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Enron is theatre

Enron's Skilling sprung? It could happen this week  



Inside the Enron Trial   click blue link above & mark second slide!


Enron is an excellent opportunity to study processes of antenarrative-dialog production, distribution and consumption that emerge in corporate as well as congressional theatre. It is through dialogs, including bunkum speech-making and antenarrating that Enron's dramatis personae was produced and distributed for mass consumption. Dialog is one of the seven critical Septet elements of corporate theatre. Corporate theatre is defined here as a performance system of antenarrative production, distribution, and consumption, suspended in intertextual dialogue with selective events (and texts) antenarratively related to other times and places. There are different genres of dialogs, such as legal, political, accounting, and corporate accounting/narrating. It was through seductive and rose-tinted dialogs that Enron rode the New Economy wave, becoming its superstar, and it is through corporate gibberish and fanciful rhetoric that Enron was able to float a facade before so many stakeholders who gladly thought they saw reality in Enron's corporate theatre. It is through dialogs that Enron trans-morphed its hideous facade and sustained a masquerade of conspicuous consumption and opulence, while few noticed the cracks in the facade that let reality shine through a hideous masquerade. Enron is a kind of dialogic schizophrenia, a way to present seductive predictions in the face of high risk, if not outright fraudulent corporate practices.

Rhetoric (dialog) is constituent to all socialization. Recruits are Enronized (socialized) in into the dialogs that constitute Enron's corporate culture (values & norms) and idea systems (ideological frames). They learn to dialog with their Enronite voice; it is a voice that has been Enronized into Enron dialog practices. Enron's E-terms are what Burke (1966: 50) calls "terministic screens" that filter and blinker through interpretive vocabularies that focus our attention on one screen instead of another. And it is through the terministic screens that Enron accomplishes its alleged fraud in theatrical masquerade and facade.

In terms of Critical Dialogs Analysis(CDA), Enron Dialogs about capitalism chain together events in talk and texts, into chains of dialogs that are proximate and remote from climatic or catastrophic events (e.g. the first raptors or LJM partnerships, the collapse of Enron into bankruptcy, the August 2002 arrest of one Enron executive, the promised reforms to Capitalism, the inevitability of Enrongate for President Bush). Enron's raptors (LJM, Chewco, Southampton) realize in the genre of executive meetings, scripts are edited by PR-types and lawyers, then translated into press releases, annual reports, as well as into the Metatheatre of Enron, such as the simulated trading on the sixth floor masquerade meant to persuade Wall Street analysts into believing Lay and Skilling's stock projections were realistic, and Lay's performed script-readings in webcasts and ballrooms in Houston and D.C. Enron dialogs were rhetorics that opposed regulation and advanced the cause of deregulation. Enron published info ads to push its agenda of energy market deregulation and minimalist government oversight. Enron recruited a cast of institutional characters to change laws, regulations, and national policy, not just in the U.S. but around the world.


Enron dialogic terms, reports, releases, ads, and speeches, became part of global discourse. There was a global colonization of Enron language of energy deregulation, free markets for utilities, and energy trading. that resulted in the minimization of government oversight to Enron's social practices. There is a dialogic system of text and talk production, distribution, and consumption that is transformative. What could not be accomplished with dialog was done with cash and appointments. Dialogs changed the image of Enron as an "I" character but also the "We" cast of characters (the network of institutions that dialoged). E-dialogs reshaped government administration, government regulators, accounting, & Business College) identities (their dramatis persona in narrative-texts, narrative-talk, & theatric performances). Metaphoric shifts in the dialogs from asset-heavy to asset-lite, from brick-and-mortar to virtual corporations, from regulated to deregulated markets co-opted language to transform Capitalism. Enron rhetors in their dialogs among the institutional cast of characters changed the practices of global Capitalism. The problem said the E-rhetors was not corporations who paid no taxes, but over-regulation of corporations in ways that made energy markets inefficient. In the bandwagon effect of getting with it, learning all the New Economy rhetoric terms, we forgot history. We forgot the dialogs that brought about regulation of oil, electricity, and natural gas markets in the first place. We forgot a very bloody and corrupt set of dialogs of the late 1800s that effected regulation over energy markets and utilities in the 1900s. We forgot that Robber Barons' predatory and amoral practices inspired a national dialog that demanded social protection against monopoly and trust. Trusts are secret networks of partnerships that allow mega-co

rporations and their CEO, Robber Barons to subvert capitalism to the ends of a few players. We forgot the national debate, the conflicting dialogs of the Old Economy, in our fervor to realize the New Economy dialogs.

