Image credit: Miguel Á. Padriñán
*New entry of my hypertext book POWER of meanings // MEANINGS of power
First of all, you may ask, "Who says that power is a thing?", and also "What does it even mean to be or not to be a thing?" In fact, the word "thing" has a slew of definitions. It can refer to an object ("things in my purse"), an abstract concept ("this crazy thing called love"); an affair (from French à faire "to do", as in "I have so many things to do"), a situation ("you should just look at things differently"), an event ("meeting you was the best thing in my life"), an accomplishment ("I want to do great things"), and more. "Thing" is a considerably vague multipurpose word that we use all the time but find incredibly hard to define; so is "power". So, why is power not a thing?
I believe that, of all the meanings of the word "thing", the one that best fits the widespread perception of power is this: "an object or entity not precisely designated or capable of being designated". On one hand, power is something vague, so "not precisely designated" fits well. On the other hand, we can say that people usually see power as something related to themselves, but distinct from themselves. Think about such phrases as "have power", "use power", "abuse power", "give power", "take power", "lose power" and "discover power". Therefore, "an object or entity" also seems to describe power well. But appearances are notoriously deceptive.
In my book Media Is Us, I explain that we often think about media as something separate from ourselves. I mention that it is not uncommon for people to simplify complex aspects of their own existence (like love) and separate them from their own actions in order to be able to make some sense of them. Unlike media, power is seen as something that we can possess ("have power"), lack, use/abuse, and even share with others ("give power").
While it is not wrong to say that a person can have or lack power (as a combination of abilities and influences), it would be a mistake to limit ourselves with this understanding. A step in the right direction would be to say that the "relationship" between people and power works both ways: individuals have power < > power has individuals. Since the italicized statement sounds like an uncomfortable and confusing paradox – or even like utter nonsense – a useful modification could be, power works through individuals. In fact, this modification echoes the view proposed by Foucault, who argued that power is not simply possessed by (some) individuals. Power cannot be owned or used in the sense that we traditionally accept. Moreover, according to Foucault's enigmatic statement: "Power is everywhere... it comes from everywhere" (Foucault, 1976, p. 93).
Even Foucault's view of power, which, in my opinion, brings us significantly closer to understanding this phenomenon, still contributes to the perception of power as a thing. Power remains an "it", even as "it comes from everywhere". This is not a criticism of Foucault, but merely another proof of the fact that language makes it very hard to discuss and make sense of human/social complexity. (As a side note, it is also another proof of the fact that language has power over us.) In fact, my own formulations "power has individuals" and "power works through individuals" are no better in this sense, as they present power as a vague entity that can act upon us.
For now, I will have to acknowledge that I do not have a way to talk about power succinctly if I want to explain it as "not a thing". This whole website is one big attempt to define it! But one cannot possibly perceive all the ideas presented in multiple entries of this website at once. In order to explain power the way I feel necessary, I need to take apart many aspects of human condition and coexistence. In the process, I feel forced by language to simplify in order to properly understand. To make sense of the extreme complexity of what we call power, I have to first sacrifice my ability to speak about the complexity that I am trying to understand. It is a very annoying paradox. I can only hope that this sacrifice will eventually pay off.
Although I know that defining something through negatives is not ideal, under the circumstances I believe that "power is not a thing" is a good start. It allows us to wonder what being "not a thing" might mean, and this is what my theory of micro- and macropower is meant to clarify. Talking about power is, indeed, a challenge. But this challenge is a good reminder that we cannot let ourselves be too comfortable when trying to get to the bottom of it. Speaking about power as a thing is a simplification that is necessary to even have this exploration. However, we should remember that simplification meant to clarify complex aspects of society often becomes incorporated into meanings of the very "things" that we are trying to understand, contributing to the unhelpful view that these "things" are not so complex after all.
Foucault, M. (1976). The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge, trans. R. Hurley. Penguin, 1998.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Thing. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/thing
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I often use this blog to share new or updated entries of my hypertext projects. If you see several versions of the same entry published over time, the latest version is the most updated one.