A Very Very Brief Approach to Power (or, Narrative power, or, Power and narrative)

The Birth of the Clinic
The Birth of the Clinic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is a question often raised yet seldom, if ever, answered satisfactorily: How might we approach an understanding of power? In order to provide some brief initial groundwork to this important and complex question I should like to begin with a very brief examination of the context within which to locate power and then to move steadily toward a more [systemic] narrative and reflexive position in this regard.

In general terms power may be understood, writes Heil, as ‘a disposition; an ability or capacity to yield some outcome’ (Heil in Audi, 1999). The dispositions of power might also be thought of in terms of relational (i.e. social or interpersonal) terms. That is, properties of phenomenal objects (i.e. in the world) possessed only in virtue of those objects standing in appropriate relation to other objects. Moreover, the proximity of phenomenal objects in relation to other objects, coextensive with an asymmetry of the relation said to exist between these objects, clearly denotes that difference may have some important bearing on approaches to an understanding of power.

Power and power differentials might possess a property or capacity which is potential but not manifest in some form of reciprocal relation (i.e. energy may be described as either kinetic or potential in virtue of its latent or manifest difference to other objects). In this sense one can begin to discern between two vertices for power: active/passive and intrinsic/extrinsic power (see Locke, 1975). To further an understanding of the basic notions underpinning power and power differentials (PD) in social relations (and intersubjective experiences) I will now turn to the social construction of power.

Hobbes (1651/1840; see also Kraynak, 1990) was one of the leading participants in the intellectual revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which gave rise to what might be called modernity. For Hobbes (1840: 35), human nature renders men “apt to invade and destroy one another”. Thus for Hobbes (1840: 35-36) power ought to be exercised over “the [human] passions for security, profit and glory” and control of human passions becomes a central concern of any legislating governance. For Hobbes power is – if it is to be understood purposefully – located as an object which is always to be historically situated as an object of study and thus gives rise to the birth of political science.

For Marx (1859; 1867; 1884; 1893; see also McLellan, 2000) the situation could not have been more different to Hobbes’ (1651/1840) formulation. Marx may be said to view power and PD as enforced relations based upon alienation and production. This Marx called alienated labour. For Marx alienated labour contains four major problematic areas: (1) alienation of the worker from the object of their production, the object of production comes to hold power over the worker (2) workers become alienated from themselves as production cannot be seen as the real life of the worker (3) workers’ social essence is removed from them in their work as production cannot (see 1 & 2) be seen as a harmonious concerted effort (4) workers found themselves alienated from other workers. Marx’s mature thought (historical materialism) critiques production, competition and enforced power relations as an entirely unsatisfactory basis for social organisation.

For Foucault (1967; 1969; 1973; 1986; see also Rabinow, 1984; 2000; Gutting, 2005), one detects an examination of limit-experiences using a socio-historical lens: Foucault’s works are perhaps as challenging as they are a coherent corpus undergirded by a few thematic hallmarks: a strong counter-narrative approach to lineal historicity/historiography, the historicisation of an ahistorical subject, the dividing practices – the systematic objective removal of sovereign power from within the subject or from others, and a rejection and deconstruction of the Cartesian Cogito (Rabinow, 1984: 3-27). For some Foucault clears the way for, and to some extent makes possible, the historical emergence of something like a rational subject via a reflexive and methodical application of socio-scientific knowledge (Foucault, 1967; 1969; 1973; 1986; see also Lyotard, 1984; Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). Foucault unveils a discontinuous history in outline ripe for inevitable fragmentation in terms of continuity, and, in terms of an impact upon the individual subject and their context – held under the reflexive term, episteme (Foucault, 1969). Foucault’s biting critiques are often held aloft to example further what he discerned as clearly identifiable processes and dispositions of power/knowledge set to undermine, decentre and repress the autonomy of the sovereign individual (subjugation via state psychiatry), and, control and discrimination against the individual (subjugation via state legislation) (see also White & Epston, 1990). Foucault’s analysis of power and alienation is not strictly speaking a Marxist critique, it is rather a singular critical understanding hewn from scholarship in the epistemology of power, politics and the narrative discourses that bind and separate each. For instance, on mental health one finds Foucault (1967; 1973) perhaps at his sharpest and most critically devastating. In Madness and Civilisation (1967), for instance, one finds a historical examination of discriminatory practices across the ages enacted upon the individual subject with foundations forged far back in the medieval period nonetheless with similarities with oppressive acts maintained in present times. Foucault appears to suggest that the subject might always be located and dislocated in coincidence. Indeed there is a suggestion that oppressive practices against the subject, and PD more generally, obtain directly from dominant group norms and dominant narratives (see also Lyotard, 1984; Szasz, 1974; Laing, 1969). His own summary of the period is telling – “I ask myself what else I was talking about in Madness and Civilisation and The Birth of the Clinic, but power” (Rabinow & Foubion in Gutting, 2005: 21).

