Imperceptible or insensible The aesthetics of gestures, choices and moves at work

Society and Business Review

ISSN: 1746-5680

Article publication date: 30 September 2013


Riot, E. and Bazin, Y. (2013), "Imperceptible or insensible The aesthetics of gestures, choices and moves at work", Society and Business Review, Vol. 8 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Imperceptible or insensible The aesthetics of gestures, choices and moves at work

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Society and Business Review, Volume 8, Issue 3

Managerial action and organization theory are often said to be distant from realities at work, perhaps blind to what really happens to and between people as they act and interact in organisations. In particular, non-verbal communication such as gestures, choices and moves are difficult to capture and to interpret in an articulate way. They are not easy to perceive and sense, yet they often deliver quite a different message from a discourse based on rationality and action. Possibly for this reason, having power also implies attempting to retain control over non-verbal communication by using images and artefacts. Representations often provide an easier way to share values because they rely on feelings and impressions however, since they are anchored in a very shady realm, one described as a cave, a very long time ago, what exactly is shared by whom is not so easy to probe. This is why this editorial believes that, if what happens at work can really be captured by other means of expression than words, the matter needs further investigation. This special issue aims to contribute to understanding of this phenomenon, illustrating a wide variety of other means of expression.

Looking at realms outside cognitive rationality remains a challenge only if one assumes that organizations always make rational management choices to control collective work (Drori and Honig, 2013). Most of the papers presented in the following pages focus on socio-material dimensions. In doing so, they are in line with alternative approaches in management and organization theory, favouring multidisciplinarity, as is traditional in Society and Business Review:

Philosophy and history of management as ways of exploring the implicit norms and values in management science (Kakabadse et al., 2013).

Belief and spirituality are present in the most trivial episodes of everyday life. Consequently, identifying myths and rites in organizations implies getting away with the belief that corporate management is essentially rational (Kehat, 2012; Nwankwo et al., 2012). In a similar way, comparing artistic work and strategic management (Letiche, 2009) makes us see both activities in a different way; we see the need to deal with the gap between intention and implementation or the need to balance exploration and exploitation.

Cultural studies, history and narrative settings (Kumar, 2012) help us deconstruct representations and identify the “stuff” they are made of: work, matter and material, trades and negotiations.

Three different ways to explore aesthetics

In this special issue, there are new explorations of each of the three classics of SBR – philosophy, aesthetics and cultural studies – in relation to art and non-verbal dimensions such as gestures, choices and moves.

Philosophy is at the heart of research on action and design, seen as processes, and inspires two of the articles in this issue.

Daniel Hjorth wonders how to address entrepreneurship from a process perspective. It is necessary to better capture central aspects, such as the genesis of opportunities, but this involves looking at the implicit assumptions in traditional approaches to entrepreneurship. In this paper, the author continues his debate with these theories in an effort to promote approaches inspired by phenomenology and post-modernism. To illustrate the discussion, examples are drawn both from literary resources and from case studies of high-profile self-acclaimed entrepreneurs.

Mathias Béjean and Annie Gentès look at digital art programmers at work, as they interact with virtual matter and imaginary ways to a solution. In doing so, they provide a rich and subtle account of “how people, as they interact with a technology in their on-going practices, enact structures which shape their emergent and situated use of that technology” (Orlikowski, 2000). In their paper, the authors chose a processual approach to “look […] through tools and situations” by exploring how the interactions between artefacts, technologies and communication “affect how people interpret the fundamental meaning of their work content and tasks”. Through the study of specific practices in the field of contemporary art, they investigate how this meaning can be reconfigured via different moves, in a situated interplay between ideas, visions and artefacts.

Even though they are often seen as secluded in a world of their own, beliefs and spirituality – as well as aesthetics – are an important part of organizational life. Practical skills in everyday life at work have often been described, but rarely in terms of individual resistance in the name of alternative values and as a form of reappropriation of one’s social role (De Certeau et al., 1980), with a pragmatic rather than dogmatic intention. On the organizational stage, moving one’s body in relation to other bodies and using objects in time and space is done in a certain way, often implying a long learning phase or even a training period. From a managerial point of view, depending on the nature of the organization, some rules of behaviour exist and often produce compliance through validation and prohibition. Yet, from an aesthetical point of view, all gestures matter, and many more dimensions should be taken into account to better understand collective action and life at work.

In his article “Knowledge in the feet”, David Weir explores the ideas of embodiment and spatial competence in the beautiful game of football. According to him, soccer players’ skills and expertise, as they interact on the field have much to teach us about decision making in business environment. He establishes a parallel between learning specific sport skills and the practice of strategy formulation through an emphasis on corporeality rather than merely cognition.

Yoann Bazin and Clémence Aubert-Tarby’s article explores the phenomenon of organizational dress codes and clothing. Considering that careers often follow complex paths in multiple organizations, actors’ outfits have to be understood through their institutional and professional dynamics. To the authors, dress codes carry strong meanings and provide a sense of belonging. Therefore, “learning how to dress professional proves more important than just wearing the right outfit”. By exploring financial professions (investment banking, audit and hedge fund), the authors provide an in-depth interpretation of clothes as important aesthetic elements in the realm of organizations.

