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”.

The Beating in the Bus

Violence against a ‘lower order’–visible and tangible preferably–is a time-honored technique of social control.  It brings pain and humiliation together in a cruel package and issues a stinging reminder of difference and domination; it has not lost any of its effectiveness over the years. This is a brief note on one such public display of violent assertion.

During my university years, I rode city transport–a bus–both ways to the campus on the other end of town. The city transit authority made available a limited number of buses exclusively for use by university students; these ran point to point from pick up locations in the city to the campus (and back.) Soon after I began using them, I became aware that the students regarded the drivers and conductors with what might be described as a kind of combative, yet perhaps even genial, contempt. Stories of edgy, verbal encounters with the transit staff were legendary, as were stories of fisticuffs. The reasons for these seemed to rise only one level above the trivial: the staff’s ‘rudeness’ seemed to be the most common reason for arguments or brawling to break out. This situation was made especially mystifying by the fact that interactions with the bus crew were minimal; the students carried monthly passes that meant we did not even need to buy a daily ticket.

One return trip from campus brought this needless conflict to the fore. On that day, a bunch of lads that rode in our bus–college athletes by the look of them–decided it would be a good idea to make it go on a little detour so that they could–rather more conveniently for them–alight at a spot closer to their final destination. They told the bus driver to divert; he ignored their rather brusque commands, drove on a little further on the usual route, and then halted at the next available stopping area.  He had done nothing else but stick to his prescribed duties. They did not, on pain of rational routing, call for idiosyncratic manipulations of the bus route on an ad-hoc basis by the bus’ passengers.

But hot-headed young men–perhaps uncertain of their futures, perhaps seething with resentment at the crushingly competitive futures that awaited them once they left campus, perhaps anticipating their domination by the economically privileged, and thus, perhaps seeking an outlet for their frustration–had been insulted. By a representative of those folks whose sole raison d’être seemed to be mindless chauffering them back and forth from the university; their only tasks, surely, were to take orders and execute them without complaint (and preferably with gratitude.) A lesson needed to be taught.

It was dispensed with remarkable efficiency. The driver was alone, not physically threatening in the slightest; the students were several and burly. A quick rain of kicks, slaps, and punches ensued; the driver, trapped in his seat and drivers cage, could not escape any of the blows; every one of them landed unerringly on his face, his jaw, his back. And then, his assailants were gone; we, the rest of the passengers on the bus, had been mere spectators. The driver was not incapacitated; somehow he composed and collected himself, and quietly drove on.

We rode on with him, silent in collective shame.