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The literary turn in American corporate mythology

In 1995, the story goes, a woman complained to her fiancé that she was having trouble expanding her collection of Pez dispensers. So he built an online marketplace to help her track down fellow traders and launched the site as a “love token” on Labor Day. Within months, eBay was a massive success, and founder Pierre Omidyar was on his way to becoming the tech world’s latest billionaire entrepreneur. This eBay creation myth was later debunked as a press-friendly work of fiction, according to the company’s former public relations chief—but not before it had served its purpose, caroming through the national media and offering corporate-branded amusement to readers of Business Week, The New Yorker, and countless tech organs.

Ebay’s founding bit of folklore was anything but innovative. As long as there’s been an American success gospel, Americans have expected the country’s biggest fortunes to have a faintly didactic origin story, usually highlighting the genius and daring of the founder behind this or that name brand. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started their digital-printing empire in a one-car garage (now a California historical landmark); Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak repeated the same feat in launching the personal computing revolution under the Apple brand. Ray Kroc was the first to see the national potential in McDonald’s (and in minting the franchise model also cannily managed to swindle the restaurant’s creators out of millions in royalties). Mark Zuckerberg famously invented the planet’s largest social media platform (and an easily weaponized tool of electoral meddling) during some late-night coding sessions in his Harvard dorm room.

Thanks in part to these fables, all these brand-launchers are now household names. In the same way that cinema’s auteur theory has artificially inflated the role of the visionary director, mainstream corporate folklore is largely reducible to heroic advertisements for the corporate self. Consider Elizabeth Holmes, the recently indicted founder of the phony blood-testing company Theranos, who managed to raise more than $700 million from investors by fashioning herself as a female Steve Jobs. Even the company’s name—a clumsy portmanteau of “therapy” and “diagnosis”—bore witness to the wish-fulfillment fantasy at the heart of it all. The less Holmes’s startup was able to deliver any tangible product to market, the larger her claims grew.

Subjects to Interpretation

Lately, however, the business of corporate myth-making has itself been franchised. It’s no longer enough, apparently, for a business to have a charismatic founder—now the business itself must have a compelling biography. To craft these narratives, companies enlist professional storytellers. The job, per one recent posting, is to “own the company’s historical narrative, future story, and everything in between.” This means shaping both a story and a culture in the image of a brand—and not surprisingly, Silicon Valley, the center of American corporate fabulism, is at the vanguard of this movement. Companies like Google and Facebook swaddle themselves in an aura of progress and enlightenment, and depict any critics as enemies of innovation. In The Circle, his ponderous 2013 novel about a fictional tech startup, Dave Eggers channels the platitudes that encourage eager young employees to spend all their waking hours on a corporate campus:

“Mae, now that you’re aboard, I wanted to get across some of the core beliefs here at the company. And chief among them is that just as important as the work we do here—and that work is very important—we want to make sure that you can be a human being here, too. We want this to be a workplace, sure, but it should also be a human place.”

Between the free snacks and exercise classes, Mae discovers that her coveted customer service job is mostly dreary and rote; the thrill comes from being part of the company. This is the aim of internal corporate storytelling. As German author Philipp Schönthaler writes in his new book, Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author, beginning in the 1980s, businesses have studiously “redefined themselves as engaged in ‘cultural and affective activity,’” and as a result, they’ve begun to view their employees “as interpretive, emotional beings.”

As he lays out this process, Schönthaler underlines the ways in which storytelling and management go about distilling complex human interactions into the stuff of easily digestible myth. “Storytelling,” he writes, “gains its legitimation precisely where digital information flows too quickly.” Similarly, management gains authority by “transform[ing] questions of content into questions of organization.”

