Brock professor researches how we understand entrepreneurship

Sovereigns of Risk: The Birth of the Ontopreneur investigates contemporary constructions of the entrepreneur

Dr. Andrew Pendakis, an English professor at Brock, has recently published an article in the South Atlantic Quarterly in which he examines the current cultural understanding of entrepreneurs as societal figures and leaders.

At the centre of Pendakis’ article is his term, the “ontopreneur,” which refers to the way in which the entrepreneur is represented and understood in a contemporary setting. The ontopreneur is what Pendakis refers to as an “‘adventurer’ of being,” a visionary who breaks from the norm into a world of invention and imagination, where they are drawn not to financial profit, but to what he calls “the grace, violence, and strangeness of an event.”

Pendakis discusses how this new imagining of the entrepreneur is a major shift from previous understandings of the entrepreneur as a stolid, organized, disciplined labourer (ex. John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie), or as a normative businessman or salesman. He argues that the way in which Western culture understands the entrepreneur has changed from one of a stable, normative figure to one of a visionary who destabilizes norms in order to constantly produce and create new ones.

“The entrepreneur today is a ‘deviant’, a rule breaker, but only because the entrepreneur is at the same time a giver of new law, a creator, a builder of whole new worlds,” writes Pendakis in the article. “The entrepreneur’s transgression combines the particularist pleasures of delinquency or vandalism with the world-historical scale and grandeur once reserved for acts of exceptional political, scientific, or aesthetic invention.”

Pendakis’ examination is significant due to the level of power that this figure of the entrepreneur currently has in North American culture. Bookstores (including the Brock campus store) are overflowing with books such as “Finding the Next Steve Jobs” and “Becoming Steve Jobs,” and the popularity of movies like The Social Network demonstrate the cultural influence that these visionary entrepreneurial figures have.

The Glenridge building, which hosts Brock’s Department of English Language and Literature Photos Courtesy of: Christy Mitchell

The Glenridge building, which hosts Brock’s Department of English Language and Literature
Photos Courtesy of: Christy Mitchell

Because this figure is so influential in terms of influencing Western cultural understandings, Pendakis’ research interrogates how the figure is constructed. His research works to understand exactly what kinds of thinking and ideals these representations are producing, as well as the potential downfalls of their influence. Pendakis said that he wants to encourage readers to be suspicious and careful of how they read these texts and see these celebrity entrepreneurial figures.

“It’s an emancipatory rhetoric we have to be suspicious of,” said Pendakis. “This is our new ‘great man’ narrative… it starts to affect other cultural logics, and starts to become the dominant cultural logic. I would encourage suspicion towards dominant rhetorics of authority, even when they’re dressed up as a sort of emancipation or freedom, and to exist at a distance from the norms that [people are] so approximate to in their everyday lives. Just be careful.”

One of the major concerns that Pendakis has with the cultural power that is being given to the ontopreneur is the association between entrepreneurial vision, sociopathy, and cruelty. The article details how the entrepreneur is often associated with antisocialism and sociopathy, and how this sociopathy is associated with their ability to remain unbiased, dedicated, and focused on their vision. There is this idea that, if somebody is not distracted by attachment to the social and to people, that they can somehow then be free of bias or ideology, and that they can, therefore, become an unquestionable leader who has the right to what he calls the “commanding heights of the infrastructure of our future,” because of their unbiased dedication.

“There’s a link between sociopathy and sincerity,” said Pendakis. “Insofar as you’re cruel, you’re antisocial, so you’re not subscribing to social norms, and you’re not biased by ideology. Some of the old associations of the maverick scientist are being mapped onto the entrepreneur.”

Of course, one risk that comes with this association between antisocialism and unbiased leadership is the potential harm that comes from an idealization of leaders who can be very cruel. The article specifically mentions “Jobs’s megalomania and selfishness [and] Zuckerberg’s near total indifference to the feelings of others” as examples of how their antisocialism extends to cruelty that harms others. While the idea that being sociopathic may remove someone from the biases created by social structures and expectations may seem intriguing, Pendakis argues it is also important to be critical of how this paradigm can play out when this sociopathy extends to cruelty and begins to become destructive. When a concept is given power or privilege, it becomes harder to notice when it begins to cause harm.

Pendakis also noted the contradictions present in the imagining of the cruel entrepreneur as being removed from bias and social norms, considering that these entrepreneurs are in a way the ones who are producing the new social norms. Entrepreneurs themselves are often normative figures in a lot of contexts, and they produce standardized ways of thinking, so it becomes somewhat contradictory when they begin to be figured as mavericks that are removed from social systems and who break all of the rules.

“They fill normative structures, but are figured as non-normative,” said Pendakis. “This cruelty is becoming a new norm.”

For more information, the full article is available on dukejournals.org. To contact Dr. Pendakis, email apendakis@brocku.ca

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  1. You can read the fulltext article from the July 2015 issue of South Atlantic Quarterly via Brock Library’s subscription. Use the link from the A-Z list of ejournals on the Library Website to connect to Duke Journals from on and off-campus.

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