What, Where, and How is Power?

My problem with conceiving of government as the source of power is that the government rarely, and only tangentially, coerces my body. Taxes, registering for the draft to get student financial aid (that was 1987: Reagan!), street lights, traffic laws in general: these are government actions that directly coerce my body.

But, on a day to day basis, there are a wealth of other sources that literally move me physically, affectively, emotionally. Right now, there are two dominant forces in my life that affect what I do, feel, and think on a near minute-to-minute to basis: work and child.

Work tries to occupy most of my time and head space — it wants me to think about it. This is why I have never had a job job — somewhere I had to be five days a week by 9:00 am. That kind of all consuming coercion seems completely insane to me. And yet this is what people do everyday: they go to work for somebody else, their time utterly consumed and defined by the demands of a corporation.

And it is these same people who read newspapers, follow elections, have opinions on things like capital punishment and abortion. As if power existed elsewhere! As if the real power was not right in front of them — in the alarm clock shrieking in their ear, in the blue screen that blurs their vision, in the demands for profit that drive the company and the culture as a whole!

The belief in a power that exists elsewhere — in Washington, for instance — is part of the power structure of business. The news distracts you from the glaring reality that your life is accounted for by your boss and the demands of Capital.

The other great source of power that defines what I think, do, and feel on a near minute-by-minute basis weighs 48 pounds. But it's not that the boy coerces my actions — although he does — it's that the terms of contemporary parenting coerce my actions. Of course I have to do certain things as a parent — feed the beast, take him to the doctor, get him to school, read to him, play with him. This is part of the power dynamics that flourish in any relationship.

It's the meta-terms of what it means to be a parent that drive me particularly crazy. I am referring to what Foucault calls discourse — the discourse of contemporary parenting. That is, the things that we can say, feel, and so as parents vis-a-vis our children. (That's for another post.)

My point is this: Power, as Foucault says, comes from everywhere. It is not something that exists out there, that comes from the top, that is enforced by police (although it's that, too.) Power is what makes you move, physically and emotionally. It's the relentless homogeneity of affect that streams from the news leaving people anxious and afraid. It's the relentless Hollywood cliches that leave people feeling insufficient (and bored! so fucking bored!).

This is not to say that we need solely to focus on the particularities in front of us — my kid, my job. No, it's to say we need to move from these particularities — what's right in front of us — to the structures and flows of power that generate this coercion. Our job is not to fight the Man. Our job is to look for ways to rearchitect the flows.


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drwatson said...

When I finished my M.A program in 2005 I stopped reading a lot of philosophy and started reading a lot of political thinkers. I had this moment where I was like "I will stop using words like "ontological" and I will be worried about political realities that are concrete and certainly more worthy to think about. I mean my thesis was titled "Samuel Beckett and the Onto-Theo-Logic Constitution of Metaphysics," which both makes me proud and cringe at the same time.

But it turned out after literally thousands of pages of Chomsky, Zinn, Robert McChesney, Neil Postman, McLuhan (who is different) it wasn't any simpler. In fact a lot of that work could have benefited from the philosophy I had briefly sworn off.

But I do find politics the hardest thing for me to reconcile. What should I think about? What is possible to change? How obligated should I be to try to change anything? How much of my opinions and biases are predicated on the fact that I didn't grow up poor? All of those questions still plague me.