Following Foucault’s investigations of power in the context of feminist critique, and in combination with the current state of our culture’s technicity, empowerment defined as “ a process of enhancing an individual or groups ability to make effective choices” becomes a slippery target. This essay does not create a definition for empowerment, but explores the parameters by which it has been and could be defined.
LAY FOUNDATION (A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CAPITALISM AND THE PATRIARCHY)
I. INVESTIGATE EXISTING SOIL | an ontology of the present
An understanding of power and its mechanisms is integral for the discussion of empowerment. A coming together of both affective and effective interactions between people, power carries an intention not necessarily shared by the individual or collective. Through repetition of action, power is encoded into the everyday, and quietly recedes out of visibility as normalized behavior. Power utilizes mechanisms of security as a means of discipline over the individual. The practice of surveillance becomes more panoptic as its effectiveness in the subtle creation and discipline of docile bodies for production and consumption is proven. Outside of the body, a state of 'conscious and permanent visibility’ is internalized as an subjectification of the individual.
The magnitude of effect, measured as influence, is about the ability to fabricate truths. The negation and validation of discourses intrinsically ties power to knowledge, consequently reducing the free agent’s visibilIty of choice. The acceptance of constraints on intersectional histories by power opens the individual up to manipulation and control.
A genealogical approach accounts for the complexity of interaction between power, knowledge, and the body, as well as their portrayal in the construction of culture and history. It is the tool of criticality we are able to wield against the biopolitics of neoliberalism, which works to constrain the individual and social capacities for agency outside of the provided opportunity structure.
Framing Amartya Sen’s distinction between agency and well being through its lineage in medieval european literature in a feminist perspective, the historical ‘patient’ and ‘agent’ become synonymous with ‘sexism’ and ‘empowerment’. This dichotomy references the body as fragile, and touches on concerns of gender perception. The ‘patient’ needs care from the state that made her sick, and the agent needs the security that commits violence against her.
II. SURVEY THE LOT | locating perimeters
Marx’s explanation proposes that our culture is constructed through a system of exploitation that utilizes mechanisms of self-preservation. Like any other system, capitalism is a network of organization for parts to function as an external entity. This particular system however, relies on the oppression of several components to sustain itself.
Negating and valuing labor through commodification affords an entry point into the formation of ideologies that dictate the socio-political space. The structure of wage labor itself has a feed-backing effect with its circumstance: unable to “produce what they need or may wish to consume, they have to buy it, thereby providing the demand that activates a whole range of new capitalist enterprises.” Since its commodification, this applies to leisure and many other facets of our life that exist under the constraints of capitalist enterprises. Capitalism exacts its power on multiple bodies — from political to social, saturating itself to the point of perceived inherence. Even Marx receives critique in his inability to conceive outside of it’s patriarchal qualities. In addition to defining the relationship of the worker to their means of production, it utilizes the intersectionality of each narrative’s actors so that class dictates your “behavior, your basic assumptions, how you are taught to behave, what you expect from yourself and from others, your concept of a future, how you understand problems and solve them, how you think, feel, act.”
The nation, grounded in and guided by a global capitalism, controls its citizens through mechanisms of oppression disguised as, or socially coded to appear natural or inevitable. Michelle Alexander traces this phenomena on a large scale in the United States, relating the fiscal aspirations and outcomes of slavery & antebellum to mass incarceration within the military industrial complex, demonstrating the evolution of means to an end rather than an evolution of human compassion.
The King Midas of commodification and exploitation, capitalism has expanded beyond the market and its objects, and permeated our bodies and minds through the handshakes of deals well done by those who benefit from the current mode of production.
III. DIG & EXCAVATE | the work of undoing
To create such a totalizing impact, capitalism works underground — its mechanics growing nearly invisible roots within the identities of it’s subjects, and what they believe to be within their scope of possibility for change. Tactics of intimidation and proposed gain, rampantly limit the ideation process through ‘othering’ and misdirection in the apathy of a postmodern and post-Fordist world. We think of knowledge in terms of production, placing ideas themselves under the same constraints as the commodity.
Presented under the rubric of ‘pleasure, paternalism, and property,’ power is administered through a seductive rhetoric that narrows possibility and serves to normalize oppression. Increasingly ubiquitous technologies and open ended laws are forms of discipline as described by Foucault. Through the prescription of identity and normalization of oppressive behavior, contemporary rhetorics of security perpetuate dynamics of visibility so that capitalist modes appear in the as ‘functional’ to those who would change it. Panoptic prisoners have been misdirected to believe his view of his neighbor, or his glance in the mirror as that of the guard.
