Judith Ellen Brunton: Chip, we have crossed paths often before, likely because we study religion in North America in a way that centers natural resources and focuses on land and sea. Our connecting here again seems to suggest something already about the corporate form in the study of religion. As if it is inevitable that our studying natural resources means we study corporations. Maybe we can work to untangle that together here. What is clear to me is that religion is present at the moment in which an element of the natural world becomes a resource to be extracted. The corporate form is also often present. However, this assertion poses some questions: Is this corporate form and religious orientation one in the same? How does the North American context curate specific iterations of this? Do religion and the corporate form travel in institutions to do this transformational work on the natural world, or can they live beyond institutions? What part does the materiality of the natural world itself play in this dynamic?
In my work on contemporary oil culture in Alberta, specific corporations, as well as general corporate aspirations and affects, tell stories that entangle oil’s extraction and management with ideas about how to live a good life and be a virtuous person. At times, these stories are articulating explicitly Christian colonial and settler philosophies, but in other instances values of progress, modernity, and grit circulate without explicit Christian justification. I am studying these not-explicitly-religious formations and how they mediate the materiality of oil and its infrastructures into other cultural forms that circulate to construct an oil public in Alberta. Corporate mediation is especially at the forefront of my thought because I am not looking at the experience of oil “on-site” with people who do the labor of extracting oil from the group, but instead on the management of oil work.
How has your work approached this religious form, corporate form, materiality configuration?
Richard (Chip) J. Callahan, Jr.: My work on predominantly white coal miners in eastern Kentucky focused primarily on the people doing the work of natural resource extraction. Those laborers were, of course, subject to the structures of coal companies in an almost overwhelming number of ways. Companies like the Consolidation Coal Company built the industrial coalfields of eastern Kentucky and other parts of Central Appalachia by buying up mineral rights, thereby restructuring people’s relationship to land, and by building company towns to house miners near the mines. They were part of a larger transformation of the area away from subsistence farming to a capitalist economy where industrial coal companies offered the primary form of paid labor. In many cases, companies also owned the stores, theaters, and schools in their towns. So, many miners’ worlds were almost entirely structured by the corporation. And the corporation itself was shaped by the larger economies of energy, transportation, and other market forces, not to mention sociological ideas about corporate management. Religion played an intriguing role in this setting, because religious leaders and institutions could also be a part of the corporation—while others emerged from that context as explicitly resistant to the corporation’s all-encompassing power, and to the ways of being in the world that the corporation required.
I went into that project thinking about the experiences of miners, and clearly their lives were intensely shaped by the industrial capitalist labor that patterned their subjectivity. But I didn’t center the corporation itself as my primary focus. I can see how that would have added another dimension—I think a related, but different, direction—to my study. In fact, I think it would be a really interesting project that I hope somebody takes up! And it sounds like your work on Alberta’s oil industry does take up aspects of this in productive ways.
JEB: Thank you! I hope so! And I think this distinction raises important questions about what we are studying when we study corporations. The experience of the miners you were working to understand was organized by corporations, so in some ways, by studying them you are studying the corporate form. People are the medium that corporations work with in their efforts to secure futures they desire. People and products, I suppose. But as you say, attention to the experience of the corporate form by the miners will definitely reveal different information than attention to the corporate form by the people working within it. I think Kati Curts’s work on Henry Ford and the Ford Company gives us one example of what a sustained study of the corporations themselves might reveal.
The people I study are in a different relationship to the corporation than the miners whose experience you have written about. While I study oil imaginaries in Alberta broadly, I have been specifically interested in one place, Calgary, the city where most of the head offices are for the oil and gas companies that extract in the province. Since the 1950s Calgary has been completely shaped by the oil industry, but you can live your life in this city without ever knowingly encountering the materiality of conventional oil, bitumen, or natural gas. Instead, oil’s materiality is mediated with stories about the good life composed of ideas about virtuous work, development and land use, progress and modernity. All stories that are also entangled with the colonial aspirations and imperial articulations of Canada’s westward expansion and this state’s idea of the ideal citizen.
