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Co-creation at the limit of im/possibility: Learning from Lacan about the logic of desire and the limits of Deleuze
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Technology, Department of Engineering Sciences, Industrial Engineering & Management.
2013 (English)In: Processes of Organizational Creativity: Collective Entrepreneurship, Co-Creation and Collaborative Innovation / [ed] Daniel Hjorth, Chris Steyaert, Gail Whiteman, 2013Conference paper (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Contemporary marketing and innovation strategies often turn on the notion of desire, seeking to address most individual concerns, provide thrills and enjoyment, and have customers lust for the next novelty by turning it into a compelling experience. In doing so, they often seek to mobilize customer movements that contribute to the value creating processes by exploring far out ideas, inventing novel concepts, and valorizing new aspects of the products, services, or experiences that are being promoted. Encouraging passionate engagement with the offering, and enrolling the customer as co-designer, co-creator, co-producer will, moreover, tighten the bond to the supplying party, stage an added value, unify and enhance the common interests of the parties involved. Judging, at least, by much contemporary innovation management and marketing literature, such is the dominating belief in many domains of post-industrial society, with its focus on customization and the co-creation of individualized, unique, singular experiences. [N:1] One of the central concerns of seminal works on co-creation, such as C.K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy’s (2004) The Future of Competition: Co-Creating Unique Value With Customers, is how to organize the customer interface to best handle this value creating locus – facilitate, but indeed also set limits to participation in the creation and production processes.

While such visionary and ultimately normative work exists in abundance, the outlook on how co-creation imperatives of this kind may operate with respect to unconscious desires, and how they may stand in relation to the creative input/output generated at this limit of (im)possibility, is however far less explored and theoretically underdeveloped. Put differently, little management, organization, or marketing research has paid any serious theoretical attention to the regulative and the creative powers of the fantasies and desires that are being staged, activated, and perhaps also directed through marketing schemes and PR efforts which emphasize individualized customer dialogues and the co-creation of unique and singular experiences. Little research has paid any serious theoretical attention to the structural or machinic workings of the creative forces that gain their momentum from seductive marketing fantasies, and thrive on desire; little research has paid any serious attention to the ethics and the politics involved also in the inadvertent consequences and (un)manageable off-shoots that these kinds of management and marketing strategies may ultimately generate (for a few exceptions, see, e.g., Cederström & Grassman, 2010; Sköld, 2009; 2010; Sköld & Olaison, 2012). The theoretical understanding of this inter-relational locus of value creation and innovation appears, therefore, to be insufficiently advanced, and makes out the main target of this paper.

As of late, a more critically minded foray of management studies has indeed begun to interrogate the value creating dynamics implied by such collaborative (corporate) schemes and strategies (for an overview of this work, see, e.g., Cova et al., 2011). In a series of publications, Adam Arvidsson (2005; 2006; 2007; 2008; 2009; 2011) has for instance explored how the social production involved in brand consumption, which turns a multitude of consumers into a community that circles around a certain brand, is subject to a series of techniques that administrate it, and use it as a source for extracting surplus value. Cultivating what he terms an ethical social bond that turns on affect, shared fantasies and experiences, such schemes and such a logic makes brand consumption and to some extent also customer co-creation into an instance of immaterial labor, which is systematically exploited by the productive power of Capital, according to Arvidsson’s largely Marxist-Foucauldian analysis, which also draws on Italian autonomist thinkers such as Maurizio Lazzarato (1996), Paolo Virno (2004), and Christian Marazzi (2008) to understand how immaterial labor is subsumed by the capitalist machine.