Schönthaler, a literary critic by training, supplies a distilled history of modern management theory, from the advent of Taylorism in the early twentieth century to human resource development in the 1950s, on through to the “post-Fordist” models of self-supervision in the workplace, which gained currency from the 1980s down to today. Under this latest managerial dispensation, the worker is no longer simply treated as a Taylorite input of production but a person with hopes and dreams—with the challenge for management being the careful modulation of those aspirations in the company’s preferred image. Thus is the worker’s affective private life gradually annexed to the company’s song of itself.

Espirit de Corporation

Business storytelling began its formal life in the mid-1990s at MIT’s then-Center for Organizational Learning. There, a group of researchers developed a set of protocols for employees and observers to collaboratively tell a company’s story. The original idea behind the experiment was to better integrate workers into a company’s “culture.” Soon, though, the narrative turn in management theory gained traction throughout American business civilization; a new breed of values-themed ads for automakers, banks, and pharma companies hymned their subjects as vibrant, living organizations in which every worker reflects part of the story, from the assembler on the factory floor to the customer service rep in the open-plan office to the executive in his C-suite. These stories are placid homilies of consumer-spiritual stasis. Storytelling, as Schönthaler observes, “seeks an effect more than it invests in the actual art of the story.”

As long as there’s been an American success gospel, Americans have expected the country’s biggest fortunes to have a faintly didactic origin story, usually highlighting the genius and daring of the founder behind this or that name brand.

Which is not to say that the effect in question is merely contained by the strictures of the marketplace. “The greatest accomplishment of management discourse,” Schönthaler writes, “might lie in its knack for freeing noneconomic knowledge from its existing context, gutting it of its content, and aligning it with that radically constricted set of values that capitalism . . . has legitimated and advanced.” And as Schönthaler notes, motivational life-improvement tracts now blur indistinguishably into corporate managerial manuals and vice versa, as self-help peddlers such as Malcolm Gladwell and Marie Kondo repackage their insights for the purposes of corporate instruction.

As befits its shape-shifting subject, Portrait of the Manager oscillates between literary and social analysis, with extended forays into criticism. Schönthaler considers the stereotypes of managers (“technocrats, unscrupulous restructuring specialists, illegitimate patriarchs”), dissects the conversion narratives central to business storytelling, and takes stock of the unfortunate results when “manager-writers” turn their talents to fiction. He also examines the obverse trend in the literary marketplace, with authors increasingly expected to serve as their own “storytelling managers.” As storytelling has assumed pride of place in management theory, Schönthaler observes, “the presentation of authors and books in a narrative fashion has unfolded in parallel.” He notes, for example, that German MFA programs have retooled themselves to credential arriviste writers, while publishers help them shape their backstories. The process crystalizes into what are now the well-worn canons that make up the newspaper profile of the hot young writer/brand of the moment: “The standard version opens with the journalist’s sensitive introspection just before entering the author’s apartment. . . . Or the journalist observes how, like a deer striding into a clearing, the author enters the café they’ve agreed to meet at.” While details may vary—will the author eat fries or a salad? Show up in gym clothes or a suit? The conventions never do.

The Anxiety of Influencers

Over time, storytelling has become less a weapon in a company’s public relations arsenal than a means of establishing identity and posing existential challenges for the corporate-managerial class. Faced with uncertainty, businesses “are no longer conceived of as static units or metaphorical containers but rather as constant communication and decision-making processes.” Consider Spotify’s ethical torment over whether to pull noted pedophile R. Kelly’s music from its curated playlists (it did, but the service still hosts his catalog), or Keurig’s hand-wringing over whether to continue advertising on Fox News after disgruntled viewers began destroying the company’s coffeemakers to protest its decision to pull ads over host Sean Hannity’s defense of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore from multiple and credible charges of pedophilia. (Keurig’s CEO soon apologized, and Hannity responded by sponsoring Keurig giveaways to viewers.)

