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Created: 2000-03-05
Last Modified: 2000-03-05
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Power: What Is It? How Does It Work?

J. Bradford DeLong
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/
delong@econ.berkeley.edu

 


Context:

>>>>Brad De Long wrote:
>>>>
>>>> [Stuff falsely and sillily claiming that he is distressed at his
>>>> failure to win the 1998 Bad Writing Contest]
>>>>
>>>>P.S.: Anyone care to try to translate [Judith] Butler's
>>>>[1998 Bad Writing Contest] award-winning paragraph into
>>>>reasonably idiomatic English?
>>>
>>>
>>>
>>>Doug Henwood wrote:
>>>
>>>Butler:
>>>
>>>> The move from a structuralist account in which capital is
>>>> understood to structure social relations in relatively
>>>> homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power
>>>> relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and
>>>> rearticulation brought the question of temporality
>>>>into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of
>>>> Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical
>>>> objects to one in which the insights into the contingent
>>>> possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of >>>> hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies
>>>> of the rearticulation of power.
>>>
>>>*** ******:
>>>
>>>"An older view, associated with structuralism, which held that
>>>capital shaped social life in a unitary and timeless way, has given
>>>way to a new view of power, as something dispersed, changeable,
>>>rand requiring constant einforcement and reassertion."
>>>
>>
>>
>>Brad DeLong wrote:
>>
>>A reasonable try, but what did you do with [various words]?
>>...And then there are the deeper problems with the paragraph:
>>power that is dispersed and contingent ain't hegemony, and
>>so forth...
>>
>>
>*** ****** wrote:
>
>Well that's the point here, it can be: if power is
>in our heads, if power forms our subjectivities, then
>it is dispersed in billions of us, in trillions of
>daily contacts. This obviously comes out of Foucault,
>who can be criticized for his excessively atomized
>view of power, but it's a useful contrast to all
>those classically Marxian views of power, which
>find the entire capitalist structure in every grain
>of sand. But we're probably boring all the dismal
>scientists to death...


My Comment:

But hegemony requires a hegemon. Power requires a source. A lot of distinctions that were useful and important are being lost, and their loss creates the potential for enormous confusion.

Let me try to save some distinctions about forms of subjection--different kinds and degrees of being subject to power...

[with apologies to James Davidson, _Courtesans and Fishcakes_; Platon, _The Drinking Party_; Thucydides, _The Peloponnesian War_]

Let us suppose that Agathon is giving a dinner party: about 20 people which will be held in the Males' Room of his house. The food will be of the best--seared tuna fresh-caught and landed at the Piraeus this afternoon, octopus, boar-fish sauteed in oil and cheese, the new kind of olives called "Kalamata," honey-cakes, dates (the large kind, called "Medjool"), and so on. The wine will be of the best--properly-aged amphorae imported from the two Ionian Islands that make the best wine, Lesbos and Chios. The company will be of the best--Sokrates, of course (he somehow shows up at a lot of fancy upper-class dinner parties for someone who places so much stress on his freedom from sensual appetites), Aristophanes will be there trying out jokes for his new play, Phaedrus, Alkibiades has promised to drop by (and there is no one in Athens more handsome than he, fresh as he is from his victories at the Olympic Games), a few aspiring playwrights and aspiring philosophers, a few up-and-coming politicians. For entertainment there will be professional musicians, and the flute-girls and courtesans, of course.

Agathon is giving a dinner party. But I cannot go. I cannot go because...

...[1] I am chained to the wall in this underground barracks. 30 feet long, 6 feet wide, 5 feet high, in which I spend my time--with eleven of my fellow slaves--from dinner until breakfast. When the work-day for my overseers neared its end, they fed all twelve of us our spare meal, marched us down the hill to this barracks, and chained us here to the wall to sleep. When morning comes they will unchain us from the wall and chain us together, feed us our spare breakfast, and then march us up the hill and into the mine, where we will spend all day digging silver and dodging the blows of our overseers' whips. The silver we dig is one of the foundations of Athenian power: it buys wheat and oil from the lands of the Black Sea, timber from Lebanon to build the Athenian triremes, and more slaves to replace us in the silver mine when we die (and we do die: only half of us twelve will be alive two years hence).

...[2] I am a sharecropper, in debt to Nikias, bound to stay and work the land here in North Attica, far from the City sacred to Athena the Grey-Eyed. Even though I live only twenty miles away, I have never seen the temple of Athena the Virgin ("Parthenos").

...[3] I *must* go to Agathon's party. It is my job to go. I appear in the body of world literature as the auletris, the flute-girl, on whom Alkibiades leans as he enters and asks if the party will "welcome as a fellow-drinker anyone already so terribly drunk." I will play my flute (probably not very well). Then I will take off my clothes and go with one of the party-goers out back. I could make more if I would ride him like a pony, but I would rather not have to smell his breath...

...[4] I have to go work at my job. My name is Phaedo. Since my native city was sacked five years ago, I have been sold from master to master until now I have wound up here in Athens. My master thinks that he can make best use of me by hiring me out as a (male) prostitute in the Pottery District. So during Agathon's Party I will be sitting in my little 6' by 6' cubicle, waiting for customers. Nevertheless my master is not a bad master. He only makes me work 12 hours out of 24, and he allows me to go where I please within Athens (for I have given my word of honor as a gentleman not to try to escape). And I have made friends here--Glaukon, Platon, Sokrates--and their friendship and conversation helps me forget for a while while I am off duty what my master commands me to do.