Remaining within a theoretical matrix dominated by Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, but concentrating more exclusively on the political aspects of customer co-creation – more so than ethical ones – Detlev Zwick, Samuel Bonsu, and Aron Darmody (2008) have inquired, moreover, into how such strategies often seek to generate particular lifestyles and knowledge communities by working through the freedom of the user-customer, rather than through normative control measures, in both intentional and highly sophisticated ways. By means of various procedures and techniques that posit co-creation as something desirable, and an arena for autonomy and self-actualization (e.g., formal competitions and awards, or more informal reward systems), many corporate discourses circling around this phenomenon effectively encourage user-customers to generate know-how and creative input, which may be incorporated into value creating processes. Using a Foucauldian terminology, co-creation strategies thus make out a form of ‘marketing governmentality’ in Zwick et al.’s (2008: 163) analysis – a form of productive power regimes aimed at reconfiguring the social relations of production, and (investing life into the accumulation of capital, by) operating on and through the bodies of user-customers to generate a kind of subjects that are ‘at once free and controllable, creative and docile’. Subjecting us to what might – with a further Foucault-inflected terminology – be termed a bio-political power, the co-creation paradigm represent, in Zwick et al.’s analysis, a radicalized co-optation of user-customers’ creative and productive capacity that far exceeds the immaterial labor which Arvidsson concentrates on, and which industrial realms long have known to expropriate from counter-cultural movements (see, e.g., Bell, 1973; Frank, 1998). In this co-optation, capital indeed desires the autonomous creativity of the user-customers, extracting surplus value from it, and exploiting it as free labor.

In what appears to be a reaction to how such analyses see labor and exploitation in all things voluntary, fun, and playful that are staged through commercial, collaborative platforms – and doing so quite regardless of the particular rationales for participating, or the specific modes and consequences of doing so – the critical engagements with co-creation have also turned to exploring the nuances of such inter-relations, and the shifts involved in the power plays between consumers and producers. While indeed acknowledging that co-creation may involve elements of exploitation – even a double exploitation, insofar as customers’ individualizing work, which is uncompensated in the first place, also may motivate producers to charge a premium price when the produce is sold back to the them – Siwarit Pongsakornrungsilp and Jonathan Schroeder (2011) have focused attention on how the work put in by co-consuming communities may serve as a platform that also enables them, to some degree, to unite and negotiate dominating interests, and thereby gain power towards producers and brand owners. Such communities may for instance limit the possibilities of intervening in the cultural practices of the community, with the agency granted to the customers thus offering an avenue for ‘consumer empowerment’ in the midst of the double exploitation that is also going on.

Around the notion of co-creation, we can thus begin to discern (i) a visionary discourse, which draws inspiration from a number of different practices that are supposed to illustrate its dynamics, and (ii) a more critical-analytical discourse that engages with, or otherwise assumes the existence of co-creation practices, inquiring for instance into the ethics and the politics implied by such a value creation paradigm. While the first kind of discourse approaches the phenomenon from a management perspective, and supposedly exerts a performative power or normative influence over management practices through the powerful visions/fantasies it conveys, the second kind of discourse is one that raises a number of questions with respect to the phenomenon that this fantasy is supposed to represent, and seeks to understand and uncover its workings. More specifically, we see how this latter discourse offers an analysis that circles around various ethical and political aspects of the strategies implied by the co-creation paradigm. One that at the same time acknowledges their power, and recognizes the agency on part of consumers, and communities thereof, to resist or negotiate them in more or less potent ways – and perhaps utilize them for their own ends. Taken together, the analysis it offers also points to how these aspects are inextricably intertwined, with Arvidsson’s analysis of the ‘ethical economy’ having political implications, insofar as it outlines rationales for participating in social production as well as strategies for the populace to gain more power over brand evaluation. Conversely, Zwick et al. (2008) point to ethical aspects and implications of the marketing governmentality and the bio-political power exerted upon consumers and user-customers through co-creation strategies. And although it remains implicit in their argument, Pongsakornrungsilp and Schroeder (2011) could be said to deal with both these aspects as they investigate the possibilities of an ethics of empowerment in different political strategies for handling and to some extent countering the power structures at play.

