Home » Carnivalesque Resistance to Global Spectacle: A Critical Postmodern Theory of Public Administration

Carnivalesque Resistance to Global Spectacle: A Critical Postmodern Theory of Public Administration

I propose a critical postmodern application of Debords Spectacle and the carnivalesque of Bakhtin to the theatrics I see happening in city streets, on college campuses, and Internet resisting the new globalized economy. In the past decade pubic administration has experienced the postmodern turn, becoming caught in the conflicting theatrics of corporate-mediatized spectacle and the carnival of resistance to globalization discourse. My contribution is to theorize the interplay of spectacle and carnival on the global stage as theatrical constructions of corporate and state power and resistance.

I analyze growth of the spectacle of the monitoring industry that attests corporate codes of conducts in narratives of progress, while the anti-sweatshop and anti-globalization carnivals perform a devolution script in street theater, anti-sweat fashion shows, and cyber-activism. Welcome to our Sweatshop Fashion Show, a combination of political theater and educational comedy. Today, youll see our models displaying some of the latest fashions made in Asia, Latin America, the United States, Australia, and Canada (from script I am writing).

Instead of supermodels in barely clad silk dresses costing thousands of dollars, these garments are made in sweatshops, sold at our campus apparel store or local Wal-Mart. In such shows, staged on college campuses, on city streets, and in at the mall, models enter and walk across the catwalk wearing the latest Nike, Disney, Guess, Gap, Van Heusen, Tommy Hilfiger, and Wal-Mart brands as announcers comment on poverty wages and abusive working conditions. Your university has no doubt hosted similar Sweatshop Fashion shows highlighting working conditions in the garment industry in not only Latin America and Asia, but in metropolitan cities.

Maquila Solidarity Network (2001a) even provides fashion show script ideas. Our next model, Sheila, is wearing body-hugging Guess jeans that were made in Mexico. Doesnt Sheila look great? The Guess brand image is hot and sexy Actually, “hot and sexist” is probably a better description of working conditions for the women sewing Guess products. Hot as in sweatshops, and sexist as in supervisors. An investigation of four Guess contractors in Mexico in 1998 found evidence of forced overtime, violations of child labor laws, unsafe working conditions, discrimination against pregnant women, poverty, repression and fear.

Thank you, Sheila. (MSN, 2001a) My focus here is what Mikhail Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva would call carnivalesque, the use of theater to parody and resist spectacles of global corporate hegemony, mixing outrageous satire, popular music, models, and critical pedagogy to problematize globalization and free trade as reinvented ideologies of colonization and global racism in the 21st century. Spectacle is increasingly a corporately orchestrated performance, a display intended to persuade the masses of spectators from a distance that its global corporations have implemented moral codes of conduct, and therefore merit public trust.

My thesis is that much of global protest is carnival, such as 400,000 WTO protestors facing the police overdressed in Vader masks and riot gear facing protestors costumed in sea-turtle shells, or ladies prancing naked with Better Naked than Nike or BGH-free scrawled across their chest and back, and gigantic puppets and floating condoms the size of blimps with the words Practice Safe Trade. For Bakhtin (1973), the carnival is … that peculiar folk humor that always existed and has never merged with the official culture of the ruling classes.

The street theatrics of the WTO protest in Seattle, as well as the anti-sweatshop movement, has become a parody of corporate power using carnival. In the erosion of the nation state as a global character, the corporate state has emerged as a new star of the global theater, but one who is being vilified by activists in off-Broadway (Saner, 1999) carnivalesque productions that rebelliously reinterpret the experience of consumers putting on garments in acts scripted to raise consciousness. Here I want to examine carnival activism in its relation to corporate spectacle.

Foucault (1979) makes the point that resistance accompanies power. Here, I would like to look at how carnival opposes not Las Vegas, Disney, or Hollywood, but spectacles legitimating free trade and globalization. Disneyfication and Las Vegasization remake real places, such as Paris, NY, Rome, Egypt, and Venice by creating sanitized, stylized, and virtual, yet fragmented experiences visitors say is better than the real, because it is safer, cleaner,  quicker, or easier to walk around. Consumers then head for the real and expect it to be like Vegas or Disney, and eventually they will be.