During my most recent trip to Alberta to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in 2018, I spent a lot of my time asking people to philosophize about their own lives and work. One person, when I asked about the origins of the Albertan idea of a good life, explained that he felt it came from the “rugged days” of the past, “when you had to work hard to make a living up here” and that resource extraction had “always been hard work.” People explained to me often that the hard work was balanced by a play hard mentality. And in Calgary, the playing hard that goes with working hard is drinking. I encountered this often during my time in the city, but I was still surprised to find the bar open and filled by mid-morning at the Global Petroleum Show conference. When I brought up my shock with someone that I met at the Oilfield Christian Fellowship prayer breakfast the next day he was quite stern with me, explaining: “Yeah, it’s a hard life. Cold and hard” and “we’re drinkers, we drink beer.” This was an illuminating answer as it seemed to imply that the whole work culture reflected the labor of the people extracting the oil on site.
But many of the people I saw networking at the Petroleum Show bar would have worked in offices in downtown Calgary. The individual who explained to me about the rugged days of the past was a banker. The effect of the hard labor and the challenges of putting the land to use correctly within a settler colonial framework seems to shape the practices included in living a good life in Calgary. Corporations and corporate values mediate that materiality and populate the public with a story of work and virtue shaped by oil even though the workers never touch or smell oil. Here, the grit of manual labor equated with the resilience of an entrepreneur. Both are equally considered spiritually sound positions within a settler Christian destiny of progress. So even though the folks I study are corporate, the materiality of resource extraction is still part of the story here.
RJC: This is really interesting to me. I’ve been studying what I have called “occupational religion,” a term that I’ve borrowed from folklorists who study “occupational folklore.” The latter concerns the folklore and folklife (informal creative verbal, musical, and material activity within an identifiable group) that emerges from the context of particular work cultures. Think lumberjacks, fishing communities, coal miners, doctors, and so forth. These are occupations that shape people’s identities, and they are often associated with hard physical labor, intense specialization, or a setting that is all-encompassing and relatively different from the larger society, such that the occupation—its labor, its materiality, its social structures, its terminologies, its tools—informs a variety of aspects of a person’s experience of the world.
For me, “occupational religion” refers to situations where the idioms of the workplace, its setting, and its labor are entangled with religious expression and practice. In some cases, this might mean that aspects of a work culture are taken up in, say, Christian worship (think Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick, or the centrality of the broken body in holiness churches in eastern Kentucky’s coalfields, or crosses carved from coal). In other cases, a particular occupation might provide the objects, language, or images through which people conceptualize and communicate a sense of purpose, values, or meanings of being a human being subject to the world that their occupation puts them in. Work experiences may provide allegories or lessons for life, and occupations a sense of identity and community, of heritage and place in the world. My studies of occupational religion stem from an interest in working class culture, so it is the workers, not the corporate bosses, who are the cultural actors. So I’m interested in your example of corporate office workers embracing and performing the idiom of hard labor here. “It’s a hard life. Cold and hard.” In the corporate office? The appropriation of the hard labor of the oil field worker’s embodied identity by the white collar worker is stunning! In some sense, one might consider that corporate office work is corporate office work, regardless of the particular industry one is talking about. But here, there is something at stake for the corporate office worker in identifying as not just a corporate person, but specifically as an oil worker.
JEB: I am very willing to experiment with this term. I think occupational religion, as you have described it here articulates this phenomenon of having one’s work shaping their experience in the world. It puts words to a methodological moment I have come to recognize when we are looking for where people put meaning in their lives and discover it placed on their work. I am torn politically more than I am descriptively about articulating the corporate people I study as having an occupational religion. Their labor and their meaning-making is very much in line with what you have outlined here, with their own value being absorbed into the imaginary of the corporation and its flourishing. But the genealogy of occupational religion as you describe it in working class culture (and the outsized impact corporate classes have on the lives and deaths of laborers) does suggest that grouping all these people and their occupational religions leaves something out. Then again, maybe we do labor struggles a disservice by separating these people; maybe there is solidarity possible in imagining how people are shaped by work.
I am interested to understand: What spiritual values, both for a laborer and a corporate person, mediate and allow for a relationship between individuals living and working within a corporate form when the motive for the corporate form is profit for the corporation, not individual flourishing?
RJC: That’s a great question. The study of occupational folklore has “traditionally” focused on working class culture, as represented especially by folklorist Archie Green’s term “laborlore.” Yet, that focus was in part tied to its historical (and political) emergence during the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and its development within mid-twentieth century American progressivism. But we’re in a post-industrial society and economy now, and we’re seeing new forms of “occupational religion” being practiced in the corporately dominated environment, such as Google, Nike, Intel, Target, Goldman Sachs, and more providing time and space for mindfulness meditation among their employees. This isn’t the occupational religion of physical labor, but it is a form of spiritual practice that resonates with the structures of feeling of the current corporate workplace.
