21 October 2009
“Then everything includes itself in power”: circularity in the exercise of power
Societies change; this is not in dispute. How they change is, on the other hand, a matter of much contention, but any mechanism by which social change is willfully enacted can be termed a mechanism of power. Just as social theorists speculate as to long-term and unwilled processes such as rationalization, communism, and social evolutionism (which are fixed in direction), they have similarly varied ideas about the residency, mechanism, and application of power. Nonetheless, examination of works by Max Weber, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault demonstrate some commonalities, including Marxist influences and the idea that the application of power is a reciprocal process suggestive of a tautological, circular relationship between culture and power.
Weber’s most famous case study, outlined in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1930), follows the real social effects—namely, the rise of new capitalist economies in Protestant Europe and the New World—following the advent of the ideas of the Reformation. The paradoxical situation of Protestants, who were taught that excellence in vocation and austerity in consumption were twin ideals, led to the rise of investment-driven capitalism. Ideas such as the sacralization of the calling are the real source of power to Weber; ideas, for Weber, are power. Ideas (power) lead to changes in culture, which produce new ideas (new power), leading to new changes in culture. In this example, Protestantism gives rise to capitalism, which engenders new capitalistic thought systems contributing to the decline of Protestantism. Power, therefore, originates in the individual, effects change through ideas, and is reified in institutions, especially those which reinforce those Protestant ideas that led to economic success. “The Protestants wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so” (Weber 1930:123). In Marxist terms, Weberian superstructure precedes and determines infrastructure.
Bureaucracies were a favorite topic for Weber, and provide a launching-off point for describing the process by which power might serve not only to change society but also to reinforce its core. Bureaucracies, as we know, make laws, which, according to Bourdieu, “no more than symbolically [consecrate]…the structure of the power relations between groups and classes” (Bourdieu 1977:182). If bureaucracies symbolically consecrate power, what does so realistically? In Bourdieu’s terms, ritualization of practices internalizes a definition of doxa, the realm of legitimate discourse, and in so doing necessarily gives power to some groups over others. This structure is embedded in the social subconscious, becoming habitus. While Weber grounds much of his analysis in hermeneutical examination of spoken and written word, for Bourdieu power resides in that which “goes without saying because it comes without saying” (Bourdieu 1977:163). Habitus reinforce existing power relations as mythologized in collective belief. This collective belief may include a misrecognition of truth; whereas Durkheim might say that religion/culture is society worshipping itself, Bourdieu might qualify this to say that culture is society worshipping the existing structure of power.
If it be true that “the whole of society pays itself in the false coin of its dream,” (Bourdieu 1977:190), that currency is not always in the form of economic capital: social, cultural, and symbolic capital are all also forms of power legitimized by particular institutions. These sorts of capital are linked circularly with economic capital: as an example in contemporary society, economic capital is required to obtain symbolic capital (by paying for a college education to obtain a degree) which in turn is required to obtain economic capital (no one will hire a doctor, for example, who does not have a doctorate). Power, therefore, resides in symbols. To a Marxist, the misrecognition of symbolic capital constitutes a mode of cyclical, self-perpetuating repression that furthers the dominance of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. This hegemony is maintained over time by overt violence, which may establish the initial conditions that lead to domination, and symbolic violence, “through which the dominant groups or classes secure a capital of ‘credit’ which seems to owe nothing to the logic of exploitation” (Bourdieu 1977:191). One can only surmise that this credit feeds into the ouroboros of economic/social capital. The bourgeois ability to maintain its position of power is due to the process by which arbitrarily designated social/cultural/symbolic capital is converted into economic capital, which has real social effects, whose feedback effect is the recreation of the original conditions. The game of society is rigged.
