On Power, the Representation of Power and Visibility

It is a fact of existing or established power structures that the entity that is representative of power is, at the same time, represented as that which is powerful. For example, congress is both representative of power and represents power. The distinction is subtle but important. To be representative of power is to be a symbol of power. In contrast, to be represented as that which is powerful is to be powerful.The former is essentially symbolic, the latter is a claim about certain facts in the world. If the distinction is hard to envision its because in the world that we live in, their is no practical difference. That which is symbolically represented to us as powerful is also that which is powerful.

We might even say that what is constitutive of civilized, or modern, society is that these two notions converge. For the most part to be seen as powerful is to be powerful.

In the world that is forthcoming, this distinction will evolve and eventually be eroded. This is so because certain aspects of social formation will become visible that, heretofore, were invisible. The increased visibility of social forms will enable the emergence of alternative structures of power that, in time, will become visible. What will not change is that power is dependent upon visibility of social forms.

What will change is that the visibility of social forms will not be dependent upon their visibility emerging from existing power structures.

It’s important to note that. historically (and presently), visibility was closely related to established power structures, and in fact were mechanisms for reinforcing existing power structures. Controlling the media is an age old mechanism for the maintenance of power. In fact gaining access to the media is a well know strategy for the attainment of power. This line of argument is old news. What is less obvious is that this old news because in a very strong sense visibility is constitutive of power.

To get back to the point initially introduced… what is forthcoming are reduced constraints on the possibility of visibility and hence more possibilities for what is visible to represent power without as yet being represented as that which is powerful. To provide a simple example, we might envision an online community organizing for the purposes of eliminating poverty. At the outset what is observed would certainly be neither a representation of power nor representative of power. As the group grows and attracts members, commences certain action plans and starts achieving its goals, it will become visible as an entity that is truly powerful. It will represent power, but in a manner that is distinct from the structures where power is typically represented – powers that are represented as that which is powerful.

This will, in time, enable the emergence of groups such as this. They will emerge and in time be represented as that which is powerful.

If the distinction is still somewhat unclear then one must consider how, in the absence of systems, that eliminate the constraints of visibility, this group might have formed. The most likely scenario is that they would have formed a formal non-profit charter, organized local meetings, sought government and other funding support etc, Eventually they would likely have requested the support of government institutions, successful financiers and so forth. In short, they would have operated through the existing power structures as the conduit to power is through the existing power structure.

In what is forthcoming these relationships will evolve. We, therefore, see the intimate connection between visibility and power. That which is powerful is, in large part, what is most visible to most; what is most likely to be an object of the consciousness of others. The king is the most powerful in the kingdom because it is he that most people are aware of, most people are thinking about and so on. This is what it is to be powerful. It is this that creates the celebrity culture. It is that they are visible and that others desire to view them that results in their commanding the salaries that they do.      The important and interesting point is that historically their were constraints on the possibility of visibility. These constraints on the possibility of visibility can be understood as constraints in virtue of particular aspects of SPACE.

We might also now see why revolution happens so rarely… discussion of this issue will have to deferred…


One thought on “On Power, the Representation of Power and Visibility

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. Hannah Arendt conceived of the political as manifesting and disclosing oneself in the public realm. This analysis agrees that visibility is constitutive of power. Perhaps where you and her differ lies in her opinion that the contemporary world has all but done away with this classical space of public disclosure. Various technological innovations in communication, as your are so apt to point out, open up spaces for disclosure. To be sufficient, technology would have to be fully democratized for such disclosure, but it is conceivable. Certain forms are already on their way.

    In general, your tone is reminiscent of the Italian futurists of the early 1900s. They were fully optimistic about science and technology liberating humankind. They even had a Futurist Manifesto.

    Keep up the blogging.



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