Caleb Beckwith with Jena Osman

Jena Osman
Jena Osman

Over the summer, Caleb Beckwith and Ching-In Chen will be joining The Conversant’s editorial team. Here Beckwith interviews Jena Osman about her new book Corporate Relations.

Caleb Beckwith: Hey Jena, I was wondering if you could start by speaking to the book’s origins. Clearly Citizens United plays a pivotal role, but was the book a direct response? And if so, what sort of response is it?

Jena Osman: Yes, the 2010 Citizens United case was definitely the starting point for the work. I’ve had a longstanding fascination with objects being granted humanity (see my poem “Dead Text” in The Character), as well as an equally longstanding obsession with Supreme Court argument transcripts (“A Real Life Drama” in The Character, “The Astounding Complex” in An Essay In Asterisks), and that case spoke to both of those interests. The perceptual swing between subject and object (seeing a subject as object, seeing an object as subject) has always struck me as a source of violence and political wrongdoing, but can also be a source of critical thinking and empathy.

As soon as the case transcript was available, I knew I wanted to do something with it. In spring 2011 I was to give a reading at Small Press Traffic. Lara Durback was charged with the task of making a broadside to accompany the reading; she asked me to send her some text written specifically for the event. I told her I wanted to write a series of analogies and she suggested the structure X is to Y as A is to B. That structure and some of the language from that broadside led to the opening poem of the book.

CB: I imagine we all disagree with the Citizens United decision—both ethically and intellectually—but your book is doing something more than just dissenting. It investigates the ways that a series of court cases came to enact a very long process, one that ended with full corporate personhood. Could you address the historical and legal scope of this project?

JO: I remember when the Citizens United case happened; everyone was appalled and the general response was “how could this happen?! How can a corporation be considered a person?!” So I took that initial response and tried to understand very specifically how it happened, and what I learned in my research is that the process of granting constitutional rights to corporations was not a new phenomenon, and it had in fact begun in the 19th century. While Citizens United is a First Amendment case, corporations have achieved plenty of other rights, covered by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and even Fourteenth Amendments. The book is organized around the cases that granted those particular rights. I should say that one of my main sources at the beginning of this project was a book called Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy by Ted Nace. I was working from his list of cases, and I must admit that in a few instances the connections between what was at stake in the cases and the granting of personhood rights is still not entirely clear to me. I don’t have the training, so I was teaching myself how to read these cases as I went along—often with the help of a friend (Jennifer Clayton Gelman) who is a lawyer. I also relied on Thom Hartmann’s book Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights.

CB: I also wonder about the book’s central conceit. Even the back cover reads (very provocatively): “If corporations are persons, are persons machines?” But what work do you see this conceit performing within this project, and is there a particular frame of reference for it? I can’t help but think of your Dziga Vertov epigraph: “Our path leads through the poetry of machines, from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric man.” The idea that poetry might itself enact this mechanization—here corporatization—of man is really striking, partly because your project shows how a different sort of language led to corporate personhood.

JO: I briefly spoke to this question above, but I’ll try to elaborate. Our culture is filled with mythologies of the inanimate coming alive. I list a bunch of those instances in the note at the end: Pygmalion’s Galatea, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, Olympia in Hoffman’s “The Sandman,” Pinocchio…and this list extends straight through to the Bionic Man, Terminator, Robocop and any other number of movies about man-made creatures revealing a glimmer of a human soul. I haven’t seen it yet, but I imagine the movie Her is reaching into that territory as well. I also think of Vaucanson’s automatons, puppets of all kinds, cyborgs. Peter Schumann, the founder of Bread & Puppet Theater, once wrote “Objects have been performing under the whip of subjects too long and are now disobedient and can’t be counted on any longer.” This belief (or desire to believe) that objects could have agency has existed longer than “personification” has been a word. What fascinates me most about it, is that the belief co-exists with the knowledge that it’s impossible. It’s a double sensation where illogic and logic rely on one another.

On the flip side, we’ve got loads of examples where the human is treated as a machine. Vesalius described the human body as a factory as early as the 16th century. Descartes thought of the body as a machine separate from the soul (“What do I see but hats and coats that cover ghosts, or simulated human beings who move only by springs?”). Frederick Winslow Taylor was the father of the assembly line, using his principles of scientific management to find the most efficient movement for the worker, effectively turning the worker into a robot. I was also really fascinated by the illustrations of Fritz Kahn, where the human body is portrayed as a factory and human organs are simply part of a glorious machine. Oskar Schlemmer of the Bauhaus wrote “The endeavor to free man from his physical bondage and to heighten his freedom of movement beyond his native potential resulted in substituting for the organism the mechanical form, the automaton and the marionette.” And now, with the technologies of prosthetics and genetic engineering, the human body can be “man-made” in the way that’s affiliated with how machines are manufactured.