But I think your question points to a larger concern: if the corporate form encompasses all aspects of a company, from owners to managers to physical laborers, and extends to marketing, sales, and consumers as well, I would want to be sure not to lose sight of class analysis or differentials of agency related to race, gender, or other factors. The various job descriptions and relations to power within a corporation surely produce different experiences, and different senses of identity and belonging vis a vis the corporate entity.
Your corporate oil office worker thinks of himself as living a “hard life.” Does the identity of corporate office workers at all inform how roughnecks in the oil field think of themselves?
JEB: This is such a good question. One which I don’t have the answer to based on my fieldwork. But if you could indulge me, I have one meta-speculation at the heart of my project that I’ll mention briefly. I was inspired to begin my research because around 2014 there were quite a few public reports and articles written about how poor Albertans’ mental health was, with little relief even in boom times. I was reading Lauren Berlant and became interested in what motivated people to pursue work and dreams that ultimately made them miserable, and on a wider level, made them invest in extractive work that made their own lives, homes, and treaty relationships precarious in uncertain environmental futures. People working on site with oil are especially vulnerable to misery, but the dream of the Albertan good life persists as they move to the province en masse looking for this work. So I think, in some ways, the values that describe an Albertan good life are moments where corporate experience and identity are informing other workers, even if that good life was never universally accessible, and is becoming increasingly less so.
And back to studying a corporate form versus studying something like an occupational religion, what I like about “occupational religion” as you’ve proposed it is that it allows for analysis that directs our attention to the corporate form in religion without reducing it only to the logics of the corporation. I think other terms and analytics might also be good additions to our toolbox for understanding the relationship between natural resources, their extraction, the corporate form, and the experiences of the people who work with them. Of course, industrial religion is at the forefront of my mind, especially as it’s described in your work with Kathryn Lofton and Chad Seales. What I find helpful about this framework is it keeps materiality and allegory at the forefront, without one explaining the other.
While we are reflecting, you propose another analytic, the condition of being subject to dust, that I have found helpful for thinking about the network of materiality, labor, and corporate values in your book Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust. For the miners you write about, this subject-ness puts their material experiences and spiritual strivings in relationship. They are subject to dust both because of the materiality of coal and their labor, but also because of the social configurations authored by religious authorities and corporate forms that place them in mines, and company towns, and certain geographies. I have found it helpful to ask of my work, what does it mean to be subject to oil? And one of the ways I have seen this subject-ness mediated is through the corporate form oil takes (in addition to oil’s materiality). I wonder if “subject to dust” has been on your mind as you think about the corporate form. And also, in your recent work, what might it mean to be subject to whale, and the corporate form of whaling?
RJC: Thank you for acknowledging this meaning of the book’s subtitle. Your description is on target, and I do think it relates to some aspects of thinking through a religious studies approach to the corporate form. In some sense, we are all “subject to” all kinds of things—those material, social, cultural, psychological, political, and other forces and structures—that make us subjects and shape how we understand ourselves, our relationships to other human (and nonhuman) beings, and to the world.
The authors of “Why Scholars of Religion Must Investigate the Corporate Form” importantly call attention to the corporation as a dominant shaping force in the world today, for many of us. As I read their article, I am excited for the way that they frame the corporate form as a place to think about religion that does not privilege religion as an epistemic category; that does not see religion as something ontologically different from economics; and as something that “allows social phenomena to manifest as religion or as market activity without assuming from the outset that a particular behavior is properly one or the other, or not one while it is the other.” There is, by now, a fairly long history of scholars of religion, like David Chidester or Kathryn Lofton, arguing and showing historically and ethnographically that religion is not a separate category from other institutions or aspects of life. I’m interested further in the way McLaughlin, et al., zero in on the corporate form in particular as potentially orienting scholars to approaching religion in this way.
As for my current project on the nineteenth-century whaling industry, I am still considering how attention to corporations might inform my thinking. On the one hand, nineteenth-century American civilization was “subject to whale,” as you noted, in that so many aspects of the material forms of “civilized” life were related to whale-derived materials. Think clean lighting, the lubrication for looms, spindles, and sewing machines in the textile industry, corset stays, carriage springs, perfumes, soaps, and so forth. At its peak, whaling was the fifth largest sector of the American economy. On the other hand, the corporation, as a specific financial or institutional form, was not common in American whaling. It was tried, but did not catch on. Other financial forms proved to be more effective and widely used, and may be just as productive to think about in relation to religion, for some of the same reasons that McLaughlin, et al., present in their article.
