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In contemporary usage, the term corporate can connote either “profitable, efficient and disciplined” or “homogenizing, faceless, and bureaucratic.” The term’s ubiquity in a wide range of phrases, including corporate affairs, corporate influence, and corporate culture, renders it somewhat opaque, as it modifies a seemingly endless array of words denoting commercial activity.

Corporation most commonly refers to a legal entity separate from the persons within it. As such, it is often understood to be an immaterial thing, lacking a physical place of its own. In the words of one legal historian, “the corporation is invisible, incorporeal, immortal; it cannot be assaulted, or beaten or imprisoned.” Since the word derives from Latin corporare “to embody” and is related to corpus “body,” the current usage witnesses a semantic dematerialization, which occurred under a variety of ideological pressures brought to bear on the porous line that divides individual from collective, public from private, and natural from artificial.

Early in its history within English, corporate shifts from designating an individual human body to designating a “group-person.” In medieval and early modern usage, corporate still meant “having a body” or “embodied” in contrast to those things that did not: “Al thinges, aswel . . . visible, as invisible, corporate, as incorporate” (1557).

Alongside this concrete adjectival meaning, the noun corporation came to signify a more disembodied associational thinking among religious groups, burgesses, municipalities, and universities. It frequently referred to the collective body of the church, whether earthly or divine. Thomas More asserted that Christ “incorporate[s] all christen folke and hys owne bodye together in one corporacyon mistical” (1534). Gild records show the development of rights granted to the body corporate of professional confraternities. Towns, municipalities, and universities incorporated in order to protect residents and safeguard privileges. These usages suggest that, while the medieval adjective corporate still had a clearly physical sense, the noun began to designate an alliance or collective, a group of people united together in one immaterial body for mutual benefit.

Over the course of C17, corporate ceased to mean “bodily.” At the same time, the political implications of this shift (from individual body to legally created group-person) were realized. The Corporation Act of 1661 required that no person could hold municipal office unless he had sworn allegiance to the king and had taken communion as administered by the Church of England within the past year. Under this “test act,” the loyal servant of the state is defined as a body subsumed in the two larger corporate bodies of monarch and church. Corporation becomes the rubric under which an identity between polity and persons was forged in C17, a term that stood for the mutually reinforcing prerogatives of church and state well into C19.

As the term corporate evolved from denoting a physical body to denoting a disembodied entity, a series of ideological complications ensued. As early as the medieval period, concern was expressed over the ontological status of a corporation. Was it just a name, or was it a person? It is taken for granted today that a corporation is an “aggregate of many,” yet the idea of the group-person had a complicated path. One problem was that the corporate entity both encourages and resists attempts to anthropomorphize it. Though most corporations are made up of members guided by a head—a mayor, chancellor, or CEO—the head is not coextensive with the corporate body itself. Thus in liability cases the goods of the disembodied corporation but not (in most cases) the embodied head are liable for distraint.

From C17, this distinction leads to an increasing volume of jurisprudence aimed at defining a private (or “natural”) individual in contrast to the “artificial person” of the corporation. On account of this evolving legal codeFullinformation in suprime court latter.

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