“Power is essentially that which represses,” claims Foucault, going one step further than Bourdieu and emphasizing that power exists only in exercise (Foucault 1972:208). He shares Bourdieu’s understanding of the constant struggle for power, a ‘war continued by other means,’ and Bourdieu’s symbolic violence might be located in Foucauldian disciplinary power, “disciplinary coercions whose purpose is in fact to assure the cohesion” of society (Foucault 1972:219). This coercion is masked by the distraction of the power of right—the contract-oppression schema characterized by formal juridico-political institutions. Subjugation is made possible by misrecognition of the power of right with disciplinary power, which, unnoticed, homogenizes society by suppressing alternative knowledges; this mechanism is comparable with the symbolic violence done to the slave in Bourdieu’s example, in that the slave sees his status as a product of the contract (the power of right) rather than repression (disciplinary power).
Misrecognition, or perhaps incompleteness of knowledge, continues to play a central role in allowing certain mechanisms of power to function. One of these mechanisms is panopticism. In Foucault’s analysis of the Bentham’s Panopticon, the Panopticon serves as a metaphor for the manner in which disciplinary societies project the sense that the individual has incomplete knowledge but some higher individual may have complete knowledge, including of the actions of the first individual. The sense of being watched is enough to compel the first individual to conform, and can enable a system of power “to operate, on the underside of the law, a machinery that is both immense and minute, which supports, reinforces, [and] multiplies the asymmetry of power” (Foucault 1979:223). This asymmetry of power ostensibly troubled Foucault, who gave much of his life over to liberal activism; he does, however, suggest a way out of this asymmetry. Through the insurrection of subjugated knowledges—the same that were before suppressed by disciplinary power—one might speculate that minority groups can rebel against domination-repression and ostensibly escape from economic poverty.
In application Foucault’s insurrection of subjugated knowledges, like other mechanisms of applied power, is not without a feedback effect. Cornel West speaks of the commodification of black music in twentieth-century America as a feedback effect that negates the redeeming effect of the discovery and appreciation of black music on an international scale (West 1993:396). In a postcolonial situation, Susan Reed argues that, even as tango is lifted up as a symbol of Argentinean identity, it is dependent upon centers of the dominant culture for approval, which ultimately comes only with exoticization and compromise rather than acceptance (Reed 1998:515).
A synthesis of the positions of Weber, Bourdieu, and Foucault would have interesting implications for the understanding of power. Power is born of ideas and reified in institutions in Weber, and born in overt violence and reified in symbolic violence in Bourdieu. Both of these describe genesis of power as resultant from conflict, a conclusion suggestive of Marxist overtones. Bourdieu and Foucault especially rely on Marx’s view of society as divided into dominant and subjugated groups. Indeed, all three of these theorists maintain Marxist underpinnings, even while expanding on Marxism: Weber argues the materialist approach is inadequate, Bourdieu argues that economic capital is only one manifestation of capital, and Foucault asserts that not all phenomena are reducible to being caused by the dominance of the bourgeoisie.
Broadly, it is clear that the state of a culture at any given point in time is the result of the powers that have acted upon it. At the same time, the current state of a culture defines where power resides in a society. Weber demonstrates how power changes culture; Bourdieu and Foucault demonstrate how culture defines and reinforces power. These processes are not exclusive; at any time, power changes culture even while culture defines power. The conflict between these processes is contradictory but makes sense holistically: though the cycle between power and culture is not in any way stoppable, when any one of the mechanisms enumerated above—idealism, misrecognition of knowledge or violence, or panopticism—is set into motion, power is exercised and culture is in flux, either speeding up or slowing down processes of real social change.
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1979. Panopticism. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, pp. 195- 228. New York: Vintage Books.
1998. The Politics and Poetics of Dance. In Annual Review of Anthropology 1998, 27:503-32.
1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Routledge Classics.
1922. Class, Status, Party. In Anthropological theory: an introductory history, Jon McGee, Richard Warms, eds. Pp. 115-127. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company
1993. Black Culture and Postmodernism. In A Postmodern Reader, Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon, eds. Pp. 390-397. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Note: the quotation in the title is from the play Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare.