Notes on “QUESTIONS of POWER” (3), Modes and Configurations.

Brandon Avery Joyce
7 min readJul 24, 2023

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The categorical conception of power covers both the everyday, efficacious, empowering, productive forms, on the one hand, and the prohibitive, overbearing, overconcentrated, overpowering forms on the other. It includes both empowerment and domination, ability and resistance, power to and power over, the supposedly “good” and the supposedly “bad” kinds of power, as well as the following: absolute power, biopower, black power, the power of persuasion, the power of love, the power of money, knowledge-power, girl-power, power-plays, powerstrips, horse-power, power ballads — everything and anything can be translated into comparably dynamic terms if needs be (though most often, needs really do not be). Throw in some Greek and Latinate rootwords in case you need to win over the skeptics and there you have it. Our eyeballs exercise ocular power. Water becomes the medium of aquatic power. Ants gather and work in large colonies of what you might call formic power. And Andy Warhol once conjectured that the so-called “cultural energy” of the Sixties was little more than a decades-long rush and result of amphetaminic powers. Each to their own expression. These different kinds of power — such as Mann’s economic, political, ideological, or military sources, or arguably Karatani’s A, B, C, and D modes of exchange — I’ll refer to as the varying “modes” of power. “Modes” because their differences are operative, active, shifting, oftentimes adhoc, and irreducibly plural. They’re not essentially or substantially distinct in the way fire, earth, water, and air were for Empedocles, elements in some overarching social physics. There are as many modes of power as there are ways of making and doing.

The ways in which power is variously arranged, distributed, balanced, or directed (and around which revolve the really hot questions of justice, domination, human flourishing, and world-design), I’m calling the “configurations” of power. It’s important to note that power-accounts can never fully separate configurations and modes into a strict schematism like form and content; they have to be narrated together snugly like story and character, especially before getting weighed or judged as unjust, dominatory, or shittily designed. Even when they’re highly comparable, or seemingly spitting images across domains, a bad or good configuration in one mode might not be nearly so bad or good in another. The tyrant and the tycoon share a lot in common as dominatory figures, but we should expect a lot of differences that make a difference, especially when it comes to addressing effects and evils. I actually want to be helplessly overpowered by true love or by a favorite new melody; not so much by a boss or magistrate.

That same, dear true love of mine might not have smitten me had circumstances been otherwise — if we’d met another afternoon, or during a bad hair day, or gotten distracted by the lure of other hearts — and that favorite new melody might not wound as sweetly if performed by other voices or instruments. Social and political configurations likewise yield widely differing results in differing details and contexts, and so have to be considered both immanently and in ensembles, great and small. What I may generally consider a good configuration, like democracy, is not just a question of form or procedure, an empty mold or method that can be blithely imposed or applied on any facet of society. Democracy takes on diverse forms depending on whatever social stuff it’s supposed to be democratizing, and may even compete with other (perhaps simpler or prettier or more streamlined) configurations that I deem equally good and want to simultaneously employ. The democracy of the polis is not the democracy of the factory floor, in their mechanisms, obligations, social relations, irritatingly busybody details, and forms of resistance (I’m sitting here now, trying to compare and contrast picket lines with something like abstention, but I’m struggling to find the right analogies).

Were we gullible enough to believe the NGOs and neocons that North Atlantic nations were earnestly trying to export democracy throughout the globe (or even that they were true democracies themselves), we could already foresee their false-universalism hitting serious disappointment as it clumsily assumed that homegrown varieties would thrive in foreign soils, without clashing with other local goods like religious traditions, social customs, cultural institutions, and sedimented histories. If we idealized the Westphalian nation-state system (which of all people, I certainly don’t), we’d still have to wonder whether the form has actually ever been repeated successfully outside of Europe. It seems to me at least that the maps of most recognized nation-states are either the footprints of colonial or imperial imposition, from Sykes-Picot to the Berlin conference, or badly-drawn lines over other political geometries (the radiality of empire, the nodes of city-states, the patchworks of tribes, the tides of nomadic communities), rather than the political organization and expression of any peoples. I don’t know, maybe Japan, in its rush to mimic and match European powers in the late 19th century, would be an exception, yet in the true Japanese fashion of outstripping the object of mimicry, is probably a less-imaginary imagined community than the relatively recently invented peoples and national languages of Europe. So while keeping all the foundational xenophobia of the European nation-state, the Japanese variety might still be non-identical from the other direction. The specifically-European nation-state is dependent upon European specifics — its density, its traversible geography, its weather, soil, and natural resources, its history of self-destructive wars and religious intolerance, its mythical autochthony and coherence. The graft of the nation-state system didn’t simply fail outside of Europe; it was often a central source of conflict itself, precisely because it undynamically discounted the differing balances of causes and potentialities in differing times, places, and relations, and assumed the “goodness” of this chauvinistic configuration was something essential (in the Aristotelian sense).

