Power Play

I'm probably the only scholar in all of academia not to know the answer to this question, but what is power, anyway? Sure, it's about force, but most of the time when we're talking about power it's more subtle than just who has the biggest weapon--isn't it? I'm thinking at the moment of a colleague who is studying women and power and how they hold it, and I can't seem to get around the question of what that means. If you can't threaten to kill somebody (or have somebody kill him or her) for not doing what you want, do you actually have power over them? See, there are times I really wish that I had power other than being able to hand out grades, but for the most part, that's it. Okay, and every year I get to help make decisions about whom we would like to have in our graduate program, but even that is fairly indirect: I get to make recommendations for my field and then the admissions committee hashes out how many offers we're actually able to make. It's like they always say: academic quarrels are so vicious because the stakes are so low. A few more students here, the esteem of my colleagues there, and that's about it. The sum total of academic power. And yet, how threatened I feel when someone treads on "my" turf, as if I could claim ownership over the past or even over the study of some tiny aspect of the past. If only I could take my sword and challenge so-and-so to a duel over this or that strip. And if I won? Hey, I'd be right back where I started--with no one to talk to. Some power trip.


  1. I am not Nietzschean in my conception of power (I am not even slightly Nietzschean), but I believe it exists everywhere, and I believe we all possess more than we like to assume (I am guilty of this). We shirk our power and we shrink from our power, but no one is looking anyone in the eyes, as Wilder hauntingly perceived. Simone Weil was right to call the Iliad an epic about power because she knew the immense power of eyes and gestures, as well. The sword, as you mentioned, becomes nothing more than an ironic token of power by the time it's wielded. The real power took place in the discussions between Agamemnon and Achilles at the beginning of the epic: if they'd have exerted more power over their own characters at the beginning, the devastating irony of conquest over nothing never would have ensued. And these epical characters are in no wise removed from our own spheres. They suggest the lengths we have to go to master ourselves. And, I think they suggest, un-poetically, the scope our power may assume when our first principles are inward. Instead of people being slain, I honestly think, the right word at the right time with the right tone (I take this part right out of Aristotle's Ethics) can help one stand.

  2. @Augie: Very well said! I've been thinking since I posted this entry yesterday about status and its relationship to power, and I've come to the conclusion (for the moment) that true status is actually something that is interior, not something that is imposed or granted from the outside. From this perspective, having power is another way of having status, but if status is interior, then it is really about maintaining one's own sense of self in the face of attack or dismissal. Which means that there is a way to face down other's efforts to refuse one status: stand firm.


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