In the week when the last entry for The Immanent Frame (TIF) series on “The corporate form” posts, Amazon announces in a press release WorkingWell, a program meant to fulfill “the company’s mission to be Earth’s Safest Place to Work.” The coverage and commentary snaps back with appropriately aggressive eye rolling at the worksite mindfulness meditation, Wellness Zone limb stretching, and enclosures offering calming sounds and wellbeing videos labeled under the canting neologism, AmaZen.
The AmaZen press release is just one document cannily relevant to analytic terms connected to this series. The contributors themselves offer many other options, such as the Panasonic museum, courtesy of the coauthors whose article prompted this series; Thomas Story’s nineteenth-century journal, courtesy of Kristen Beales; the Life magazine 1955 photo series about “The World’s Great Religions,” courtesy of Eden Consenstein; the Sarang Global Ministry Center in Seoul, courtesy of Heather Mellquist Lehto; the seasteaders, courtesy of Jenna Supp-Montgomerie; or Father Mapple’s sermon from Moby-Dick, courtesy of Chip Callahan.
I begin by highlighting some possible discussion materials because my initial response to the series was the desire to build a syllabus. This syllabus would gather the unusually cool materials brilliantly hyperlinked by the contributors to recognize the scholarly work that built to this critical moment. The richness of the dialogues featured in this forum testifies that the study of religion is in a heyday of thinking about religion’s role in the histories of capitalism, corporatism, and economy. The article published by Levi McLaughlin, Aike Rots, Jolyon Thomas, and Chika Watanabe will be seen as a signal event in this historiography.
That I reach for a single example, like AmaZen, against which this gathered dialoguing group could commonly reply also indicates the obliqueness I read in many of the comments in this alighting series. This is not exceptional but habitual to the discursive species of which it is a part. When I first began to read TIF in 2008, I remember sitting with grad school friends at a conference mulling over a particular set of TIF responses to a recently published book and trying to figure out the subtext of opinions we simply could not discern from the highly ornate replies. Later, I too would write such posts, and wince at the idea of younger me seeing this laboriously evasive older self who scribed sentences that arrived so indirectly to their point.
Academic debate is not parry and thrust. It’s something more liquid and diluting. And the sum total effect isn’t to feel fine, but to languish in a perpetual anticipatory crouch. This indirectness is a courtly avoidance of offense, a docility dramatized as exchange. The rarity of feeling good after reading a refereed report or book review or blog post should tell scholars something about the masochism inlaid in our aspirations.
One of the reasons coauthorship is so powerful is because it can add boldness and power to arguments more nervous in individual speech. McLaughlin, Rots, Thomas, and Watanabe bravely say: The existing way of talking about corporations in the study of religion is dissatisfying; we think we can improve how we talk about them by identifying a new conceptual category, rooted in an idea of person-making derived from our field-site, Japan; we think this conceptual category will allow the field to see how complicatedly and diversely human beings operate among for-profit and nonprofit institutions.
The concept of the corporate form is not the solution scholarship needs, but the power of this assertion is the solution scholarship needs. Fighting for collectively informed solutions to collectively created problems is, or ought to be, the work of the university and its political economy in the twenty-first century. That collective speech can sometimes be smothering of difference or subtlety should not bother us since our solo-authored critical voices are so often more contorting than direct.
“Our analysis looks different not only because we start from a country where Christianity is nondominant,” McLaughlin, Rots, Thomas, and Watanabe write in their contribution to the forum, “but also because we do not assume that the corporation harbors a tacit theology to be uncovered. Rather, we contend that the generation and maintenance of the corporate form sometimes serves as a process of religion-making.” This is a nested set of claims, each worthy of thinking slowly with. The authors observe, rightly, that the vast majority of scholarship in religious studies on corporations focuses on geographies where Christianity predominates; they observe that the majority of scholarship in religious studies on corporations seeks to “uncover” a tacit theology; finally, they see the religion-making in corporations in the generation and maintenance of the corporate form.
The first two claims did not receive significant coverage in the dialogues that followed, but the third did. Does it contradict their second point that the majority of those respondents are scholars working on materials connected to geographies predominated by Christianity? The study of religion is never happier than when it has the opportunity to root out latent Protestantism. This also often means realizing some mistake of Max Weber and his hermeneutic influence. The twist for McLaughlin, Rots, Thomas, and Watanabe is the comparative religious moment, noting that for a scholar of Christian territories, the interest is in how Christianity gave rise to secular corporations, whereas “in Japan, legal disaggregation of existing corporate forms into various kinds of for-profit and nonprofit entities created religions.”
The dialogues do not evince agreement about the first half of that comparison. Beales and Consenstein as well as Rainey and Seales discuss powerful instances of for-profit and nonprofit entities in Christian contexts collaborating to create religions, not secular corporations. Indeed, the very “secular” deployed in McLaughlin, Rots, Thomas, and Watanabe’s writing doesn’t seem as sophisticated a rendering of the concept as its rich historiography merits. But seeing Japan’s example allows all the respondents in this series to see better their scholarly research and to agree wholeheartedly that digging for Christianity has not been, and should not be, the primary labor of students mining the documentary field of religion for corporate power.
