Defining Disruptive Textuality
“Disruptive” is usually an adjective given to unwelcome interlocutors; they’re perceived as bothersome, distracting, and in the worst cases, pernicious. In the tech world, however, disruptive has come to be seen in a rather positive light–disruptive technology is an innovation that upsets, reconfigures, or completely upends older tech that has become so mired in convention that it’s caught flatfooted, never to recover. Think of how the MP3 disrupted the CD, the iPhone disrupted the staid handset market, and the tablet completely cannibalized the burgeoning netbook. Disruptive is exciting, cool, novel, and benefits the end user.
But for this to happen, the conditions have to be just right. The most vulnerable are those who have become complacent in their dominance, or uncritical of tradition for no other reason than because that’s how it’s always been done. Their best protection is to either adapt constantly, stay ahead of the curve, or wield veto power. This last option is the most destructive, because they’ll simply buy out promising but terrifying start-ups and permanently shelve them. I remember wondering back in 1997 why no built an iPod, and I pondered this for a solid four years until Apple finally came around to doing it. I wasn’t an engineer and I certainly wasn’t a production manager, but it seemed like the most obvious idea in the world. There were some false starts that gave me hope (does anyone remember 1998’s Rio?), but so terrified was Diamond of the RIAA–with good reason–that they shipped a sub-par product that didn’t stand a chance. It wasn’t until 2001, when Apple (for all its faults, I have to give them credit for a bold, if obvious, move), decided to put out an non-crippled MP3 player with just the right amount of sex appeal that the market was disrupted, much to the dismay of discman owners and sellers everywhere, and the outrage of the RIAA. And when it finally came around, the CD quickly croaked.
Around the same time, there were cases of literary disruptions being tried in court (which I’ve written about here), and I had a difficult time comprehending why it was that author estates wielded veto rights over burgeoning creative acts. The reasons are complicated and tortured, which I outline in my book project, but the short of it is that I see strong parallels between literary start-ups (or should I say upstarts?) that are being stymied by legacy estates mired in tradition. As I wrote above, the conditions have to be right for disruption to occur, and I’ve since borrowed from technology studies to label the environment “disruptive textuality.” To quote from myself:
A disruptive textuality operates on a different kind of logic. It openly acknowledges source texts and the right of successive texts to perform alterations upon it; it aims to expand and alter in iterative rather than paradigm-shattering moves; and last, it tends to revel in complicating and problematizing rather than claim the center. At the root of disruption lies an internal engine that drives literature’s production, consumption, and reproduction—the dialogic engine, integral to a literary theory that thrives on the perennial destabilizing of the center by mutant forces. Disruptive considers the dialogic imagination in the contemporary period on a macrotextual scale. That is, literary development is a struggle between subcultural and canonical texts influenced by constructs such as intellectual property and distribution networks, rather than an internal linguistic tension, as Bakhtin originally theorized.
I’m of the mind that a disruptive textuality is something that doesn’t come to be by default or osmosis–it has to be cultivated, cultured, and jealously guarded. That’s what makes the current literary climate so very exciting, because I think a shift in cultural logic is underway, with many scholars, creators, and artists beginning to realize the value of disruptive texts.