This forum responds to a recent call in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion to investigate the corporate form and extends earlier TIF discussions on philanthropy, economy, and corporation. The journal article excited us and struck as something that we wanted to build on. What we have here is hardly a niche academic topic: business leaders and their activist critics have also called for radically rethinking the corporate form. The corporation is a nexus of contracts, histories, fantasies, livelihoods, rituals, norms, brands, commodities, and gambits of financial extraction. The convergence of all of these is not only a legal person, but also an artificial creature with whom we share our world. The corporation has been, and remains, a collective feat of spiritual imagination. From the Islamic charitable waqf and the British East India Company to the variously transcendent ambitions of SpaceX and Alibaba, corporate identities and self-justifications are inseparable from their religious glue.
We invited scholars to query the corporate form from the perspective of their research expertise. Our invitation included a constellation of questions centered on three areas: corporate histories, corporate cultural production, and corporate ethics. We wanted to know: How do religiously justified institutions of dispossession, such as slavery and colonialism, persist in corporate imaginations today? What do material, visual, and auditory artifacts teach us about the rituals of corporate life? In what sense might we say these goods and possessions characterize corporate pasts and presents? What are the moral discourses of ethical, reformist, and/or socially responsible corporate endeavors? How have communities challenged, reinforced, or reimagined dominant corporate forms?
The contributions to this forum address these questions directly and indirectly, and raise many other questions whose answers are not easily summarized. Instead, this forum might be said to cull together thinkers and their thoughts. This forum drives forward, and opens further, an ongoing debate.
The contributors hail from many disciplines and fields—religious studies, media studies, history, anthropology, and science studies. Their expertise traverses multiple geographies and locales, from modern and contemporary Japan, India, and South Korea to colonial America and present-day Canada. Attentive to variations in social and political status as well as class, the featured scholars consider the stakes of the corporate form for low-wage workers and multinational conglomerates. The contributors name and examine corporate forms on land and sea and space, ones that boast legal title and others whose personhood derives not from state recognition but financial capital. As the contributors show, corporations often ally or collude with other corporate bodies, be they schools or universities or foundations. Where to draw the line? The contributors show why and how any schematic that confines corporate persons, corporate offices, and corporate aspirations to a singular time or place or group will always come up short. Better not draw a line at all.
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Following this short introduction is an essay by the authors of the JAAR article, Levi McLaughlin, Aike Rots, Chika Watanabe, and Jolyon Baraka Thomas. They describe their article as a call to “fellow scholars of religion to expand beyond ‘and’-style binary approaches by considering the institutions, materials, actions, motivations, and dispositions of corporate entities that may or may not take formal or legal designation as ‘religions.’” In their view, religion and pairings not only presume religion stands apart from economy or politics, but also occlude the “variety of reasons” that groups adopt the corporate form. Attention to why and with what effect the corporate form is adopted, they argue, “tells us something about religion.”
This essay is followed by seven paired conversations and a concluding essay by Kathryn Lofton. The first conversation is by Ioannis Gaitanidis and Aike Rots, both scholars of contemporary Asian religion, in which they compare notes on technology, business, and popular spirituality. Foregrounding topics and figures as far-ranging as Panasonic and Vietnamese Buddhist leader Thích Nhất Hạnh, they discuss the significance of corporate philosophy and mythology. Less interested in whether the old is new again than in corporate myth-making shared by Sony, Kyocera, and Shinto shrines, Gaitanidis and Rots reject the urge of journalists and academics to treat practices like mindfulness and permaculture as radical departures from engaged Buddhism or the status quo. “What are ritual offerings,” asks Rots, “if not an exchange, a means to establish and maintain a reciprocal relationship? And what are temple or monastic communities if not, essentially, corporations that manage capital, power, and relations between human and more-than-human stakeholders?”
Judith Ellen Brunton and Chip Callahan pivot the forum to their study of North American corporate extractive projects, resource commodification, and the materiality of the natural world. Their conversation begins with Brunton’s fieldwork in Alberta, and her observation that stories about the good life common among corporate employees in Calgary underwrite “colonial aspirations and imperial articulations of Canada’s westward expansion and this state’s idea of the ideal citizen.” Callahan’s concept of “occupational religion,” emergent from his study of coal miners in eastern Kentucky, opens up to discussions about working class culture, the ways in which physical labor articulates with what he calls in the dialogue “the structures of feeling of the current corporate workplace.” In a nod to works by Zoe Todd and Sylvester Johnson, Callahan notes “we need to pay attention to [the corporate form’s] entanglements with colonial power and the dual historical emergence of global slave trafficking and indigenous dispossession; and we should also always be on the lookout for resistances, oppositions, and alternative epistemologies and ontologies that counter, or exist in tension with, corporate power.”
