Some Thoughts on “Corporate Personhood”

March 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

So today while lazing around in bed I happened upon a Slate article on the latest legal claim to “corporate personhood”. By the way the link I embedded here is to the Wikepedia entry on corporate personhood. It’s a fairly good one, going through all of the American legal precedents that touch (and only sometimes set precedent) on the subject. As an aside one of those Wikipedia banners appear on this page (the ones that implore the worldwide public to ensure that the article conform to Wikipedia standards). The banner warns that this particular entry “…does not represent a worldwide view of the subject.” This is apparently an attempt to combat ‘systemic bias.’ I have thoughts on this, which I will have to return to later.

But first back to the Slate article, written by University of Chicago Law Professor (and semi-frequent Slate contributer) Eric Posner. Posner teaches us a history lesson, one that reveals the pragmatic nature of the law, one that must in fact create a fictional person in the form of a corporation (a sworn association of persons) in order to hold corporations responsible for certain, especially criminal actions. This form of “personhood” does not automatically grant all the rights of citizenship to corporations. To clarify, we are talking of corporate “personhood” as opposed to corporate citizenship.

Sometimes etymologies help, sometimes they don’t. In this case they might. So to help myself out I’m going to lay out some key terms and their defintions and etymologies

Person: The word “person” originally comes from the Latin persona “mask, or false face” as in the clay masks worn by those in the Roman theater. The word persona of course exists in the English language and its meaning has not really changed from the original Latin.

Citizen: A citizen has since the early 14th c. meant the inhabitant of the city. At this time city limits (which were still mostly defined by city walls) was also a circumscription of law. National borders act in much the same way today and thus the term citizen today is also the legal subject of the nation-state.

Human: is a being as distinguished from an animal. During the Enlightenment era the category of human as a universal category emerged. As a universal category human rights transcend the bounds of law and citizenship. However there has never been a truly effective guarantor of these rights. The UN and International Criminal Court are ostensibly responsible for establishing and protecting these rights. Standing in their way is national sovereignty, or the rights of nations to enjoy full jurisdiction within its borders. Now as my sister in law, a human rights lawyer explained to me human rights law not only exists as an international structure, but also establishes itself in treaties between participating nations. There is much more depth to go into here…

Corporation: mid-15c., “persons united in a body for some purpose,” from such use in Anglo-Latin, from Late Latin corporationem (nominativecorporatio), noun of action from past participle stem of Latin corporare “to embody” (see corporate). Corporations, that is bodies of sworn citizens preceded the formation of the nation state. For example in the vacuum of power that was the result of the collapse of the Roman Empire several guild-based corporations emerged. These corporations were not the legal subjects of the state, they were self-incorporated. The corporation’s roots in guild practices (as opposed to today’s nation state form which is a spatial inheritance of feudal territory) makes it a spatially different kind of organization… though its form, like the nation-state form passed through the city at some point in time. Today corporations must be legally authorized by some other state. Today they are the legal subject of the nation-state in which that corporation is formed. Below is a map of the semi-autonomous states of the Swabian Circle. As you can see, it’s a mess of territories, some of them principalities, and some of them, though very few of them were “free imperial cities” or self ruling territories.  At this point Napoleon was uniting France, the UK was pretty much whole, as was Spain and Portugal… Corporate rule is closest to that of “free imperial cities” that is until the entire world map is drawn as a single community of nation-states. The corporation and the nation-state cannot co-exist as separate but equal power structures. One must eventually fall under the legal jurisdiction of the other. Generally, in the United States the capitalist system is one that dictates that the private sector (individual proprietors and corporations) owns and administers material wealth, with government oversight, while the State possesses and exercises ultimate political power. Today, however it should be clear to almost everyone that corporate power has seized not only a great deal of material wealth but also has bought a fair amount of political power, especially in these United States.


OK… back to thinking about all of these terms together… At least etymologically a person was never equivalent to a human, nor was there ever a legal equivalence between personhood and citizenship. A corporation is a person (or a persona), which is a question of legal representation, not an existential question, as Jon Stewart might have you believe.  My point here is that corporate personhood is, as far as I can tell according to both Wikipedia and to Posner’s article always a legal placeholder, a means of holding a party responsible, a legal “mask” if you will.

