Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Corporate Personhood and the Corporate Body: The Case of Former Energy Giant Enron on Trial for Fraud

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Corporate Personhood and the Corporate Body: The Case of Former Energy Giant Enron on Trial for Fraud

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper queries the concept of corporate personhood by investigating how metaphors of the body were deployed in court testimony during Enron's corporate fraud trial in 2006. Two distinct metaphors are discussed as they relate to representations of the corporation: the portrayal of Enron as an organic body in ill health and death, and the metonymic positioning of the former CEOs as Enron. Drawing from critical economic geographies and legal literatures on the attribution of corporate personhood, I ask, what are the implications of these metaphorical associations for how we understand who has access to the legal rights of corporations? In answering this, I suggest that for the defense, body metaphors contributed to a naturalization of corporate personhood, upholding its legal protections and claiming those protections for the former CEOs. The prosecution rejected this singular metaphorical corporate body, opting for a corporation that was diffuse and occupied by many. From this, I argue that these diverging representations denaturalize corporate personhood, calling into question who has access to its protections in a criminal court. Furthermore, such diverging metaphorical uses of the corporation as a body reaffirm the contested and constructed nature of legal personhood.

Keywords: corporation, Enron, body, corporate personhood, metaphor


The image is striking. A white man in his sixties, silver headed and balding, wears a navy suit jacket with gold buttons. His hands are bound behind him, held together by a pair of handcuffs. He is being led into the federal courthouse in downtown Houston by a female FBI agent. Her hand on his arm guides the direction in which he walks. His face is without expression. He is Ken Lay, former CEO and president of Enron, on July 8, 2004 (Houston Chronicle 2004). The previous evening, the government issued an indictment of charges against him, including conspiracy to commit fraud at the former energy company, and issued a warrant for his arrest. Early morning on the 8th, Lay turned himself in at Houston's FBI office. He was subsequently driven to the federal courthouse, handcuffed in public view once he exited the vehicle, and then escorted into the building to hear the charges read against him. (1)

Lay's very public arrest marked the end of a long string of corporate fraud indictments and prosecutions by the government between 2002 and 2006. (2) During this period, the handcuffed bodies of impeccably dressed aging white men (and one woman) were paraded across our television and computer screens and shown on the front pages of major newspapers. For Americans who lost significant portions of their investments and retirement savings, or worse, their jobs, the handcuffed bodies of these corporate heads signified accountability. The misdeeds of the corporate body were finally punished.

The term corporate body in the previous sentence is used to make a point. At least under the law, human bodies and corporate bodies merge in interesting ways. Most notably, corporations are treated the same as flesh-and-blood persons, a concept referred to as corporate personhood. I use this paper to untangle these mergings by drawing on the case of former energy giant Enron's corporate fraud trial, a trial that criminally prosecuted Enron's former CEOs (Chief Executive Officers) Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay. I attended this trial in the spring of 2006 as a public attendee conducting ethnographic fieldwork. In listening to the testimony, body metaphors were deployed with great consistency. At times, it became a challenge to determine where the human body of the former CEOs ended and the corporate body of Enron began. The persistence of the body metaphor in court left me wondering, why does the corporation, as a nonbodied entity, keep appearing as a metaphorical body in the courtroom? Who occupies that body? What are the implications of these associations for how we understand corporate personhood and the rights of corporations, and who has access to those rights? …

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