object-oriented marketing… sort of

Atlantic Monthly has an article this month, "Anthropology Inc," that examines the ethnographic work of corporate anthropologists (a contentious term in itself, at least for academic anthropologists). The article focuses on a single company and one of its co-founders Christian Madsbjerg. 

Madsbjerg had a list of clients desperate for Heideggerian readings of their businesses. The service he provides sounds even more improbable to a scholar who knows his Heidegger than to a layperson who does not. Many philosophers spend their lives trying and failing to understand what Heidegger was talking about. To interest a typical ReD client—usually a corporate vice president who is, Madsbjerg says, “the least laid-back person you can imagine, with every minute of their day divided into 15-minute blocks”—in the philosopher’s turgid, impenetrable post-structural theory is as unlikely a pitch as could be imagined.

But it’s the pitch Madsbjerg has been making. The fundamental blindness in the sorts of consulting that dominate the market, he says, is that they are Cartesian in their outlook: they view objects as the sum of their performance and physical properties….

To sell the ReD idea—that products and objects are inevitably encrusted with cultural meaning, and that a company that neglects to explore social theory is bound to leave profits on the table—Madsbjerg has evangelized with great success, giving what are surely the only successful corporate sales pitches salted with words like hermeneutics and phenomenology

I suppose my first response is to chuckle. Does Heidegger really work this way? Or is this more like a familiar touchstone in a sales pitch? In a sense, Madsbjerg is making the anti-object-oriented argument. That is, what he takes from Heidegger is a recognition that human knowledge of objects is highly subjective and that it is this subjective encrusting of meaning and value that corporations need to understand to sell their products. However, it strikes me that Madsbjerg is only seeing half the picture here if he focuses solely on the relations from the human side. If we are to believe, as the article suggests, the people develop attachments to vodka based upon the stories they can tell rather than about "objective" qualities, then do we not need to consider the role of the vodka in the composition of that story? What is it about these objects that create these affective bonds?

I'm not sure that this is as terribly new as the article suggests. I am reminded, somewhat, of coolhunting and characters like William Gibson's Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition, who, if I recall correctly, tracks down the first kid to wear his baseball cap backwards. Maybe it is new, though, to employ these ethnographic methods and to think about products from a Heideggerean perspective. Perhaps the alien phenomenology of the latest mobile phone could provide some insight into its capacity to enter into particular assemblages with consumers.

Meanwhile the skeptical response of academic anthropologists is understandable. This enthographic research is undertaken without any kind of ethical or professional review to protect participants. Some of it may be harmless, I guess, but certainly there is a potential for harm, particularly since the underlying purpose of any of these studies is to sell things to people like those being studied. As the article indicates, anthropology tends to be a leftist discipline, much like cultural studies or critical theory in that regard. So I imagine it is difficult for scholars in these fields to watch their purportedly revolutionary and emancipatory methods being used for capitalist purposes. And yet, should we be surprised that if a method provides real and useful knowledge about how markets and consumers interact that corporations want to make use of that method? That's just another place where the arguments that are made about a theory's politics falls short. Any method can be put to just about any political purpose. 

An object-oriented marketing research method would presumably but humans and their nonhuman products in a flat ontological space and speculate on their relations and phenomenological responses. Clients may be primarily interested in human agency and choices, but a better ontological understanding of their products seen through their interactions with humans might be useful. I'm not looking to start such a firm, but it makes as much sense to me as a Heideggerean one.

 

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