E-dialogs about market system reform, pushed along the LJM (raptor off-the-balance-sheet partnerships) in what Business Week (March 4, 2002: 18) partnership networks in what is called a “flurry of rhetoric about tighter accounting rules includes the use of metaphor and more responsible corporate boards. And then a long silence until the next time.” Until the next Trust-building, off-the-balance-sheet network of secret partnership agreements. Aristotle (350 BCE: #1549b, p. 5) says, “a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” The dialogs surrounding the off-the-balance-sheet partnerships (except LJM which is explained below) are right out of Star Wars and Jurassic Park with names like JEDI and its sequel JEDI II (Joint Energy Development Investments), and the infamous Chewco Investments (as in Chewbacca). The Jurassic metaphoric names include Condor and Raptor. Enron's dialogs about New Economy of deregulation and minimalist oversight changed the social practices of accountants, auditors, regulators, consultants, Presidents, and Business College professors. These dialogs globalized, diffused and integrated into local economies, into the diffuse and integrated Spectacles of Enron.

THE GAS BANK DIALOG EXAMPLE - Enron would be intermediary between buys and sellers of natural gas, exploiting the spread between the buying and selling price. In this “Gas Bank” antenarrative, “gas producers” were “depositors” in the “commercial bank” and the “consumers” were the “borrowers”; “Enron” was the “bank” that “pooled the deposits” (i.e. the supply commitments) to fund long-term (15 year or more) commitment to gas buyers (the borrowers). What happened with the Gas Bank idea is also unsettled. In one version, when Skilling presented his “Gas Bank” antenarrative to the assembled Enron Board and executives, the idea was soundly rejected. However, in yet another version, Kenneth Lay himself decided to ignore their advice, and give Skilling a chance to make it work. Others say it was Richard Kinder, Enron's president, (and not Kenneth lay) who asked Skilling to join the company to run the new Gas Bank adventure (Barnes, Barnett, & Schmitt, 2002). Most storytellers agree that on June 29, 1990 Skilling left McKinsey to join Enron. Skilling described Enron’s Gas Bank strategy as, “get in early, push to open markets, position ourselves to compete, and compete hard when the opening comes” (Kaminski & Martin, 2001).

In 1991, Fastow comes up with a way to get the money, a ‘partnership strategy’ called Cactus. Cactus partnerships took in money from banks and lent it to “energy producers energy producers in return for a portion of their existing gas reserves” (Barnes, Barnett, & Schmitt, 2002). Like the Gas Bank antenarrative, the Cactus re-scripting has disputed beginnings. The dialogs of Enron among institutions (Whitehouse, congress, senate, SEC, Wall Street, Business College) constituted and constructed the quasi-objects known as the raptors (e.g. LJM).

Dialog of Congressional Hearings - For Democrats it was payback time, and within such a frame, dialog is about positioning. "There will be no witch-hunt," says Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), eager as ever to cloak his partisan instincts with the rhetoric of high-mindedness. Some rhetoric is not persuasive. For example, “I've never seen a better example of cash 'n' carry government than this Bush Administration and Enron,” said Democrat Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, “who has received $3,500 in campaign contributions from Enron and $20,460 from Arthur Andersen since 1995” (Capital Briefs, 2002: 2).

“ENRON ROBBED the bank, Arthur Andersen provided the getaway car, and they say you were at the wheel,” Rep. James Greenwood, R-Penn., chairman of the House Energy Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations intoned to former Arthur Andersen manager David Duncan in late January, at an early hearing about Enron. “Did you give an order to destroy documents in an attempt to subvert investigations into Enron’s collapse?” the chairman asked (Dean, 2002).

Dialogs between Enron and Wall Street Analysts - Seth Libby, an analyst who covered Enron for Boston-based research firm Yankee Group, said Enron executives were "the kings of obfuscation." But he also said his counterparts on Wall Street may not have raised questions because of their firms' financial interests. Wall Street firms with analysts on staff had large financial stakes in Enron's success. For example, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. revealed in December that it is owed $2.6 billion from dealings with Enron going back at least to 1998.

