IMPROVISATION REPOSITORY | THE MARINE CORPS

I just found out that “improvise, adapt, overcome” is something of an unofficial motto for the United States Marine Corps.

It is also, therefore, a meme.

I want to stay focused on the original slogan here, which is still used by the Corps itself, for example here. There are three characteristics of the slogan that are of note, at least from my perspective (which is to say, from the perspective I deploy in my book, which examines improvisation as a mutable, social phenomenon, instantiated differently in every contingent encounter).

1. Bizarrely, but also absolutely fittingly, this motto rose to mainstream visibility when it was spoken by Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge. This is notable for several reasons. First, no matter where its initial origins, the fact that a movie is responsible for reifying, to a certain extent, the existence and widespread awareness of a mantra for a branch of the US military is just about the most postmodern thing I think of. That is to say that, in an era marked by the unmooring of US politics, economics, and culture to any necessary sense of history (which is replaced by an endless circulation/intensification inside of neoliberal capital), of course we need to turn to fiction in order to find a sense of purpose or coherence for our actions in the world. This is the hyper-hyperreal, where soldiers model their behavior on hollywood characters, who model their behavior on models of soldiers that they have encountered, who model their behavior on ostensibly “real” soldiers from the past, who model…(ad infinitum). Second, that Clint Eastwood is the speaker only makes this a more perfect development for the Corps, given Eastwood’s standing as a kind of contemporary John Wayne, a quintessentially masculine, “no bullshit” type, where “no bullshit” always translates to “nothing that inconveniences me personally, I who am an avatar of white male patriarchy, this very particular worldview that I constantly walk around characterizing as ‘common sense.'” Adhering to and agreeing about a worldview like Eastwood’s as “common sense” helps to fortify white male militarism as still rational and relevant in 2021, and to guard against the fear of a loss of relevance in contemporary society.

2. Of course, the quality or character of what “improvise” signifies here is extremely particular to its context of deployment. Specifically, we might characterize this usage as overtly functionalist: “improvise” here is not an invitation to exploratory free-play, nor an expression of creativity, nor an aspiration to a certain democratic conversation. Rather, improvisation is cast here as inextricably linked with its partner words, almost in a linear fashion: one first improvises (uses one’s mental and physical resources to apprehend the situation one is in, and then takes spontaneous action) in order to adapt (take an unexpected barrier and remove it, or else allow one’s initial intentions to continue) until one overcomes (achieves the initial goal in spite of a perhaps unexpected route). This is specifically improvisation as problem solving.

3. It is this functionalist character that has allowed the Corps’ slogan to become championed by institutions of civilian life, particularly (and this should not be seen as an accident) the religious and business communities. TCI Wealth Advisors, for instance, encourage us to “Think Like A Marine”. The Prosperity Gospel apparently agrees that this is advisable. Motivational speaking (like this one and this one) and similar self-help businesses (like this one) regularly take up the refrain. Forbes reminds us that if we are suffering due to unforeseen, pandemic-related difficulties, this mantra has some life lessons to teach us. The point is that this is a motto perfectly suited for our neoliberal times because, as one article puts it, “The mantra improvise, adapt, overcome is all about resilience.” (And from another article, “If there was ever a time for resilience–to improvise, adapt and overcome–this is it.”) As Robin James writes, resilience discourse is quintessentially neoliberal in that it emerges in tandem with neoliberal politics as a rationality that justifies exploitation by displacing responsibility (for whatever difficulties or success) onto the individual, deflecting attention from the systems and structures that make or prohibit stability. She writes,

The main thing that distinguishes resilience from other forms of coping is that resilience ultimately benefits hegemonic institutions more than it benefits you. Just as wage labor generates profits for employers, resilience is a type of laboring on the self that generates literal and/or ideological profits for someone else, often at your expense. This isn’t just coping–it’s a very specific form of coping designed to get individuals to perform the superficial trappings of recovery from deep, systemic and institutional issues, all the while reinforcing and intensifying the very systemic issues it claims to solve.

In this sense, the Marine Corps’ motto resonates with the ways in which jazz improvisation has been taken up by the business community, which is a topic in its own right. (See for instance Dale Chapman’s The Jazz Bubble.)

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