Movies about Presidents and the romance of power

Steve Witham (
Sat, 16 Aug 1997 20:22:55 -0400

Dale Carrico says-

>[...]Michel Foucault [...] often insisted that when we
>think of power we tend to be enraptured by the image of a sovereign
>enacting his will through the manipulation of the world and his subjects,
>the image of a massive force working from the top down.

I've just read Bruno Bettelheim's (1974?) _The Uses of Enchantment_.
It's about what fairy tales have evolved to do for kids' minds.
One of the many thought-provoking things Bettelheim says is
that becoming King represents gaining soveriegnty over one's own life.
That makes it more clear for me why stories about powerful people--
Presidents, big businessmen, mafia bosses, army generals, etc.--like
_Air Force One_, are so popular. "Get off my plane!" says Mr. Prez in
the trailer for that one, and I understand him to mean symbolically:
"Get out of my life, disorder!"

Although I reject centralized power as a way to run one's mind, and in
fact I've always been turned off by some libertarians' (IMHO) over-
emphasis on logic and rationality, still I have a lot more sympathy for
this symbolism (autocrat = autonomy) than I do for plain power worship.
In some sense we are *rightly* enraptured by power. It's an essential

>But power in
>modern, late modern, or postmodern societies (whichever flavor of theory
>you happen to subscribe to) does not function this way *at all*. Power
>circulates, ramifies, from and through innumerable points at once, not so
>much from the bottom up, as infinite in all directions.

"Bottom-up," in terms of structure of things someone is studying, just
means flowing from the scattered details to the overall visible patterns
and trends. "Surely" (Dale, I love that word; I want to use it, too!)
power is fractal--having details and concentrations at different levels
and scales--like everything else.

>*Neither* the idea that the market, say, emerges in consequence of the
>best-possible interaction of sovereign rationally calculating homo
>economici in a free-flow of unimpeded information,

Just because economists use simplified models doesn't mean they think
the world is perfect or simple! Like point masses in perfect vacuum,
perfect economic actors in a perfect economic fluid are easier to
analyze, that's all. There are also analyses of perfectly stupid&
ignorant actors, and analyses of "transaction costs" (=messiness)

>*nor* the idea that the
>market is governed and manipulated by an all or even mostly powerful
>monolithic ruling class -- however comforting these ideas may be in the
>face of more troubling facts -- comes close to capturing the unholy mess
>of the ways in which desire, knowledge, and force fling themselves around
>the globe here and now and from here on out.

I agree that visions of central control (whether by individuals,
governments, conspiracies, ideas, markets...), even when described with
horror, are often the result of a kind of romance with power.

But I wouldn't romanticize a vision of *de*centeredness. That's just
different blinkers. Also, I don't get what Power, with a capital P as
Foucault used it, means if not central power. He seemed to mean something
other than the everyday power we all use to move about in the world.


--           Steve Witham          web page under deconstruction
"These blues ain't nothin' like the blues I had
 before I paid a little debt I owed.
 When I get these blues I just look back down that road."
   --Jimmy Dale Gilmore