restricted access Introduction to Focus: Corporate Fictions
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Introduction to Focus:
Corporate Fictions

Toward the end of William Gaddis's novel of American capitalism, J R (1975), a truck passes by on a Manhattan Street displaying five dwarves who are house painters and the words, "None of Us Grew but the Business." At the time of publication, readers might have taken this phrase and Gaddis's novel itself, as a corporate satire: one that traces (in grueling detail), the construction of a multi-billion-dollar empire by a solitary pre-adolescent, J R van Sant, who owns and operates a conglomerate from his grade school payphone. A handkerchief that he'd put over the mouthpiece makes him sound 'bigger,' or so he'd imagined—even as our handheld devices today allow us to continually update and reconstruct our own corporate identities, or to have them constructed for us by platforms and algorithms to which we freely subscribe.

Gaddis's novel, however, is not so much a satire or ideological critique of the out of control "growth" of a worldwide corporate enterprise; it's more an enactment of the structures of belief that channel our energies—and our imaginations—toward this one for-profit model exclusive of all others. The book's 700-plus pages of mostly dialogue in a mostly uneventful narrative take things well beyond satire. And the capitalist system in America at the time is not subjected to critique so much as its imaginary communities are inhabited and its spoken languages reproduced in print. As John Dos Passos had written in his preface to the USA Trilogy (1919-1941), "mostly USA is the speech of the people."

The same can be said of David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel of the American income tax system, The Pale King (2011). Neither Wallace nor Gaddis have much to say about "large scale" explanations or "the cultural logic of capitalism" and what that can mean for society, democracy, modernity and the rise of neoliberal ideology. What we have instead, as Kieran Smith notes in his piece for this issue of American Book Review devoted to Corporate Fictions, are scenes depicting the day in, day out boredom of filing (for example) tax returns. Even as Dos Passos in The Big Money (1936) and Gaddis in J R conveyed the operations of capital through the everyday speech of Americans, Wallace "shows," by tracing the day in day out, moment by moment construction of mind numbing accounting details, "that this 'laborious' method can yield 'values' that are not determined by neoliberal 'bottom-line thinking.'"

Kieran Smith's comments appear in his review of After Critique (2016) by Mitchum Huehls. What's new here, and important, is the implicit assumption by Wallace and so many others that "value" is not something to be found after hours, in our time off and away but right here and now in the daily grind. Any alternative to The Official World (2016) (in Mark Selzer's compelling title) is likely to emerge not in opposition to corporate power but from within—for so long as we're in. The corporate fictions of our current generation of literary authors, like many of the pieces in this issue, might be said to offer something other than critique and something more interesting than satire. As Smith remarks: "Mitchum Huehls's erudite close-readings successfully demonstrate that contemporary authors have utilised the unique aesthetic attributes of literature to consider new, post-critical ways to challenge neoliberal ontology." Those post-critical ways, more likely than not, are given to us by the corporate structures and ontologies of the present—and not a few that have persisted from the past.

America, love it or leave it? Where today would one go? Henry Turner's advice, to "Love Your Corporation," is again anything but satirical. In his analysis, Turner never rests with critique; he seeks rather to isolate earlier corporate entities—in churches and in kingdoms, for example, in towns, and in guilds whose purpose was to sustain specific, closely guarded trade interests that could only be performed collectively, through carefully communicated knowledge among fellow professionals not through individual initiative primarily. And not out in the open for all to see...