This transformation to increasingly virtual, and digital simulation, demands radical administrative theorizing situated in emergent postmodern culture. Postmodern culture includes the corporate fragmenting of our identities through brand-logos, Las Vegasization and Disneyfication of our leisure and the McDonaldization of our work, and the loose networking of disparate social movements and advocacy groups into forces of opposition to global capitalism and our own commodification using digital and street theater.

After defining terms, I do a brief introduction to postmodern theory in public administration, and then explore the relation of carnival and spectacle and draw out implications for public administration. Defining Terms – Administrative Theory and Praxis is, in my view, stretched between the mediatized spectacle of global capitalism we witness on our screens, and new genres of carnivalesque-citizen participation in our era of postmodern culture.

According to Bogasons (1999) review, the last decade has seen a dramatic increase in the publication of postmodern theory work in public administration. Postmodern culture challenges traditional notions of democracy, citizenship and public administration. Public administration is colonized by corporate capitalism while having to contend with the fragmenting of identity and emergent forms of postmodern culture that protest globalization.

At the same time, postmodern public administration theory work is also criticized for neglecting human rights, equity, and social justice (Ventriss, 1998) and proposing a post-critical thinking that creates subject as text and dismissing all grand narratives, thereby neglecting material conditions of the embedding political economy championed in critical theory (Carr, 1997; Zanetti & Carr, 1997 & 1999). In my view, there are variations in postmodern theory that can offer emancipatory potential, that do not dismiss all grand narratives, and that are attentive to the material conditions of labor and ecology.

Rather than dismiss postmodern theory as responsible for all that is wrong in the world order (Disneyfication, Las Vegasization, fragmentation), I prefer to develop a critical postmodern critique of global discourse. Critical postmodern is definable as the nexus of critical theory, postcolonialism, critical pedagogy and postmodern theory (Boje, 2001c). I diverge from other postmodern theories that seek to limit being to what is “socially constructed” as just text without context, or as incapable of ethical discourse.

I prefer to follow Best and Kellner (1997), and combine Marx’s focus on the material conditions with Guy Debord’s (1967) Society of the Spectacle rather than focus on the hyperreality of Baudrillard or the dismissal of all grand narrative in Lyotard. Debord resituated Marxs analysis of production into a focus on the accumulation and consumption of spectacles. Spectacle is oftentimes a theatric performance that legitimates, rationalizes, and camouflages violent production and consumption (Boje, 2001a; Best & Kellner, 1997 & 2000; Firat & Dholakia, 1998).

Spectacle theatrics can be a benign form of practice and performance; gala events with costumes, art, success stories, team awards, and celebrity appearances to launch a new product, symbolize a change initiative or to put the spot light on positive acts of corporate power. Critical postmodern theory, by contrast, assumes there is a material condition, often quite a violent one, stimulated in media spectacle. We are answerable ethically to minimize spectacle violence by reclaiming face-to-face discourse, not participating mindlessly in eco-destruction, and resisting with carnival, to find a more festive way of being in the world.

Using methods of deconstruction, theatrics theory, discourse, and narrative analysis, I think it is possible to de-code the layers of public relations spectacle that lionize global virtual corporations as the author of progress and evolution. Spectacle also distances transnational corporations from responsibility over their far-flung global supply chains, where particularly exploitive conditions seem to flourish in a resurgence of sweatshops, whose descriptions rivals Marxs (1867) depiction of capital sweating labor.

Virtual corporations, such as Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Gap, and Guess, retain R&D and marketing functions while outsourcing production to the Third World. Most recently, corporate responsibility employs consulting companies such as Global Alliance for Workers and Communities (GA), accounting firms such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), and trade groups such as Fair Labor Association (FLA) and Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production (WRAP), to provide on-the-ground monitoring. PWC, just in 1999 audited the codes of conduct compliance of 6,0000 factories subcontracting to Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart, Gap and other multinational corporations.

