The barred subject of innovation

17/07/2013 § 3 Comments

Reading piles are funny: the Callaghan Innovation (CI) Statement of Intent (discussed here) ended up near a great paper entitled ‘High Anxiety‘ (pdf), by Cormac Gallagher, and an article on functional stupidity. So naturally, I drew links amongst them for a Lacanian critique of an innovation institute.

One thing that struck me with CI is that they know. The clear message from the SoI is, we know how to innovate, we know how to accelerate the high-value manufacturing sector, and we know what has been holding us back. Although there is some talk of experimentation, the real point is, ‘we know what we’re doing’. Even talk of fast failure contains a seed of knowledge — we know what failure is.

That insistence on knowledge takes me in two directions. The first is functional stupidity, specifically the article linked above. Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer point out that organisations nurture a certain amount of stupidity, and good functioning depends on having the right amount. Too much, and employees spend all day problematising the overarching goals of the organisation and the optimal processes for achieving them. Too little, and there isn’t enough self-reflection to keep the organisation from sinking into a morass of process and procedure.

CI has told us what they know and what they are going to do with that knowledge. They haven’t told us what they are going to do with their stupidity, though, which may be just as important.

The insistence on knowledge also takes me to the agent or subject of innovation, that is, the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs/innovators are people who create new realities. They take what is and make it something different. To me, that takes an action of willfulness or ego — taking the thing that exists in my mind and making it exist outside my own head. I think of it as an act of desire.

That is why the Lacanian piece made me think. It focuses on anxiety, and specifically the role of anxiety in analysis. It takes issue with the idea that analysis is supposed to provide knowledge, knowledge about why the patient is anxious and what childhood event triggered it and the emptiness of anxiety (‘fear without an object’ in the conventional formulation). Gallagher argues, though, that dealing with anxiety isn’t about covering over a gap with knowledge, but rather about recognising and living with the experience of anxiety. The point is that anxiety is real, all too real, and can’t be captured in the symbolic structure of codified knowledge. In Gallagher’s words:

Lacan argues that this emphasis on knowledge has the effect of barring the subject’s access to his own desire.

If we use this idea in the innovation space, we can see the negative impact that knowledge — that an insistence on the power of knowledge — can have on innovation. If innovation is an act of will or desire, then insisting on knowledge is a turning away from the source of innovation.

Taken together, these ideas mean that CI will likely be too smart for its own good. It doesn’t understand its own functional stupidity, so it is likely to be an ineffective organisation. It also isn’t leaving space for desire, so it probably won’t permit innovators to, y’know, innovate.


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§ 3 Responses to The barred subject of innovation

  • Andrew says:

    Clever analysis here Bill. Though I’ve come to expect that from you of late! One of the major criticisms of teaching entrepreneurship at university is the tyranny of knowledge we tend to enforce. I heard it today in a seminar “this is what an entrepreneur is, this is what they do, and this is why Maori entrepreneurs are different” (same, same, but different apparently). We don’t allow space to celebrate our stupidity in our reckless attempts to be knowledgeable. Perhaps we should lobby the government to foster a stupidity economy¿?

  • Andrew says:

    Reblogged this on othersideofweightloss and commented:
    Very clever lacanian analysis of knowledge about innovation.

  • John D says:

    given the role of competition in driving innovation, doesn’t having a single Institute seem ironic?

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