingent character of unforeseen events brings to mind one possible direction in which such a critical take on disruption might be directed - towards improvisation. After all, whatever one makes of the multiplying definitions of disruption, presumably they all share - whether for or against - a concern with unpredictability. As a mode of real-time engagement with the world, improvising consists in creating or responding to unforeseen events: "Improvisation" derives from the Latin word "improviso", meaning "unforeseen", an ablative of "improvisus", meaning "not foreseen, unexpected" (Online Etymological Dictionary). The term improvisation shares with disruption a tendency towards overdetermination. Despite this tendency, it is the gambit of this article to explore these two terms in tandem in order to shed light on their rhetorical and conceptual force.

"Yes, and"?

Let us revisit our two case-based points of departure, starting with corporate culture. Consider Bob Kulhan's 2017 book Getting to "Yes And": The Art of Business Improv. Kulhan's book is one of a growing number on the subject of "business improvisation". …

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