Now I imagine that this is so, for many different reasons, most of them involving international commerce. You and those you may incorporate with do not have to be citizens of the United States. This allows, for example a business with foreign owners to sell their products in the United States, while still being legally held accountable for its own actions at least while the operate under the “mask” of the corporation. Things get messy when we start thinking about multinational corporations (MNCs) and transnational corporations, where because that corporation’s legal authorization or recognition ‘resides’ in more than one country, the question of legal jurisdiction becomes a problem. More often than not corporations become trans- or multi- national in order to operate in countries that have low human rights and environmental standards.

But if we take the LONG history of the corporation into account and its subsumption into the world-wide map of nation states… we see that these entities would always be two forms of competing power (as both command a population and a wealth of resources). The modern corporation, however de-spatializes (literally transforming into global networks) while the nation-state becomes our means of understanding political geography.

Now, I’m a mere political philosophy dabbler, inasmuch as I tried to hang with a bunch of smarty farty abstract thinkers in a class I took with Etienne Balibar. That means the kinda stuff I read is not of the John Rawls sort (i.e. practical and dealing with present day institutions with a de facto liberal bent), but of the Hannah Arendt sort (i.e. more abstract). Also, I am certainly no lawyer. I’m mostly writing these notes for myself because I’m trying to understand the corporation, and the multinational corporation as a sort of topological praxis (which could be thought of in terms of a mathematics of connection as opposed to a geometric delineation of space as was the case with the Greek politeia which is coextensive with the wall of the city-state). Wendy Brown tries to trace the non-sense of the border in Walled States through the treatment of hyper-militarized borders as the symptom of the waning power of the nation state. What I want to do is to think about some of the (non-spatial) forces (i.e. networks) that destroyed the wall (not its physical presence but its effectiveness) more directly. I want to think of the material of connection (telegraph lines, radio waves, internet connectivity etc.) as a means of replacing the primacy of space. What were the actual effects of these technologies in terms of debasing the geographical basis of sovereignty?

To think about… Corporate conscience, corporate psychology, Flag of convenience, Citizens United, electioneering.

Interestingly the plural of person, people is not etymologically related to “person.”

Corporate psychology.

Quoting at Length… Rudyard Kipling to William Cameron Forbes

March 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dear Mr. Forbes


I am grieved to notice your enthusiasm for education in the abstract, and your pride in the increase of educational facilties. In due time, say in two generations, you will reap the reward of your benificent policy – as we are already reaping the reward of ours in India – in the shape of prolonged and elaborate rebellion, sedition and treason: – this is almost axiomatic. The beauty of education is, that like drink, it awakes all the desires and at the same time inhibits (if this is the correct medical term?) most of the capacities. But these are things which I know I cannot persuade you of. The only things that matter in this fallen world are transportation and sanitation. 

Placeholder: The Silk Stocking Regiment at the Park Avenue Armory

March 8, 2014 § Leave a comment


Freemasonry, Voodoo, Susan Buck-Morss and how to deal with archives.

March 8, 2014 § 2 Comments


Susan Buck-Morss was kind enough to speak to a small group of PhD students today. I’ve been waiting a while to hear her speak, so I was very excited. I asked her some half-baked question about extra-lingusitic modes of communication that allowed slaves who were once at violent odds with one another to establish trust across cultural and linguistic barriers. They shared many of these ‘modes’ with the Freemasonry, which was a diverse ‘organization’ that engendered ties of loyalty often stronger than loyalties to nation and state. Anyway… I will have to think about this a little more.

There is one thing that she repeated several times and it’s been itching me ever since. She said “The ontic precedes the ontological” and I’ve been trying to figure out what that means, especially as someone rather invested in ontological methods of description.