In the 1990s, Gilles Deleuze observed that the corporate world adopted “the power of narrative [to] lend it[self] a soul.” That, he added, “is surely the most terrifying news in the world.” Two decades later, the Supreme Court has continued to humanize corporate enterprise under the Hobby Lobby ruling while also granting corporations maximal First Amendment freedoms to direct political campaigns in the equally disastrous Citizens United decision. As a result, should money flow the right way, there is nothing to stop storytellers and strategists from using their skills to say, elect a Koch brother to the presidency or launch a campaign to lower the age of legal gun ownership to six.

Schönthaler argues for the supremacy of narrative in the age of new media yet only briefly touches on new media itself. He alerts us to the existence of the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, which since 1999 has been “bringing researchers, the military, and Hollywood studios together to develop storylines for the film industry, as well as for military, therapeutic and social purposes.” One imagines that such ventures might result in a steady stream of plotlines in the Wag the Dog vein, but the center is ostensibly focused on “the development of virtual humans who look, think and behave like real people.” Computer renderings of military officers are used to detect cognitive impairment in soldiers, dissuade them from suicide, and instruct them in appropriate conduct with the opposite sex.

Thus is the worker’s affective private life gradually annexed to the company’s song of itself.

Strikingly, Schönthaler makes no other sustained mention of virtual reality, which in recent years has been hyped as the best means of cultivating empathy among the oversaturated. Want to see what life is like in a Syrian refugee camp or experience climate change from the perspective of a dolphin? Simply click and immerse.

In the process, of course, VR also rigorously confines the experience of “reality” within the proprietary logic of any given tech platform—anything is possible, so long as it’s within the program’s boundaries. For better or worse, the medium is the message. Perhaps the best distillation of the problems inherent in this project is Real Violence, Jordan Wolfson’s 2017 installation at the Whitney Biennial, in which a viewer watches through a VR headset as the artist brutally beats a man to death with a baseball bat in the middle of a Manhattan street. You can look away but can do nothing to escape or stop it.

Kept in the White

Standing by passively as somebody is bludgeoned to death also serves as a synecdoche for the now-common new-media feeling of being manipulated by strategic messaging. For Breitbart or Infowars audiences, stories about white victimization and American triumphalism fit a prescribed script, one that feeds a narrative ouroboros of outrage and perceived injustice, often at odds with the basic terms of reality. We live in a moment in which such narratives have overshadowed consensual reality, even when they can’t claim majority support. In a sense, this, too, represents an unalloyed managerial triumph—under the master narrative of white victimology, media companies feed a deeply askew version of reality to audiences primed to absorb it.

This siloed vision of what ultimately counts as real is another cultural inheritance of the tech world—indeed, it is programmed into Silicon Valley’s corporate hierarchies. I recently met a Google engineer and began talking to him about the company’s various projects. “Oh,” he told me, “we’re kept in the dark about things we’re not directly working on.” As under the management protocols of the CIA or ISIS, information in tech companies is distributed on a need-to-know basis, and an engineer may only have a sense of his employer’s priorities through careful corporate messaging.

Schönthaler is probably right to argue that narrative—the old-fashioned, linear kind—will ultimately prevail as the world becomes more complicated, and as “a new avant-garde” of “management consultants, marketing experts and storytellers in global companies” explore “storytelling under global and digital conditions.” As this happens, it will be more important to pay attention to the beliefs and conceptual metaphors that undergird the stories we’re told—or sold. As linguist George Lakoff observed in Moral Politics, language is built heavily on metaphorical morality: “Since it is better to be rich than to be poor, morality is conceptualized in terms of wealth. Since it is better to be strong than to be weak, we expect to see morality conceptualized as strength.”

The objective of corporate storytellers is to sand the edges of a story, to make it as palatable as possible to the widest possible audience. Yet every story contains meaning, whether it is intended to or not. The structuring of language, the selection of metaphors, the creation of characters, and the management of context and rhetoric—all these features of storytelling contribute to an agenda of some sort, and it’s our responsibility to make that agenda legible and judge it on its merits. Corporations, new media, and right-wing political leaders may control the frame for now, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept what’s within it.