Editors’ Introduction for NANO Special Issue 8: Corporations and Culture

by Jeffrey Gonzalez and Adam Haley

Published December 2015


Fig. 1: Tom Otterness, Alligator, 1996. Photograph: Sean Scanlan. 12 Nov. 2015. JPEG.
What we have now is something beyond a consumer revolution, something we may call a ‘revolution of consumption,’ in which consumption has become the principal work of late industrial society . . . The heart of this work is the social discipline of the imagination, the discipline of learning to link fantasy and nostalgia to the desire for new bundles of commodities.
–Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large

In the epigraph above, Arjun Appadurai offers a decidedly pessimistic understanding of Western life after globalization (or, if you prefer, after the advent of globalization as a social fact). In his reading, existence on the globalized map means automatic disciplining into consumerism. This discipline’s primary target is human interiority: the territory most avidly sought after by advanced capitalism is the imagination.

If one buys this sort of reading—that consumers are disciplined in specific ways, ways different from previous generations—the most likely disciplinarian would seem to be corporate marketing and advertising. Appadurai argues that the arrival of corporate-produced commodities and the marketing that accompanies them in countries outside the West very quickly turned those states’ consumers into ones very much like those in the West. Globalized culture, then, is a culture that is dominated by this sort of disciplining-into-consumerism, with for-profit corporations underwriting and overseeing the bottom line of film, literature, television, theater, fashion, and journalism. In this argument, Appadurai mirrors Naomi Klein, whose influential book No Logo took a similarly critical view of the impact of corporate branding and marketing.

Objections like these go back at least as far as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s classic essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”: from a hard-left political perspective, the goal of corporate-funded popular culture in a capitalist society is either to dumb down the population, sate its anger at the system, or teach it to follow the rules of the game. Later cultural critics revised this position, stating that while it would be difficult for something produced by a corporation to be totally antithetical to that corporation’s aims, cultural production could subvert dominant capitalist paradigms ironically or through revealing the artifice necessary to justify social norms (Rivkin and Ryan 664). Still, the best this critical position could achieve was something like the “complicit critique” identified by Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Postmodernism.

A Gallup poll from 2013 indicated a paltry 35% favorability rating for major, for-profit corporations in the United States. Mainstream attitudes toward the corporation thus parallel the high academic, leftist distaste discussed in the previous paragraphs. In an era of growing inequality and in light of ever more revelations of corporate malfeasance—Enron, WorldCom, British Petroleum, Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, and Walmart come to mind—anger at the power of corporations makes a lot of sense. At the same time, Western societies are more dependent than ever on what corporations provide, making this anger seemingly inoperable.

Furthermore, as John Mickelthwait and Adrian Woolridge argue, corporations now “operate in a blaze of publicity” that makes corporate malpractice more broadly visible, and this oversight means that corporations “pillage the Third World less than they used to.” History tells us that corporations in the colonial era often had state authorization to use military force to achieve economic ends, something no corporation has today; Mickelthwait and Woolridge also assert the importance of corporate contributions to social welfare organizations (188-189). Thus arguments about the corporation’s malign impact have to acknowledge the corporation’s wide and shifting role in contemporary life.

Binds like these have produced what Slavoj Žižek, in The Sublime Object of Ideology and elsewhere, has called “cynical ideology,” in which people recognize the regressive cultural traditions that are built into everyday behaviors but carry them out anyway. It is even the case that some corporations try to ease the strain of this contradiction, as Žižek points out via corporations like Starbucks, which attempts to transmute your consumer indulgence into other-directed piety by charging an extra dollar for fair-trade coffee (an observation recalled by Ralph Clare in this issue).

But even these do-gooder corporations can betray. One could observe the pain felt by customers when John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, registered his objections to the Affordable Care Act in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Given its dissonance with the presumed progressivism of Whole Foods’ customer base, Mackey’s advocacy for “less governmental control and more individual empowerment” led to boycott threats and predictions that Whole Foods would alienate its core audience, if it hadn’t already. But notwithstanding a dip in profits due to unrelated factors six years later, these predictions proved largely baseless, as Whole Foods continued to thrive and expand.

