Updated: May 17, 2020
Written by Richard Hardack.
Lasers in the jungle: Avatar
As the response to the pandemic in the U.S., which we might call corona–capitalism, highlights, corporations are dead things that have inordinate influence over all living things.
The history of the new world is in many ways the history of that corporation—the early form of the corporation and the joint stock company were instrumental in expanding not just trade, but colonialism in all its forms; the displacement and appropriation of the aboriginal; the sugar trade; slavery; and, as Caitlin Rosenthal documents, the modern accounting methods that arose partly in connection with slavery. But I argue that the corporation dominates the contemporary world not just economically and politically, but, in largely unacknowledged ways, ontologically and culturally.
A corporation is an artificial person, and its designation of course connotes an artificial body, in this case the fantasy of a giant and merged body beyond space and time that also “incorporates” everything. The body of the corporation has supplanted the body of the king, and all the functions it represented.
The quintessential simulacra of a person, the corporation is also a kind of parasite that has been accreting ontology—for example, legal status and privileges, religious rights, and intentionality and agency—from people. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisionsthat corporations are people—most notably in the ironically titled Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—are simply the most recent extensions of a long line of legal holdings and cultural paradigms, a distinct teleology, that enable corporations to impersonate people. But these attributions of personhood and rights are part of a zero sum game—each right and attribute corporations gain are siphoned from people. As corporations accrue not just wealth and power, but human rights, human rights diminish.
Further, I argue that the fictional corporate person is not only constructed to pursue profit regardless of social harm, but be pathological in being programmed to lie and impersonate human behaviors. They are the aliens among us. Joel Bakan describes the corporation, via Mark Kingwell, as “an artificial person made in the image of a human psychopath.”Deborah Madsen suspects the corporation has the traits of a form of schizophrenia, in that it is severed from a coherent sense of unified history or values, and wholly contingent in its behavior. One suspects a psychologist would assess a representative “corporate person” as someone who is irremediably criminally insane, and whose defining characteristics are a lack of empathy; anti-social aggression; a proclivity to dishonesty; and an inability to evaluate one’s behavior. Tzvetan Todorov proposes that psychoanalysis has supplanted the literature of the fantastic because it deals directly with the causes of fears and anxieties that used to be projected onto figures of fantasy. But, aside from the fact that devils and vampires are more popular than ever, certain figures (if not their causes and contexts) cannot be psychoanalyzed because they have no actual psyches, and paramount among them is the corporate person.
Personhood is a contested site between corporations and people, with corporations finally, in effect, cannibalizing personhood. It’s worth noting that in the film version of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, Soylent was a corporation before it became people: the film reifies what corporations routinely do in the abstract. As Mitt Romney asserted, conveying more than he intended, corporations are people, my friend. Many villains in science fiction and horror movies, from Blade Runner to Aliens to the Resident Evil series, are literally or figuratively corporations. The ultimate goal of those corporations is to create and supplant life.
The Tyrell Corporation from the movie Blade Runner
The corporation also in many ways encapsulates the collective agency or soul Hobbes, and (subsequent) science fiction writers, imagine as an extension of the isolated individual, and also has been closely connected to the fictitious life and functioning of AI in its incipient and modern forms. The corporation is the ultimate form of artificial being, the impersonation and final supplanting of the human. (All corporate agents, from spokespersons to actors, impersonate human behavior and emotions—they are stand ins for a nonexistent source). Pay attention to the number of narratives that depict corporations not simply as rapacious, but as inhuman entities whose malfeasance comes close to what you would expect from horror movie villains. These representations reflect our unconscious realization that corporations are unnatural, or that nature itself is unnatural.
The computer in Harlan Ellison’s 1967 science fiction short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” — about a consciousness that wakes up and realizes it has been uploaded into a computer — is also a kind of corporation; one could rewrite that title as “I Have No Mouth and I Must Advertise, Constantly and to the Point of Psychosis.” (I don’t have space to address this point here, but the corporation that has no mouth or person screams at us incessantly through advertising, the predominant form of communication in the capitalist world). Many contemporary dreams of immortality are in their cultural residue nightmares about being incorporated.
