Corporate Fictions

Gathering: Corporate Fictions

Toward the end of William Gaddis’s novel of American capitalism, J R (1975), a truck passes by on a Manhattan Street displaying five dwarves who are house painters and the words, “None of Us Grew but the Business.” At the time of publication, readers might have taken this phrase and Gaddis’s novel itself, as a corporate satire: one that traces (in grueling detail), the construction of a multi-billion-dollar empire by a solitary pre-adolescent, J R van Sant, who owns and operates a conglomerate from his grade school payphone. A handkerchief that he’d put over the mouthpiece makes him sound ‘bigger,’ or so he’d imagined—even as our handheld devices today allow us to continually update and reconstruct our own corporate identities, or to have them constructed for us by platforms and algorithms to which we freely subscribe.

Gaddis’s novel, however, is not so much a satire or ideological critique of the out of control “growth” of a worldwide corporate enterprise; it’s more an enactment of the structures of belief that channel our energies—and our imaginations —toward this one for-profit model exclusive of all others. The book’s 700-plus pages of mostly dialogue in a mostly uneventful narrative take things well beyond satire. And the capitalist system in America at the time is not subjected to critique so much as its imaginary communities are inhabited and its spoken languages reproduced in print. As John Dos Passos had written in his preface to the USA Trilogy (1919-1941), “mostly USA is the speech of the people.”

The same can be said of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel of the American income tax system, The Pale King (2011). Neither Wallace nor Gaddis have much to say about “large scale” explanations or “the cultural logic of capitalism” and what that can mean for society, democracy, modernity and the rise of neoliberal ideology. What we have instead, as Kieran Smith notes in his piece for this issue of American Book Review devoted to Corporate Fictions, are scenes depicting the day in, day out boredom of filing (for example) tax returns. Even as Dos Passos in The Big Money (1936) and Gaddis in J R conveyed the operations of capital through the everyday speech of Americans, Wallace “shows,” by tracing the day in day out, moment by moment construction of mind numbing accounting details, “that this ‘laborious’ method can yield ‘values’ that are not determined by neoliberal ‘bottom-line thinking.’”

Kieran Smith’s comments appear in his review of After Critique (2016) by Mitchum Huehls. What’s new here, and important, is the implicit assumption by Wallace and so many others that “value” is not something to be found after hours, in our time off and away but right here and now in the daily grind. Any alternative to The Official World (2016) (in Mark Selzer’s compelling title) is likely to emerge not in opposition to corporate power but from within—for so long as we’re in. The corporate fictions of our current generation of literary authors, like many of the pieces in this issue, might be said to offer something other than critique and something more interesting than satire. As Smith remarks: “Mitchum Huehls’s erudite close-readings successfully demonstrate that contemporary authors have utilised the unique aesthetic attributes of literature to consider new, post-critical ways to challenge neoliberal ontology.” Those post-critical ways, more likely than not, are given to us by the corporate structures and ontologies of the present—and not a few that have persisted from the past.

America, love it or leave it? Where today would one go? Henry Turner’s advice, to “Love Your Corporation,” is again anything but satirical. In his analysis, Turner never rests with critique; he seeks rather to isolate earlier corporate entities —in churches and in kingdoms, for example, in towns, and in guilds whose purpose was to sustain specific, closely guarded trade interests that could only be performed collectively, through carefully communicated knowledge among fellow professionals not through individual initiative primarily. And not out in the open for all to see (since publicity distracts and derails conversations away from creative and constructive enactments among collaborators). Those same professionally oriented practices, many of them, also informed an emerging, academic culture of at least aspirational, universal values. The word university derives from the Latin, universitas, which at the time signified not so much a grand narrative or transcendental truth as a collaborative performance and “a process of imaginative transformation.” That meaning of corporate, collective action is for Turner “the basis for a re-translation and re-valuation of the corporate concept that might establish the ground, both discursive and practical, for a reassessment of the ‘political.’”

As Wallace inhabits the codes and collective values in corporate offices and suburban strongholds, Turner’s analysis takes him, and his readers, beyond critique so as better to retrieve the diversity of practices that corporate history offers. And what a long history it is—that Turner has analyzed in his recent book (reviewed here by the Medievalist Alfred Thomas), The Corporate Commonwealth: Pluralism and Political Fictions in England: 1516-1651 (2016). If we wish to resist the inevitability of the current for profit corporate model, we do well to consider, with Turner, the diversity of practices and political fictions from Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651).

In Alfred Thomas’s evaluation, “Henry Turner seeks to historicize the term [corporation] and thus unshackle it from its modern negative connotations by exploring its complex and wide-ranging function in early-modern England.” Gregory Ulmer, for his part also loses the rhetorical negativity even as he embraces negation (what he calls the Unofficial World) as an always already, potentially transformative aspect of the corporate, Official World whose purpose is not so much the laborious management or disciplining of employees by employers, as the transformation through automatization of our lifeworld and space of movement. It’s “a way of designating spaces,” as Seltzer has it: “positions, lines, sites, zones, communication routes, routines, impasses, and bypasses. But the office, we know, is not one place among others: stage and backstage at once, it’s a switchboard of the social.” The expansion of such designation, made possible largely through the digitalization of formerly unstructured, or at least private, social spaces, can now be experienced while we are entertaining ourselves and digitally “sharing” with others who we encounter not so often in person as through games, social media, and such like.