Sherron Watkins Dialogs with Kenneth Lay and Enron's Law Firm (Vinson & Elkins') Dialogic Response - Julia Kristeva suggests that each text has an intertextual “trajectory” that is historical and social (1980a: 36). This is waht I (Boje, 2001a) mean by 'antenarrative trajectory.' Norman Fairclough (1992) adds the idea that the intertextual trajectory is embedded in hegemonic struggle, in selling and distributing ways of making sense. A good example of intertextual antenarrative trajectory is Watkin's memo to Lay, and her followup meetings. She met with Lay on August 22. That is when the seven-page memo was discussed (cover page plus six page supplemental letter). By all accounts:

The [Aug 22] session was businesslike, and Lay seemed genuinely concerned. Watkins brought along a six-page letter detailing her worries, and Lay promised to have a team of lawyers review the controversial deals. But he decided to use Enron's law firm, Vinson & Elkins, despite Watkins' unease about a conflict of interest. Vinson & Elkins had been paid for work on Condor and Raptor transactions. But Lay went ahead with the review--whose scope he kept strictly limited (Duffy, 2002).

The subsequent re-readings and re-citations include Max Hendrick III, of Vinson & Elkins, letter to James V. Derrick Jr., Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Enron Corp which is dated October 15, 2001 title “Preliminary Investigation of Allegations of an Anonymous Employee,” and subsequent Congressional testimony about Watkins’ texts. The Vinson & Elkins’ analysis of the Watkins letter and supplemental material (7-page text) yielded a nine-page text that is more intertextual in its dialoguing with Watkins text, quoting prior texts, anticipating being reread, and in its relations to other texts. Vinson & Elkins’ text is a permutation of texts, citing and referencing utterances from other texts that serve to neutralize the Watkins text, just in time. “There are many events in the womb of time” (Yargo’s line from Othello). At the hearings, Watkins indicated she was “disappointed” and “frustrated” that Lay did not take action to fix the situation before collapse was inevitable. The day after the Vinson & Elkins letter, i.e. October 16 2001, Enron rewrote its equity downward by $1.2 billion and declared losses of $544 million.

The Watkins and the Vinson & Elkins texts are a juxtaposition of various voices and quotes supplemented by narrative interpretations that are written to be consumed by anticipated audiences. As intertextual systems, the texts are embedded in wider social and historical networks. The two letters are produced to be distributed and to be consumed. This production, distribution, and consumption process of intertextuality is also part of a covert struggle of power and resistance.

The consumption of the Watkins Dialog/Text - We live in theatres of consumptions (Firat & Dholakia, 1998). As an intertextual weave, the hegemonic aspects of spectacle and carnival are to present a “ready made” textual interpretation for distribution and consumptions (Fairclough, 1992). For Congress and the public, Watkins is scripted as a national folk hero, a manager who dared to tell the truth to the boss. One ready-made consumption of the Watkins’ memo is as theatre of confrontation, exposing Skilling’s confidence trick, so spectators to the Congressional hearings could now see the ‘star’ of the New Economy was poised on the edge of the abyss, would trip into the abyss and “implode in a wave of accounting scandals.” Congresspersons would utilize Watkins’ memo and her dramatic testimony as proof that Enron executives were swindlers; all too aware of the games they were playing. “Andrew Fastow would not have put his hand into the Enron cookie jar without the explicit or implicit approval of Mr. Skilling,” Watkins said at one hearing where she was seated at the same table as Skilling. And Mr. Skilling she said “put the fox in charge of the hen house.” Watkins is writing a book titled, “Power Failure” about the Enron spectacles. Further consumption of the Watkins text is scripted by the media under the heading of heroic resistance (but as we have discussed, Watkins was not the first Whistle Blower, that is a fictive construction of the U.S. media, not the foreign press). Carnivalesque Resistance to Spectacle Dialog - Aristotle’s poetics is re-crafted by Boal into a Poetics of the Oppressed:

In order to understand this poetics of the oppressed one must keep in mind its main objective: to change the people – spectators, passive being(s) in the theatrical phenomenon – into subjects, into actors, transformers of the dramatic action (Boal, 1979: 122).

Enron Popular Culture Dialog - As the Enron megaspectacle scandals replayed on TV and radio talk shows, in the press, and in Enron jokes circulating on the Web, Enron attained popular culture cult status. Enron's dialog, the financial techie's, for example, had a fondness for Star Wars and Jurassic Park lingo --- was just too juicy a dialogue not to become Enron-mania and the subject of Enron-economic dialog, or Enrononomics. JEDI, as in Jedi knight, stands for Joint Energy Development Investments. JEDI prospered-the Force must have been with it-as Enron deftly bought and sold energy stocks, power plants and other investments, earning a 23 percent annual return (Sloan, 2002). Like the movie, JEDI had a sequel, JEDI II. The problem for Enron was to keep JEDI I off the balance sheets while it ramped up JEDI II. “Making JEDI I part of Enron would have cut the company's reported profits sharply, and increased its reported debt by more than $500 million” (Sloan, 2002). To solve this problem, Enron ginned up Chewco Investments-as in Chewbacca the Wookiee, a partnership of Enron executives and some undisclosed outsiders. Condor and Raptor are deal names inspired by Jurassic Park. “Enron had booked huge profits from these entities while its stock price soared in 2000, despite the fact that neither Condor nor Raptor had any hard assets” (Duffy, 2002).