The need-you, hate-you relationship that corporations generate, then, presents no real threat to corporations, who exert such dominance in contemporary America. The narrator of Richard Powers’ novel Gain, a work discussed multiple times in this issue, gives voice to yet another pessimistic reading of this position: “the limited-liability corporation: the last noble experiment, loosing an unknowable outcome upon its beneficiaries. Its success outstripped all rational prediction until, gross for gross, it became mankind’s sole remaining endeavor” (Powers159). The corporation feels “loosed,” almost unleashed, rather than created—an inevitable, unstoppable, uncontrollable force foisted upon the world by an experiment gone awry. Powers’s narration resonates with other diagnoses of corporate hegemony like the ones mentioned above, particularly in its claim that all human cultural practice has been or will become subsumed by the corporate “endeavor.”

What drew us to build a special issue around the intersection of corporations and culture was a sense that culture is ultimately pliable, something that emerges from a complex give-and-take with power rather than simply following a corporate script. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have argued in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus that capitalism is a “deterritorializing apparatus,” which means that it works by opening up previously closed realms of possibility: for instance, one might envision the gradual loosening of fashions (rigidly gendered clothing styles in the 1950s vs. the relative proliferation of styles in 2015) and the gradual widening of consumer options (shopping with cash withdrawn after you cashed your paycheck at the bank vs. shopping with a credit card online) as expansions of possibility enabled by corporate hegemony.

One can understand innovations in cultural production along the same lines, as yesterday’s experimentation becomes today’s generic conventions, which lead in turn to tomorrow’s experimentation. Deleuze and Guattari state that every deterritoritialization entails a “reterritorializing,” the inevitable turn that reconfigures opened territory back into a fairly fixed, orderly market—you may be freer in your choice of personal style within a culture, but the markers of that legitimacy are stores in the mall that market to that style or a television channel with programming for it. Or, to provide another example, we have the Internet, the system that delivers cultural connectedness and creates communities across vast distances. But the wires facilitating that connectedness are owned by Facebook, Comcast, and Google. And the proliferation of their power via their mining of user content indicates, as Jodi Dean has argued, that our online voices simply participate in circulation that benefits, rather than challenges, the standing order.

Still, within this constant churn between deterritorializaton and reterritorialization, we can witness moments of unpredictability and creativity: #blacklivesmatter, for instance, does seem to defy naysaying about the counter-hegemonic inefficacy of the Internet. We are interested in openings like these—when culture shifts in ways that don’t immediately seem to affirm corporate power—and we aim to explore what other avenues exist within culture to make corporate hegemony perhaps less, well, hegemonic.

The aim of this issue was to collect thoughtful, incisive visions of the corporation that eschewed kneejerk skepticism about the corporation’s inevitable hegemony, visions that, instead, embraced the difficult necessity of taking the corporation’s legal and cultural entrenchment seriously. Rather than conceiving of the corporation as above and apart from the habits, imaginings, and possibilities of culture, we hope for this issue to carve out a sense of the corporation as itself a cultural phenomenon—not merely a trope, an object of critique, or a constraining factor, but a multifaceted set of logics and articulations inseparable from the cultural landscape. The interviews and essays that emerge in this issue open new possibilities for thinking about the limited-liability, for-profit corporation and its interaction with, coproduction of, and participation in American culture. Collectively, these conversations probe the myriad ways the “and” in our title might work: within that binding conjunction, one might think of culture as simultaneously resisting or subverting corporations while also being underwritten and, to some extent, dictated by them. In considering how elements of a culture dependent upon corporations respond to those corporations, we hope to locate new and compelling ways for thinking about that interaction.

In “From Affective Shareholding to OUR Walmart: Organizing Labor in a Post-Union World,”Christine Labuski and Nicholas Copeland analyze the techniques deployed by OUR Walmart, the successful activist collective of Walmart employees pushing for better treatment of workers by management. As Labuski and Copeland show, Walmart’s rhetoric has imagined the company’s relationship to its workers as essentially familial, replacing the traditional employee-management divide with a unity driven by management’s desires and needs. Through the creative redeployment of this management rhetoric, OUR Walmart’s strategies “provide new terrain for counter-politics focused on inciting and harnessing public feelings” by turning the corporation’s rhetoric against it, challenging, for instance, the company’s use of the word “respect” by counterposing it to the difficulty Walmart employees have making ends meet with their meager salaries. Such tactics, Labuski and Copeland argue, could be repurposed in other pro-labor contexts: “OUR Walmart’s redefinition of respect also implies a substantial package of material labor rights. Moreover, by linking the concept of respect to everything from a minimum hourly wage to race and class-based identity politics, OUR Walmart has successfully intersected with groups with broader political strategies.” Designing a response that operates within the very ideals of perhaps the most paradigmatic —and arguably the most successful—corporation in recent US history offers an image of what successful fighting back might look like.