Unfortunately it was Heidegger, the Nazi who I’m always attempting to avoid canonizing, who first makes the distinction. For Heidegger the “ontic” are the descriptive characteristics of a particular thing and the “plain facts” of its existence. What is ontic is what makes something what it is. The ontological is used when the nature, or meaningful structure of existence is at issue. The ontological already exists on the level of meaning. For Heidegger the motivating question was what makes human existence particular to humanity. For Buck-Morss the motivating questions are what are the facts that precede meaning—the facts before they have been woven into the tapestry of a story. The patterns in the substrait of reality have to be seen in their totality before they are carved into monuments of history.

This is where we can happily make a departure from Heidegger, because in the methodology described by Buck-Morss, we must see the particular patterns of reality even before we develop descriptions of it. We have to find the “red thread” (was this a Benjamin thing or a Tafuri thing??) that violates disciplinary borders. Our plunge into the archive should be dizzying, disorienting, filled with discoveries of things that have long gone unnoticed, simply because the questions before diving into the archive have not yet been formed. Buck-Morss had different questions before she dove into the archives of Hegel’s newspaper of choice, Minerva. What she saw, however was hundreds of articles on the Haitian revolution, something that gets almost entirely erased from Hegel’s oeuvre. Buck-Morss argues that Hegel’s master-slave narrative is largely inspired by the  Haitian revolution, a fact that should motivate us to read Hegel in a new light.

So I was thinking, how does this relate to Latour’s ontological method? Well, for me what I see is what Latour is interested in is actually ontology “in the making” and thus it is not really ontology, but a study of the formation of the ontological. And here we have to stop, at the threshold of description, interrogating the contents of a journal, (like Nature,  for example) and reading every page in order to understand how that journal constructs an ontology of Nature. This is how Buck-Morss chose to read Minerva. 

Anyway, this is one of those mornings where the ideas are swimming all disconnected like in the soup of the brain, so I will cut this missive short here, but not before meditating just a bit upon a work very special to my heart, Frederick Douglass’ and Ida B. Wells’ “The Reason Why The Coloured American is not in the Columbian World’s Exposition” Douglass and Wells did not find an American exhibitor willing to distribute “The Reason Why…” but they did find one exhibitor willing—the Haitians. Douglass dedicated the Haitian Pavilion in January of 1893, the Library of Congress has his handwritten notes for the speech he delivered on that day. Douglass was a former ambassador to Haiti.


Roma and Palazzo Labia in Würzburg

March 6, 2014 § Leave a comment


Was just getting all nostalgic today for Rome. Went there with my parents maybe four years ago and really didn’t get enough time there. My favorite morning is when I dragged my brother out of the hotel room at some ungodly early hour so I could visit San Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane. On the way we wandered into Iglesia di Santo Ignacio (which I was totally oblivious about). I of course know little about painting in the grand manner except that Tiepolo’s ceiling studies are my favorite thing at the Met. And then there’s Palazzo Labia—yes, Palazzo Labia in Würzburg.


Julia Morgan, Zaha Hadid and What it Means to be a Third Wave Feminist or/and an Architect

March 1, 2014 § 2 Comments

Hearst_MorganOk… Third Wave Feminism… overly pretentious label… but I do think there are some important reasons to understand why it was important to distinguish the Third from the Second wave. It is just as important of course to understand the First from the Second. So briefly: First wave feminism was about rights of representation—rights granted directly by the State (i.e. the right to vote). The second wave was about civil rights—rights protected by the State (i.e. civil rights: equal opportunity in the workforce, an end to legal sex discrimination). Third Wave feminism is more difficult to understand vis a vis the role of the State—because in many ways the State has no way of intervening. Third Wave feminism acknowledges that just as women in ‘developed’ countries continue to gain advantages women (men and children both male and female) continue to live in conditions of abject poverty. A global feminism cannot have a single political goal, as its tools are not political (with little to no recourse to the legal structures of State). Thus Third Wave feminism is often criticized for lacking a cohesive political goal—but there can be no cohesive political goal under the umbrella of the Third Wave. That is precisely the point. Third Wave feminism is a transformation of feminism into a critical and global practice—an unending, Sisyphean, non-teleological praxis.

