Re: Romance of power
Mon, 18 Aug 1997 22:38:37 -0700 (PDT)

On Sat, 16 Aug 1997, Steve Witham wrote:

> 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!"
I worry that in this *particular* example it may mean instead to most
grownups present: I'm tired of trying to figure out how the world works
these days, give me back the Evil Empire to hate in a straightforward
manner, rather than this unimaginably complicated and shifting brew of
powers and meanings and values I'm drowning in. Wait, maybe that *is*
just a version of "Get out of my life, disorder!" Problem is, that
"disorder" is here to stay, a vague premonition, perhaps, of what's to

> 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
> nutrient.

For one thing, one distinguishes the "absolute power" that corrupts
absolutely from, say, the attractive "empowerment" of the decent and the
downtrodden. It's not always so easy to flesh out the distinction though.
And I agree that taking responsibility for oneself is necessary, and
finding one's way to some kind of autonomy is agreeable as well. But I
find the idea of self-ownership can also be misleading in certain
interpretations. No less a champion of strong wills and strong selves
than Nietzsche expressed ambivalences on this score that trouble me a lot.
Can there be a sense of "taking responsibility" which would have us assume
a falsely exhaustive sense of authorship over the details of our lives and
characters, one that plays to interests other than our own? The process
of self-creation is importantly a process of selectivity and style, and
it's crucial to *own* one's choices. 0ne way of *disowning* them is to
pretend there's no choice involved, to pretend that people who are
different than you are unworthy of emulation rather than simply on
different paths of self-creation. For the most part, I imagine there's a
lot to be learned from *everyone* and that when I choose one over the
other -- something I do all the time, and with a certain joy -- I am
*losing* something as well as *gaining* something. However, when
self-ownership is taken to mean instead that I imagine myself the sole
author of my destiny, I think this is a recipe for some disastrously
paralyzing guilt. Let's leave that stuff to the Catholic Church and the
Ayn Rand Institute.

> "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.
Trouble is, we often think of power as functioning repressively rather
than productively, as issuing from secure and central intentions rather
than emerging in a more complicated way -- hence it pays to remind
ourselves of these things. Btw, would it reassure you to hear that
whenever I say "surely" my voice lilts up into a question-mark?

> >*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&
> gnorant actors, and analyses of "transaction costs" (=messiness) abound.
> >*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 closeto 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.

Both of your points are well-taken. I was sketching two descriptive poles
that exert a rhetorical influence on our formulations even if neither
appeared often in their extreme forms. Surely -- ahem -- they don't often
appear in their extreme forms in a forum so careful in its formulations as
this one, but in general I do think conceptions of power tend to be
governed by the figures of the invisible hand of spontaneous order, the
hidden hand of conspiracy, or the heavy hand of state.

> But I wouldn't romanticize a vision of *de*centeredness.

It's true I may stray into this from time to time. Still, the opposite
temptation seems to me more common and more urgent in its trouble-making

> 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.
A dissertation, not a post. Suffice it to say that Foucault was convinced
that repressive and central/sovereign conceptions of the operations of
power were grossly inadequate to "the everyday power we all use to move
about in the world" and sought out better explanations. Specifically, he
seemed to mean by power an emergent property of the sum of interactions
among people calculating to gain advantage from/with/over one another.
Institutions, intelligible values, social scripts arise out of these
interactions, and they facilitate these calculations and in turn are
fortified in their existence by the fact that they are made-recourse-to,
cited, reiterated in practice. But no citation is perfect, and the string
of citations plots a path of transformations -- a subversive citation may
be strategically more useful than a more "faithful" one in some
circumstances. Sometimes Foucault seemed to figure this emergent property
as a hopelessly complex dynamic system -- like the market is, or an
ecosystem; and sometimes he seemed to figure it more as a resevoir of
force, of capacity-to-effect-change-in-the-world, that people dip into,
stir up, make use of. Best, Dale

Dale Carrico |
University of California at Berkeley, Department of Rhetoric

If you want to tell people the truth be sure to make them laugh.
Otherwise, they will kill you. -- George Bernard Shaw
State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. -- Nietzsche