Affirmative Disruption

IN A 1983 ARTICLE for Le Monde called “The Tomb of the Intellectual,” the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard responds to a plea from the French government for intellectuals to have a “concrete involvement” with thinking on economic and social matters.[1] Given that we are facing similar calls from governments today for our research to have the kind of impact that changes the behavior of its addressees, what is so interesting about this article is that philosophers are not intellectuals, according to Lyotard, in that they do not identify with, nor endeavor to speak for, a universal subject, be it “man, humanity, the nation, the people, the proletariat.”[2] Nor are philosophers experts whose role is to achieve the best possible “input/output (cost/benefit)” performance ratio in their preconstituted fields. (It is the experts—ideas people, decision makers, those who have specific administrative, economic, social, and cultural responsibilities—that the French government is really appealing to when it calls for thinkers to have a concrete impact.) Along with artists and writers, Lyotard assigns philosophers instead to a third category: that of “creator” or experimenter.[3] As such, they are responsible only to the question “what is painting, writing, thought?”[4] In contrast to experts, experimenters therefore remain unperturbed by the notion that the vast majority of people may not readily understand what they do. They are unconcerned by this notion because they do not have a pregiven addressee, whether this be known as a “public,” “readership,” “audience,” or “market,” that they are trying to win over and seduce. Rather, philosophers, artists, and writers are by definition involved in questioning the limits of preconstituted fields—along with the accepted criteria of judgment (i.e., of performativity, of “what works best”) by which they would be held to account if they were to be criticized for not being intelligible, useful, profitable, or political enough.

Of course, Lyotard was writing in a different time and place. Yet what if, in the era of platform capitalist higher education, we too wish to produce “troublesome, impossible” research that is engaged in questioning the “received compartmentalization of realities and . . . criterion for the evaluation of actions” on which any public, readership, audience, market, or indeed “crowd” that preexists this research and can be generated around it might be based?[5] In that case, will we not have to try to create performatively the very economy in which such research can find funding and support?

To approach this issue from a slightly different angle, how might we in turn disrupt the disruptors of public, nonprofit higher education, with a view to inventing a different, more caring future: for academic labor, for the sharing economy, even for advanced postindustrial society? Thus far, I have primarily used the term disruption in the widely adopted Silicon Valley sense, which, although it may be derived from it, is not quite the same as the theory of technological disruption of Clayton Christensen and his colleagues at the Harvard Business School. A disruptive technology, for Christensen, as laid out in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, is one that typically facilitates the production of a new market for products and services and eventually succeeds in disrupting an already existing market. So, to return to the subject of transport, in the 1960s and 1970s, Honda’s introduction of small off-road motorcycles to the North American market disrupted established, over-the-road motorbike manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson. Christensen’s argument is that organizations “entering these markets early have strong first-mover advantages over later entrants.” The problem is, as these organizations “succeed and grow larger, it becomes progressively difficult for them to enter the even newer small markets [that are] destined to become the large ones in the future,” which means they are themselves likely to be disrupted eventually by other, fresher upstart organizations.[6] This is because of what Christensen calls the “innovator’s dilemma,” whereby, for reasons of institutionalization, “companies find it very difficult to invest adequate resources in disruptive technologies—lower-margin technologies that their customers don’t want—until their customers want them. And by then it is too late.”[7]

While Uber may be an innovation that is disruptive in the looser Silicon Valley sense (as for convenience’s sake I have been terming it), in that it threatens to transform the taxi industry and put many previously successful cab companies out of business, it is not strictly speaking a genuinely disruptive innovation according to Christensen’s theory. This is because, as Christensen makes clear in a recent coauthored article for Harvard Business Review, Uber does not have its origins in either “low-end or new-market footholds”:

It is difficult to claim that the company found a low-end opportunity: that would have meant taxi service providers had overshot the needs of a material number of customers by making cabs too plentiful, too easy to use and too clean. Neither did Uber primarily target non-consumers—people who found the existing alternatives so expensive or inconvenient that they took public transit or drove themselves instead: Uber was launched in San Francisco (a well-served taxi market), and Uber’s customers were generally people already in the habit of hiring rides.[8]

In fact, whereas “disrupters start by appealing to low-end or unserved consumers and then migrate to the mainstream market,” Uber has done precisely the opposite. It has begun by creating a “less expensive solution to a widespread customer need” in the mainstream market, before proceeding to appeal to segments of the market that have been overlooked historically.[9] For Christensen et al., Uber is thus much more of a sustaining innovation than a disruptive innovation, in that it is making what customers already consider a good product even better.

I want to emphasize, however, that I am not interested in the process of disruption for the reasons Christensen and Silicon Valley are interested in it: as a way of understanding innovation-driven economic growth to show how it is possible to succeed as a disruptive innovator, that is, as “a smaller company with fewer resources” that is able to “successfully challenge established incumbent businesses.”[10] It is not my intention to try to sustain and develop the current capitalist economic system, its overall logic, modes, and relations of production, by playing up the potential of disruptive technologies to generate innovations that are capable of facilitating the creation of a new market while at the same time playing down the destructive effects of these technologies. Rather than helping capitalism to constantly renew itself with what Joseph Schumpeter, building on the economic theory of Karl Marx, understands as waves of “creative destruction,” my interest is in disrupting the free market itself by using such technologies to experiment with the invention of new economies and new economic models. This is why I am using the term “affirmative disruption” here—to mark this difference. I am employing this concept in the sense in which Roberto Esposito writes of an “affirmative biopolitics” in relation to the work of Michel Foucault, where an “affirmative biopolitics” is “one that is not defined negatively with respect to the dispositifs of modern power/knowledge but is rather situated along the line of tension that traverses and displaces them.”[11]

At the same time, it is important to be aware that affirmatively disrupting the disruptors of public, nonprofit higher education will require us to revolutionize more than the instruments and relations of production, that is, the way in which we work.[12] After all, aggressive, global, for-profit technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Uber, and Airbnb are concerned not just with what we do but with who we are. Capital and life (bios) are intertwined, in other words—to the point where we are the very neoliberal microenterprises we will be trying to creatively destroy and experimentally place in question. Affirmatively disrupting the postwelfare capitalism of the sharing economy will thus mean affirmatively disrupting the microentrepreneurs of our own selves and lives we have become.