Finding the face of power

We cannot have a world without structures of power, though we might wish for it. But if we must have power, what sort of power should we have? How should power present itself?

We go looking for one kind of powerful man, and we find a king wearing sumptuous robes and carrying a glittering staff. He blasts trumpets and pounds drums at his approach and wafts incense in his wake. When we come to supplicate him, he demands our prostration and does not forget for a moment that he is powerful, and we are not.

This is the best kind of power. First, because it is easy to find. We only have to follow the sound of drums and the smell of incense, and when we arrive in the gold-littered court there is little question that we’ve come to the right place. More importantly, the king himself knows that he is powerful. If we come to complain about his rule, he will admit that he is responsible even if he ignores our pleas. And because he knows he is responsible, he may even remember to do justice, may be persuaded to be good. And if not, because his power is a visible, sharp-edged thing, we can at least get out of his way.

We go looking for another kind of power, and we find a quiet woman sitting behind a plain wooden desk covered with papers. She looks up from her writing and offers us a cup of tea. We’re confused, because this does not look like a seat of power. The woman is confused as well. There is no power here, she tells us, clearly hoping that we will leave. She says she is a writer, a businesswoman, a minor bureaucrat. Why would we come to her looking for a seat of power?

This is a good question. We do notice there is a subversive book, or a foreclosure notice, or maybe just form 27b-6 lying on her desk. Is not this a kind of power? She shakes her head. This is just social justice, the free market, the will of the people, she assures us. There is no power here. Yes, some people will always go to extremes, get into too much debt, or vote for foolish policies. But this is not her fault. She is certainly not responsible.

Too bad about that. We had some questions about the exercise of this power, but we can’t find anyone who will answer for it.

1 Comment

  1. Since I’m immersed in my writing project on the DC animated universe I’ve been considering this sort of thing a lot. Grant Morrison (long-time comics author) recently published a book in which he pointed out that the crazy truth seems to be that kids don’t stop to ask how Batman manages to run a huge company while fighting crime while adults have to know how he does it in a “realistic” way. At the other side of the spectrum Art Spiegelmann (of “comix” notoriety) declared that superheroes never interested him because he saw it all as the power fantasies of children rather than of grown-ups. To that Grant Morrison has been saying that a few post-pubescent adjustments considered, the grown-up power fantasies are really no more grown up than what children want from people who have power.

    I think Grant Morrison’s ideas on religion are crazy neo-pagan nonsense but on knocking down the distinction between “grown-up” and “childish” explorations of how power should be used and what it ought to look like I think he’s got some points. It’s telling that each generation of American pop culture has found a want/need for superheroic stories just as “serious” authors and critics keep dismissing the stuff as too simplistic or childish.

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