What is Power?

What is power? Like most concepts, it is something that seems intuitively obvious at first blush, but like most things, it’s a little more complicated than it might initially appear. One might believe that power is the ability of someone to do something according to their will, i.e., the power to do something they want to do. In philosophy, this is considered a kind of action-theoretical view of power. Another view is the power-over view wherein power is defined in terms of the ability to have power over someone else, i.e., the ability of A to get B to do something that B would not do otherwise. Of course, it is plausible that both views of power can be useful in certain contexts. One doesn’t have to just endorse a single conception at the exclusion of the other and may even be just two ways of talking about the same thing. For example, both can be seen as action-theoretical with power-over being a derivative form of power-to.

These may be useful and intuitive notions of power, but what do we really mean when we talk about power in more of a social context? For example, I have previously argued that patriarchy is a systemic form of power. What would it mean for power to be systemic? Rather than viewing power in terms of an individual being able to constrain and/or compel another, a systemic view of power could view things in terms of structures that determine the possibilities for individual actions. Of course, this is still compatible with action-theoretical accounts of power–after all, it can still be conceived as reducible to individual actions in many relevant ways–but it does put those accounts in a larger social context.

Indeed, many individualists can get on board with the idea that patriarchy is a kind of social system that establishes what are more or less possible, or probable, courses of action for individual actors to take. For instance, an individualist feminist could argue from this perspective that women are generally disadvantaged by implicit biases against women that lead employers (potential or otherwise) to unconsciously believe that women are less fit for certain job roles, even when things like experience and education are controlled for.

It was previously mentioned that not only is the self a social construction, but so are our sexualities as well as our bodies. However, what was not explained is exactly how that social construction comes about. Construction is a concept that describes a process, or a doing of sorts. In other words, social construction can be described in power-to and power-over terms. Of course, this doesn’t fully account for how power constructs humans, including their flesh and their desires (more on that specifically will be addressed at a later time).

Constitutive views of power take the systemic notions just described to another level in a way that makes power not reducible to individual actors or actions, thus differentiating them from action-theoretical perspectives. These views stipulate that instead of power merely determining what actions are possible for individual actors, power constitutes said actors and the social context they act in, and is manifested by the exercise of one’s will over others. In the context of feminist discourse, patriarchy constitutes gendered subjects, their actions, and their social contexts. It is manifested by phenomena like misogyny.

Recall the Buddhist concept of interdependence and Hume’s bundle theory. According to these ideas, what we are is a set of properties and relations. In other words, we are constituted by our relations to other people and things in the world around us. If we take these notions seriously, then the constitutive view of power is much more plausible than it might initially seem.

Philosopher Michel Foucault put it this way:

“[Power is] the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the processes which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them;…thus forming a chain or system.”

There is an important point in this that needs special emphasis. Power doesn’t just impose limits on people. In other words, it isn’t merely regulative. As the term “constitutive” suggests, power is also generative, or productive. In other words, it produces subjects and the categories they fall into. Such categories within the contemporary cultural context that subjects find themselves in are often framed in binary terms such as “male” or “female”, “man” or “woman”, “masculine” or “feminine”, “heterosexual” or “homosexual”, etc. Of course, culture doesn’t just produce binary categories. It also produces categories such as “non-binary” and “bisexual” (though those categories are defined by reference to certain binaries).

What is even more important to understand is that even though dominant culture imposes social sanctions on non-normative identities (transgender identities, for example), it nevertheless produces them. For instance, though homosexual people were (and still are to an extent) culturally unintelligible, the category “homosexual” is still a conceptually intelligible category (though not culturally intelligible; yes, there is a difference) that also provides intelligibility to the category “heterosexual”. In other words, not only does culture produce non-normative identities, those same identities are not accidents, but are features it relies on. They are necessary for normative identities to exist. In other words, they are interdependent.


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