Notes for “Questions of Power” (1)

Brandon Avery Joyce
7 min readJul 5, 2023

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Power neither is nor is not. Instead, power is what makes and unmakes our world, or to put it more comprehensively, whatsoever makes and unmakes the world, even in part, is power. Power then isn’t so much an object of study as it is a scheme for understanding the world in pandynamic terms — which I think is what’s needed to grasp the confluence of all social vectors, especially in this humbling millennium, with the many vectoralist configurations emerging from Silicon Valley, the de facto erosion of the Westphalian nation-state and the demise of North Atlantic hegemony, the remapping of Earth under climate change and extraterrestrial expansion, the primarily social upheavals spurred by AI or bioengineering, the global centrifuge of peoples, notions, languages, and resources, the ceaseless spawning of new political models, cultural categories, social roles and relations — and all the other changes, contradictions, complexities, and bullshit greeting us in the rest of this 21st century. If power has ever had much of a real theory — and I’m not convinced it has — it’s long overdue for a new one, a much fuller theory that could eventually permeate common sense, a theory that’ll help us better understand power in all its forms, modes, configurations, effects and dangers.

This is a “pandynamism” rather than a “monism of power,” as Byung-Chul Han characterizes Nietzsche and Foucault, because it doesn’t offer up power as some substance or substratum underlying all phenomena. Power itself is not some satanic explanans lurking underneath the course of all events, some unseen magma out of which all things emerge. Even when hypercomplex or subtler than our words might express, never ever is it noumenal or hopelessly occult. It consists entirely of an immanent interrelation of all things, events, and processes, without making any strong ontological claims for itself. In fact, as I see it, this pandynamism greatly demotes or discards questions of ontology — about being qua being, about the beginning inventory of the universe — that thinkers have always felt the need to furnish as first principles.

Being,” when taken so seriously, is an empty, misleading, nearly incoherent abstraction, a ruse of thought or grammar that traps the foot of philosophy in static-thinking. It arises from the bad question of what’s happening to something before it’s actually doing anything, before predication or stepping into relation with anything else. Power on the other hand never just is or ain’t. Power always does or doesn’t, makes or unmakes, could do and couldn’t do, might make or unmake — always as an interrelation and always by shifting, varying degrees and kinds, with no need to pause to discover anything just metaphysically hanging out or to find a verb or process or that describes what all things — flowers, photons, numbers, novels, nations, laws, qualities, caricatures, psyches, starsystems swirling near the outermost heavens — happen to be doing in common.

Power is irreducible to either being or becoming. To think dynamically is to go beyond and perpendicular to thought that is either static (as a picture of being) or, grudgingly incorporating change, merely kinetic (as a pattern of becoming). No ontology — neither of things nor of processes — will cut it. Neither bricks nor rivers successfully model power and, nota bene, dynamism doesn’t just mean “change” or “changing” as it does for many process-oriented philosophies. In the static worldviews of being, there are things, there are qualities, there’s perhaps stuff in the void, grasped through static categories like identity, difference, unity, plurality, substance, and extension, that no matter how cleverly you shuffle and combine will never add up to the meaning of power. Likewise with kinetic worldviews that, in order to better accommodate experience and observation, put things in motion and admit time, change, or process, but usually only with impoverished or toy-model versions of the properly dynamic categories of causation and possibility, which together are necessary for understanding a fuller conception of power.

As the name suggests, pandynamism pushes the most comprehensive or generic conception of power (since nothing transcends or is beyond power) though one with a tighter, categorical meaning. Out of a swirling cloud of closely overlapping terms — capacity, ability, control, might, potential, influence, strength, efficacy, faculty, resistance, potency — we can distill a distinct notion of power. This conception of power is exact yet composite, comprising both causation and possibility. To put it as simply as I can: a power is something which could cause something else. This notion of power isn’t exactly original. It pokes through here and there in the literature, if rather indirectly. Far more importantly though, it’s what we implicitly mean by it in our everyday speech, thought, actions, and lives because, in order to speak, think, act, and live in the shared world, we must on some register do so dynamically. However, as simple as it sounds, this meaning is also the kernel of a more expansive and explicit philosophical understanding of power, one that nonetheless clashes with many of the studied conceptions of causality, modality, and truth.

Power requires both its modal-possibilistic half (the “could” part) and its causal-interventional half (the “cause” part). Just because a power could cause something does not mean that it does or will. The sovereign may or may not execute the prisoners in their dungeon, may or may not wage war on a neighboring principality, may or may not hold a banquet to honor or poison a visiting convoy; they nonetheless have the power to do so, even in their sleep. A knife in its sheath or drawer still has the power to maim or kill, to wave in the face of enemies, to sharpen pencils, to carve lovers’ initials into the trunk of an oak, to slice open a grapefruit or a finger in the process, or countless other things that its firmness and sharpness grant it when placed in our grips. Possibility or potentiality is inherent to the meaning of power. It is, as some describe it, inherently “dispositional,” though a moody disposition wholly dependent on the surrounding constellation of forces and factors, rather than something hidden or harbored within as an essence, latency, or property. A mirror has the power to show you your own reflection, but only if you flip on the lights, and then only if you can turn to face yourself for the things that you’ve done. Even the most seemingly intrinsic powers (and some are stickier, more inalienable, than others) are still relational and dependent upon the wider world. As the Buddhist saying goes, “The boatman can go nowhere without the boat; the boat goes nowhere without the boatman.

Likewise, power is never a mere possibility in the sense of a probability or an eventuality. I throw a handful of dice across a glass tabletop. It’s possible that I’ll get lucky, roll all sixes, and score a Yahtzee, but this kind of possibility is mutely undynamic. It’s severed from any story of power because there are no connections, however tenuous, tendered between determinants and outcomes, no accounts linking causes to effects. It’s sheer dumb luck. We are equally powerless before both fate and chance, both pure necessity and pure contingency. Tomorrow it may or may not rain — great, we’ve got no say in the matter. Even if our predictions nail it and the forecast correctly calls for a ninety-percent chance of thunder, these storms might as well be divine fury for all we care, a bare eventuality, foreseen by the local weatherman oracle. Power never enters the scenario. Future events may be “abstractly possible” or even probabilistically predictable, but these “possibilia” remain inert and powerless without a causal storyboard laying down panels from then or now to the day of their actuality.

Power, cause, and possibility — each in their full dynamic sense — can’t be grasped without the other two. Stephen Mumford was expressing much the same, though in the drier prose of the analytic tradition, when he writes: “causation involves what we call a dispositional modality.” Causation and possibility can’t even be neatly distinguished or fully disentangled. To be one of the causes of something is to make that something more possible; to make something more possible — to possibilize something — is to be one of its causes. To conceive of something’s possibility is to conceive of a cause that may bring it to effect, or to fail to think of a countervailing cause that may block its processes. The coldness of the water both helps cause and makes possible the formation of ice cubes. The hotness of the water both helps cause and makes possible my evening cup of instant coffee, and if I prefer, I can happily rephrase and praise its heat and its wateriness as specific causal powers, that in combination with the granules, the cup, and the kettle, most proximately produce my instant coffee and the rare thoughts that follow. Like the sugar and granules in my cup, cause and possibility blend smoothly in the gradient of power. All three concepts mutually and circularly inhere as axioms of power. They can only be understood together. One gross philosophical failure of static-kinetic worldviews (such as the “ontology of mechanism” undergirding much of Western modernity) is the attempt to break them apart and belittle them into toy-model versions that no longer suit the roiling dynamism of our world — especially the social part of that world.

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