Increasingly it is the virtual companies and their outsourced monitors of subcontract factories that are the focus of carnivals of resistance. We are witness to postmodern culture jamming, anti-sweat fashion shows, and more recently virtual acts of cyber-disobedience. Most adopt non-violent action to promote a less violent capitalism to the current one, while creating awareness and raising consciousness of our consumptive and work or instrumental relationship to the animal, plant, and human, and micro biotic world.

A critical postmodern theory contributes to public administration in nurturing and reclaiming public and democratic discourse from its corporate colonization. Critical postmodern perspectives giving space to radical and non-violent civil disobedience actions of solidarity between fragmented counterpublics, and subaltern communities. I means doing something about the voicelessness, of for example sweatshop workers, joining citizens taking to the streets and students who protest globalized corporate impact on ecology.

It may even mean becoming more radical and activist theorists who peer into what lies hidden beneath spectacles of progress and knowledge work of virtual corporate reality. A related task of critical postmodern theory is to deconstruct public administrations (and other fields such as business administrations) complicity with apologetic spectacle narratives by exposing hidden economic, ethnic, and gender politics and oppressive administrative practices, while opening up spaces for a new democratic discourse to emerge.

Postmodern Public Administration  This is not meant as a complete review (a task for the entire issue). Instead I highlight some key points in the postmodern turn in public administration. Hummel (1989: 179-180) and Dennard (1989) were among the first to use the term postmodern in conjunction with public administration. Hummel looked at postmodern organization, while Dennard wrote about radical humanism in a satirical narrative of Burrell and Morgan theory set to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Marshal and White (1990) introduced postmodern as a method to the public administration community in their deconstructive analysis of the Blacksburg Manifesto (constitutionalism), a reaction to the market metaphor dominating public administration. White (1992) acknowledges the narrative turn and how what we know is dressed in stories; administrative science is just another narrative. Fox and McSwain (1993) examined the possibilities for semiotics and postmodernism in American public administration to move away from Big-T-truth theories and experts prescribing what is best for communities.

Fox and Miller (1993: 5-6) theorized postmodern public administration as a move from centripetal to centrifugal, centralization to fragmentation, common units towards incommensurability, difference rather than likeness, universals to hyper-pluralisms, fragmentation instead of generalized units of analysis, Newtonian to Heisenberg quantum physics, and causal theory to unpredictable analysis of microcosms. David Farmer (1994) looked at the social construction aspects of public administration, questioning the efficiency semiotics of the reinventing government movement as privileging control.

Books by Fox and Miller (1995, 1997) focus on the need for discourse theory in postmodern public administration, as an alternative to the input-output-feedback loop model of public administration. Farmers (1995) Language of Public Administration looks at text using a Derrida approach, theorizing in a hermeneutic circle, deterritorialization of Deleuze and Guattari, and the limits to grand narratives such as Taylorist-efficiency, specialization, and aspirations to science of public administration.

The focus is voices marginalized in public administration such as minorities, women, policed sexualities, and the economically colonized. Farmer (1998) continued this focus and looked a radical listening to the Other that might liberate marginalized voices. Harmons (1995) book critical of public administration focuses on simulacrum of public administration under conditions of market capitalism as agency and moral answerability, for example, is transferred form the State and its bureaucratic public servants to the market.

Critical Postmodern Theory and Public Administration – A critical postmodern analysis of spectacle and carnival is, I think, compatible with much of the theory work being done in public administration. Fox and Miller (1993, 1995), for example, look at media-induced consumerism and the neo-tribal fragmentation of society as consumers identify with and define themselves by logos and slogans of Nike and other corporate-logos and floating media images.

Critical academic writing about Nike, Disney, Monsanto and other companies is just beginning. Stabile (2000: 191), for example, argues: Similarly, if we scratch the surface of Nikes veneer a bit, we can see how the codes of conduct so valued by corporate culture are displaced onto groups of people who havent the economic means to pursue them legally but are nevertheless held responsible for the genesis of such codes and desires.

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