Analysing the Corporation

Among the various pathways open to corporations in the modern world, some acquire their direction and their strength from their relation to culture. In a world communicating, interacting and changing in increasingly complex ways, corporations are major agents and receptors of cultural change. How could we begin to analyse and understand their role in modern culture? This is a complicated and rather difficult test and we would need to choose a solid starting point. The starting point that I propose is this:

Corporations do not exist solely in the Real.

This is a rather bold assertion. What does it claim about the new paths that corporations can take in new environments? What does it claim about the new regions whose boundaries will be established and navigated by corporations working in new settings? The new frontiers opened up by new sets of relations will be in some measure determined by transformed cultures present in the modern world. The coordinates of the transformed cultures open new directions -and set limits to old ones; they bring into being the conditions under which modern corporations exist. What then is this additional factor that augments the Real?

We will call Real the domain of that which is there regardless and irrespective of any observer. In other words we hold that the Real is that which is there, come wind, rain or snow. It is that which gives difficulties to agents and observers; it is what deprives them of accessible pathways. It facilitates programme of work when approached with appropriate coordinates; when approached without them it renders activity impossible to sustain. These coordinates give a key to a series of spaces that allow access to the Real; they contain social and cultural variables, as well as grounds for innovation that goes well beyond what is traditional. A corporation entails roles, objectives, procedures, outcomes; it entails investments, expectations, profits; it entails demands, prohibitions, restrictions; and it opens for itself a series of trajectories across the social world. These pathways can be either blocked or facilitated by the spatial structures that augment the Real.

These spaces and their pathways are not built out of familiar relations. To investigate them we will have to make some distinctions. First, let us distinguish between structure and non-structure. To put it abstractly, a structured set is a set consisting of elements which relate to each other in certain specific ways. Spaces are generated in such ways, as also are temporal properties, which are based on order relations. Some structures are intentionally designed: other structures emerge -for example, the dunes on a beach.

Moreover, some structures have a function, for example a wristwatch, and others do not.

Let us call Imaginary the domain constituted by the perceptions of observers. (The term is understood as related to images rather than imagination.) The Real is viewed through the Imaginary, but the two domains do not directly communicate. In fact, we, as agents, conceive a Real because we need to account for what we perceive; we need to account for the Imaginary. The domain of the Imaginary is not uniform; on the contrary, it is complex, multifaceted and patterned. It is made up of fixed forms of perception, established ways of looking at the world, and misrepresentations that in the past have been found convenient. It has a luring function -useful only for negotiating consolidated meanings -and does not provide a reliable guide to the putting into place of new

We will call meaning that which an observer makes out from the structuring of the Imaginary. “Meaning” conceived thus has little or no relation to the possible function of this part of the imaginary. Take the example of the wristwatch -its function is to tell the time; that same wristwatch, however, could be a status symbol or a fashion accessory or an object of high sentimental value. This, then, would be its meaning.

Where does meaning originate? The answer is simple. The origin of a meaning can either be the observer him or herself, or the domain of interactions between this observer and others. In other words, meaning can be either private, or derived from social relations. Focusing on the meanings that stem from social interaction, we can see that these can be either agreed upon, or accepted. In the former case, observers deliberately cooperate to attribute certain meanings to certain structures, for instance when they agree on the specifications of Digital Television broadcasting. In the latter case, observers accept to enter a domain of meanings that was there beforehand, for example when they learn (or acquire) a language, or when they enter into an already existing discourse. We can now give the name Symbolic to those structures which allow for the creation and the shift of meaning. The Symbolic is inconceivable in the absence of an imaginary, i.e. in the absence of participants who are there to observe something and to make out a meaning. The Symbolic sets a stage for the actions of these participants, and is itself -in part -altered by the effects of their activity. This is the domain then that augments the Real.

