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Kodak’s Last Snap

It went into popular circulation as a term: the Kodak moment.  The captured snap to be preserved, be it for posterity, or some other inconsequential reason.  The Eastman Kodak Company is seemingly destined to become another parceled bit of posterity. The undertakers at the US mortuary for corporate bodies is anticipating another prized addition. Kodak, seen as the great provider, the job creator, the good civic citizen for up state New York, is entering the world of bankruptcy.

Nostalgia and sentimentality are never far away when it comes to commentary on American corporations.  In the United States, companies are revered and remembered as noble figures of civilization.  The Eastman Kodak Company, in doing its part in the civilizing process, promoted convenience behind technology.  Much like the modern Apple brand, one did not have to know how the complete technical nature of the shots were taken in order to take them.  George Eastman’s idea was reductive convenience – to make photography ‘as convenient as a pencil’.  ‘You press the button, we do the rest.’

The list of technological feats by the company is impressive.  Kodak revolutionized film with its Kodachrome film in 1935.  It was Kodachrome that accompanied Edmund Hillary to the summit of Everest in 1953.  A 8-mm Kodachrome was used in Dallas to capture the shooting of President Kennedy (Time, June 23, 2009).

Companies are not merely treated like persons before Anglo-American law – they are given an organic sensibility.  For Kodak, this was more pronounced than most.  In 1990, it was employing 47,000 individuals and paying 6 percent of Rochester’s total real estate levy (some $13.3 million in property taxes).  Since 2003, however, 43,000 jobs have been lost, and 13 manufacturing plants closed.

The commentary on Kodak’s slide into corporate oblivion is similarly slanted towards a crude ecology.  Robert McEwen, writing in The Holmes Report (Jan 8), adopts an evolutionary stance for ‘companies’, seeing them as entities that have ‘life spans’ similar to humans – ‘emergence and decline over a period of years ought to be expected as the natural order of things.’  With Kodak, a ‘tragedy is unfolding in Rochester, NY’.  This is the ‘tragedy’ of other American brands who were placed under the knife of evolution and competition: US Steel, F.W. Woolworth, Pan American Airlines.

For McEwen, one tragedy is acute – the issue of public relations, at which Kodak was better at most.  Public relations is the bubble that encloses the subject, the puffery that is the indulgence of those who know there is nothing to know.  And Kodak excelled at this sort of puff.  Kodak CEOs were served by the likes of David J. Metz, a public relations pioneer ‘who knew’, says McEwen, ‘the corridors of corporate power.’  But public relations was not going to save the company itself.  The company should have paid more attention to ‘digital imaging’ rather than ‘failed ventures like instant photography, disc cameras, and office copiers.’

The technology pundits are running a few theories here.  The end of the company was occasioned by rapid, and unforeseen obsolescence, a refusal to go down the road of digital imaging. Queen’s University business professor John Pliniussen identifies a lesson here: ‘great companies disappear if they can’t do great things’ (Sun News, Jan 19).  But what does greatness in the business lexicon necessarily mean?  For Pliniussen, this need not necessarily involve selling viable products.  Extolling the true cynicism of the business mentor, he suggests that glitz and lustre are the sorts of things that matter – backed, of course, by a professional ‘team’ of well paid hoodwinkers.

This process of well orchestrated deception is already underway, if one is to take the tortured garble of Kodak’s chairman and Chief Executive Antonio Perez seriously.  ‘Now we must complete the transformation by further addressing our cost structure and effectively monetizing non-core intellectual property assets.  We look forward to working with our stakeholders to emerge a lean, world-class, digital imaging and materials science company’ (Reuters, Jan 19).

Kodak moments are not merely those that failed to note changes in technology.  They also involve an assortment of corporate abuses that won’t be mentioned in the eulogies.  As the Multinational Monitor issue of May 1990 notes, the heralded civic citizen spilled 5,100 gallons of methylene chloride used in film manufacturing in February 1987 and failed to obtain the proper license for a hazardous waste facility.  The revelation of the underground chemical leak in a residential area prompted the urgent evacuation of 200 alarmed families.

In 1990, the company admitted to two criminal violations of state anti-pollution laws.  It was fined $1.15 million, and paid an additional $1 million civil penalty to the State Department of Environmental Conservation (New York Times, Apr 6, 1990).

A lifeline has been offered the company – an 18-month credit facility from Citigroup amounting to $950 million.  But this may simply be a band aid for a mortally inflicted wound.  The hunt for a buyer for some of the company’s 1,100 digital patents has commenced.  Where the workers go will be another story.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com