Timothy Rainey and Chad Seales take up the question of the public good and corporate responsibility. Though specialists of different eras of US history, Rainey and Seales converge in their interest and attention to corporate missions of commerce and freedom. Seales finds in Rainey’s discussion of the “abolitionist company”—the Royal African Company, the Dutch East India Company, and the British East India Company—direct analogues to convict leasing in the twentieth-century United States. Seales observes that “defenders of slavery, as a form of elite white paternalistic capitalism, proved prophetic in the ways they described how liberal free-market capitalism would reproduce modes of slavery.” Yet Rainey also considers the example of the Sierra Leone Company, which, unlike the other companies named above, bridged commerce and abolitionism and relied on markets to do moral work. We are haunted by Rainey’s scintillating question: “Do companies make people more or less free?”
It is fair to say that Jenna Supp-Montgomerie and Mary-Jane Rubenstein offer up the funniest conversation. Rubenstein sets the scene: “As we write, space mining firms are preparing to extract and sell water, ore, and precious metals from whatever they can get their probes on, promising their investors gold in them asteroids. In the meantime, sixty years of military, scientific, and telecommunicative rivalry has filled low-Earth orbit with so much space garbage (including a damn Tesla) that experts predict disastrous collisions of techno-debris with satellites, rockets, and the International Space Station . . . And while international law twiddles its thumbs (‘hang on . . . are corporations allowed to take the stuff they mine from asteroids? I guess we’ll wait and see . . .’), [Elon] Musk has declared that Earthly laws don’t affect him, anyway.” Supp-Montgomerie and Rubenstein compare the corporate aspirations of seasteading and spacefaring, two favorite utopias of today’s mega-rich, drawing connections to the theologies of expansion and dominion that fueled the colonial horrors of the last Age of Exploration. At the birth of the modern corporation and in its current apotheosis, corporate ambitions call upon divine powers to justify grand adventures while laying waste to the Earth.
Deonnie Moodie and Levi McLaughlin next consider the compatibility of the corporate form with nation-making and culture-making human collectives in India and Japan. Rooted in McLaughlin’s research on Soka Gakkai and Japanese nationalists, and Moodie’s research on corporate Hinduism in business schools, the scholars weigh the utility of “person-making” language for understanding business practices. They also consider the value of shifting religious studies language between nouns and active verbs. This switch, they suggest, might enable more robust inquiries into what Moodie describes as “the dynamic interplay of varied and overlapping person-making projects that sometimes support one another and sometimes don’t, and yet still seem to converge on market objectives whether by design or necessity.”
Kristen Beales and Eden Consenstein discuss denominational religious authority and the practice of corporate individuals in the early-modern and twentieth-century United States. Foregrounding Beales’s study of the Society of Friends and the Pennsylvania Land Company (PLC), and Consenstein’s work on Henry Luce and Time, Inc., the conversation addresses dramatic conflict between “corporate” and “religious” entities or representatives, including the PLC’s outsourcing of “corporate discipline” to Quakers, and the conflict between Protestant temperance organizers and Henry Luce over alcohol advertisements in his magazines. Beales and Consenstein highlight how corporate entities propagated religious teachings and norms of “the public good” to advance and naturalize their interests. As Beales puts it, “Analyzing how corporations shape our conceptions of the public good requires that we move beyond the assumption that corporations are primarily about ‘profit’ and ‘business.’”
In the final conversation, Heather Mellquist Lehto and Jolyon Baraka Thomas compare their research on South Korea and Japan, respectively, and the various ways in which the United States figures in their work, not as or in an opposition to South Korea or Japan, but in a way that pushes “against the grain of the old-school comparative frame.” They disentangle overlapping meanings of church, school, and freedom, as those concepts shuttle between their institutional and idealized forms. For them, the religious and the secular meet at the level of political economy, or, more concretely, in the boardroom turned classroom.
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Many of the images we have chosen to illustrate the series come from Stocksy United, a cooperative stock-photo platform co-owned and co-governed by artists in dozens of countries. These artists have made their corporate form itself an extension of their art and values, reminding us that the subject of this forum is very much a living, evolving creature.