The design of Eero Saarinen’s General Motors corporate campus is an example of capitalist biopolitics at work, argues Brynnar Swenson in his article “‘The Form World of our Time’: Eero Saarinen’s Corporate Camp/us.” Swenson claims that the corporate campus rivals the concentration camp as a form of human organization, structured by authorities intending to manage bodies. While the concentration camp aims at foreclosing possibilities for productive life, the corporate campus wants to expand the productivity of the individuals that inhabit it. The campus expresses the unity of the for-profit corporation—it contains the bodies that constitute it, but rather than doing so in a single building, it does so more flexibly: “In the corporate form, human potential needs to be organized but never fixed, foreclosed, or limited. There is no need for a complete enclosure when the corporate organization acts as the fixed subject in relation to sovereign power.” Swenson demonstrates that Saarinen’s campus organizes bodies in a way that reflects how bodies in postwar capitalism will be free to move around within a constraining structure.

In “Insect Capital,” Andrew Pilsch offers a compelling reading of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and its relation to the cultural logic of the corporation. Gibson’s novel, Pilsch argues, demonstrates that corporate culture shouldn’t be understood simply as banal and conservative, but instead as “a set of nefarious cultural techniques derived for interfacing human bodies with . . . the abstractions of data.” Where the seeming nondescript blandness of corporate culture might suggest it aims to standardize human behavior for profit or for control, Pilsch sees corporate culture effecting a rebranding of human selves with a specific end in mind. In particular, the insects and hives that appear regularly throughout the novel index the desire of corporate powers to generate bodies they can make into interfaces for financial data. The perversity of Neuromancer's Tessier-Ashpool corporation isn’t located in its members’ sexual mores (as other critics of the novel have asserted) but in their investment in exploring the “possibilities inherent in the corporate form for remaking humanity, for becoming a more perfect hive.” Even when this project fails, Pilsch suggests, the cultural techniques by which the corporation attempts to turn humanity into an efficient data-transporting “hive” are nevertheless quite fearsome.

Adam Haley looks at the Canadian TV series Continuum amidst a discussion of the broader fears that emerge in response to the power of corporations. Haley suggests that “The corporation [has become] . . . a primary object of dystopian fear,” as its reach and force (not to mention the form of collectivity it represents and the state it seems to oppose) increasingly occupy speculative and dystopian narratives. If the goal of corporate branding and marketing is to impress its desirability and necessity onto consumer imaginaries, “one vital aim of the corporation as a legal, political, economic, and cultural apparatus is to narrate itself into inevitability,” and thus, Haley claims, the corporation becomes bound up in a necessarily futuristic organization. Because of the success of these endeavors, “the future comes increasingly to seem predetermined” in a way that fits the corporation’s desires. Haley traces this success in shaping visions of the future to the corporation’s ability to tell convincing stories about human potential and human dependence on what corporations offer. Continuum’s straddling of genres, being both a time-travel narrative and a tale of anti-corporate resistance, makes it a rich text for examining both the inevitable future that the corporation imagines and consumers’ ability to think outside of that future. The conflict at the show’s center—between a highly sympathetic cop, loyal to the oppressive Corporate Congress of 2076, and the violent and ruthless anti-corporate group she travels back in time to stop—provides Haley with an opportunity to trace the show’s key political question, which he calls “the essential question of anti-hegemonic politics: how does one resist that which has made itself inevitable?”

In the first of Issue 8’s three interviews, Henry Turner, author of the forthcoming book The Corporate Commonwealth: Pluralism and Political Fictions in England, 1516-1651, discusses the emergence of the joint-stock, limited-liability corporation. In our interview with him, which covers ideas drawn from his book and the projects that led to it, he explains what he calls the “four ontologies of the corporation,” referring to the disparate ways corporations have been thought, understood, and discussed. These ontologies arise from Turner’s attempt to understand the corporate form’s peculiar existence, which he suggests emerges from both material and ideological foundations. The corporation exists in various forms of writing and documentation that articulate what the corporation is and does, as well as in the logos that corporations choose and broadcast as representations of their identity; these modes of existence, as well as others through which corporations manifest themselves, have deep historical, philosophical, and religious roots. Turner’s desire to think about the corporation outside of what he calls its legal “soft skeleton” reclaims the notion of incorporation for progressive purposes, and our conversation teases out some of the possibilities so opened.