JEB: Yes, reading “Why Scholars of Religion Must Investigate the Corporate Form,” I was also interested in what particularities about the corporate form might be of interest to scholars of religion, and the examples made me curious about the local forms and global forms these particularities might take. The article affirmed for me the significance of considering corporations, corporate values, and corporate forms in the subfield of North American religion. The authors argue that “. . . subject formation, pursuit of profit, and creation of intentional, fictive communities were and are co-constitutive processes of religion-making and corporation-making that cannot be reduced one to another.” It is this co-constitutive process of religion-making and corporation-making that is essential to understand the world of the people I spoke to in Calgary. The imperial aspirations and settlement of western North America is entwined in corporate projects of extraction. People’s lives are lived within a cartography crafted in conversation with the land as a resource. I think the materiality of the land here plays a role in the space and its culture, but at the same time the land’s speech is being translated through corporate values so it is hard to know what homes and lives the land in Alberta would craft for people if I could be differently agentive.
I think Reza Negarestani’s oil would like the corporate settler configuration of Calgary, as he speculates in his theory fiction about oil as a creature that wishes to be extracted. Zoe Todd philosophizes a different dynamic between settlers and Alberta’s oil in which oil kin is currently being weaponized when it should be existing in different reciprocal relational networks informed by indigenous knowledge. The co-constitutive process of religion-making and corporation making does not just speak to how the place of Alberta is configured, but also how this process shapes the people who live there.
RJC: I think it is also important to emphasize that, as McLaughlin, et al. note, the “co-constitutive process of religion-making and corporation making” may be “co-constitutive,” but that doesn’t mean all the parties involved are equal partners in that co-constitution. It is imperial, abusive, and extractive in so many ways. The processes whereby corporations, and certain religions/religious forms, have the power to co-constitute the world for everyone are complex and have to do with global structures of capitalist power and the history of empire. In his incredibly helpful African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom, Sylvester Johnson outlines the history of corporations, their relationships with national governments, their role in colonialism, and how that context shaped particular meanings of religion itself and its relation to materiality. In Johnson’s words, the “spiritualization of money evolved simultaneously with the secularization of finance,” allowing for more fluid and innovative forms of finance increasingly detached from theological entanglements and human relationships (such as representing human beings as capital assets in the slave trade). From this context, and the related problem of the fetish, emerged theories of religion and human difference that shaped the modern world. Johnson’s study is a profoundly insightful history of the co-constitution of corporations and religions; not only particular religious traditions, ideas, and practices, but the modern concept of “religion” itself.
This background leads me to think about two issues at once that the study of the corporate form suggests: we need to pay attention to its 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. I’m so glad that you brought Zoe Todd’s work into this conversation, as her Métis perspective provides an example of a radically different way of inhabiting land that has the power to disrupt our expectations and not allow us to ignore the violent history that has created the world that we currently inhabit (often unreflectively). Because our work is focused on the entanglements of religion with natural resource extraction, you and I may be especially likely to be attentive to the intersections of the corporate form with the land and water—and potentially to the fundamental ontological and epistemological tension between settler and indigenous ways of being in and relating to these places. I would argue that this is the ground upon which all corporations stand, overtly or not.
JEB: Thank you for sketching this out so clearly. Being co-constituted with the corporate form is indeed not an equalizing process and we need to insist on attending to the modern economy as haunted and to the agency of alternative epistemologies and rituals of refusal in ongoing ways with care. For the study of religion, the corporate form feels like a place to start asking questions as opposed to a place to answer them.
Your comments also remind me that we know about the condition of being co-constituted with corporate power not only from studying it, but from living it. Being “subject to” the university has felt, for the length of my career so far, an experience navigating corporate values and logics in addition to other relationships, imaginaries, and collectivities.
RJC: Yes, I do think it’s interesting that there is a call for scholars of religion to investigate the corporate form right when we are all so subject to corporations, when corporations are recognized (legally) as persons, when neoliberalism subjects us all to the logic of the capitalist marketplace. Scholars are certainly not exempt from this. As universities are increasingly defining and structuring themselves as corporations, and as scholarship is shaped in that context and in the marketplace of social media, it makes sense that our imaginations and allegories of religion are increasingly drawn to the corporate form as well. I think that part of our job now is to recognize this contingency, bear witness to what it reveals and conceals, and help imagine other possibilities that promote the flourishing of human and other-than-human relationships.