What is that primary labor? For McLaughlin, Rots, Thomas, and Watanabe, the hope is to bring forward the differing motivations of individuals engaged with the corporate form. “Because the corporate form is plural and internally multiple,” they write, “it is not a straightforward example of ideology. The corporate form enables analyses that take into account forces of capitalism, neoliberalism, and other ‘-isms’ without reducing the organization to a mere expression or case study of these ideologies.” Their hope is that “the corporate form” is a conceptual handle that resists the singularity of “the corporation” and the evaluative judgment of “corporate power.” Instead they offer a conceptual category that tries to name the shape of relationships, summarized in a different singularity, the corporate form. “Thinking of the corporate form in this way,” they write in their article, “allows us to consider how people treat the organization as a person even as it is constituted through multiple, shifting parts.”
I cannot claim that thinking about the AmaZen is helped by thinking with “the corporate form.” I do not understand AmaZen better if I distinguish more strongly between cultivation and culture, or if I underline how “people adopt the corporate form for a variety of reasons, with myriad social effects.” These reactions are not rejections: I can imagine an ethnographic essay on an Amazon warehouse that does precisely what McLaughlin reiterates when he says he wants scholars to attend to cultivation rather than culture, “a switching from nouns to verbs, from things to actions, [that] might better enable us to keep up with the dynamism of the people and collectives we study.” Such an essay might show how Amazon workers have debates among themselves about the videos they view in the kiosk, or it might follow its managers to board meetings at nearby nonprofits to see how they leverage their professional role at Amazon to effect other political change in their local communities.
Scholarship needs those ethnographies—indeed, Judith Ellen Brunton and Heather Mellquist Lehto are writing them, as has Deonnie Moodie and Chika Watanabe—and we need this sense of diversity and commingling. The “we” there isn’t scholarship, but the world: stories of dynamism and difference cheer us on in our battles against the swathing monoculture of corporate press releases. Although I value such stories deeply, my own scholarly attentions have been pulled more to press release than its resistance. This is because I agree with Moodie when she observes, “the dynamic interplay of varied and overlapping person-making projects that sometimes support one another and sometimes don’t . . . still seem to converge on market objectives whether by design or necessity.” “Still seem to converge on market objectives” is what is stuck in my interpretive craw. That it isn’t stuck in the same way in the collective craw of McLaughlin, Rots, Thomas, and Watanabe is doubtlessly due to a geographic difference. The geographies of my longstanding interests are ones where TV makeover shows sponsored by Dove seem the requisite transom for survival, and indebtedness is the norm not the exception. I am not a student of contemporary Asia, so I can’t speak confidently about debt instruments and makeover mania in those cultures. What I can imagine, absolutely, is that legal structures make a different corporate capacity to pervade, and a different distribution of power.
Power’s uneven distribution is the obsessive object of most of the previously existing work on religion, capitalism, and corporations. Callahan brings this forward when he observes that 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.” As McLaughlin, Rots, Thomas, and Watanabe continue their work, they need to help us see how person-making intersects the terms of inequality that doubtlessly translate differently in Japan and Asia more broadly, yet we know are still present, namely the differences of race, gender, and class. McLaughlin, Rots, Thomas, and Watanabe don’t cite Timothy D. Amos’s book on burakumin, nor do they raise Rupa Viswanath or Deborah Davis and Wang Feng’s work on caste and class in India and China, respectively. If the histories of slavery and settler colonialism are the imperative premise for any discussion of contemporary religion-making in the political economy in the West, caste and class seem required considerations for any argument about what collective enterprises exist and innovate in East and South Asia. Work on the corporation and religion in the United States and the Global South has connected to a broader critique of what Seales describes as the “even more pervasive forms” of slavery including housing, education, healthcare, and utilities that produced overwhelming poverty that most directly affects Black people in the United States. My rejection of the corporate form is in no small part due to a sense that it neutralizes the political critique of what scholarship on corporate power hopes to advance.
In the Zoroastrian tradition, the evil spirit and holy spirit are twins. The evil spirit’s principal epithet is Druj, or “the Lie.” Evil is a big, smothering concept. Lie is a sharp, precise indictment. What makes Amazon’s WorkingWell program evil is its lie, how it tells us to receive a pinch and a shove like they are a hug and a smile. Here I observe nothing new: the public image of Amazon is already synonymous with abusive labor practices. Consumers await with bated breath the Disney film about an anthropomorphized forklift that helps his unionizing colleagues chill out in a kiosk and finds love with a conveyor—also he, to signal LGBT positivity—along the way.
In their dialogue, Heather Mellquist Lehto and Jolyon Thomas suggest that thinking about corporate power invariably redounds on us, knowledge workers in nonprofit companies with powerful ties to for-profit corporations. “Recently I’ve been obsessed with this disciplining function of the tenure and promotion process,” Thomas says. “There’s a contradiction built into it, because the very system that is designed to guarantee academic freedom works by making people docile. Creepy.” Indeed: let us not make ourselves complicit with that creep. The first step is to resist docility and the smothering projects of speech that make docility so often academic best practice. Many companies, including Amazon, think their future is tied to their external valuation; so many companies, including Amazon, are cynical about what to expect. What people seem pretty clear about is that we should not call a stretching zone in a warehouse “wellness,” or a corporation a form that propounds diversity.