In what is not so much a “review” as a close reading around the edges of Seltzer’s book, Ulmer delineates an unofficial, never fully nameable environment surrounding our official systems. Seen this way, the Un/Official world might embrace the Parisian avant garde of the early twentieth century along with the thought of Norbert Weiner (citing Augustine on evil), Hegel’s Unhappy Consciousness, Lacan’s unconscious, Griemas’s semiotics, Einstein’s physics, and “Arthur Koestler’s insight into the structure of creativity as bisociation, guiding invention across humor, the arts, and science.” That such alternatives can produce evil as readily as humor, is not lost on Ulmer as he delineates the Trump presidency as another way that Unofficial manners and mannerisms might cohabit with officialdom. Robert Lestón in his review of Brian Massumi, similarly addresses the affective dimensions and determinants of our recent election. Ralph Clare for his part, notices how the white working class who have been “largely shunted aside by the New Economy” (both men and 53% of women who voted for Trump despite his anti-feminism) “lashed out in anger and disillusionment by helping to put Trump into office.” The “return of the economically oppressed” that Clare sees played out in the Ghostbusters sequel (2016), is one more appearance of unpredictable, phantasmic, and never wholly controllable dimensions of the Un/Official world.

The infusion of multiple, possible corporate cultures has never been more at issue than it is today in our own academic and literary sphere. Johannah Rodgers’s account (and accounting) of’s business model, bears on the publication, storage, and circulation of creative and scholarly writing. So too does my conversation with Scott Rettberg, whose literary practice took him beyond creative writing to the construction of literary databases (the ELMCIP Knowledge Base in Europe and an early version of the Electronic Literature Organization’s Directory). These databases set out alternatives for collaborative, corporate publishing. And so, too, does The American Book Review—which from the start defined itself as an alternative corporation, a journal for writers by writers who are supported in large part by the academic gift economy (which has played no small role in maintaining the primacy of critique in literary writing). But even that economy is transitioning to something else, something less detached from commercial exchange as is apparent with ABR’s co-production online—in collaboration with Project MUSE, as discussed in Jeffrey Di Leo’s essay, but also on occasion with open access journals like the electronic book review, which, as Henry Turner notes, has a historical connection to ABR and where the present set of focus essays are being co-published as a nod to that history. There are many corporations and many moving firewalls also, that touch on every aspect of our own scholarly and writerly activity. The present issue carries the discussion, beyond critique, to clear sighted considerations of the consequences of our own institutional and corporate choices, official and otherwise.

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Love Your Corporation

Analyzing the long and complex history of the term corporation, Turner explores the possibility that the term’s roots in the universitas might serve as a basis for a re-translation and re-valuation of the corporate concept and establish a ground, both discursive and practical, for a reassessment of the “political” as a process of imaginative transformation and collective action.

Before Corporate Monoculture


In this review of Henry Turner’s The Corporate Commonwealth, Thomas considers how Turner historicizes the term “corporatization” to explore its wide-ranging definitions and functions in early-modern England.

Un/Official Worlds


In this review of Mark Seltzer’s The Official World, Ulmer reflects on the interdependence of “the official” and “the unofficial” in contemporary constructs of reality. 

Towards Buen Vivir


In this review of The Power at the End of the Economy, Lestón delineates the theoretical apparatus of Massumi’s book and its possible implications.

Ghostbusters 2.0


If the 1984 Ghostbusters film can be read as an early foreshadowing of the neoliberal transformation of the United States of America, how might the film’s 2016 sequel be interpreted?  Ralph Clare reviews the new film in the context of his reading of the original in his 2014 book Fictions, Inc.



Investigating the question of whether academics should be concerned that is not an educational institution, Johannah Rodgers finds that the answers depend on your definition of “education” and which parties you ask.  


A Digital Publishing Model for Publication by Writers (for Writers)


How might literary databases be seen as alternatives to the commodification of academic scholarship in for profit, subscriber platforms?  Scott Rettberg and Joseph Tabbi discuss issues related to instrumentality, the global marketplace, and the digital humanities.

An Ontological Turn


In this review of Mitchum Huehls’ After Critique, Smith situates Huehls’ “ontological approach” to the study of contemporary literature as arising from and standing in opposition to the “zombie plague” of neoliberalism.

The Economics of Book Reviews 


In a review of the contemporary publishing marketplace in the U.S. and the many definitions of “corporate fiction,” Di Leo, editor of the American Book Review, offers some insights into the new economics of digital publishing and how ABR’s recent decision to partner with ProjectMuse ended the “online poaching” of the magazine’s content.