Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Power? by Alicia Harris

Reading Foucault's Panopticism, I have been thinking a lot about power.

First off, I want you to watch this video. On a side note, I think that there's a lot of fascinating intersections happening between hip-hop culture and art historical theoretical practice right now (more on that here, here, or here).

On with the video:

Thanks, Kanye. Now let's dissect.

Foucault does a lot of work to explore how power itself serves to homogenize individuals and mediocratize society. Kanye seems to feel a degree of injustice at this. He explains:
I just needed time alone, with my own thoughts
Got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault
My childlike creativity, purity and honesty
Is honestly being prodded by these grown thoughts
Reality is catchin’ up with me
Takin’ my inner child, I’m fighting for it, custody

But Kanye. KANYE! Who holds the power in this video? What is that power. He stands alone, with his ostentatious all-red skinny jeans and leather jacket, and with his Mr. T bling. He is alone, with his Ceasar crown of laurels, among all of those scantily clad women, who are utterly homogenized and same-ified. The normalizing judgment is at an all-time high here. They have become a writhing mass of super- sexualized nothingness. He is as controlling of power as they come, the assumed male gaze, once again, is taking its expected position.

Foucault counters and explains:
The body of the king, with its strange material and physical presence, with the force that he himself deploys or transmits to some few others, is at the opposite extreme of this new physics of power represented by panopticism; the domain of panopticism is, on the contrary, that whole lower region, that region of irregular bodies, with their details, their multiple movements, their heterogeneous forces, their spatial relations; what are required are mechanisms that analyse distributions, gaps, series, combinations, and which use instruments that render visible, record, differentiate and compare: a physics of a relational and multiple power, which has its maximum intensity not in the person of the king, but in the bodies that can be individualized by these relations.

Many interesting things are happening with race in this video. In the foreground, one black and one white woman wrassle about at 1:45. I think there are interesting things Kanye is trying to say here about race, but maybe he is forgetting gender...

My questions are these:
-Is everything really all about power?
- Does power and our relationship to it produce our reality? To what degree?
-What are the power systems that you operate within? School? Church? Gender roles? Race? What else?
-How much power do we have as individuals in our various systems?
-Can we live deliberately enough to subvert a system, or is that systematic in and of itself?
-How does this inform art historical practice? What power do you hold?

After all,
No one man should have all that power
The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours
Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power

As Foucault says, the power might not be directed at you, but the fear of it keeps you in check- keeps the ladies fighting (sometimes literally) for attention.


  1. I love EVERYTHING about this. I love Foucault and boy do I love Kanye. I was thinking about this article for months after I read it and I have been thinking of the semiotics of Kanye for a while now.

    As for your questions:
    Is everything really all about power? In short: Almost everything. I think great civic and religious leaders show that you can perform truly selfless acts (although many would probably argue that they were doing this to garner public support, aka power, for their various sects). I believe that there is something beyond power, although I appreciate that almost anything could be argued as a power play.

    Does power and our relationship to it produce our reality? To what degree? I think about them often. How much of my paradigm is controlled by the systems into which I was born, which have created my reality. I am increasingly convinced that it is more than I expect.

    Can we live deliberately enough to subvert a system, or is that systematic in and of itself? As fatalist as it sounds, I do think that everything we do is motivated by our desire to adhere to or rebel against a power system. The key, I believe, is choosing correctly the systems to follow and those to rebel against. And by correctly I don't mean those which will make us richer or more successful, but those which will promote the greatest good for the greatest number.

    How does this inform art historical practice? What power do you hold? This is the question. What I fear is that we have become so elite in our withholding of power/knowledge from the general population that we run the risk of obsolete-ing ourselves. The abuse of power can have drastic consequences.

    On this theme: Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady is such an interesting essay on the covert use of power.

  2. merg, I hate thinking about power because then I fall into the (downward) spiral of analyzing all of the ramifications of the (ahem) fact that we can't escape subjectivity and manipulation and defining each other.

    I have a way too many words about the portrayal of women thing. Which also has the other side of how we portray white males, males in general, and the mail. Bad joke. sorry.

    It seems it's imperative that we at once celebrate these differences so we love who we are, where we come from; and at the same time abolish them so we don't drive a wedge between us. I have yet to figure out the appropriate way to do both at once.

  3. You totally threw me off with the discussion of actual power in this post. Instead, when I first saw this video, it made me think of Renaissance ceiling paintigs (a comparison made batter with the non-live video for power) but also the paintings of Kehinde Wiley. Wiley paints young people from the inner city in the style of stately portraiture. Such paintings draw upon powerful theatrical notions from long ago and put the subject, rather than the artist, in a place of power.

    So tangentially related but I hope you look him up.

  4. Wow, I love this post and all of its accompanying questions. I think that it is fascinating to see how various components of art "history" (implying the past) are still not only relevant and ravenous in contemporary culture, but that they can give us a new approach at which to look at powerful figures in our own world. I guess that rap artists will be what we consider right now.

    Like you, I find it hard to buy his argument that he is attempting to escape and fight through this world of being normal to finding empowerment. Because for Kanye, as I guess Foucault would agree, power comes at the cost of depriving others of their voices so that they are subjected to the confusion and isolation of dominance from the one who is always able to look at you. It is your exposure and fear of punishment that motivates you, and I find that matter EXTREMELY problematic when it comes to gender here.

    I wonder how these people who would identify themselves as dancers would feel about their re-categorization as part of a homogenous "mass of super-sexualized nothingness." You hit it right on!