Turner and the Corporate Personality: Conceptualizing the Group-Person

What is the nature of the fictitious body of the corporation? According to Henry S. Turner, who visited Duke University’s Smith Warehouse on last Friday, October 6th, a corporation is little more than a group-person, come together to achieve a joint purpose.  Although we often conceive of corporations as little more than the joint-stock enterprises which have become ubiquitous in our globalized and commercialized society, Turner wishes to expand the modern consensus of what constitutes a corporation in furtherance of realigning interests and repurposing the form for the pursuit of common values.

Turner believes that a legal framework is necessary, but not sufficient to understand corporate personhood.  For this reason, he seeks to join the discussion, interjecting the unique framework of Renaissance literary into the modern academic literature on corporations.  Through discussions of thinkers as diverse as Hobbes and Shakespeare, Turner seeks to demonstrate the way corporations have been imagined around the time of the birth of the joint-stock company, and through this analysis to better understand their purposes and relevance beyond simply profit-making.  To this end, Turner expressed a desire for the corporation to, rather than becoming a thing further removed from the physical body of group members, become a thing closer to them, becoming “so tight a mask as to become [the face]” of the body. This mirror’s Turner’s metaphor of the stage actor’s representation of a character as the corporation with its corporate group members as the theater company personifies characters by “voice [] added to voice, gesture to gesture, body to body” [1].  Corporations like churches, cities, trade unions, and NGOs seem to best fit Turner’s desire for what a corporation should be, as a group of ideologically and programmatically aligned individuals joined together to advance common interests, whether political, religious, or economic.

Normative assertions aside, Turner seems to struggle with conceptualization of the joint-stock company in this framework.  While voluntary associations, like guilds or churches, brought together likeminded and similarly skilled individuals for a common purpose of perfecting their craft, whether it be carpentry or worship, the ‘group’ which comprises a joint-stock enterprise tends to be one of passive investors who have no expertise in the group they have joined, no personal stake in the corporate form they have become a part of, and expect little more from the company than a continued rise in its share price and a capital gain at the conclusion of their investment. For this reason, Turner struggles to locate the “personality” of a joint-stock corporation.  As one student pointed out, Turner discusses the corporate personality in mutually contradictory terms throughout his essay, either defined by its “inwardness, motivation, temperament, and other associated qualities” [2] or by its exterior “iconographically-saturated personification” [3].  While seemingly a nit-picky point, this interior/exterior divide would largely determine whether the corporate personality is an internal phenomenon, determined by corporate strategy, norms, and decision-making apparatuses or by the marketing department and external actors who find meaning in the corporation’s symbolism.

At the end of the two-hour symposium session, participants were left with a deeper understanding of Turner’s ideas and purpose.  Despite this, there is still much work to be done.  For this reason, Turner invited participants to join his corporate body for the study of corporate bodies: The Society for the Arts of Corporation, which can be found at artsofcorporation.org.  Sitting in quiet contemplation, the author cannot help but agree with Turner’s stated belief that the world would be a better place with more and different corporations.

 

[1] Henry Turner, “The Poetics of the Corporate Person,” 10.

[2] Id., 3.

[3] Id., 12.

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