Monday, September 27, 2010

Puerility and corporate authorship; or, Being a real boy

Oh boy. (So to speak.) Fall semester is in full swing, and and I'm having to put Gertrude Stein and Susy Clemens on hold for a while in order to move some other writing projects to the head of the queue. It's busy, busy, busy, and I would grouse about it, but the truth is it's my favorite way to be.

Anyway, that's why I've been meaning, but failing, for weeks to post on Jerome Christensen's wonderful talk at the English Institute, "Pinocchio Logic, Pixar Theory, and the Assertion of 'Cultural' Authorship." I thought it was amazing, but I also had a huge beef with it, which of course means blogging, since I distinctly don't have time to write up some kind of formal response.

Corporate authorship

At this late date I can't summarize the whole talk, which included some really brilliant readings, but I'll try to represent it as best I can.

Christensen wanted to know what it would mean, exactly, to construe a corporation's "culture" serve as its conscience.

Juridically, guilt depends on mens rea, or a guilty mind, for which corporations lack the subjective capacity. It can break the law, but a corporation itself can't know right from wrong, and the difference matters legally. An undesirable consequence of this distinction is that corporations escape accountability for their actions.

On the other hand, in the recent Citizens United decision, the court ruled that corporations do have the right to protected speech, where speech is construed as indistinguishable from money, since speech need not originate in a physical body, even for you or for I. A key example in the Citizens United decision is that of the Frank Capra film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which the opinion construes as an instance of corporate authorship on the part of Columbia Pictures--over and against, Christensen pointed out, the auteur theory suggested by what is technically the film's full title, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Indeed, the decision conspicuously omits any mention of Capra or his negotiated billing. The film, the court opined, was an example of protected free speech on the part of Columbia Pictures; the ability to make money is reinterpreted as the ability to speak politically and construed as a right that all corporations hold.

The idea of corporate film authorship, something Christensen has written on before, thus underwrites the Citizens United decision. (One wonders whether the same principle is really extensible to corporations that don't make films but rather, say, chocolate pudding, since corporate pudding authorship seems less analogous to speech, or to corporate-funded political ad campaigns. But I digress.)

Christensen then turned to two corporations and their corporate-authored, animated allegories of animation itself, Disney's Pinocchio and Pixar's Toy Story trilogy. It's important to this story that both Disney and Pixar have distinctive corporate cultures, and that when Pixar was acquired by Disney, a clause in the contract stipulated that Pixar's "culture" -- quotation marks in the original -- remain intact.

Despite charges by Winfried Fluck, Jack Zipes, and others, Disney's corporate culture reveals itself as entirely contemptuous of mass production, Christensen argues. Pinocchio is never represented as a commodity in the film; not only does Geppetto never sell Pinocchio, the idea of selling Pinocchio is pointedly raised precisely as a repugnant notion to be rejected. Geppetto is never really a toy-seller but an animator, a bringer-to-life; likewise, Pinocchio is always a boy manqué, who will always need to have a cricket substitute for his conscience but who is deserving of animation nonetheless.

To Pixar, however, a toy is not a near-child longing for subjectivity (or a conscience); it's always a toy. It therefore never wants to be a child; it is manufactured to be played with by a child, and therefore that is what it wants. Mass production is the condition of their existence, as we see when the toys in the films confront identical copies of themselves who both are and are not them.

The Roberts court, like the Blue Fairy, rescues an artificial person, the corporation, that has proven constitutively incapable of maintaining a conscience. But a corporate culture can substitute for subjectivity, serving as the source of a conscience that need never be internalized. Pixar doesn't maintain any fantasies of becoming a real boy, but it preserves in its place the Pixar "culture," which will do just as well. As Christensen put it, "If it makes no difference who is speaking, it may as well be a cricket who can tell right from wrong." Under the terms of the Disney-Pixar merger, Pixar preserves its autonomous culture; thus its authorship and speech remain accountable to the Pixar culture. Thus the Citizens United decision, by making corporate authorship into legal precedent, backhandedly confers an external but still functional conscience on corporations, providing, perhaps, the grounds for mens rea and responsibility.

Real boys will be real boys

Now here's where I wanted to hear more from Christensen: What about gender--specifically, gendered childhood? At the risk of being The Feminist (look, someone has to be The Feminist), I posed this question after the talk and was very disappointed not to receive much of an answer. Here's why it matters: American corporate culture is famously masculinist, as is Pixar's oeuvre. If Pinocchio and Toy Story can be read as allegories of corporate culture, and I'm persuaded that they can, then their constructions of boyhood have implications for how we construe corporate authorship, hence corporate liability. In fact, it's worth noting that Toy Story's plot comes almost wholesale from a really terrible 1986 made-for-TV muppet production called The Christmas Toy (yeah, you read that date right, so don't judge; I was FIVE). The Christmas Toy is less a missing link between the Disney masterpiece and the Pixar masterpiece than an inconvenient cousin, and not only because live-action muppets are an odd form to triangulate with animated puppets (Pinocchio) and hyper-round animated dolls (Toy Story). It's inconvenient because it contains -- wait for it -- girls.

