Life Writing and Corporate Personhood
vol. 37, no. 1, Winter 2014
Guest Editors: Purnima Bose & Laura E. Lyons
Designed by Brian Corr for the Subjective Theatre Company; adapted from his design for the We the Corporate Personhood Play Festival, New York, 2010 (used by permission of the designer).
“Life Writing and Corporate Personhood” by Purnima Bose, Laura E. Lyons
This introduction outlines different manifestations of corporate personhood, including advertising, skinvertising, activist corporate impersonation, and the equation of corporations with celebrity CEOs. We contextualize corporate personhood in relation to recent attempts to claim rights for fetuses, along with more progressive articulations of personhood in various environmental and animal rights campaigns
“The Free Impersonality of Bourgeois Spirit” by Timothy Brennan
To challenge the bourgeoisie today, even to say its name, seems impossible given that its identity seems to many indistinct today. The capitalist is not really seen nor theorized; its figure is said to blend into the social carpet. But the bourgeoisie is as tangible as ever, only more “spiritual.” It has managed to conceal itself by making individuals impersons. One version of this move exists, paradoxically, among those who hate capitalism: posthumanists. The only way to be outside bourgeois value, though, is to revive the human person.
“New and Improved: The Zero-Sum Game of Corporate Personhood” by Richard Hardack
Corporate personhood is part of a zero-sum game in which human traits and privileges are transferred to corporations; conversely, actual persons become, largely without their realization, more impersonal and generic, and increasingly defined by their relations to things. Advertising is the life writing of the non-existent corporate person, which is retroactively created by a form of commercial speech whose “author” claims the privileges of political and religious personhood.
“Imperium in Imperio: Robert Hart, the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, and Its (Self-)Representations” by Henk Vynckier and Chihyun Chang
Under the leadership of the Irishman Robert Hart (Inspector General from 1863 to 1911), the Chinese Maritime Customs Service functioned as a semiindependent monopolistic organization, and continually expanded its involvement in various sectors of the Chinese government and society. This paper aims to discuss the manner in which the CMCS told its story through life writing and other publications, and promoted its interests on the basis of Hart’s personal history and his successors’ determination to ground their authority in his stewardship.
In light of the cultural politics following the 2008 global financial crisis, this essay analyzes the autobiographical acts of US Senator Elizabeth Warren, and her advocacy for the “debtor-citizen,” in order to outline a new hybrid narrative that draws from scholarship, memoirs, and self-help literature. The controversy over Warren’s unverified Native American ancestry constructs the political candidate as an autobiographical debtor to her constituents, exposing the autobiographical “I” as an autobiographical “IOU.”
“In Good Company: Corporate Personhood, Labor, and the Management of Affect in Undercover Boss” by John McGlothlin III
By drawing upon corporate personhood’s elision of executive and institution, as well as minimalistic life writing, the reality program Undercover Boss presents contemporary US businesses as sympathetic to the plight of their employees. Even as it highlights an affective intimacy between bosses and workers, however, the show strives to perpetuate corporate-friendly labor conditions.
“Overseas Singaporeans, Coming-of-Career Narratives, and the Corporate Nation” by Cheryl Narumi Naruse
What do corporate subjectivities look like when the corporation is seen as the nation-state? This essay explores the notion of corporate personhood through an examination of the conjunction of neoliberal, corporate, and national ideologies, whose typically distinct genealogies converge in the Singaporean context. Through a reading of Conversations on Coming Home: 20 Singaporeans Share Their Stories, a booklet specifically designed to recruit Singaporeans living abroad to return home, I propose the notion of “coming-of-career” stories as a critical term for understanding the ways lives are constructed and valued according to neoliberal ideals.
“Blake Mycoskie, TOMS, and Life Narratives of Conspicuous Giving” by Margrit Talpalaru
This article investigates the rise of social enterprises as the post-recessionary growth avenue for corporate capitalism through the example of TOMS. Through readings of the TOMS website and Blake Mycoskie’s memoir of starting the company, I highlight the endurance of corporatist mechanisms, in spite of TOMS’s rhetorical insistence on the novelty of its business model. Social enterprises are inscribed in the larger phenomenon of conspicuous giving, which makes visible acts of donating, fundraising, and volunteering for a specific cause. Conspicuous giving, in other words, refers to any charitable act performed in the public sphere to which a certain amount of public recognition is attached. Arguably at stake in the rise of social entrepreneurship is the naturalization of free labor as a condition of global citizenship.
In this essay, I explore how corporations such as India’s National Hydroelectric Power Corporation and the Hindustan Construction Company use corporate humanitarianism to justify their illegitimate control over critical rivers in the Kashmir valley and to quell Kashmiri “subversion” through new labor and employment regimes. Kashmiri workers use death and martyrdom to contest narratives of corporate morality.
“My Name is Caterpillar: Corrie et al. v. Caterpillar, Inc.” by Barbara Harlow
According to Israeli Judge Oded Gershon’s opinion in Estate of Rachel Corrie v. The State of Israel in August 2012, Corrie’s death by Caterpillar bulldozer was an “unfortunate accident,” Rachel’s own fault: “Even when she saw the mound of earth moving towards her,” Gershon opined, “she did not move away. The accident was caused by the deceased.” This essay argues for a different verdict, and examines the several biographical narratives that complicate the judiciousness of Judge Gershon’s opinion—those of Corrie herself, of other Palestinians who have died in the course of Israeli house demolitions, and Caterpillar’s own relationship with the state of Israel and the US government—in the larger context of the Alien Tort Statute and its “political question doctrine” in US courts, which also found the Corries’ claims against the multinational corporation to be dismissable.
“Rewriting the Death and Afterlife of a Corporation: Bethlehem Steel” by Michael D. Kennedy
Various genres and media and their accounts of Bethlehem Steel’s history illustrate the relationality of its corporate personhood, and the consequent importance of labor and class conflict to critical corporate studies. The Steel’s death and afterlife also extend the field’s ability to see how the survivors of businesses gone bankrupt monumentalize an industrial past to imagine alternative futures in an age of casino capitalism.
“‘Refugees from This Native Dreamland’: Life Narratives of Occupy Wall Street” by Eva Cherniavsky
This essay argues that Occupy Wall Street rethinks the concept of “the people” as no longer an abstract body politic, but a proliferating set of concrete, participatory collectives. This reconceptualization of modern mass politics proceeds, rhetorically, by recourse to the testimonial and the life narrative. In the turn to movement autobiography, we can decipher key aspects of the present political situation to which OWS strives to respond.
“Against Stenography for the Powerful: An Interview with P. Sainath” by Cynthia G. Franklin, S. Shankar, and P. Sainath
Award-winning journalist P. Sainath discusses the degree to which journalism has become “stenography of the powerful,” which not only forwards corporate interests but also standardizes the writing of news in ways that kill the very elements of style and commitment that marked the best journalism of earlier generations. His recent responses to such corporatization include the creation of “The People’s Archive of India,” which enlists the citizens of rural India to document their own stories as well as the incredible array of artistic, artisanal, and craft traditions in the rural areas of the country.