In contemporary usage, the term corporate can connote either ‘profitable, efficient and disciplined’ or ‘homogenizing, faceless, and bureaucratic’. The term’s ubiquity in a wide range of phrases, including corporate affairs, corporate influence, and corporate culture, renders it somewhat opaque, as it modifies a seemingly endless array of words denoting commercial activity.
Corporation most commonly refers to a legal entity separate from the persons within it. As such, it is often understood to be an immaterial thing, lacking a physical place of its own. In the words of one legal historian, “the corporation is invisible, incorporeal, immortal; it cannot be assaulted, or beaten or imprisoned”. Since the word derives from Latin corporare ‘to embody’ and is related to corpus ‘body,’ the current usage witnesses a semantic ‘dematerialization’, a leavening that occurred under a variety of ideological pressures brought to bear on the porous line that divides individual from collective, public from private, and natural from artificial.
Early in its history within English, corporate shifts from designating an individual human body to designating a ‘group-person’. In medieval and early modern usage, corporate still meant ‘having a body’ or ‘embodied’ in contrast to those things that did not: “Al thinges, as wel ... visible, as invisible, corporate, as incorporate” (1557).
Alongside this concrete adjectival meaning, the noun corporation came to signify a more disembodied associational thinking among religious groups, burgesses, municipalities and universities. It frequently referred to the collective body of the church, whether earthly or divine. Thomas More asserted that Christ “incorporate[s] all christen folke and hys owne bodye together in one corporacyon mistical” (1534). Gild records show the development of rights granted to the “body corporate” of professional confraternities. Towns, municipalities, and universities incorporated in order to protect residents and safeguard privileges. These usages suggest that, while the medieval adjective corporate still had a clearly physical sense, the noun began to designate an alliance or collective, a group of people united together in one immaterial body for mutual benefit.
Over the course of 17c, corporate ceased to mean ‘bodily.’ At the same time, the political implications of this shift (from individual body to legally-created group-person) were realized. The Corporation Act of 1661 required that no person could hold municipal office unless he had sworn allegiance to the king and had taken communion as administered by the Church of England within the past year. Under this “test act,” the loyal servant of the state is defined as a body subsumed in the two larger corporate bodies of monarch and church. Corporation becomes the rubric under which an identity between polity and persons was forged in 17c, a term that stood for the mutually reinforcing prerogatives of church and state well into 19c.
As the term corporate evolved from denoting a physical body to denoting a disembodied entity, a series of ideological complications ensued. As early as the medieval period, concern was expressed over the ontological status of a corporation. Was it just a name or was it a person? It is taken for granted today that a corporation is an ‘aggregate of many’. Yet the idea of the group-person had a complicated evolutionary path. One problem was that the corporate entity both encourages and resists attempts to anthropomorphize it. Though most corporations are made up of “members” guided by a “head”—a mayor, chancellor, or CEO—the head is not coextensive with the corporate body itself. Thus in liability cases the goods of the disembodied corporation, but not (in most cases) the embodied ‘head’, are liable for distraint. From 17c, this distinction leads to an increasing volume of jurisprudence aimed at defining a private (or “natural”) individual in contrast to the “artificial person” of the corporation. On account of this evolving legal code, notions of corporation significantly influenced notions of personhood from the Early Modern period forwards. As the term corporate moved semantically further away from designating actual bodies, its legal impact on those natural bodies arguably increased.
While cities and towns are still said to incorporate, the terms corporate and corporation come to exist almost solely in the domain of commerce and law from late 19c. When a business incorporates, the process usually precipitates out the personal bodies and possessions of those involved, since the act of incorporation is seen to lessen individual risk in an unknowable market (cf. today’s Ltd or LLC, ‘limited liability corporation’). By 1915, the House of Lords could confidently assert in a landmark ruling on liability that a corporation is a persona ficta, “an abstraction … [that] has no mind of its own any more than it has a body of its own”. Such a view makes conspicuous the oppositions inherent in the term’s modern usage: the corporation is public, perpetual, and lacking a physical existence, while the individual is private, mortal, and locatable. One cannot point to where a corporation is. Nor can one legally point to the individual bodies of those incorporated within it.
The expansion of manufacturing industries in late 19c and 20c gave rise to the stereotype of the corporate man. Usually defined as college-educated, articulate, and hard-working, he was praised as the engine of modern productivity. At the same time, he was satirized in works such as Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922), whose materialist protagonist lacks independence, creativity, and self-understanding. Corporate expanded its meaning to become a catchall for any profession where one worked for someone else: “The cowboy is the last of the rugged individualists, the last of the non-corporate man” (1978 [Washington Post 5 Sept. B4/4]). The demise of corporate man (due to corporate downsizing) has been lamented (or applauded) since at least the 1980s, though the term corporati (coined in the 1990s) suggests that the rumor of his demise may be greatly exaggerated.
Recent skepticism regarding corporate entities has come from a sense that such entities exercise the rights and privileges of personhood but rarely its duties and responsibilities. Similarly unsettling is the act of corporate ventriloquism by means of which one voice purports to speak for all but issues from no single speaker. Such anxieties are manifest in the rise of the noun corporate (often plural) to describe those who subscribe to the ideological values associated with multi-national global capitalism. This usage witnesses the term’s presence in a new set of arguments, in which the term has become the opposite of liberal or environmentally conscious. Thus the “brave Eco-Warrior battle[s] against the corporates who want to build a nasty McDonalds” (2007). This new sense shows the word to be caught up in continuing debates about the rights of individuals as opposed to group-persons, regarding what is natural as opposed to artificial, and what is private as opposed to public.