...[5] I will go because it is a good business move for me to go. Well, it is not a business move, exactly. It's sort of hard to explain. I am Phryne. When it became known that I was going to bathe in the ocean a crowd gathered, and 1000 Athenians watched me come out of the sea dressed only in my wet tunic. Praxitales--the leading sculptor of our age--was so taken with how I looked that he used me as a model for his statue of Kytheran Aphrodite. Perhaps you have seen it? More likely you have seen a picture in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence for which Praxiteles' statue served as a model: it's called "The Birth of Venus," and was painted by Sandro Botticelli. I will go to the party. I will flirt, gossip, and exchange witty sayings with the guests. Many of the men there have already given me presents, *large* and *valuable* presents. If they have brought more to give me--if they are handsome enough--if they are witty enough--then perhaps after the party I will go with one of them to his house. But perhaps not.

...[6] I could go. I am Agathon's wife. I could go to the party, and listen to Aristophanes read scenes-in-progress, and watch Sokrates tie some slightly-drunk politician who wants to defend the conventional wisdom up in so many verbal knots. Nothing bad would happen to me if I went. Agathon would not divorce me, or beat me (as husbands have the right to do). But I would lose much status were I--an upper-class Athenian woman, a married wife--to enter the Males' Room in which the party is taking place. My husband Agathon would lose much status too. And he is a good man. So I will not go (although I will listen with my ear to the wall during, and eat the leftover tuna after, the party).

...[7] I could never get invited to Agathon's dinner party. I am an honest citizen of Athens, a skilled metalworker. But I'm not rich. And to go to fancy dinner parties with seared tuna, you have to give fancy dinner parties with seared tuna. My money goes to keep my family comfortable and to provide proper dowries for my daughters. Not that Athens is a bad place to live, you understand. When business is slack I can go down to the Piraeus and sign on as a rower in the navy. No citizen of Athens need be poor, at least not as long as the silver keeps flowing out from the mines under Flowerhill and the tribute keeps coming in from the empire. No one tells me what to do. And when I have time I go to the Assembly, listen to the speakers, vote on peace or war, and when we feel like it we exercise our people-power--our demo[s]-cracy--and tax Agathon, Alkibiades, and company to pay for our public festivals, our strong long walls, and our triremes.

...[8] I am Gylippus, envoy from Sparta to this decadent licentious city of fish-eating demogogues. The Archidamnian War between Athens and Sparta is over. But the peace was not a real peace--now we have a Cold War, in which the Athenians stir up the Argives to try to erode Spartan hegemony in the Peloponnesus while we encourage the rich and the good in Ionia to stage coups to unseat their pre-Athenian "people-power" regimes. We Spartans don't like decadent, Athenian-style dinner parties. When we eat, we eat to fuel our bodies. When we drink, we drink to get drunk: big cups, strong wine. When we f***, we f***. But now is the time to conspire. And later will be the time to kill.

...[9] I can't go. I had an invitation from Agathon--he wants to come to my next dinner party and I, Nikias, am richer than him. I would dearly love to go. But the Assembly meets tomorrow, and I have to speak. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the Archidamnian War was but the first page of a bigger struggle, and that the peace was just a truce in this larger "Peloponnesian" War. We Athenians need to plan to strengthen our empire and our forces for when the Spartans next attack. Some think that we should draw our allies in Sikilia closer to us--make them part of our empire, assist them in their struggles against Carthage and against the Tyrant of Syrakusa. I need to speak on this tomorrow, and I first need to decide whether such a Sikilian Expedition is good for our city. So I have to work tonight: decide what I am going to say to the sovereign Assembly tomorrow, and then outline my speech.

 

Now let us assume that anyone truly free would go to Agathon's dinner party. No matter what your ends--no matter what your deep desires are--good food, great wine, sex, companionship and laughter, amusement, music, conversation, philosophy--they are all to be found in Agathon's house, at least if you get to go into the Males' Room and be a full participant.

Thus anyone who doesn't go to Agathon's house is under some form of subjection, is oppressed, is subjected by some form of power that keeps them from the party. "Hegemony" is exercised upon them--albeit not in "homologous ways." Instead, the "power relations" to which all those who don't go to Agathon's party (and the auletris and Phryne who do) are subject are marked by "repetition, convergence and rearticulation" and are "bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power." There is a sense in which Gylippus--who doesn't go to the party because it isn't a Spartan Thing--is as subject to power as the mine-slave who doesn't go to the party because he is chained to the wall in the dark.

But there is also a sense in which these two experiences are not the same. Gylippus may be "subjected" in the sense that the reasons he doesn't go to the party were imposed on him from outside by the same forces that made him a subject (in the meaning of someone who does deeds and experiences events). The chains that hold the mine-slave to his barracks were also imposed on him from outside. But the--may I use the word "subjective"--experiences of Gylippus and the mine-slave are very different.

So I don't think we get much insight into the different ways (and the different degrees to which) the people who don't go to Agathon's are unfree, are subject to power if we look inside Judith Butler's _The Psychic Life of Power_. The mine-slave chained to the wall, the farmworker bound to his shack by chains of debt, the (female) whore with her less visible chains, the (male) slave-whore chained by his previous capture and his sense of honor that makes him keep his word not to escape, the courtesan with her lighter chains, the wife with a different but similar set of forces excluding her from the party, the Athenian citizen not of the hoplite class chained by his lack of wealth, the Spartan general chained by his spartan upbringing and his Lacedaemonian duty, the Athenian politician chained by his sense of duty to the democracy--these are all very different situations. What is really gained by calling all of these people's unfreedom by the same name? How do we gain insight into what is really going on by playing word games that blur distinctions between the subject [of a king], the subject [of a sentence], and the subject [in the sense of one who acts and experiences]?

Thus I think that this discussion has run into a complete dead end...

 

Brad DeLong


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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
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