The first week of the Mellon School closed with a heated discussion on corporate bodies, body politic, and gender. Henry Turner’s lecture on Thursday attempted to articulate a concept of corporation and of the corporate body that goes beyond the current legal meaning of the term and takes us back to the early-modern connotations of the term. We can, therefore, conceive the corporation as an entity “distinct from the sum of its parts”, and yet “coincident with its parts”. Guilds, universities, unions, fraternities, and, certainly, theatre troupes, do share the characteristics of corporate bodies. Membership implies a series of duties, privileges, responsibilities, and a share of the profit, all elements we can recognise, for instance, in The King’s Men and in other troupes of Renaissance England.
The latin corporatus derives from corpore, “body”, and yet, what is left of real bodies within the corporate body? What is left of plurality, difference, agency? Is it productive to conflate radically different types of associations, collectives, and social and economic groups under the umbrella term of “corporation”? Where does it lead us? I have the feeling that the terms “corporation” and “corporate body” are too strongly linked to a very specific legal vocabulary to be of any use to the humanities or to political theory. Turner stated that a wider concept of corporate body would entail an all-encompassing entity that goes beyond gender, class, and race, an argument which triggered a dense and productive debate. However, noble as it is, such a concept crumbles down when measured against history. Most institutions and organisations that claimed to be beyond class, race, and gender, are in fact tailored on the necessities and agendas of white, bourgeois or aristocratic, heterosexual males. As feminist thinkers reminded us, even philosophy is male:
[M]an, the subject who reigned over discourse, universalizing and making absolute the partiality of his sex, also included and assimilated me. Man spoke and thought also for my sex, an absent and unrepresented sex, yet included in that male-neutral subject. (Cavarero, “The need for a sexed thought”, in Bono and Kemp, Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader. p.183)
There is a certain epistemological violence in much of Western philosophical tradition which for centuries smuggled an allegedly singular, universal, neuter and disembodied self, banishing difference and corporeality from discourse. Sometimes we still fall into this trap. It’s subtle, and it entices us with promises of equality, freedom, and justice.