Accounting is Specularity and Storytelling

David M. Boje

June 7, 2001

 

There is a spectacular nature to accounting.  Accounting is storytelling, taking an assemblage of transactions, assigning numeric values, ordering them by accounts, and presenting a snap shot freezing time and space.  Accounting is movement, the tracing of transactions across organizations, across time and space. Accounting work takes place in a transorganizational jungle, where some or predators, and others are prey to schemes that can defraud.  Accounting is storytelling where the bid story resurfaces, where a fraud is exposed, and what accounting accounts as its story is only the tip of the iceberg, a part of the story constructed for regulators.

If you were taking classes at University of New Mexico, the critical postmodern critique of accounting would be part of your core curriculum. You would know about the discourse of power in accounting work (Preston, 1992), the simulacra and simulation of imag(in)ing in annual reports (Preston, Wright & Young, 1996), the rhizomatics of accounting in motion (Bougen & Young, 2000), and something about accounting and environmentalism.  Here I would like to fly the colors of New Mexico State University and say something about accounting and its Spectacularity. Birnberg (2000) in reviewing accounting courses, sees several eras, periods, called the "cost accounting," "modern management accounting" (more functionalist logic), and "postmodern management accounting" periods, he says "reflect increasing emphasis on behavioral materials in the management accounting courses." Critical accounting has flourished since the 1970s and the postmodern turn, is a 1980s and 1990s event (Jameson, 2000). In its postmodern turn, accounting managers "strive to deal with a dynamic environment, new organizational structures, and a significant number of users in nonmanufacturing firms" (Birnberg, 2000). Accounting in the postmodern turn is adapting the accounting systems and processed to the changing, turbulent, even chaotic environment.

Tamara is occurring in the accounting firm, with stories of transactions being created simultaneously in every room, corridor, and lunch room, and everyone is asking "what is the story here?" and "what kind of accounting am I to provide?"  Accounting is co-storytelling, the conversations where deals are made, the truth invented, and the spectacle gets rehearsed, impression management is important in postmodern accounting. A multiplicity of accounting information is necessary to (re)present the many "Other" stories that are necessarily excluded (Andrew & Kaidonis, 1996). They contends that accounting pretends to enact a process of "truth discovery" about a "real world" in which accountants are "objective reporters of reality." The socially constructed and spectacle nature of this storytelling can be analyzed through deconstruction. Rather than objectivity, there is much in accounting stories that is censored and repressed, masking a more subjective process than outsiders assume.  A multitude of stories can be told about the functioning of an organization.

What does it mean to say that accounting is a spectacle? A spectacle is a phantasm, a fantasy presented as more real than real, a storytelling machine, where accounting pretends to be finished, to certify reality, to allay fears about controversy. Spectacle can be total manipulation of
meaning-making and accounting processes through theatrical events to serve the production of power and managerial needs to control and spin a good story for the consumers of accounting.

The corrupt seek out an trustworthy accountant to give an accounting that is spectacular. The honest reveal more than they need to tell, and do not take full advantage of the loop holes. Spectacle texts render provisional and temporary and multiple possibilities into something pretending to be at rest.  Accounting is always unfinished, posed to unravel, to move, to erupt into contention.  It is silly to think an accountant can freeze the past, its varied circumstances into an assemblage of numbers that gives a stable account. A future discovery of fraud is always a possibility. The quality of accounting, the reassembling of the components, could take a different rhizomatic line.

My thesis is that several spectacle sign systems are interlaced into one accounting inter-spectacle:

Eco Spectacle - What would Mother Earth say to an accountant?  Who speaks for the trees? Which forms report the decline of species, the toxic contamination, the cost of not being Green? For more on this, see Green Accounting Gameboard. Here you read about the Greenwash, the attempts to look green, to tell a story of being environmental, even to get ISO14000 certified, but this is just being Green in rhetoric. Andrew & Kaidonis (1996) applied Derrida's deconstruction to accounting and accountability relationships with the environment, noting the privileging of certain (managerialist) ideologist  in the inscribed in dominant accounting discourse, while marginalizing more eco-sustainable ones. Accounting measures can and do exclude measures of natural resource consumption in ways that privileges human material consumption over ecosystem sustainability (i.e. dollars and expansion, over sense). Exploring the dualities, the environment becomes the irrelevant side of the issue (an externality), in contrast to opportunities to devour resources.  Yet accounting measures can be operationalized to track the impact of commerce on the ecology, energy consumption, and toxicity (Boje, 2001); these include life cycle of resource used in a firm.  Valuation of "natural assets" is difficult to quantify, but there are auditing practices that do apply.  Accounting can be a means of mobilizing changes towards organization/environment sustainability (Larrinaga-Gonzalez, 1996). Accounting plays a role in the transparency of reporting and the accountability of organizations for sustainability practices. The downside of Green Accounting is it can become part of Greenwash Accounting.

