Previous Events, 2008

Corporations and the Future of Humankind

Monday, October 27, 2008

5-7 PM

Newcomb Hall 168

Ira Bashkow, Anthropology (Partipant and Moderator), “The Agency of Corporations”
Allison Pugh, Sociology, “Consumption as Care and Belonging: Economies of Dignity in Children’s Daily Lives”
Herbert Tico Braun, History, “An Anthropology of the Corporation?”
David Golumbia, English, Media Studies, and Linguistics, “Corporate Agency and the Distribution of Control”
David Franz, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (UVa), “The Cultural Corporation and the Ambiguities of Corporate Agency”
Kevin Kordana, Law School, TBA

Ira Bashkow, Anthropology (Partipant and Moderator), “The Agency ofCorporations”

The investor-owned business company, or corporation, hasbecome the privileged historical actor of our time. Multiply advantaged by political, legal, and socio-technical structures,corporations have come to control a commanding share of the world’sproductive capital. They drive government policy, own and direct themass media, and shape the environment and people’s lives by theirproducts, production and labor practices, lobbying, marketing, andcharitable giving. Through their public relations and marketingefforts, corporations powerfully shape public discourse, normalizinghedonistic conceptions of social relations and encouraging publicdistrust of the state. Because corporations benefit from the weakeningof state power as much as they do by exploiting it, anthropologicalcritiques of governmentality do not provide the key to restoring powerto individuals; to the contrary, they have the unintended effect ofreinforcing the kind of anti-government sentiment that serves only tofurther consolidate corporate power. It is thus critically importantthat social theory recognize the corporation as a major economic,social, and political actor, on an analytic par with states andindividuals. We need to, in short, reconsider our distrust of thestate, and come to grips instead with the company.

Allison Pugh, Sociology, “Consumption as Care and Belonging:Economies of Dignity in Children’s Daily Lives”

Prevailing debates about consumption for children focuson whether children should be sheltered from popular culture,corporate marketing, and consumer desires, or whether such a taskwould be impossible, and in any case misguided, because children useconsumer culture to their own ends. I argue that these debates, whileimportant, miss a central point about spending on children: the impactof commercialization on the emotional experience of childhood,specifically, on children’s relationships with parents and withfriends. In this essay, I consider these developments from theperspective of three years of ethnographic research on children’sconsumer culture and families in California. Using ethnographicevidence, I argue that the emotional impact of the commercializationof childhood reverberates in two directions, in the ratcheting up ofwhat it takes to belong, and in the equation of parent spending withcare. These effects are relational, they transform the webs ofconnection which children inhabit, and they are felt in affluent andlow-income communities alike. Rising consumption, by its sheerdomination of childhood today, establishes a new cultural environment,with new expectations about what parents should provide, what childrenshould have, and what having, or not having, signifies.

Herbert Tico Braun, History, “An Anthropology of the Corporation?”

Anthropologists come face to face with theirinformants.  Often, they live with them, sharing daily experiences,and then they write to explain them to us, their behavior, customs,and institutions.  An anthropologist would hardly think of lookinginto a village from afar, to then criticize it and its members for thedamage it exerts on surrounding villages.  A critique is rarelysufficient for understanding.  An anthropological understanding of thecorporation, and especially of its “agency,” calls for just such anintimate approach.

David Golumbia, English, Media Studies, and Linguistics, “CorporateAgency and the Distribution of Control”

A commonplace about the information age is that thedecentralization of certain administrative functions leads to greaterdemocracy. Yet this view demands we see the actors in the system asagents of relatively equal powers, with the human being as the modelagent.Yet in the global information network, corporate agents are anythingbut equal to the relatively human-sized agents we tend to know well.From the corporate perspective, distribution of control means not lessbut more power. Computerization, especially, enables the farming outof all functions below the executive level. This level may be smallbut its power is absolute inside the corporate person. We commonlyrefer to globalization as primarily and economic and secondarily asocial transformation in which the world is becoming more connected.From the perspective of the corporate agent, and as the current crisisin financial incorporation itself shows, what is missed in thischaracterization of globalization is the nature of the connectionsthat are formed. As an actor in the polis, the information age enablesexactly what central authorities have always enabled: theconsolidation of wealth and power, via the distribution of risk andresponsibility.

David Franz, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (UVa), “TheCultural Corporation and the Ambiguities of Corporate Agency”

The corporation is a dominant institution of our time andyet it is also surrounded by talk – from the mouths of friends andfoes – that makes its status as an agent that can act and bearresponsibility for its actions highly ambiguous.  This is partlycaptured by the legal status of corporations as persons, but personsfor whom the most severe punishments do not apply.  Corporations have”no soul to be damned, no body to be kicked,” as one 18th centurycritic put it.  In neo-liberal theories, the collective aspect ofcorporations seems to disappear altogether, remaining only as a bundleof contracts between individuals.  But perhaps it is in theories ofmanagement that the ambiguity of corporate agency is expressed mostfully.  Recent management theory has sought to redefine corporationsas cultures in an effort to make corporations “more real” as socialentities, something that employees felt more connected to.  And yet,corporate culture was also advertised as a managerial tool, a means ofachieving greater control, and expanding the agency of the individualmanager beyond what was possible with old bureaucratic techniques.The idea, in all of its contradiction, spread quickly.  Culturalmanagement theory pushed management theory out of business schools andonto bestseller lists.  The cultural corporation, embodied in cubiclesand corporate campuses and finding expression in its native genres ofthe mission statement and the team-building retreat, has shaped publicunderstandings of the actions and responsibilities of corporations.In particular, corporate culture has become an central category inassigning blame for failures, serving to both spread culpability tothe entire company and narrow its focus upon managers believed to beresponsible for the culture they were supposed to control.

Kevin Kordana, Law School, TBA



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