￼ Notes on the “Generic” Sense of Power
I. The Generic Sense.
What is power? Here’s my definition: power is whatever actuates or possibilizes, or put negatively, whatever prevents or impossibilizes. This is the broad sense of power shared, I think, by a whole cloud of roughly synonymous concepts: capacity, ability, control, might, potential, influence, strength, efficacy, resistance, and so on.
This— the “generic” definition of power— is more comprehensive than what you’ll often find in the social sciences, that in so far as they are empirical sciences, tend to study power in overt, quantifiable forms and operations. The generic definition is also more comprehensive than many other power theorizations, such as De Jouvenel’s, that primarily equate power with the State — that is, with the usual suite of “juridico-administrative-military” powers, and thus the domain of “politics” in the journalistic sense. However, even when power is not fully conflated with the State, it’s often unduly beholden to the State as a paradigm— to state-like terms and metaphors. The more state-like the forms and operations of power, the more readily they’re recognized as power.
The generic definition also forgoes any valuation: intrinsically, power is neither good nor bad, neither more nor less just, neither emancipatory nor oppressive. This contrasts with a tendency in theory and popular sentiment to construe power, explicitly or otherwise, as domination— as pejorative, excessive, command-oriented, merely as a kind of power over. Even where it’s not limited or pejorative though— think of Nietzsche, where the Will-to-Power is the governing principle of all nature, society, culture, morality, life— power is still frequently conceived in terms of varying degrees of domination. Only in this case, domination is seen as a good thing— as life-affirming, enviable, to be strived for, even cynically as the “way of the world.” The conflation of power and domination even leaches into harder-nosed social science, as when Robert Dahl offers the following formula: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.” The generic sense of power encompasses both empowering and overpowering forms.
Right from beginning, then, the generic sense attempts to get beyond three common biases: power as the State, power as domination, and power only in its observable and quantifiable forms. In fact, much or perhaps most power cannot be understood in strictly empirical terms. Steven Lukes writes: “My view was, and is, that we need to think about power broadly rather than narrowly— in three dimensions rather than one or two— and that we need to attend to those aspects of power that are least accessible to observation: that, indeed, power is at its most effective when least observable.” Likewise, much or most power operates outside of the domain of the State. All other modes of power— economic power, physical power, cognitive power, technical power, and so on— have equal place and priority in the equations of power.
Lastly, power is not equivalent to domination. The whole point of critique, for me and I imagine others, is to distinguish the better, healthier, juster configurations of power from the worse, crueler, less just, and shittier ones we think of as domination, such as tyranny, exploitation, and violence. Power, in whatever mode, is neither intrinsically good nor bad. Power is in fact always both good and bad; power is always ambivalent.
Why am I interested in a generic sense of power? There are number of reasons but one is that I agree with Lukes that power works best where it operates unrecognized, where for instance, it assumes a neutrality or naturalness through ideology. Critiques or popular conceptions of power tend to lag behind currently dominant modes or configurations, and this is happily exploited. The generic sense is more suitable to a generalized critique, and a wider suspicion of power, even in its newer or seemingly benevolent forms.
￼II. Power, Causality, and Possibility.
So the generic sense of power covers both everyday, efficacious, empowering forms, on the one hand, and overbearing, over-concentrated, overpowering forms on the other. It includes both empowerment and domination, ability and resistance, the power to and power over, as well as all of the following: “absolute power,” “biopower,” “the power of persuasion,” “the power of love,” “the power of money,” “knowledge-power,” “girl power,” “powerplay,” “horse power,” and “power ballade.”
The different kinds of power— state power, economic power, physical power, and so on — I’m calling the different “modes” of power. The way in which power is variously arranged, distributed, balanced, and directed I’m calling the “configurations” of power. “Mode” because the differences are operative and active instead of substantial or essential. Power isn’t the stuff or substratum underlying, say, political or economic power. Power is indistinguishable from what it does or how it relates. Also “mode” rather than “kind” because it doesn’t designate distinct species of power. Modes are just bundles of functions, forces, and conditions that are grouped together operatively, sometimes very ad hoc.
For instance, if it served us, we could translate something like vision into terms of “eye power” or “ocular power.” We could distinguish and name the powers associated with ants, iron, choreography, each as their own distinct mode: formic power, ferric power, choreographic power. Most of the time, this would be unhelpful or redundant. However, one virtue of thinking through power, as a methodology, is how many disparate things can be translated into a common conceptual medium of exchange, then weighed in common balance.
Power names nothing, however. Power is not by itself an explanans. It works much in the way that “force” works conceptually in Newton’s Principia or line, point and angle work axiomatically in Euclid’s Elements. Newton does not explain a movement or change by revealing that “a force did it.” Of course a force did it. The question is how, why, and which particular interactions were involved. Likewise with power.
In physics, mass, movement and force are mutually constitutive concepts; they define one another. Power and change must likewise be understood in relation to one another, both in opposition to static-thinking. In one sense, power may “only” be a schema for seeing the interrelations between one array of forces and another.
And speaking of the “schematic” and the “generic,” there’s a good reason that power has been so slippery for empirically-minded social scientists: power is not entirely, nor even primarily, empirical. In fact, it comes closer to being a category, in the sense used by Kant, and to a degree, Aristotle. Here I’ll offer an even sharper definition: power is a composite concept or category of two others, causality and possibility. This might clarify why I originally defined power as “whatever actuates or possibilizes.”
To speak about power is, essentially, to say that something could cause something else, and the meaning of power requires both causation and possibility. Power is not merely what “does” or “will” cause; potentiality is central to its meaning. The sovereign has the power to do many things, often over matters of life and death, whether or not they choose to do them. Even unused, a firearm has the power to maim, to kill, and to persuade; it may, might, could cause death, injury, or quicker decisions. Similarly, power does not mean that something “could be” or “could occur” in the sense of it possibly raining tomorrow or possibly pulling three aces in a row— an eventuality or a probability. Power requires linking causes to effects, linking results to agency, will, and direction.
￼Causality and possibility are what we might call, for a couple of reasons, dynamic categories. One, because they necessarily involve change, as opposed to the categories that describe states or the static: space, quality, quantity, substance, and so on. And two, because together they comprise power, or as the Greeks called it, “δύναμις.” Just as causation is not simply out there, empirically in the world, and just as possibility is not simply out there, empirically in the world, power is not simply found in the world. All three have to be, in a way, narrated.
However, if power is not entirely empirical, neither is it entirely transcendental. Power cannot be understood according to a strict schematism; we can’t examine it abstractly then afterwards see how it affects the world. Power must be studied immanently— through history, economics, politics, culture, biography, experience— if we want to say anything meaningful or substantial. This also means we cannot delimit an arena of power from the realm of non-power, or contest from incontestability. The various understandings of power are themselves crucial parts of the equations of power, and all terms— the forms, modes, figures, operations— are themselves contestable.