Tribal Spectacle - Accounting as we shall see is a transorganizational jungle, a theater with many players, and storytelling is the currency of spectacle. For what is accounting, if not creating stories, giving accounts, which can be contested by various tribes.  Various regulators, legislators, activists and citizenry look for someone to blame, and want accountants to reveal the story behind the numbers, the account that hides and camouflage a different account. The accountant is led along to conspire in hiding in-discrepancies from the stakeholders who will read the numbers differently. Accountants as part of their work, decide how things, people, and issues are (re)presented. Society has a multiplicity of ideology; the question becomes which ones does accounting serve? Accounting may end up being part of the problem, rather than a solution; for example, in providing management with a sense of the consequences of managerial choices, monitoring corporate and industry codes of conduct-complaince, doing social audits on managerial action. Accounting can be used to support special interests.

Robotic "Hyperreal" Spectacle - Accounting is becoming automated, no longer hand work with ledgers, there is software to do such things. No artificial intelligence yet, but soon, Bots will perform accounting tasks.  Already clients can submit their returns to the virtual-IRS. As we move into the cyber world of accounting, accounting becomes one more part of Baudrillard's "hyperreal world"  Accounting numbers cease to represent any real world and become simulacra. Accounting models the "hypereconomy" where time and space implode and accounting constructs its own reality (Macintosh, Shearer, Thornton, & Welker).  In the hyperreal world, can accounting make "truth claims" are even "represent fairly?" Corporate accounting has the possibility of charade, facade, mask, and obscurity in a kaleidoscope of numbers. Accounting can become a smoke-screen for questionable management strategy. "How far was the Board's failure to do so a product of conscious 'disguise' and 'obfuscation' on the part of management?" (Meehan, 1996).

Consumption Spectacle - Accountants construct (I mean spin) accounts that are consumed, not just by clients, but by politicians, examiners, partners, and investors. Bankers say "Stick with us and you can help people get financially sound by giving them the opportunity to choose what best suites them," a consumption spectacle at it's best. Investment houses are the ultimate spin doctors. The reputation of an accounting firm, bank, or investment house is nothing more than a narrative concocted by executives to bring in more customers.

There are inter-spectacles - these are hybrids of the above.  Inter-spectacles are themselves rhizomes, part of the transorganizational jungle, a way to bend the rules, and to play the accounting game.

The transorganizational jungle is the playing field of the spectacle. The players include expert accountants, CPAs, partners, officers of associations like the American Institute of CPAs, audit firms, monitoring firms, comptrollers, the IRS, bank examiners, regulators, bookkeepers, depositors, investors, and bounty hunters. Deleuze and Guattari would say this is a monstrous war machine. I just call it Spectacularity. The transorganizational jungle forms rhizomatic lines among shareholders, borrowers, regulators, accountants, taxpayers, voters, investors and the SEC.

Examiners do not trust accountants, or is it that they do not trust bookkeepers, or managers giving transaction data?  Examiners will want to verify every credit and debit, personally see the receipts, and where is that piece of equipment that this discount references?  Examiners can be exhaustive.  IRS examiners are never welcome, nor are bank examiners, comptrollers, the SEC, and some certifying and licensing groups.  These monitors and examiners can close down an accounting firm, cause a license to be revoked, bring down the penalty of law, and leave an accountant in disgrace.

Rhizomes are not like hierarchies. Hierarchies have such stable layers, and hardly move. Rhizomes are tubular, the roots grow and network, and the configuration sends out roots in all directions.  Accounting gives accounts of the rhizomatic lines of movement, the connections, the lines of flight, the numbers tell a story, but one must be able to decipher the tale and follow the trail of calculations.  There is a story in the ledgers, but only professionals can read the flow. Accounting, if we apply the words of Deleuze (1977:208) can be described as "assemblages, refrains, rhizomes, and becomings"; in short accounting is movement. Doing a tax return, audit or annual report, even a budget tells a story.  And accounting itself is suspended in movement, in a world of moving transactions.

What is movement in accounting? Accounting is about doing accounting, about reports that are becoming real, about lines that intersect, and what is in-between the numbers.  Accountants start to worry when they tune into the movement, into the swirl that clients present to them, especially if they suspect this client is misbehaving. Accounting is constantly changing its methodologies, trying to get a handle on new technologies, new laws, new devices to save clients money, and strategic advice to keep them solvent.

Movement in accounting is contagious. Accountants are always a little breathless, especially during tax season. The work is cyclical, seasonal, and at times the movement is furious, overwhelming, taxing.  Speeding attracts fraud.  Accounting is multiplicity and only outsiders see accounting as unified, rigid, fixed, or use words like "bureaucratic" to describe the life of accounting.  Accounting is fluid, about formulations, tracing lines of flights, transactions at varying speeds, and its all being automated.  Once done by hand, the transactions are subject to more artificial intelligence, software to do the tabulations, and this just adds to the speed.

What are stories in accounting?  Accountants construct stories out of accounts, and construct accounts out of stories. Accountants know their work will be scrutinized, people read their accounts, and they will search between the lines.  Accountants take a heterogeneous collection of transactions, and render an assemblage that is a simulation. The simulation, the accounting, is more real than the reality of the transactions being accounted.  And between the lines one can find corruption, misappropriation, conspiracy, hoax, and confidence games.  Accountants worry about such things; they do not want to become victims of tall tales; they do not want to become part of a game.