<<<To sort out any confusion theThird Wave did not overtake the Second Wave which has yet to complete its agenda (e.g. the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which is simply an extension of the State’s ability to protect rights guaranteed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act).>>>

To clarify my point and to explain what got me thinking about this… I came across Julia Morgan today while doing some dissertation research and started to think about her relationship with William Randolph Hearst. Julia Morgan’s amazing architecture is all over Berkeley and there are even some wonderful examples of her work in my humble home town of Riverside. I came across her name again today because I was doing some research on the École des Beaux Arts (she was the first female admitted to those old and vaunted halls in 1898). Third Wave feminism basically gives us the framework in which we can start to think about Julia Morgan as more than just a feminist hero. Sure, it may seem troubling or even meddlesome or mean spirited to pick on dear Julia. By the way this criticism would be on the order of Alexandra Kollontai criticizing Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. That is to say, while the women of the privileged classes gain ground, they build it on the labor of women in servitude. Julia Morgan (though she may have not been paid what a man in that position was paid) earned well and was a sought after and respected artist. She exercised her right to vote in 1920, and so she remains, and should remain a hero of the first and second wave of feminism.

But she will never be a hero of the Third Wave. And here I would like to bring up a little historical coincidence that involves both Hearst and Morgan—the year 1898. Morgan was finally admitted to the École in the same year that the United States declared war on Spain and subsequently took the Philippines (and Cuba and Puerto Rico… though their colonial status was slightly different) as their first colonial possessions. The Spanish American War was Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s motherlode… it helped these men amass the wealth that built America’s most resplendent—and architecturally significant mansions.  Hearst and Pulitzer’s jingoistic sensationalism also helped propel America onto the global stage, and out of its closet of isolationism. It was at this time that the importance of women as a voting block gained importance, just as new and complex problems of the global economy were coming to the fore.  The consummation of the marriage between women of privilege and American entrepreneurialism results in the architectural orgy of a certain gilded castle. This unbelievable fantasy of cobalt glass and shimmering light is undeniably beautiful—but can we really call it a feminist triumph? A monument to feminism? Or is it quite simply a monument to the enormous disparities in wealth created at the turn of the 20th c.?

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Can architects be progressive? Can they operate as feminists, or only as architects? Do architects have any political agency? Or is the mere fact that they are there—today on the global stage (see below) enough reason to celebrate?

al-Wakrah stadium

Now the building above has received a great deal of attention for resembling if not representing an (ahem) feminine form. I really don’t care about that—that is for stupid Freudians and college humor memes. Zaha Hadid, the female architect, in a recent interview with The Guardian, claimed that the inequalities that exist at the Qatar jobsite (this building like all others in Qatar are being built with armies of immigrant labor, mostly from South and Southeast Asia) are not her problem. More than 800 workers have died on the job in Qatar, but those numbers are probably alot higher than these reported deaths.

By the way I compared what is happening in Qatar to slavery on Facebook… no love on that post, or rather no “likes”. Now at the risk of sounding like I take facebook seriously as a gauge of my friends’ support or non-support of my political views, let me defend this statement.  By comparing what is happening in Qatar to slavery I don’t intend to trivialize it as Sarah Palin does when she compared future taxation to conditions of slavery. Rather, I wanted to point out that deplorable, inhumane and deadly conditions quite closely mirror the conditions of slavery, and that an appropriate response to that history is to seek out those conditions and decry them wherever we see them, rather than languish in the miserable corners of our shameful history. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not interested in history as the sacralization of a national guilt complex, rather I would hope that what we saw in history we can still see today. That is the lesson of history. Yes things have changed… what is different, perhaps is the relative lack of interpersonal relations of dominance (the laborers in Qatar and their employers exhibit all of the characteristics of the abstract labor relation a la Marx). But I digress.

Third wave feminism also gives us the framework in which feminists can hold Zaha accountable, just as Third Wave feminists will hold Julia Morgan accountable for making choices that are in fact within their purview.

To be continued… (back to my research on the École).

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