Executives may create spectacles that fill passive consciousness with slogans, like “loose-tight.” Jeffrey Skilling, for example, was recruited from McKinsey consulting, and named the world of Enron in the “loose-tight” managerial language expounded by other McKinsey alums, such as Tom Peters and Bob Waterman (London & McNulty, 2001).

Political dialog appropriates Enron rhetorical devices. For example, Daschle, last January is quoted as saying Bush was trying to "Enron" Social Security and leave seniors without retirement savings. Enronites, Enronitis, and being En-roned are part of the popular discourse. To “Enronize” means to hide fiscal shortcomings with creative accounting. An “Enronic” is a seemingly invincible person who goes down in flames. “Enronica” is the name given to E-bay items being sold as souvenirs. “Enrontia” is a burning desire to shred things. “Enronomania” is political scandal and economic fallout. “Enrontropy” is the the principle that a corporation's greed is directly proportional to how many lives its failure would ruin (items adapted from Zielbauer, 2002).


Ignore History and the Dialogs Repeat - For example, the dialogic rhetor moves of Enron parallel those of the Seven Sisters (Sampson, 1975). The Seven Sisters of Oil are Exxon, Mobil, Shell, British Petroleum, Gulf, Texaco, & Chevron). Kenneth Lay worked for Exxon before he worked to create Enron; the dialog of Enron is rooted in the dialog of Exxon. November 1, 1972 Standard Oil Company of New York became the Exxon corporation date of shareholder approval). In the 1920s America debated in dialogs about the "free play of self-regulating market[s]" in the aftermath of the Teapot Dome scandal involving Oil man Harry F. Sinclair (Engler, 1961: 272).

Livesey's (2002) analysis of Exxon/Mobil is relevant to my dramaturgical analysis of Enron. Livesey's analysis of Exxon/Mobil's public dialogs (discourses) presents a Burkean analysis of dramaturgy combined with a Foucault analysis of knowledge and power transformation. Knowledge produced, distributed and consumed by the Exxon/Mobil cast of characters (including institutional allies) "helped to constitute each [character] as powerful in particular ways, while their very power helped to legitimate the knowledge they produced" and distributed for consumption (Livesey, 2002: 14, bracketed additions mine). Similarly, Enron's cast of characters through dialogs was able to characterize themselves as heroes of the New Economy, and everyone else as the Ludites who resisted Free Market capitalism. But, there is a deeper historical chronological relationship here. Enron's dialogic moves are embedded in the history of the Seven Sisters.

In the 1880s Oil was a new industry to John D. Rockefeller, just as Natural Gas in the 1980s was a new industry to Kenneth Lay. In 1911 the U.S. government dismembered the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (called Jersey for short). Jersey had become a Trust (a network of 322 interlocking corporate partnerships) controlled by a few executives. The same pattern of cash-for-political-access of Jersey was replicated in Enron ( with 3500 subsidiaries and partnerships). History recurred. Presidents changed edicts, legislatures passed laws, energy policies were written by Oil men. And now energy policies, laws, and edicts are written by Oil men. In both Enron and Jersey, it was a network of managers, and not the average stockholders who were in control. Enron is not some new cast of characters that have all of a sudden invented dialogs of deregulation, cash-for-political-access, or networks of corporate partnerships. This is a pattern of dialogs rooted in the history of the Seven Sisters. It is a spectacle that recurs. Like Exxon/Mobil, Enron had an income greater than most countries. This is a long sub-plot of modern energy history, how networks of government agencies finance third world energy projects for Jersey and for Enron, how wars are fuelled by dialogs that are not new at all. Engler (1961: 270) for example says "Oil has sought to establish a privately intimate relationship with the administrative processes of government." Oil men in the U.S. government did not begin with George Bush and the cast of Enron characters.

Ida Tarbell did not condemn capitalism itself in her classic History of Standard Oil Company, but "the open disregard of decent ethical business practices by capitalists." This is the same debate about the relation between Enron and capitalism. Is it capitalism or just Enron? See more on this topic at Enron 

7th Sister.

Date: September 21, 2002

Authored by David M. Boje, Ph.D. - copyright 2002


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