Is there antenarrative in accounting? You had to ask. Of course every accounting statement is a bet that you are telling an accurate story of the transactions, able to freeze movement, and say this report can be trusted.  Records are bad, mistakes get made, and classification is an inexact science. Every accounting begins in antenarrative, a bet that a story can be told, a bet that this firm is solvent, and that the return will not get audited.  Every accountant hesitates just a moment before they sign off on a return, aware that regulatory action could happen by chance as well as by mistake. Accounting is rich with antenarrative, a story yet to be told, and people coming with their shoe box stuffed with scraps of paper, wanting their story to be composed by you. The accounting antenarrative is a bet that some rhizomatic line of illogic will not be traced from some errant deposit to an entry that can not be justified.  Accountants are chided in public, put on the pillory, while the client claims, they reported all this in good faith to their accountant. Does the accountant have time to verify every transaction, trace every slip of paper, authenticate every bookkeeping practice? How could accounting be anything more than antenarrative, when the bits and pieces keep moving, and the columns of numbers can just unravel to reveal tangled affairs.

In talking about the saga of a bank, Meehan (1996) hints at the relationship of accounting as an act of antenarrative, the accounting data being fodder for stories yet to be crafted:

Stories do not, however exist "in" the facts, or "in" the events. Lists of [accounting] facts or events give us mere chronologies of a kind that are useless for legal purposes. Stories are constructed using these elements but the factors that create story itself are external to them, and are found in prejudices, notions of responsibility (which may be of legal origin), values, theories of human needs and human values, and the shapes of other, inherited stories.

Voice - Accountants record voices of participants who co-construct the accounting that is presented as story.  Accountants add their voice, giving oral fluidity to reports, telling a tale about the numbers, anticipating how it all will be read by the government, by partners, by their client. 

Representations of Reality - Accountants are presented with heterogeneous assemblages, collections of papers in a shoe box.  People sit in a chair and tell the accountants whoppers. Accountants learn to discern the veracity of a client's story, to detect the perpetuation of fraud in a telling. Accountants are trained to spot the errant witness.  Accountants agonize over the tales they hear, demanding proof, evidence, not wanting to be entrapped again in someone's troubles.

Fraud and Tall Tales - Accountants are tempted each day with dishonesty. To under report or over report an account in a return is a way to prevent an audit from kicking in.  Accountants do not like to be duped by storytellers. Accountants are on their guard, because the story the accountant will fabricate is based upon the stories they are told about so many transactions.  Trust and bad faith, deception and honesty, are not so easy to discern.

Fraud is a moving assemblage, a spectacle that threatens the accounting profession.  At any moment, a debit or credit balance can detect some line of flight, some ruse that makes the accountant an accomplice. Fraud persists and accountants agonize over its regularity.  They ask "how could this have happened?" 

References

Andrew, Jan & Mary A. Kaidonis (1996) Accounting for the environment in order for it to count. Paper presented to 1996 CPA conference. Contact University of Wollongong (Department of Accounting and Finance).

Becker, A. (in print): Accounting: Diskurs oder soziale Praxis? Kritik der postmodernen Accountingforschung, in: Schrey÷gg, G. (Hrsg.): Organisation und Postmoderne, Wiesbaden: Gabler [Accounting: Discourse or Social Praxis? A Critique of Postmodern Accounting Theory] (related article)

Birnberg, Jacob G. (2000). The role of behavioral research in management accounting education in the 21st century.  Issues in Accounting Education; Sarasota,  15 (4): 713-728.

Boje, D. M. (2001) Green Accounting Gameboard http://web.nmsu.edu/~dboje/TDgreenaccounting.html

Bougen, Philip D. & Joni J. Young (2000) Auditing and bank fraud: Life on rhizomatic lines. Organization.

Gray, Rob (1992) Accounting and environmentalism: An exploration of the challenge of gently accounting for accountability, transparency and sustainability, 17 (5): 399-425.

Jameson, Daphne A. (2000). Telling the investment story: A narrative analysis of shareholder reports. The Journal of Business Communication, 37 (1): 7-38.

Larrinaga-Gonzalez, Carlos (1996) Environmental accounting practices: accounting change or institutional capture? CPA conference. Check University de Cadiz.

Macintosh, Norman, Teri Shearer, Daniel Thornton & Michael Welker (1997) A Baudriallian perspective on accounting. http://business.queensu.ca/research/pubs/1997/wp9706.htm

Meehan, Michael (1996) Accounting for postmodernism: state bank Bunkum and the four billion dollar blowout. CPA conference, Critical Perspectives on Accounting Symposium, City University, NY. Meehan is located at Flinders University in South Australia.

Preston, Alistair M. (1992) The birth of clinical accounting: A study of the emergence and transformation of discourses on costs and practices of accounting in U.S. hospitals. Accounting Organizations and Society. 17 (1): 63-100.

Preston, Alistair M., Christopher Wright & Joni J. Young (1995) Imag[in]ing annual reports. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 21 (1): 113-137.