Ralph Clare’s full-length study of the corporation in American postmodern cultural production, Fictions Inc.: The Corporation in Postmodern Fiction, Film and Popular Culture begins with the insight that, for better or worse, the corporation has been a key figure in literature and film for the last fifty years. For Clare, the corporation is a decidedly malign figure, an Althusserian ideological state apparatus producing subjectivities that feel dependent upon corporations for the materials that compose life. Clare strives to demonstrate that “what ideology obscures from us is that the corporation is a form of human organization,” not a runaway demonic force. Clare sees contemporary fiction’s urge to wrestle with the corporation as a sign that resistance isn’t foreclosed. Throughout the interview we discuss how the texts that appear in Clare’s book suggest promising and novel ways of looking at the corporation.

Joseph Tabbi’s recent biography of William Gaddis, Nobody Grew but the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis, offers a fresh reading of the author’s work in the context of the corporatization of American culture in the second half of the 20th century. As Tabbi notes in the interview, the very common categorizing of Gaddis as a postmodern author manifests a corporate logic: “Corporate culture likes nothing better than to turn all literary, aesthetic, affective, and cultural designations into passing fashions that readers can pick and choose and writers can argue about in a limited, highly professionalized way.” Tabbi argues that Gaddis’s work is best understood as exposing the fictionality of all the codes and rules that dominate cultural life by emphasizing the creation of those codes and rules: “our economic and cultural reality is already shot through with fictions and beliefs that sustain nation-states and corporations as much as religions,” but those fictions and beliefs take on a particularly corporate form in the “corporate lifeworld” of the American present. Gaddis’s novels, for Tabbi, are invested in “exploring ways to reform the technoculture from within, by discovering unrecognized potentials in its everyday details and operations.” In our conversation, we discuss Tabbi’s sense that the corporate lifeworld has rewritten the reception of literature in general and Gaddis in particular.

Despite the Hobby Lobby decision allowing the corporation a conscience and Citizens United granting it a voice, we have seen that the corporation also wants to abstract itself away from natural personhood—as Haley argues, to narrate itself into inevitability; as Swenson discusses, to organize humans into productivity; as Turner and Clare say, to insulate itself from responsibility. Yet as Pilsch, Clare, and Turner argue, the corporation is also a human invention, one that can be regulated by other human-populated institutions and responded to in clever ways, such as those Labuski and Copeland discuss so capably. Since, as several of our authors remind us, there is effectively no outside to today’s mode of capitalism, skeptics of corporate power are left to do what Tabbi has diagnosed in Gaddis’s novels: figure out ways to reform the system from within. But doing so requires realizing that the corporation is not the Nazi machine, as Swenson demonstrates; it works through an opening of definitions of human selves and human bodies and is not at all threatened by multiplying subjectivities. What we hope this issue demonstrates is that the corporation must be considered in creative and clear-eyed ways in order to grapple with the complex challenge it presents, and we are grateful to the authors and interviewees for addressing this urgent task.


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. Marxists Internet Archive. Marxists.org, 2005. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. Print.

Dean, Jodi. Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983. Print.

---. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989. Print.

Klein, Naomi. No Logo. New York: Picador, 2009. Print.

Mackey, John. “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare: Eight things we can do to improve health care without adding to the deficit.” Wall Street Journal. 11 Aug. 2009. Web. 15 Sept. 2009.

Micklethwait, John and Adrian Woolridge. The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Print.

Newport, Frank. “Americans Similarly Dissatisfied with Corporations, Gov’t.” Gallup.com. 17 Jan. 2013. Gallup.com. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology. Dir. Sophie Fiennes. Screenplay by Slavoj Žižek. Perf. Slavoj Žižek. BFI, 2013. DVD.

Powers, Richard. Gain. New York, Picador: 1998. Print.

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. Print.

“Whole Foods’ John Mackey Out To Alienate Core Customers.” Wall Street Weather. 12 Aug. 2009. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 2009. Print.



Fig. 1. Otterness, Tom. Alligator, 1996. Photograph: Sean Scanlan. 12 Nov. 2015. JPEG.