Let us now return to the question of corporations. Initially we inquired about the scope of their existence. We can now say that a corporation acts in an environment that determines the pathways that are open to it. The coordinates for its actions are formulated in terms of the Symbolic, and it is this domain that conditions the activity of a corporation, and its identity.

The relations between the Imaginary and the Symbolic need some clarification: the relation between the Symbolic and the Real depends on this. Once this is given some articulation however, several results follow. Here are three:

a) Corporations -or any complex symbolic systems -depend for their existence on the meanings available within a set of structures. As soon as the interpretive participation of observers is -for whatever reason -repealed, forgotten or cancelled, corporations cease to be able to function in the ways that they have taken for granted in the past. An example of this process, taken from recent corporate news, would be the case of the bankruptcy of the energy giant Enron; another example would be the creation and the burst of the so-called New Economy Bubble. On a non corporate level, an example would be the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

b) Corporations exist only as symbolic structures, and do not exist simply in the Real.

However it does not follow that corporations cannot have effects upon the Real: indeed, corporations do have effects on the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and particularly on the Real. There is one major difficulty though: any Real effects can only be conceptually assessed through the Imaginary and Symbolic and this creates essential difficulties.

Take global warming as an example: global warming is understood to be an effect of certain human activities upon the Real. Nevertheless, since we qua observers, are able to conceive the Real only through these other two domains -the Imaginary and the Symbolic -we seem unable to agree upon the extent of the ‘actual’ effect, how severe or urgent it is, and how we should respond, on both an institutional and a practical level.

c) In the domain of the Imaginary, observers tend to attribute to what they observe qualities similar to those they themselves possess, or that they imagine they possess.

An observer might imaginarily conceive an entity such as a nation or a state by attributing to it qualities such as ‘will’, ‘determination’, ‘ endurance’, ’stamina’, ‘morale’, even ’sex’ and ‘age’. For example, modern mainland Greeks conceive of ‘Mother Greece’ as an imaginary (and presumably female) body, which all Greeks, from all over the world, would like to be connected to. Corporations are frequently conceived of in the same imaginary way. Beyond this Imaginary, the field of the Symbolic often lies unobserved. But it is in this Symbolic domain that new initiatives find the outline of their success. New proposals, new initiatives -whether formulated within traditional discourses or not -depend for their success on being able to give priority to the Symbolic underpinnings of relations, rather than remaining dependant on Imaginary perceptions of them.

Our position, in other words is as follows:

i) Corporations exist, but not solely in the Real. They are not things. Their existence takes shape only in the domain of the Symbolic. They are there for as long as there are agents willing (and able) to recognize the Symbolic elements that make them up, and to reach a rough consensus agreeing upon or accepting what those structures mean. As soon as the participants decide to forget or disagree about these meanings, corporations cease to maintain their function and start to become fossils, rather than continuing to influence the outlines of social life.

ii) Corporations have effects upon the domains of the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real. An understanding of the role of corporations would necessarily presuppose a facility to distinguish between these three domains, and an ability to accurately describe phenomena that permeate all three of them.

iii) In engaging with corporations, participants and observers tend to see them as if they the corporations -were individuals; they readily forget that corporations are indeed symbolic structures, and prefer to picture them as imaginary, bodily entities. This applies equally to observers interacting with a corporation -for example, when buying a product or investing in the stock market -and to observers who actively participate in a corporation -for instance as employees, executives, or investors.

By taking into account these aspects of corporations, namely that they are symbolic structures and not simply real bodies, we can discover more of how it is that we allow our imaginary representations and misrepresentations of corporations to influence the way we conceive of then, and interact with them. By proceeding in this way, we would also acquire more knowledge of the principles of action of a corporation, and of the nature of its identity. The transformations that a corporation is involved in have as their proper setting the Symbolic; questions of identity and responsibility in this way gain a reformulation -one given form by what augments the Real.

Bernard Burgoyne, Emeritus Professor of Psychoanalysis at Middlesex University, for Zamyn

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