Ideas About Power
Reinventing power / THEORIES OF POWER
Illustration: Hugh Davidson
The unmarked category
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.
Representation and counterpower
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.
Participation and liberation
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.
Power and knowledge
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.
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