Samuel Delany on Power

I have finally taken down, from my shelves, my long-ago-borrowed copy of Samuel Delany‘s Tales of Nevèrÿon (Bantam Books, New York, 1979) and started reading it. Almost immediately, in the first story of Gorgik, the mine slave taken “as a plaything to Nevèrÿon’s imperial court” (‘The Tale of Gorgik‘), I came up on the following Foucauldian ruminations on the nature of power – as evident in the imperial court:

The social hierarchy and patterns of deference to be learned here were as complex as those had to be mastered–even by a foreman–on moving into a new slave barracks in the mine….Indeed, among slaves Gorgik knew what generated such complexity: Servitude itself. The only question he could not answer here was: What were all these elegant lords and ladies slaves to?….The answer was simple: Power, pure, raw, and obsessive. But in his ignorance, young Gorgik was again closer to the lords and ladies around him than an equally young potters’ boy would have been. For it is precisely at its center that one loses the clear vision of what surrounds, what controls and contours every utterance, decides and develops every action, as the bird has no clear concept of air, though it supports her every turn, or the fish no true vision of water, though it blur all she sees. A goodly, if not frightening, number of these same lords and ladies dwelling at the court has as little idea of what shaped their every willed decision, conventional observance, and sheer, unthinking habit, as did Gorgik. [pp. 24-25]

Gorgik….was, for all his unfocused thought, learning–still learning. He was learning that power–the great power that shattered lives and twisted the course of nations–was like a fog over a meadow at evening. From any distance, it seemed to have a shape, a substance, a color, an edge, yet as you approached it, it seemed to receded before you. Finally, when common sense said you were at its center, it still seemed just as far away, only by this time it was on all sides, obscuring any vision of the world beyond it. [pp. 37]

Here, especially in the analogies drawn with the fish, the bird and the fog, Delany captures some key aspects of Foucault’s theorizing about imposed power: its opacity, its ubiquity, its invisibility to those controlled by it. And it is precisely at its ‘center’ that this all-controlling power is the least visible.  And Delany is wise too, in his description of what is affected most by power: “willed decision, conventional observance, and sheer, unthinking habit” – the building blocks of our selves. The first is a key component in our ascriptions of agency to ourselves, the second and third play key explanatory roles in our self-understanding, especially as most of us are too lazy to do the historical investigation required to discover the foundational underpinnings of our actions.

Note: These observations are also very good, literary descriptions of Bourdieu‘s fields of power: “[A] system of social positions…structured internally in terms of power relationships…a social arena of struggle”.

2 comments on “Samuel Delany on Power

  1. Jonathan Miller says:

    Good to See Delaney cited here. His novel Dhalgren is one amazing piece of fiction! As for understanding our own position in the power hierarchy, it is a struggle even to see beyond the fog – it’s so dense and we feel good when the outside remains invisible. So we – and I – remain comfortable within.

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