Oddly enough, however, these discourses appear to leave the notion of desire pretty much unproblematized in their respective attempts to work out the ethical and the political implications of desiring production under a co-creation paradigm. Both discourses certainly imply that the customers’ desire is a central component of this paradigm. In Prahalad and Ramaswamy’s (2004) work, it is the precondition that motivates particularized, one-to-one relationships to customers – which is, they argue, the best way to meet, and supposedly also still their desire. Zwick et al. (2008) further suggest that experiences of alienation and defiance on part of user-customers, and a ‘non-identification’ with the standardized offerings available in the market, is what feeds this desire for creative measures and renewed participation in processes of co-creation (see also Arvidsson, 2006: 73). In Arvidsson’s (2009) analysis, the value creation/production mobilized through co-creation strategies finds much of its fuel, moreover, in the social ties and the communities established around co-creative practices. Crucial for understanding this kind of social production is, Arvidsson suggests, the Aristotelian notion of philía, which is taken to mean the ability to establish connections, friendships, and build community. This by being both amaible and highly esteemed within the social context. A desire to go beyond standard offerings and stand out from the collective, on the one hand, and to be desirable and desired by a customizing community, on the other, thus appears to lie at the heart of the value production taking place in co-creation, according to the synthesized analysis encountered in the discourses above. But while these discourses indeed acknowledge, in different ways, that lust, adoration, and desire are most central components for motivating and sustaining participation in co-creation, and generating value within a paradigm of co-creation, little attention has been paid to how these components might work through the kind of practices promoted/problematized by these discourses – to the structural or machinic nature of the desiring production mobilized by such post-industrial strategies, and to the structural consequences of a kind of social bond that feeds on desire, and the displacement of any standard offering, or limit of im/possibility. Again, how desire might work in a productive fashion within a post-industrial capitalist machine, and what kind of ethics and politics may be involved in different modes of relating to the injunction to co-create, appears to be lacking recent critical engagements in this area. To what extent the desiring production that is set in motion by a co-creation paradigm indeed plays into and contributes to unifying the interests of the parties involved, is also a question that merits far more attention than it currently has been granted.

Now, a most intuitive move to better understand the creative and productive nature of desire in relation to co-creative practices would be to consult the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Owing both to his sole-authored works, and those which he wrote with political activist and Lacanian psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, Deleuze has for instance been hailed as ‘the champion of desire, free flux and anarchic experimentation’ by Louise Burchill (Badiou, 1997/2000: xii). And by consequence, his thinking has lately been deployed within the field of management and organization in order to better understand the relationship between desire and creativity, and to rethink notions such as passion, motivation, non-organization, and entrepreneurship. [N:2] Moreover has Deleuze’s thought, and particularly that part of his philosophical œuvre which he co-authored with Guattari, been described – for instance by Deleuze himself – as a political philosophy. [N:3] One that seeks to understand the workings of power within capitalist machineries, and that explores and promotes the revolutionary potential of desire, and desiring-production. Furthermore has Foucault suggested, in the preface to the English translation of Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia from 1977, that this particular book had best be read as a book on ethics, delineating an art of both thinking and of living so as to overturn ‘the established order’ (xiv). Invoking Deleuze’s thinking to better understand how desire works in a creative and productive manner through the machineries mobilized by co-creation strategies, and the ethics and the politics involved in different modes of relating to the socio-economic machineries, may thereby seem like a most fitting enterprise.

However, forty years have passed since Anti-Oedipus was first published in France, and more than thirty years have passed since the English translation it accessible to a wider audience. Since then, the logic of Deleuze’s thought and the politics it implies have not only been subject to intense dispute and debate, but also radical re-interpretation, and perhaps even shrewd appropriation. Drawing heavily on Alain Badiou’s (1997/2000) and Manuel DeLanda’s (2002) work, Slavoj Žižek (2004) has for instance confronted Deleuze’s thinking with the possibility that it rests on two quite different ontologies – which we shall have reason to come back to later on. Moreover has Žižek – owing to observations made by Jean-Jacques Lecercle (1996) and Brian Massumi (2003) – suggested that the later Deleuze, the one who teamed up with Guattari in the late 1960’s, has become the ideologist of late capitalism. This by virtue of capitalism’s ingenuity to come up with marketing schemes that invite us, through a most seductive play of promises, to participate and engage on our own terms – offering themselves to us, for instance, as rare and valuable opportunities to manifest our individuality and our autonomy (see again Sköld, 2010). Put differently, the machinery implied by a post-industrial dynamics which is centered around co-creation – geared, as it were, by tools and techniques that seek to provide singular, intensive and affective experiences, and that encourage transgressions, continuous reinventions of our selves, and ever novel manifestations of who we have come to be – could be said to have appropriated the ethics and the politics promoted by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus. In a time when this thinking may thus have lost its revolutionary potential, disarmed by the same orders they were supposed to overturn, and made into yet another means for value creation, what may indeed Deleuze, and perhaps also Guattari, have to offer? And which Deleuze?