Haraway and Preciado speak to the political implications of our society’s technical advances in, and increased reliance on technology in an already present future of hybridity and bodily incorporated technologies — lending to a literal internalization of some of the more insidious devices of control, while simultaneously opening up spaces for new forms of resistance. As per Lauretis’ description in Testo Junkie, representation becomes real upon it’s acceptance by the individual as their mode of self- representation. The “machine of somatic representation in which text, image, and the corporal spread through the interior of an expansive cybernetic circuit,” is the same described by Haraway as feminizing poverty. The act of ascribing meaning to culturally ubiquitous, visual and semiotic discourses is done through the invisibly subjective mechanics of legitimization.
Hartman’s concern with “the savage encroachments of power that take place through notions of reform, consent, and protection” are reflected in the military industrial complex’s conception of security.7 Following the Cold War, national security inverted from outward defense to internal protection, obscuring the position of security discourse behind emotionally charged sensationalism, juxtapositions of work and leisure, normalization of oppressive behavior, the binary liberal discourse around social relations, as well as ambiguous definitions of agency.
The UN’s more recently coined phrase ‘human security’ is in juxtaposition to national, defined by it’s tenants of freedom from want, dishonor, and fear, protection from economic distress, social violence, and environmental degradation, as well as the placement of the individual before demographic. While national security ensures stability for its citizens through the health of it’s infrastructures, human security focuses on “two elements: an orientation to future risk and the risk that should be focussed is the risk of being severely deprived. For that we need to identify our elements of well being. After the elements of well being are defined anyone who is under below that threshold is in poverty. On the basis of these two concepts human security can be measured.”
IV. FOOTINGS | place holding future mobility
Many movements have developed progressive/transgressive dialogues around structures of power. The two of most notable cultural impact in our country’s small timeline are feminism and civil rights. For each, strategies belonging to the everyday allow access to knowledge and truth behind bourgeois construction.
Following a long (and albeit rocky) tradition of self critique, the collective female body has again, reiterated itself as “materialist.” Following a genealogical and marxist approach to history, materialist feminists search for the cause of sexism and it’s mechanisms of power, and potential opportunities to improve visibility of their oppression. “Thus on the ground of the facts of intellectual history, this opposition-between polemic and theory-has no meaning at all; but on political grounds it has one, and it is dangerous” Their research and study approaches are rooted in the study of reality in terms of both material objects & ideology, and their reflexive effects on one another.
As an analysis of the African American identity starting with the antebellum, Scenes of Subjection outlines a postmodern hopelessness “in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the quixotic search for a subject capable of world-historical action, and the despair induced by a lack of one.” In a world of disappointment in the failure of “common sense” as an aggregate truth, and the active infliction of "burdened individuality encompassed repression, domination, techniques of discipline, strategies of self-improvement, and the regulatory interventions of the state,” exorbitant practices become subversive by their nature of being outside the capitalist valuation system.
Both feminist and civil rights movements have utilized communal power through solidarity with other oppressed people, but have been fractalized by the emergence of difference over time. If each movement can be seen as an assemblage of its actors and actants, the parameters by which each is designated will be indicative of these differences and commonalities. “The more homogeneous the internal composition of an assemblage and the better defined its outer boundaries the more territorilaized its identity may be said to be. In addition, given that tendencies and capacities also determine identity we must include behavioral factors in these parameters.” V. POUR & SEAL CONCRETE | making liquid solid Your body emerges through the perception of others as different from yourself, at a touchable distance, and selfhood is not self-contained. What you want, who you are, how you feel are all brought into being over time and in relation to others, and those thoughts and feelings are repeatedly inscribed, creating powerful circuits that organize a sense of embodied self. Such is human interdependency that my self- regard depends on your regard for me. (Crosby, 18)
Understanding observations of the individual body as applicable to political bodies, and contextualizing them within their framework, these principles have a deeply relevant correlation with national traumas. The impossible and necessary forgetting highlights a political call to disengage from biased and insidious ideologies, while simultaneously dissecting and reevaluating our knowledge of “truth vs. account” in context of propaganda and recognizing of the oppressed body’s experience.
While capitalism creates this post human condition of pan-humanity as a means to a commodifying end, we are seemingly unable to shift the energy towards a critically open (“Zoe-centered”) egalitarianism. If
oppositional consciousness engages the present through politically strategized choices, I am brought to think that methodologies specifically targeting a shift of knowledge production will be at the center of the movement.
Haraway’s argument for a world order based in a material reality of polymorphous information system virtually and materially embodied accounts for flexible definitions of matters of concern. While Kohn holds an open ended expectation of criticality outside of the symbolic. His emphasis on the body as a site of semiosis breaks with the metropolitan mode of language to ‘provincial.’ Kohn looks to Pierce’s work understanding the components of signs and signifiers as a guide to study the how non-human signifiers might create meaning outside of our normal means of observation, differentiation, contextualization, and interpretation.
The shifting landscape of power in contemporary society calls for a recognition of parameters and commonality as potential constraints. We need to open our scope of possibility. We need to feel like we can play with ideas. We need to be brave in the face of failure. We need to rethink measurements of value and abandon altruism. We need to put in the hours.