Friday, 25 January 2008

What Do I Know about Power? Part 1: Individuals

Lying awake in bed late Sunday night after Ken Reaume's CD release concert at Sneaky Dee's (which was awesome, by the way) when I should have been sleeping, I thought of Power and how it affects peoples' daily lives. I've thought about it for a few days now, and here is part of the result:

Obviously power always acts in our lives. Some say that all of our relationships are based on power, and I am inclined to agree. So why do we only talk about power at the fringes of daily life: in government, law, war, et c., and even then only offhandedly, as though it doesn't affect us? I think I say "we" fairly because I never have conversations about power with any of my friends or acquaintances, and I never see discussions about power on common internet forums. This may be because I don't initiate such talk, or perhaps there is a conspiracy afoot and all of my friends talk about power only when I'm out of the room. But I don't think so. I think that among the general populace, few talk about power except in the senses that I mentioned. That is, few seem interested in individual or even communal power. In fact, I think we actively avoid thoughts of power in our daily lives because they make us feel weak, insignificant, and unhappy (did you think that was just how it's supposed to be?).

Let me put it this way: as humans, we often feel that we have little to no control over the events in our lives. This seems natural to me, since there are countless things that happen to us daily for which it would be difficult for any person to assume full responsibility; e.g., slipping on an icy sidewalk and injuring oneself, winning the lottery, a family member or pet dying. These are events that we usually attribute to luck or chance and remove from the realm of choice. There are other things though, which are well within our power, that we also attribute to luck: certain sicknesses, the quality of our relationships, whether or not we get that promotion, et c. When we treat this latter type of occurrence as lucky, we detach ourselves from our own actions, we become passive, rather puppets being controlled by an unseen puppet master than actors giving life to our roles.

This has many negative effects. For example, feeling that I lack control in my life--that I do not have the power to make things go my way--makes me passive. As a result, I repress my desires since I feel like it is beyond my power to achieve them, and this makes me feel weak and sad. I look around and feel that everybody else has more power than me, and even the slightest sign of success in others decreases my confidence. So I look elsewhere to feel good about myself. I try to find other areas where I can exert control and feel powerful. This might be in the family through verbal or physical violence; it might be in the workplace through corruption or sexual harassment; it might be in the community through vandalism or theft. These are all recognizable areas where individuals step over the line, and for which they might be prosecuted. But there are more insidious avenues where I might more easily look to use my reduced power.

Rather than externalize my repression, I can internalize it and remove my attention from the outside world to the inside world. I can focus on pleasing myself rather than trying (inevitably unsuccessfully) to offer pleasure to the community.
This, I believe, is the more common reaction; not surprisingly, because it is where power intersects and conflicts with identity--how we see ourselves and how we relate to others. I can shop (and I am assuming this to be the most popular sublimation, especially as it facilitates the others); I can watch TV; I can drink alcohol and take drugs; I can eat; I can have sex with a stranger or masturbate to pornography; I can play video games, which is increasingly commonly among both sexes and all ages; I can consume celebrity gossip; I can go online and build up my virtual persona or take part in a virtual community; I can gamble; and so on, and so on. These are all more or less socially acceptable activities, and (in my opinion) there's nothing wrong with them in and of themselves. They allow us to control our own immediate pleasure and take our minds off of our frightening feelings of insignificance. They allow us to feel alive and in control, if only for a while. However, they are also anti-social, by which I mean they focus on the individual and diminish community. They take our minds off of our real needs and desires--our creative and passionate impulses--and our responsibilities: to ourselves (mind, body, and soul), our families, our communities, our countries, and the world.

Increasingly, individuals are defined by the things they buy, the shows and movies they watch, the games they play, their appearance, their partners, et c., rather than by the things they do and believe; in turn, this determines how we interact with others, defining our relationships. Obviously, this factor plays a very important when it comes to society. And eventually, I'll get to that.

I'm speaking very generally still here, and I hope to go into much greater detail about interpersonal power dynamics at another time. Maybe after another pre-sleep inspiration. Also, I'm sure most or all of this is recorded in various philosophers' and psychologists' work; if anybody has any references, let me know and I'll try to incorporate them.

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