As the title of Anti-Oedipus makes clear, this is a book that goes against a reigning psychoanalytic doxa, and particularly a Freudian psychoanalytical paradigm. Within the field of organization studies, the import of Deleuzian ideas to understand creativity and desire has often taken this blow against psychoanalysis to also be an attack on the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan; while it has argued that a Deleuzian understanding of desire may help us understand its creative and its productive powers, it has in the same instance denounced the Lacanian notion of desire as having little bearing on such investigations (see also Jones, 2010). This, however, is a vulgar and a most problematic simplification. First of all, because it involves a misrecognition, on a theoretical level, of the close affinity between Lacan and Deleuze (and indeed also Guattari, the latter having been a student of Lacan’s), and the ways in which Deleuze’s thinking is in fact indepted to Lacan – to Žižek’s view, the ontology manifested in the Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense from 1969 is in fact best understood as a materialist, Lacanian ontology, and also in later works such as Anti-Oedipus the homage to Lacan in is quite striking, although opinions part on what body of thought (Deleuze, Deleuze & Guattari, or Lacan) carries the most potential for providing a potent critique of the contemporary ideological landscape, and how they actually relate to one another (cf. Smith, 2004). Second, this simplification is problematic because it points to the premature conclusion that Lacan has little purchase for understanding the productive nature of desire, and how it might work through the socio-economic machineries mobilized through, for instance, co-creation schemes and strategies – and in a structural way play into the generation of the new.

In an attempt to better understand the machineries of desire mobilized by a co-creation paradigm, this paper therefore sets out to explore: (i) how Deleuze and Guattari conceptualize the ways in which desire has become subjected to different forms of representational régimes, and how the politics promoted for liberating desire and desiring production may relate to the workings of the post-industrial capitalist machine outlined by the discourses encountered above; and (ii) how one might understand Lacanian thought as providing an extension to the work of Deleuze and Guattari under such circumstances – one that at the same time may offer an alternative perspective on the ethics and the politics involved in this inter-relational locus of value creation, and at the same time expand theoretically on the workings of the double bind between customer and supplier, which is implied by a co-creation paradigm.


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1. For influential work supporting this belief, see, e.g., Grönroos, 2000; Pine II & Gilmore, 1999; Vargo & Lusch, 2004; von Hippel, 1988; 2005. For a somewhat longer, and indeed also broader view on this phenomenon, see, e.g., Davis, 1987; Grönroos & Gummesson, 1985; Levitt, 1986; Pine II, 1992.

2. See, e.g., Brewis et al. 2006; Case & Selvester, 2006; Jeanes, 2006; Linstead & Thanem, 2007; Pedersen, 2008; Rehn & Sköld, 2005; Styhre, 2006a; 2006b; Sørensen, 2006; Thanem, 2006; Hjorth, 2007; 2011.

3. In a conversation with Antonio Negri from 1990, Deleuze claims that ‘Anti-Oedipus was from beginning to end a book of political philosophy.’ (Deleuze, 1995: 170) In another much older conversation, from 1972, with Catherine Backès-Clément, Guattari explains this same ambition in slightly different words: ‘what we were both looking for was a discourse that was at once political and psychiatric, without reducing either dimension to the other.’ (Deleuze, 1995: 15)

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Business Administration Engineering and Technology
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Engineering Science with specialization in industrial engineering and management; Business Studies
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-214229OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-214229DiVA: diva2:684492
European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS), 2013: Bridging Continents, Cultures and Worldviews
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