In The Christmas Toy, the loved child is not a boy (Andy) but a girl (Jamie). More importantly, the central conflict between the old favorite toy and the new, flashy superhero toy is not a battle of competing masculinities but an allegory of the glass ceiling: instead of comically super-butch Buzz Lightyear, The Christmas Toy's threatening but ultimately lovable interloper is a classic 1980s castrating bitch, the metal-be-boobed Meteora ("queen of the asteroids"). (Oh, the eighties!)

It could be argued that the dynamics brought into play by Buzz Lightyear's gently mocked hypermasculinity are as complicated as those engendered by Meteora's masculine performance. Pushed far enough, gender always reveals itself as drag. But Pixar's version has consequences for corporate authorship because it not only embraces the existential quandary of mass production (for the toys, that is) but also reimagines toy consciousness as an allegory of rightly performed masculinity--the masculinity of good workers (toys) and of good managers (real boys). In Pixar's toy universe, you can have old-fashioned masculinity (the cowboy--as Christensen pointed out, at one point Woody's skill at being played with is remarked upon: "Are you classically trained?") and a futuristic masculinity (the space invader); there are good boys (Andy, who takes care of his toys) and bad boys (Sid, who likes to blow them up). Nearly as unacceptable as being owned by the bad boy is the possibility of being owned by a girl, which Christensen did not mention because there is, of course, no possible analogue in the corporate history of Pixar. The result of being owned by a girl would be a situation antithetical to the playful aims of any self-respecting toy: boring, unimaginative girl play, most likely someplace pink. The girl is benign, but out of bounds.As Christensen remarked, success in Toy Story doesn't lie in achieving subjectivity but in getting oneself managed by a good, rather than a bad, boy (or, say, getting acquired by the right parent company, which will let you keep your "culture"). That's why gender is so crucial in this understanding of corporate authorship and its consequences. With Pixar, there's no longing to be a "real boy," but there's an insistence on maintaining a corporate culture in which boyhood--and emphatically not girlhood--is the name of the game. And boyhood--the kind of playing that boys are imagined to do, the kind of creativity and propensity for technical production that boys are supposed to have--is central to the way the corporate author is imagined.

But it's not just Pixar but Pinocchio that's instructive here, since Pinocchio supplies the metaphor that makes Pixar's culture into a potential source of conscience. Perhaps we're comfortable with a boy whose conscience is a cricket. Perhaps that's cute, perhaps that's even the condition of puerile creativity. Perhaps boyish ruthlessness is what lets Pixar be as technically skillful and imaginative as it is. But how would we feel if girlhood were the model for corporate authorship? Could we countenance a girl with a cricket for a conscience?*

Christensen proposes a legal model that he represents as ungendered. I'm persuaded that he is right to see corporations, now granted protected free "speech," as substitutes for real boys. He is wrong to suppose that "boy" means the same thing as "person" or "subject." The insight that Christensen makes and then misses is that corporations are precisely "boys' clubs." As of the year of our Flying Spaghetti Monster 2009, three percent of Fortune 500 companies were headed by women (source). The model of personhood that Christensen extrapolates from the court's decision is in fact a model of boyhood. It depends entirely on a specific, historical construction of boyhood that underwrites what we see as possible and permissible in corporations, especially insofar as they are understood as "creative," and therefore capable of authorship in the narrower sense. And it is this narrower creative corporate authorship that, as Christensen shows, enables the broader understanding of corporate speech on which Citizens United relies. Since this model of boyhood is specifically one of ruthless creative play and total amorality (his conscience is a bug), can we expect corporate culture to serve any differently from the ultimately ineffectual Jiminy Cricket?

Boys--male children--have been constructed as creatures that are morally culpable for very few things. Nor are they legally liable for much. Boys will be boys.

What, then, is the real upshot of puerile corporate authorship?

The obvious point of comparison is Lyra in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Her daemon, Pantalaimon, is an externalized manifestation of her soul. Note (1) Pantalaimon is explicitly male, part of Pullman's complicated and generally misguided attempt to rectify C.S. Lewis's objectionable gender politics; and (2) the film, in which Pantalaimon was of course animated, was a flop.


Maria said...

Great piece - and great use of Meteora.

Natalia said...

Ha - I thought you'd be amused.

millicentandcarlafran said...

Well, I need to watch A Christmas Toy. This was great. A question, purely on the gender dynamics of Toy Story 3 (I've often had The Feminist's reaction to Pixar): what did you think of the handover from Andy to the little girl?

My thoughts: interesting that he supplied their old storylines (authored by himself) as he introduced the cast, but injected them into her context, which dealt in bakery-ghosts.

Natalia said...

Thanks, Millicent. I fear I can't comment on Toy Story 3, though--I haven't yet seen it. Instead, I'll point to Claire Jarvis's very smart post on Toy Story 3. It isn't about gender, but the commodified animate object looms large.