Lyotard’s (1984) states that his evaluation of legitimising “myths” or narrative archetypes centres on historical and modernist debates between positivists and phenomenologists in relation to the nature of language, language-games, the possibility of the acquisition of knowledge and the power inhering in knowledge (see also Wittgenstein, 1921, 1953; Snow, 1959).

Lyotard (1984) recommends an equivocal explication mobilised through a critique of existing forms of grand narrative legitimation (see also Habermas, 1971) and envisages forms of storying or narrative performativity as acts of legitimation in their own right (see also Bauman, 1986). Lyotard’s (1984) main achievement might be suggested to lie in his privileging of the locutor’s subjective experience of spoken biography as a report inherently capable of dispelling the problematic question of legitimation by legitimating itself and by deemphasising truth-value altogether.

Lyotard (1984) undergirds his reasoning by examining the paralogy of the two main positivistic grand narratives and their claims to legitimation: first, ‘the narrative of emancipation, a story of “freeing the people” for which science is believed to be the necessary means’ (1984: p. 13 orig. syntax) and, second, ‘the narrative of the triumph of science as speculation or pure and authentic knowledge’ (1984: p. 28). On both counts Lyotard (1984) concludes that such claims are founded upon misnomers which are based upon coherent social constructions but not correspondent truths. Lyotard reveals these claims are in actuality invariably specious, unnecessary exercises in power enacted through language-games: (“We no longer have recourse to the grand narratives” 1984: p. 60.) Lyotard’s (1984) singular work assimilates works by notable post-structuralists preceding his own contribution (e.g. Barthes, 1972; Derrida, 1978; Foucault, 1967, 1969, 1973, 1986; Lacan, 1977; Levi-Strauss, 1963) and are perhaps a clear attempt at situating postmodernism as a paradigm capable of sustaining many perspectives: a more durable theoretical social formation derivable from the fluidity and play of language, the performativity of narrative language, and the possibilities available for multiple social constructions for both narrative culture and narrative identity alike. Indeed, Lyotard’s (1984) critical questioning of grand narratives strongly undergird a suggestion that dominant narratives are apt to distort any subjective conception and co-constructed experiencing of the past, present and/or future.

Narrativist theorists and practitioners influenced by an acknowledgement of the utility of both modernist and postmodernist concerns (i.e. second order) as well as those reflexive toward co-constructed meaning-making (Pearce, 2007; Krause, 2012) have sought to question the extent to which certain narratives may inhabit a dominant position within the symbolic space of language, whilst also acting to inhibit (subjugate) other untold, unvoiced narratives and/or embed replicative scripts (e.g. Anderson, 1997; Bannister & Fransella, 1971; Bauman, 1986; Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Burnham, 2012; Byng-Hall, 1995; Dallos & Vetere, 2009; Freedman & Combs, 1996; Foucault, 1967; 1969; 1972; Gergen, 1994; Papadopoulos & Byng-Hall, 1997; White, 1985; 1995; 1997; White & Epston, 1990). White (1989, 1995, 1997) and White & Epston (1990) consider these dominant narratives to provide a compelling frame within which our co-constructed (hi)stories and indeed our identities may become unvoiced, subjugated or organised into formations not always of our own invention (1990: pp. 27-28).

We may come to feel that, for instance, certain dominant narratives concerning status, prestige, wealth or happiness become a source of tension if we do not measure up to the ideal (de Botton, 2004; Lasch, 1979). Self-reflexively, for instance, my earliest experiences of understanding power came in the form of what I might call ‘the success narrative.’ As a young man growing up in the East End of London in the 1980s, the success narrative led me to mistake an overriding importance attached to affluence and ability and academic achievement. This false notion of ‘success’, unfortunately, still pervades, occasionally, in my professional life as a counsellor, and, sometimes, even spills unconsciously into my parental role in the form of voiced ambitions for the young people in my life – though, I am quite aware of its origin as an artefact of the period of my youthful naivety and my incomprehension, and lack of empathy, for those on the receiving end of the prevailing political context of those times in Britain.


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