A fantasy of collective gestalt and agency, Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 novel More Than Human features protagonists who have evolved to “blesh,” or blend and merge, into a single organism. The corporation is a monstrous version of such an ontological mutation. To blesh is also to borg, to be defined by the language of corporate merger. The corporation is trans- or post-individual, like nature but also like the (cy)Borg on Star Trek. But where Sturgeon imagines a transcendent volk-consciousness, the corporation signifies the control and eradication of consciousness.
The widespread legal “animation” of corporations is rhetorically coterminous with the animation of corpses in science fiction and horror movies—the attribution of life and agency to a mindless and collective thing. In the seventeenth century, Chief Justice Coke in England asserted that corporations have no souls, a trope that has been endlessly repeated verbatim by writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, Richard Powers and David Foster Wallace. Numerous legal cases, in a Hobbesian lineage, specify instead that the state animates corporations as collectivized artificial persons: “A corporation is a creature of the State. It owes its very being to the State. “Into its nostrils the State must breathe the breath of a fictitious life for otherwise it would be no animated body but individualistic dust [citation omitted].”” (Cloverfield). Such holdings appropriately treat the corporation as a kind of closely-held Frankenstein monster, an animated thing of dust: “While the directors are chosen by the stockholders, they become, when elected and properly organized as a board, the agent of the corporation. It is by such means that animate force is given to an inanimate thing” (Lamb). Such language suggests the corporation is a transcendental form—it is a numinous animated golem, but it has no soul.
Since its inception, the corporation has been taking over the role of nature. As I begin to argue in Not Altogether Human: Pantheism and the Dark Nature of the American Renaissance, it is no longer nature that transcends, or takes us beyond the time and space of, nations, but the ubiquitous transcendental corporation. We circle back to what Pynchon, in his new-world novel Mason and Dixon, calls “the Dutch Company which is ev’rywhere, and Ev’rything.” Rhetorically, ontologically, and even apostrophically, the Company replaces the Puritan/transcendental Nature that is invoked at the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, where one might still spy “a face in ev’ry mountainside/ And a soul in ev’ry stone.” Perhaps unexpectedly, the corporation is deeply implicated in the discourse of pantheism, the notion that impersonal and collective nature is everywhere alive, sentient and can communicate. That notion now equally applies in full to the corporation, to which the soul once found in nature has transmogrified.
Devised to be a fantastic super-being, the corporation is also the simulacrum of a person with a soul. Naomi Klein traces developments in advertising that are designed to naturalize the notion that corporations have human identities: “ad agencies no longer sold companies on individual campaigns but on their ability to act as “brand stewards”: identifying, articulating and protecting the corporate soul.” The most artificial things in the world are branded as natural. Frederic Jameson details how the corporate form of itself can thwart historical-materialist notions of agency and teleology: Marxists had trouble conceiving of “Some nonindividual, meaningful, collective yet impersonal agency [the mode of production] . . . still somehow a “subject,” like the individual consciousness, yet now immortal, impersonal in another way, collective beyond the dreams of populism . . . . the trust, the monopoly, the “soulfull” corporation, with its new corporate law.” In his 1852 novel Pierre, for example, Melville’s protagonist declaimed, “[T]hou inconceivable coxcomb of a Goethe [whom Melville identified as an iconic pantheist]. . . . Already the universe gets on without thee, and could still spare a million more of the same identical kidney. Corporations have no souls, and thy Pantheism, what was that? Thou wert but the pretentious, heartless part of a man.” This passage succinctly dismantles the apparent opposition between Nature (pantheism) and corporation, and reveals the corporate specter beneath antebellum America’s mystical conception of nature.
In the remaining section, I present a brief précis of my argument that can be applied in the context of fantasy, and particularly fantasies of nature. James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar insinuates that nature was always already a virtual reality. Perhaps not surprisingly in the age of Halliburton, Blackwater and privatized security forces, the military/marine corp. in numerous science fiction films, such as Cameron’s Aliens and Avatar, becomes indistinguishable from a corporation. These corporations do not simply engage in social malfeasance, but mimic and usurp the role of nature, and, more unexpectedly, help reveal that nature itself was always a kind of corporate commodity and construct.