In fact, to distinguish or appreciate a mode as a coherent power often greatly depends on surrounding social and historical configurations. The meaning of aquatic power, for instance, has changed throughout the ages. It’s not just water per se. We need water to thrive and survive — as everybody constantly keeps reminding me — so there is a bottom-floor physiological power to this molecule in relation to the human body. Beyond this though, we can imagine a sort of “primeval” aquatic power in the earliest human eras, in which water or bodies of water were understandably greeted as deities, capable of both giving and taking life, washing away our sins and world-dirt or striking us down with oceanic terror. In this capacity, aquatic power is largely religious or cosmological, having to do with our relation to the universe and our natural surroundings. As societies grew in complexity, aquatic power took on a far more technological and political character (a turn which, perhaps because of its grounding of politics in natural forces, seems to really fascinate rightwing thinkers). This can mean the mastery of large-scale, labor-intensive irrigation in what Karl Wittfogel calls “hydraulic civilizations” like Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China, or the rise of commercial and military “seapowers” that decided dominance over the Mediterranean and later the rest of the planet. In this sense, Carl Schmitt’s punctuation of history through different “spatial revolutions” brought about through the confrontation with different bodies of water — first rivers, then seas, then oceans — stems from a combination of the cosmological and the techno-political senses of aquatic power.

More recently, with the swell of large thirsty cities, and the consequences of pollution, mismanagement, privatization, and climate change, water is becoming scarcer, and so aquatic power is turning steadily more economic. This economization of aquatic power isn’t just about the dastardly monopolization of water-supplies or the aqua-terrorism happening in places like Flint and Detroit, Michigan or Denmark, South Carolina. Aquatic power is wielded in a finer strategy of social stratification and hostile urbanism, through control of what Rachel Johnson has called “access to the aquatic sphere.” Water fountains disappear from city parks and sidewalks, as clean tap water is bottled and yassified into a luxury beverage. Beaches, swimming pools, and waterways become the right and reserve of only certain classes. And in a collective masochism, restrooms — which should be the ultimate non-rivalrous public good, since everyone has to piss or shit in equal proportions, no one can piss or shit more than their fair share, and we all benefit from piss and shit going to their proper places — are held as ransom for the purchase of a small cup of coffee. Water is water is water. It hasn’t changed, nor has our bodily need for it, but the mode of aquatic power really only becomes coherent through and within various social or historical configurations. It isn’t the direct effect of a watery essence or an elemental substance.

The glossary of power includes plenty of other distinctions as well, added by its students over the years. De Jouvenel, writing of power and authority, says: “It is extensive if the complying Bs [the power subjects] are many; it is comprehensive if the variety of actions to which A [the power holder] can move the Bs is considerable; finally, it is intensive if the bidding of A can be pushed far without loss of compliance.” Talcot Parsons distinguishes between “collective” from “distributive” powers; Joseph Nye, between “hard” and “soft;” and Mann between “despotic” and “infrastructural” (which along with Foucault’s distinction between the “sovereign” and “biopolitical,” point to a spectrum running between transcendental and immanent operations of power). And Max Weber, in his Economy and Society, dishes out an entire lexicon of types, such as his distinctions of charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal authority. As Weber himself notes about his own types, these are to be construed as ideals, never found wandering alone in the wild, provided only to give us a better handle on social complexity. Not to say that these distinctions are arbitrary and merely nominal, vague names etch-a-sketched onto the surface of things; we devise them for pragmatic purposes. But ultimately, power can be distinguished in as many ways as the world can be sliced into tranches, which is to say, infinitely.

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