New Internationalist

Ideas about power

Issue 360

The unmarked category

The unmarked category

Feminists have analysed the powerless extensively. There are theories about discrimination on the basis of sex, race, class and religion as well as sexuality, disability, age and culture. What often remains unexamined is the culture of the powerful, since it is difficult for the purveyors of culture – the powerful – to see the mechanisms of their own structures. And it is difficult for the powerless to get access to the resources and education necessary to enable such a critique. Everything is ranged against it.

The powerful are those members of a society who can gain ready access to power and who also are able to exercise it without thinking particularly about what they are doing. For the powerful the culture is obvious, accessible and cut out for them. For the powerless it is unreachable, impenetrable, high, élite, expensive and it would take an act of violence or self-violation to get in.

The ‘unmarked category’ is the identifying mark of the powerful. He is the standard by which everything else is measured: for example Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, or medical wall charts. In the informational address structures of the internet, US addresses are the unmarked category. These ideas connect with the work of feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Gyatri Spivak.

Whiteness is not visible to the powerful, because they themselves are white. They notice black, brown, ‘other’ bodies and the difference of those imaginations. But whiteness, to the white, is the norm. It has a normative status in the same way that ‘man’ has a normative status. The able body is the neutral body. The marked body is outside what is regarded as the norm: it is too thin, it is too fat, it is crippled, it is mad, it is unpredictable.

The unremarked, the unmarked is always the clue.

Susan Hawthorne

Read: Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality, Crossing Press
Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Random House
Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism, Zed Books
The Irigaray Reader, edited by Margaret Whitford, Basil Blackwell The Spivak Reader, edited by Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean, Routledge

Representation and counterpower

The French theorist and activist Gilles Deleuze compared voting for political representation with being taken hostage.

Government is the exercise of power by representatives elected by democratic process. This assumes that there are categories of people distinct in their shared interests and numerous enough to warrant a say in exercising power. Their representative is somehow seen as embodying the group’s interests. Movements have achieved change by fighting for inclusion within this system. Thus the working classes, women, ethnic minorities, younger people and the disabled have all won victories that have brought them concrete gains. However, we have yet to see any parliament that proportionally reflects those groups/characteristics amongst its elected representatives.

The limitations of representative democracy are lampooned in Borges’ short story ‘The Congress’, about a proposed Congress of the World. It contains an absurd debate over which communities the lead character Don Alejandro represents: ‘Not only cattlemen, but also Uruguayans, and also humanity’s great forerunners, and also men with red beards, and also those who are seated in armchairs...’ Finally Don Alejandro concludes that the only Congress that could represent the world is the world itself.

Perhaps surprisingly, this democratic utopianism has found popular expression in social movements for global justice. Don Alejandro’s logic underpins the horizontal growth of the social-forum movement, where diverse groups, movements and individuals coalesce in different regions; participation is open to everyone in all their uniqueness, without presuming to represent, to delegate or mandate.

What we might call ‘counterpower’ is in the movements against representation and for democracy, who seek to have their voices heard and listened to, not assimilated and condensed. Counterpower is the shadow realm of alternatives, a hall of mirrors held up to the dominant logic of capitalism – and it is growing.

Graeme Chesters
Contact: World Social Forum 2004

Participation and liberation

Most people have never heard of him, but almost all effective social-change projects today draw on the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator with revolutionary learning methods.

Freire starts with the assumption that people have enormous archives of knowledge within them. He rejects the notion that one is ignorant unless one has learned to communicate using the culture of the powerful; learning should not be about being a mere receptacle of that culture.

With Freire’s method the learner is part of a group ‘culture circle’ within which she builds her own view of reality, starting with the circumstances of her everyday life. These, rather than textbooks which teach only the culture of the powerful, are the ‘texts’ from which the learner can analyse and begin to transform the world in which she lives.

Dialogue – an exchange of knowledge and a process of co-learning – as opposed to monologue – imparting of knowledge from the teacher to the ignorant – is key. This group-learning process doesn’t just teach people literacy at an extraordinarily fast rate: it builds a shared understanding of their world. For Freire, learning begins with action, which is then shaped by reflection on the action, which gives rise to further action. The learner goes on creating herself from the inside out, expanding her capacity to act in the world and change it. Fundamentally this is a process by which the powerless transform their relationship to power.

Read:The Paulo Freire Reader, edited by Ana Maria Araujo Freire and Donald Macedo, Continuum.

Power and knowledge

Michel Foucault, one of the key thinkers about power, knowledge and society, was a French intellectual working in fields as diverse as history, medicine, cultural criticism and psychology (what he called the ‘human sciences’) in the 1960s and 1970s. Put simply, Foucault says that if enough people accept as ‘common knowledge’ the particular belief systems of a group of authority figures such as scientists, priests, or medical doctors, then this group exercises power in society by defining right from wrong and who, or what, is ‘normal’. It is a subtle form of power: easier to overlook than power enforced by law or violence, hard to resist because it is all about ‘normalization’.

He came to this conclusion through studying prison systems, mental asylums, schools, attitutudes to homosexuality and the ways in which society creates categories of deviance and abnormality. Take the example of a person in a mental institution. Their life is tightly controlled; their resistance to this control though non-co-operation is seen by most as a symptom of their abnormality or madness. But couldn’t it be a rebellion against a power system that has defined them as abnormal? And might not this ‘outsider’ have powerful insights into the nature of that system? Queer theorists and others have embraced Foucault, celebrating the importance of the marginal perspective.

Contact: Queer theory www.theory.org.uk Read: Foucault for Beginners, Ludia Alix Fillingham, Writers and Readers.

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