Last night, after ten years of being together and coming on eight years of marriage, Nurri asked me to make explicit my definition of power, as the topic had been coming up quite a bit in our recent conversations.

I thought it was a great question, especially as the subject is going to crop up again in the near future, in my writing and my daily work. Fortunately for me, I’d been thinking about the question for so long that I was able to pop the following out, just about word for word:

To me, power is…
– an ability expressed within an immanent grid of relations superimposed on the phenomenal world, from which it’s effectively impossible to escape;
– the ability to shape flows of matter, energy and information through that grid of relations, and most particularly through bodies situated in space and time (including one’s own);
– the ability to determine outcomes where such bodies are concerned;
– this ability consciously recognized and understood.

By this definition, power can be exerted locally or globally, at microscale or macro-.

In the negative mode, the mode with which we’re all of us most familiar, its prerogatives are enjoyed, to varying degrees, by a schoolyard bully, a rapist, a meeting of technical experts to determine the level to which a brand of cigarettes will be mentholated, the owner of a media conglomerate…the Wannsee Conference.

But power can also be expressed in more beneficial forms: a change in diet, a choice relating to one’s habits of media consumption, the decision to share a link, the decision to bind one’s life with another, even bring a life into the world. Power can take the form of environmental regulations, or the movement of a community toward self-determination.

Power can be resisted. To varying degrees, depending on where in time and space your body happens to be situated, you can claim power over yourself. Power can be shared, extended, used for transformational or liberatory purposes.

There are limits to power: situational, juridical, neurological, endocrine, historical, ethical, practical…

You could probably fairly describe my life project as the reclamation of power over my own body and the effort to help others achieve similar reclamations, to which I would add the renunciation of directly coercive power over another’s body, except in certain strictly delimited circumstances. Beyond that lies the renunciation of indirectly exploitative power over others, and given the particular grid of relations in which I find myself, that’s a much harder thing to achieve.

For those who care about intellectual pedigree, and the process by way of which I arrived at a framing like this: my take owes a little bit to actor-network theory, some to Hardt and Negri, some to Richard Dawkins (!), Gayatri Spivak, David Harvey and Naomi Klein, and a great deal to Foucault. Deleuze & Guattari: inevitably. Earlyish exposure to anarchism, feminism and Buddhism colors just about everything I think. In all cases, I’m sure, we’re talking about my own lazy, mistaken or shallow misreadings of source material, and in one or two, my deliberate twisting of an emphasis to suit my own needs.

Coming up next: some specific, concrete examples of some ways I see power working, on my body and those of others.

3 responses to “Power”

  1. Noah says :

    Check out Adam Kahane’s latest book, “Power and Love” It’s a nice brushing off of Paul Tillich, with some original insights and some truly lovely parables for our time.

    There’s a good review of it here:

    And you can see him giving a 30 minute version of it at the RSA, here:

    Recommended reading on power in a time of social ambiguity and constant change.

  2. Noah says :

    PS – Much more humane than Spivak, Deleuze & Guattari, Foucault, etc. Tillich was writing explicitly to address the existential dilemma resulting from Modernism and presaged many of the concerns of post-modernity as well.

    Plus he actually had something constructive and hopeful to say about love, which wasn’t just about the negation or resistance of power. He and Zygmunt Bauman have just about the most sensible approach to relationships (both personal and professional) that I’ve come across in my readings.

    I highly recommend them to anyone allowing philosophy to enter their personal relationships, which can always be a dangerous proposition anyway!

  3. Fred Scharmen says :

    Intersects nicely with one of my favorite definitions of drawing: lines made as the expression of force within a medium. There’s a passage in Ruskin called Abstract Lines that deals with this, and there’s also the word complex of draw/draft/draught/abstrahere/abstract.

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