Subject: General Questions    / College life
Thread 5: An alternative approach to the agency of corporations as articulated by Deleuze and Guattari.

Typically I’m not going to explain stuff to the degree that you will see below, but since the topic is Deleuze and Guattari more supplementary explanation than usual is warranted.

One problem that our textbook identifies with traditional business ethics is that, although business ethicists have tried to articulate a conception of corporate agency, these attempts have largely failed, and have resulted in theories of corporate moral agency that nevertheless single out individuals or groups of individuals that should be held morally responsible for the actions of corporations. To overcome this tendency to focus on individual agents even when the concern is corporate agency the textbook turns to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, two French philosophers who are not only incredibly important, but also very eccentric, difficult to make sense of, and often surreal and trippy in their manner of expression.

The book does a decent job of explaining their thought without oversimplifying it too much, but let me see if I can make it a tiny bit simpler.

The essential idea is that we tend to think of individuals as discreet and clearly bounded entities. So let’s take you, for example. What are you? Do you have clear and easily definable boundaries? Are you a single thing? What is that single thing? Does this single thing that you are give forth intentions that are coherent and non-contradictory with one another? Western philosophy has tended to conceive of the human self as a singular, non-contradictory, whole, and complete entity. This entity that defines you, that makes you you, that is the essence of who you are, is often called “consciousness.” And this approach to how we define the self also determines how we ask ethical questions, and, as the textbook seems to suggest, creates problems for talking about corporate agency, which is a form of agency that is not singular in nature but collective in some way or another.

Deleuze and Guattari reject this tradition of thinking about the self. They claim that we are not singular and coherent entities, but that each and every one of us is already a multiplicity. You are a “we” and not an “I.” How are we to understand this multiplicity? Deleuze and Guattari conceive of it in terms of desiring-machines and desiring-production. You are, in a sense, an assemblage of desiring-machines. These machines make connections (mouth-nipple, mouth-food, mouth-thumb) and initiate a series of productive transformations. The transformations that are produced by a desiring-machine are then taken up and transformed by other desiring machines. Through the connections formed between desiring-machines larger entities (human beings, ecosystems, cities, corporations, nation-states, economic systems, etc) are constituted, and ultimately the whole world is an endless web of desiring-machines coupling with each other. The process by which an assemblage of desiring-machines impose patterns and order on the world is called territorialization. The process by which assemblages disorder the world around them is called deterritorialization. Desiring-machines are defined by their participating in desiring-production, which is Deleuze and Guattari’s way of emphasizing that desire has a productive aspect. Desire doesn’t simply consume, for desire is always productive and creative.

Capitalism, for Deleuze and Guattari, is an immense process of deterritorialization. All of the local and traditional orderings of the world are dissolved and all codes for creating meaning and value in the world are replaced by an “axiomatic” process in which everything is made equivalent and transformable into everything else. What the hell is this about? Money! In capitalism money is the thing by which anything can become anything else. I have a chicken but I want a gun. How do I transform one of these things into another? Money! I am a land owner but I want to be a political figure. How do I effect the transformation? Money!

Money becomes the central figurative force in the capitalist world, and all other cultural modes of valuing, creating order, and world-making are displaced or reconfigured on the basis of money.

Anyhow, the key point here is that instead of positing a central will or agent that makes you you, Deleuze and Guattari are claiming that there is no core you or central self. Rather, you are already and always a multiplicity of agents, a complex system of interacting elements that has certain dispositions for action, but which has no central governing and regulating element. In this sense a corporation is rather similar to an individual person, because individuals are already corporate entities. And true, there may be a degree of “cephalization” in both human beings and corporations by which a head and brain are formed and towards which we see a centralization of decision making processes (in the human being this is obviously the head and the brain within it, and in the corporation it is the board of directors and the CEO), but an exhaustive account of the agency of a corporation or a human being can not be arrived at via an examination of these centralized elements alone. Agency and dispositions for action are spread throughout the assemblage, and decisions and values and reasons do not so much emerge from the “head” but emerge spontaneously from the system as a whole (including the head).

When determining the locus of responsibility, for example, Deleuze and Guattari do not want to focus exclusively on the individuals who make decisions or even the corporation as a whole, but rather the patterns of behavior, the habits and day to day interactions, that constitute the character of the organization as a whole and out of which dispositions for certain types of actions over others emerge more or less spontaneously and without the need for deliberate rational reflection.

To clarify the issue, can you give some illustrations of how this approach to corporate moral responsibility might differ from the more traditional approaches that were discussed in earlier threads? For example how would Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of corporate responsibility in the case of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill differ from more traditional accounts of corporate moral agency?

Lastly, there is the issue of the “body without organs.” What’s this about? The basic idea is that desiring-production tends towards creating order… or rather, organization and organs. But as certain forms of order emerge, what is suppressed are other forms of order that could have arisen. The body without organs is thus a kind of virtual body of pure possibility, a body in which all possibilities are contained but none are made actual. A not terrible analogy would be to think of an egg, which has the possibility of being organized into a person, in fact many different possible persons, but hasn’t yet been so organized. When this egg comes into contact with a sperm, the egg develops down a particular course of the possibilities contained within it and excludes other possibilities in order to become a particular human being. The world we live in is a particular organization of the world, but this world suppresses all alternative possibilities. The whole of these suppressed possibilities is the body without organs.

Now we desire this repression of the body without organs to the extent that we desire to be the particular persons that we are. For me to desire to become a body without organs would be a desire to become disorganized and in a certain sense a desire to die because I would cease to exist as the person that I am. But in fact, according to Deleuze and Guattari, we in fact do desire the body without organs. And another way of dying is to become too rigid, to become over-organized and incapable of becoming anything else. Static and fixed order is something from which life withdraws as much as disorder, so in a certain sense we desire the destruction of our own particular mode of being organized and the opening up of other possibilities of being organized. We desire experimentation with other ways in which we could be human beings, even experimentation with the very meaning of what it means to be human (the notion of the midlife crisis may be an example of how people experience their own horror at the life they have made for themselves and how they try to destroy this order by experimentally exploring the possibilities of life that reside, in a virtual fashion, in the body without organs). But in essence the idea is that a too rigid ordering of life is hostile to life as conceived of by Deleuze and Guattari.

The model of a good corporation, then, is not one that is too rigid and organized, but one that is capable of exploring the possibilities contained within its body without organs. What would such a corporation look like? Do you think such a corporation would be a good thing? Why or why not?

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