Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation

I’ve just returned from Philadelphia, where I gave a half-day workshop on collaboration and innovation–to a very impressive group of mid-level executives working in the education sector. They were students in a part-time doctoral degree program called the “Chief Learning Officer” program–a business education for folks who work on education, training, and learning.

We have been having unusually pleasant weather in most of the United States in recent days. Normally this time of year is extremely hot–35 degrees Celsius is a very typical day (95 F)–but lately the daily high temperatures have been around 27 (80 F). So I was taking a stroll around the Penn campus, and to my surprise I passed an actual independent bookstore, the Penn Book Center. Most stores like this were put out of business years ago by the big box chains and now, by Just a few minutes in the Penn Book Center reminded me how much we lose when independent booksellers disappear: On the front table, I saw for sale the 1972 book Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation, by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver. For me, this was like the heavens opening up and angels singing.

Most people probably have never heard of this book, but in graduate school in the early 1990s, when I first decided to do my research on improvisational creativity, Adhocism was one of only about two or three books that I could find on improvisation–and I looked all over the University of Chicago’s very extensive research libraries. Adhocism is very much of its time (i.e. the late 1960s) and for the authors, street protests and “happenings” were examples of adhocism. (There is actually a photo of Woodstock, on page 100, with this quotation repeated from Time magazine: “Youth community is an ad hoc thing: it is suspicious of institutions and wary of organization, prizing freedom above the system”.) There are many photos of folk art, or structures that “the people” make when they don’t have the wealth, power, or resources to do it the standard, appropriate way. For the authors, improvisation is about pluralism in a fragmented modern world. (Of course, they cite Claude Levi-Strauss and his concept of bricolage.)

The Penn Book Center had a new (2013) expanded and updated edition just published by the MIT Press. If not for this wonderful weather, and this great bookstore, I would probably never even know the book had been republished. And it stands the test of time, because this 1960s stuff is a veneer that is easy to look past. What makes the book genius is that Jencks and Silver truly understand what’s at the core of improvisation and emergent, group creativity. The two authors work as architects–and many of their photos are indeed of buildings–but reading the book again, it really is a book about design, design processes, and design languages. (The first edition was sold as an architecture book, but for this second edition MIT press wisely and correctly released it with their “design” list.) Another reason the book stands the test of time is that Jencks and Silver are architectural theorists, and their work is solidly grounded in a broad range of sociological theory. For example, in a section starting on page 97 titled “Self-directing groups,” we read about the anarchist Bakunin’s critique of Marxism, followed by a quotation from Noam Chomsky, and then Rosa Luxembourg’s critique of the Bolsheviks–all of them aligning with self-directed, emergent improvisation, and unified against centralized, state power. And, in some ways the concept is even more relevant today than it was in 1972, with mashups and remixing deeply ingrained in contemporary artistic culture.

I suspect this is one of those books that is more talked about than actually read. But it deserves a wider audience, and I hope this second edition spreads the word. Adhocism rules!

Adhocism (1972) was criticized by some for pointing out the obvious, which is indeed what we set out to do. Our excuse is that the obvious, like the new clothes absent on the emperor, was by no means acknowledged, and there was a conspiracy of silence or even widespread collusion against the naked truth….A denied obviousness once revealed can only seem obvious.”

–Afterword by the authors, page 212

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