Whereas the aesthetic side of work in organisations is seldom perceived (Strati, 1999; Strati and Guillet de Montoux, 2002), the story of artists is often limited to an idealized version of talent and inspiration. The materiality of their work and life is downplayed as accounts of artists’ and creators’ lives insist on their uniqueness. They just seem to belong to another world. Cultural studies and narrative analysis can prove very helpful if one wants to really understand creative activities.

Studying yet another series of “art firms”, Pierre Guillet de Monthoux establishes a parallel between famous artists and entrepreneurs and deconstructs the romantic myth of the ill-fated artist. Using historical accounts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he shows how famous composers had also to be good at business to sell their work to sponsors and make them want more. To shield their art, they constantly needed to adapt, change depending on opportunities and expectations in specific audiences. Accordingly, composers were not really victims of their exclusive passion for their art. Their main problem was their clients’ ability to benefit from competition between artists and change their minds about artists’ projects.

In “Woman in love, artist or entrepreneur” Elen Riot attempts to analyse the recent global success of the Coco Chanel story, in line with the tremendous popularity of the brand. In three recent biopics, collective work in the couture house is but a colourful setting for the love life of the heroin. The sorrows of love inevitably result in dramatic brainwaves of artistic inspiration. Exploring subtexts in the storytelling of entrepreneurial success, the author uses archives to document “what happened”, namely the actual gestures, choices and moves of those working in and around the fashion house. In doing so, she uncovers stories about Parisian seamstresses, war and economic crisis and the figure of a ruthless entrepreneur, a self-made woman who thrived on opportunistic ventures and the exploitation of all kinds of talents in the capital of fashion and art.

Avenues for future research

In the field of management, Strati (1999) and Silvia Gherardi (1988) have both illustrated the centrality of aesthetics at work. Their analysis of interacting actors as bodies with feelings and emotions were a reference for the conception of this special issue. Other studies conducted on this aesthetic dimension of organizations (Gagliardi, 1992; Dean et al., 1997; Linstead, 2000; Thompson et al., 2001; Ewenstein and Whyte, 2007) also proved influential. All this work suggested avenues for future research in this field. Of course, these avenues do not claim to be more than tracks through a very dense and very large forest, some may say the forest where objects lose their name.

The ability of theory to capture the real more precisely deserves further investigation, there is a need to identify underlying choices in metaphysics and epistemology contained in dominant assumptions and representations in management science (Martinet and Pesqueux, 2013). For this purpose, aesthetics and phenomenology may prove interesting alternative paths.

The industrialization of art and culture in so-called “creative industries” is another thought-provoking area. Of particular interest is the introduction of art and culture into (so far) industrial fields, for instance the success of “art firms” in relation to authenticity, experience and artificiality (De Monthoux, 2004). New frontiers between these distinctive realms of values seem to have replaced more traditional ones, making it necessary to investigate art and non-art. This question may also initiate alternative models for operation research by having practitioners and scholars use art and cultural representations to make them more usable (David, 2001) and adapt them to what happens in the field.

As of today, there has been little exploration of the various relationships between work, art and socio-materiality depending on the frame of experience within a given society, organization, group or sub-group. Yet art and aesthetic forms can be really helpful in interpreting choices and actions, in understanding why various traditions can combine or reject each other. Using pictures and videos as part of one’s research methodology seems a very promising way of complementing what discourses can explain.

Finally, the analysis of how some images and representations (deliberately or not) provoke strong emotions such as enthusiasm and love, or awe and hatred (Kunda and Van Maanen, 1999) has barely got going. These representations seem better understood when they are under control (Samra-Fredericks, 2003, 2004) than when they make space out of frame and time out of joint. There is a real need for more understanding of what coalitions are caused based on these emotions, for instance social projects and social movements.

Many other ways appear as research develops, for images, gestures and sensations share that common trait that what is said about them tends to make them suddenly flat. Better ways of capturing their vivid reality are necessary. Possibly those that research reveals will make others appear, those that are always in front of people’s eyes, seen without being seen. And possibly, what people perceive is so little compared with what they have missed, compared with what they will experience in the future, when they look and feel once more. For, as Simon Hantaï says about his 1969 paintings, Studies, what there is here is only a beginning:

Flat now. Not just the spread paint, above all the relationship between the painted and non-painted, radically modified, inverted. The painted is no longer there in its own right but exclusively to activate the non-painted. The non-link is the link. Small painting, been on my walls forever. Seen a million times and yet still as elusive […]. Can be hung in any kind of ensemble, free from size, juxtaposition, distance or any of the usual rules. Play with it if you want to. (Hantaï in Fourcade et al., 2013, p. 233).


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Elen Riot, Yoann Bazin
Guest Editors