Vertov was talking about film as a machine that can enhance the human, that can idealize/improve on the real. And your question is suggesting that poetry could possibly do the same. That’s interesting to me…but I hadn’t thought of that as “corporatization.” I’m not sure it comes through, but I was interested in the definition of “corporate” as an entity made of many bodies. The second definition in the Oxford English Dictionary for “corporation” is “a number of persons united, or regarded as united, in one body; a body of persons.” If we step past the first definition (“the condition of being incorporated”) to the second, we might find that a utopian collectivity is lurking. Beneath the abstract/mechanical/legal body of the corporation is a messy group of humans.

CB: Vertov is also striking because of the high-modernist mechanical optimism he embodies. The anecdote is that he changed his name to “Dziga” because it mimicked the sound of a spinning film reel. This leads me to ask: what other discourses (besides the legal) do you see this project in dialog with? While looking at the very pressing political issue of corporate personhood, do you also see it as reckoning with a modernist affinity for new technologies? This, too, would seem timely given the current era of internet- and media-based conceptual writing practices.

JO: That’s interesting! I hadn’t thought to apply the metaphor of “machine man” to the conceptual writer. Kenneth Goldsmith often says “I’m just a copyist.” But that statement has always struck me as fun hyperbole. As far back as Tristan Tzara, it’s been clear that there’s no way to get rid of self-expression when working with language. The work will resemble you. Although Corporate Relations uses a lot of appropriative strategies, my own hand is pretty heavy here. I want to reassemble these materials so that they speak to a different audience than they were originally intended for. I want them to be understood apart from the tidy closures of legal rhetoric. I’m interested in both sides of the analogy being present—not just the “mechanical optimism” but also the critique of it. The idea of the body turning into a machine (and the machine turning into a body) has a lot of charisma, particularly in this technological moment—but the distancing from the human body is also eliminating the rights of humans in very concrete ways. What does it mean that a corporation can sway political campaigns with anonymous cash donations, while human protesters get arrested and pepper-sprayed when they voice their opinions? What does it mean that corporations have the freedom to move anywhere in the world in the name of profit, but humans need to risk their lives to cross borders? What does it mean when there are thousands upon thousands of corporate lobbyists, and the only advocates for human concerns are the politicians who are making deals with the corporate lobbyists? As Ted Nace wrote in his book “In many ways the corporation is coming to know us better than we know it. It involves itself with us intimately. It participates in our birthing, our education, even our sexuality; it tracks our personal habits, entertains us, even imprisons us; it helps us fight off dread diseases, manufactures the food products that we eat, barters and trades with us in a common economic system, jostles us in the political arena, talks to us in a human voice, sues us if we threaten it.”

CB: I also had some questions about genre and form. In what genre(s) do you pitch this work? My initial perusal saw what looked to be “original” poems, fully appropriated legal transcripts and even the pure transcription of documents. This is related to the question of genre, but could you speak also to the book’s organization? At one level, it’s clear that the different sections perform different work, and therefore demand different forms. But what are these modes of work, and how to do you see them as interacting?

JO: In answer to your question of genre: poetry. Possibly essay. I don’t know. I’ve always been drawn to a hybrid creative-critical space where writing is concerned. I want a variety of reader relations—absorptive/musical/intuitive while at the same time critical and awake.

As for organization, the book is organized according to constitutional rights granted to corporations. For each right, the main cases that granted those rights are included. The case poems (where the title of the case is the title of the poem) consist of language culled from the cases; I picked out phrases that felt resonant to me in the order they appeared. I also tried to approximate where the quotes were located on the print-outs I was using, which is why the lines and phrases are scattered on the page. These scattered quotations are “interrupted” by a case summary where I try to make the facts of the case and what’s at stake in them accessible. The summaries were definitely the hardest part of the book to write, and I’m still not entirely confident about their clarity.

Each case poem (which represents the “if a corporation is a person” side of the analogy) is followed by a short poem that represents the other side of the analogy (“then a person is a machine”). These short poems consist of a mix of found language and my own. I intentionally tried to make them look more poem-like, because I think we have very romantic associations with verse lines—we expect them to be musical, lyric, human. But the content of these lyrics is concerned with processes of dehumanization.


Jena Osman’s recent books include Corporate Relations, Public Figures and The Network (selected for the 2009 National Poetry Series and published by Fence Books in 2010). For 12 years she co-edited the magazine Chain with Juliana Spahr, and now they co-edit the ChainLinks book series. Osman teaches in the MFA writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.