What, Where, And How Is Power?

My problem with conceiving of government as the source of power is that the government rarely, and only tangentially, coerces my body. Taxes, registering for the draft to get student financial aid (that was 1987: Reagan!), street lights, traffic laws in general: these are government actions that directly coerce my body.

But, on a day to day basis, there are a wealth of other sources that literally move me physically, affectively, emotionally. Right now, there are two dominant forces in my life that affect what I do, feel, and think on a near minute-to-minute to basis: work and child.

Work tries to occupy most of my time and head space — it wants me to think about it. This is why I have never had a job job — somewhere I had to be five days a week by 9:00 am. That kind of all consuming coercion seems completely insane to me. And yet this is what people do everyday: they go to work for somebody else, their time utterly consumed and defined by the demands of a corporation.

And it is these same people who read newspapers, follow elections, have opinions on things like capital punishment and abortion. As if power existed elsewhere! As if the real power was not right in front of them — in the alarm clock shrieking in their ear, in the blue screen that blurs their vision, in the demands for profit that drive the company and the culture as a whole!

“Power is what makes you move, physically and emotionally.”

The belief in a power that exists elsewhere — in Washington, for instance — is part of the power structure of business. The news distracts you from the glaring reality that your life is accounted for by your boss and the demands of Capital.

The other great source of power that defines what I think, do, and feel on a near minute-by-minute basis weighs 48 pounds. But it’s not that the boy coerces my actions — although he does — it’s that the terms of contemporary parenting coerce my actions. Of course I have to do certain things as a parent — feed the beast, take him to the doctor, get him to school, read to him, play with him. This is part of the power dynamics that flourish in any relationship.

It’s the meta-terms of what it means to be a parent that drive me particularly crazy. I am referring to what Foucault calls discourse — the discourse of contemporary parenting. That is, the things that we can say, feel, and so as parents vis-a-vis our children. (That’s for another post.)

Michel Foucault

My point is this: Power, as Foucault says, comes from everywhere. It is not something that exists out there, that comes from the top, that is enforced by police (although it’s that, too.) Power is what makes you move, physically and emotionally. It’s the relentless homogeneity of affect that streams from the news leaving people anxious and afraid. It’s the relentless Hollywood cliches that leave people feeling insufficient (and bored! so fucking bored!).

This is not to say that we need solely to focus on the particularities in front of us — my kid, my job. No, it’s to say we need to move from these particularities — what’s right in front of us — to the structures and flows of power that generate this coercion. Our job is not to fight the Man. Our job is to look for ways to rearchitect the flows. TC mark


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  • Sidebar

    #ready for the movement

  • Teukros

    What a passive and unimpressive way of thinking.  You feed your kid because the “terms of contemporary parenting” tell you to?  You're disempowering yourself in order to shirk responsibility.

    Why don't you take control and do things out of your own conviction (or even just your own desire!) and not out of some Foucaultian initiative-ceding fever dream?

    • heyo

      Theoretically, according to Foucault, you can never escape the control which networks of power place on the body (social or individual). Our society has progressed to a point where “your own conviction” doesn't exist.

  • Jordan

    Great post Daniel.

  • lalit

    Good piece, but you never acknowledge your privilege. For many (say the hundreds of thousands of unfairly incarcerated, families and friends of those lost to the poverty draft, every woman who's ever needed family planning services and been denied) the government coerces their bodies every day.

    • Daniel Coffeen

      That's absolutely right. Good point. The poor and otherwise underprivileged know power in a very different way…I write from my white middle-class perspective — it's the perspective I got.  Which is missing from my piece: power is circumstantial and perspectival as much as it's structural.

    • Greg

      this is a point that could be applied to most of thought catalog posts. I'm a black man that grew up in low-income housing and went to PS' that were devoid of white students. It is difficult to find posts that relate to me on this site. With that being said, i still frequent this site daily and when I'm able to find writers I relate, it is usually worth the wait….I'm talking to you jimmy chen and daniel coffeen

      • Strange Friend

        I could really get into a Coffeeno-Chenian collaborative set of pieces on here.

  • http://twitter.com/Erikhaspresence Erik Stinson




  • http://likethehours.wordpress.com/ devin howard

    I admire any attempt to grapple with power dynamics. Due to the complexities involved, the multi-dimensionality of power relationships, and the sheer number of distinct aspects of human nature which come into play (biology, sociology, politics, economics, sexuality, religion, philosophy, and so on) its a bastard of a subject to deal with. Even when we can see clearly how power works and where it is most heavily concentrated it is much harder to describe completely and/or accurately. 

    Good piece, in my not-so-expert opinion Americans spend far too little time thinking about where power is concentrated, how it became concentrated in those places, how it affects their lives, and what, if anything, they can do about it.

    I personally advocate creative defiance. Take student loans for example. Predatory? Yep. Disabling with debt a rising generation of educated citizens? Indeed. Anything on the horizon that might alleviate the situation? Haha, nope. 

    So I advocate everybody take out massive loans, get graduate degrees, and take just enough classes the rest of their lives to avoid repayment. Fuck it.

  • http://gravatar.com/myburningthoughts myburningthoughts

    Finally a mode to understanding the unseen coercion I experience on a daily basis. I’ve wanted to hash this topic out with someone for a long time to better understand it, thank you for this essay!

    Now the question becomes… how do I go about reshaping the flow of power around me?

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