Steve Jobs, Christan Dior: Meet the ghosts that still haunt the companies
In 2011, the world learned of the death of the iconic Steve Jobs. He left behind a real empire, strongly marked with his imprint. Illness had forced him to withdraw from the company gradually, but his influence remained extremely strong and his absence palpable.
Three years later, in 2014, Yukari Kane published a book on Apple called “The Haunted Empire” . According to this former Wall Street Journal reporter, the founder's figure was still omnipresent in the company.
Tim Cook, the current and very rational CEO, told a Wired reporter in 2018 that he was unable to move into Jobs' office after his death. No one else would have tried it. Even today, the office is intact: armchairs, bookcase, annotated whiteboard.
Apple CEO testified:
Tim Cook reveals here a penchant for mystical astonishment and raises our question: How can the influence of a deceased be reflected in a company?
And more generally, what concrete effects can an absent actor have on an organization? These are the questions we sought to answer in an academic article published in the Revue française de gestion .
To answer these questions, we must start by taking a step aside from the very rational approaches of organizations.
Because the case of Apple is not exceptional and we all know these situations where an absent person retains an influence on the daily life of a company.
We have therefore arrived at a somewhat counter-intuitive first observation: ghosts do exist and do indeed populate organizations.
Of course, we are not talking here about the floating and translucent forms, covered with a white sheet. What we call organizational ghosts to correspond to actors and figures who, although physically absent, have concrete manifestations and impacts on the life of organizations.
In doing so, we are part of an increasingly important social science trend over the past twenty years: the spectral turn.
STEVE JOBS' OFFICE STAYED AS IT WAS: TIM COOK (BLOOMBERG, 2014)
Let us, therefore, recognize that our daily lives, both organizational and social, are not limited to material interactions and collaborations, between physically present actors.
The past and history, ours as well as those of our company, often remain present, even haunting, in our daily lives.
It happens that an organizational actor is manifested precisely by his absence: an empty office, a whispered anecdote… like a ghost haunting the corridors of the organization.
We have identified two main types of ghosts in the social sciences: epistemic ghosts and ethical ghosts.
The two types of ghosts
Very early on, psychoanalysts were confronted with patients haunted by ghosts who kept coming back. In their beautiful book published in 1987, The Bark and the Core, Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok called phantom "this work in the unconscious of the shameful secret of another".
In psychoanalysis, we will therefore speak of a ghost, a foreign figure who keeps coming back and who is the bearer of a secret. And to be cured, it will be necessary to succeed in welcoming the latter, to get him out of his crypt: to decrypt him.
Accepting his revelation then allows “the ejection of this bizarre foreign body”. Since you have to convert your secret into knowledge, we say that the ghost is epistemic.
The second figure comes from the one who largely dominates the spectral turn today: the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In his book Specters of Marx, published in 1993, Derrida refutes the idea of the phantom as an epistemic object:
Instead, he proposes an ethics of the spectrum, the meeting of which would bind us to our values and our history, but also to others.
It is then necessary to greet and receive spectral encounters, "to let oneself live inside, that is to say, haunted by a foreign guest".
It is therefore not a question above all of chasing ghosts, but of welcoming the ambiguous and disturbing figure of the specter.
No Shakespearean mystic, therefore, no ghost of King Hamlet, no specter of Banquo, nor above all sheets that float or spirits that strike.
More modestly, we seek here to better reflect the concrete effects of these large absentees who still haunt their businesses.
The concepts of epistemic ghosts and ethical specters are there to help us better understand what we observe and feel in the daily life of organizations - that is to say, a reading grid.
The specter of Christian Dior
If we observe for example the case of the fashion house Dior , we realize that the premises of the company are constantly haunted - like those of Apple with Steve Jobs.
Frédéric Tcheng's documentary Dior et Moi, released in 2015, allows us to glimpse these figures by following the employees who speak, for example, regularly about Christian Dior.
His ghost there is often inspiring and funny, but it can also be overwhelming at times. So we witness a scene, one evening of preparation for the parade, where the seamstresses affectionately call him "Cricri" before bursting out laughing - while wondering what he would have thought of the collection they are preparing.
TRAILER OF THE FILM DIOR ET MOI DIRECTED BY FRÉDÉRIC TCHENG (2015).
At another time, we witness the dismay of Raf Simons, then new artistic director, in front of the weight that the legacy of such a figure constitutes - to the point that he stops reading the autobiography of the creator so much he obsesses him.
Here the specter of Christian Dior is reminded of Raf Simons, influencing him in his current and future creative work.
At other times, the same figure of Christian Dior is tinged with traditions, even conservatism, and then appears as a ghost embodying the past of the house and influencing the aesthetic choices of designers, almost 60 years after his death!
But the house is not only haunted by Christian Dior ... the documentary thus unfolds the anecdotes around the different ghosts, up to more discreet figures, but also more traumatic.
Everyone in the company remembers the scandal of the xenophobic declarations of John Galliano… yet the remarks about him are disguised and indirect, at the limit sometimes whispered, muffled, but never supported aloud.
Understand the presence of absentees
Beyond these few anecdotes about Dior, anyone who takes the time to think about it will be able to find ghostly equivalents in their business.
Like the little boy in the film The Sixth Sense who is able to see the dead (the famous "I see dead people", "I see dead people"), we wish here to encourage theorists and practitioners of organizations to apprehend the presence and influence of absent.
Better understanding ghostly figures require welcoming them in order to meet them better, to be able to respond to them, or to get rid of them.
It will therefore be a question above all of not ignoring them, of not denying their presence, because we would then deprive ourselves of their source of inspiration, of the challenges they throw at us, and of the anchoring that they allow in the world, history, and culture of the organization. Being haunted by Christian Dior is ultimately a sign that you are really part of the house ...
Philosopher Gayatari Spivak spoke of learning to dance with ghosts while describing the Native American ritual of ghost dance, by which members of a tribe attempt to relate to their history and ancestors through a dance ritual.
In this vein, we affirm that each practice, each decision in an organization can constitute a potential form of summons of ghosts, and therefore an opportunity to be part of its history… the better to leave its own mark.
This story was originally written in French by Yoann Bazin, Professor in Business Ethics, EM Normandie - UGEI, and Margot Leclair, Lecturer-Researcher, Labor Economics, and Sociology Laboratory (LEST), Aix-Marseille University (AMU) for The Conversation. We The World Magazine obtained the permission of the author to re-feature the story in English translation.