The Microphysics of Power

Photo by James Shelley


Who, or what, really controls society?
The relationship between power and knowledge is similar to the relationship between the rich and their wealth: with more capital comes more investment opportunity; the rich get richer…the powerful become more powerful.
Or is it?
In Discipline and Punish Michel Foucult writes that

Perhaps we should abandon the belief that power makes mad and that, by the same token, the renunciation of power is one of the conditions of knowledge. We should admit rather that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.

Foucault delineates this further to describe the “micro-physics of power” — a way of looking at the world that sees power from the “bottom up”, and across the whole, instead of merely assuming the power of institutions and governments as a given. Later (in Knowledge/Power) he says that

power is not something that you acquire, take by force, or share, something you keep or let run away; power is exercised starting from numerous points, in the game between unequal and moving relations.

and that power

is a moving foothold of the balance of forces that constantly, due to its inequality, causes the conditions of power although always limited and unstable.

This “micro-physics of power” deal is quite intriguing if you think about it.
I am currently working my way through Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life; he extrapolates from Foucault’s thoughts on learning that

this “microphysics of power” privileges the productive apparatus…even though it discerns in “education” a system of “repression”

Thinking about the relationship between power and knowledge instantly reminds me of the oft-quoted Paulo Freire, who in Pedagogy of the Oppressed penned these haunting words:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

Who has the power, then? Perhaps we could simply say it is a convoluted matrix of relationships, supported by a dynamic web of institutions, and systematically supported by compulsive obsession with nurturing the next generation into a set of cultural ideals.
In some way, my friends, you and I are the sum total of our exposure to the radiation of all these ideas and forces.
These forces do not really “exist” in any absolute sense; we are not really “oppressed” by anything other than our own limited definitions and concepts.
The micro-physics of power is far more complicated than what a few “powerful” individuals with big guns would like us to think–their power is nothing more our ignorance of what power really is in the first place.

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