Avatar dramatizes the antebellum transcendentalist premise that the world is a living, sentient being—a conceit that American pantheists, like Avatar’s writers, developed from aboriginal cultures. Melville depicted a similar entity throughout his novel Mardi, whose planet is a collective being. Babbalanja’s description of Mardi offers a blueprint for the pantheistic world-construction of Avatar:
“There are more things alive than those that crawl, or fly, or swim. Think you there is no sensation in being a tree? Think you it is nothing to be a world? What are our tokens of animation? That we move, make a noise, have organs, pulses, and are compounded of fluids and solids. And all these are in this Mardi as a unit. Its rivers are its veins, and as the body of a bison is covered with hair, so Mardi is covered with grasses and vegetation. Mardi is alive to its axis.”
Here, the world itself attains personhood.
But Pandora, Avatar’s living world, repeats the surprising ulterior message of transcendentalism: nature always represented a virtual, and finally corporate, reality. As John Varley narrativized in his Gaea novels, nature itself is a kind of corporate AI construct (whose “personality” is deranged). Avatar dramatizes the predicate that nature not only no longer exists on a ravaged, post-industrial earth, but that it always existed in some virtual space as a cultural and technological construct. Critically, Pandora’s Navi interact with “nature” as avatars: they plug into horses, dragons, and so on with the equivalent of organic USB cords. In this new-age posthuman fantasy, nature is a cyborg. But where the Navi “plug” directly into their sacred tree, earthlings can encounter this otherwise poisonous nature only while wearing protective suits and using virtual technology. The electro-chemical connections between Pandora’s trees serve as neural nets, a literal world-wide-web; as Sigourney Weaver’s character exclaims, the Navi “download and upload data” through these connections. Pandora exists only as a digital creation, and people can access nature only by downloading themselves into it. (And as we will soon learn, Avatar could have been called I Have No Mouth, and I Must Sequel).
The film’s premise that the miners are seeking “Unobtanium”—a recurring satirical science fiction motif that perhaps unwittingly represents the Lacanian lack of Western ontology—suggests that colonization allows us to seek a fantasized utopia in a digitized version of a “primitive” world corporations have eradicated. As if addressing Avatar, Žižek contends that “”This new notion of life is thus neutral with respect to the distinction between natural and cultural (or ‘artificial’) processes—the Earth (as Gaia) as well as the global market appear as gigantic self-regulated living systems.” In Avatar’s fantasy of virtual reality, we become cyber-bodies that efface distinctions between nature, technology, and corporation. Avatar’s wholly artificial world of nature is actually a complete mapping of the cultural geography of the corporation.
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In the blog entry, Hardack provides a brief précis of ideas and arguments about the uncanny and unsettling nature of corporations he develops in several cultural studies and legal articles, and a book in progress, New and Improved: The Zero-Sum Game of Corporate Personhood. For reasons of space, he provides only the broadest outline of his claims in summary fashion to make some initial arguments and connections.
Bakan, Joel. The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. New York: Simon
and Schuster, 2005.
Cameron, James. Avatar. Screenplay, 2007.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
Cloverfields Improv. Assoc. v. Seabreeze Props., Inc., 32 Md. App. 421, 425 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1976).
Hardack, Richard. “New and Improved: The Zero-Sum Game of Corporate Personhood.” Special Issue on Life-Writing and Corporate Personhood. Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 37.1 (2014): 36-68.
———. “Not Altogether Human”: Pantheism and the Dark Nature of the American Renaissance. Amherst: U Massachusetts P, 2012.
Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke
Klein, Naomi. No Logo. New York: Picador, 2000.
Lamb v. Lehmann, 110 Ohio St. 59, 65 (1924).
Madsen, Deborah L. “The Business of Living: Gravity's Rainbow, Evolution, and the
Advancement of Capitalism.” Pynchon Notes 40-41 (1997): 144-58.
Melville, Herman. Mardi. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston, Il: Northwestern UP, 1970.
———. Pierre. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston, Il:
Northwestern UP, 1968.
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1995 (1973).
———. Mason and Dixon. New York: Harry Holt, 1997.
Rosenthal, Caitlin. “From Memory to Mastery: Accounting for Control in America, 1750–1880.”
Enterprise & Society 14.4 (2013): 732-748.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard
Howard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1970.
Žižek, Slavoj. Interrogating the Real. Ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens. New York: Continuum, 2006.