Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Power and the Symbolic

Lefort claims that the rise of modern totalitarianism marks a "mutation in the symbolic [. . .] it takes power by destroying all opposition" (13). In light of the various articles by Thomas Keenan assigned for the week, I wish to propose here the following question: to what extent can media be defined as modern totalitarianism?

This question is especially interesting, considering Lefort aligns totalitarianism with the symbolic. It is in the order of the symbolic that the individual articulates the self, takes the name of the father. The symbolic order assigns laws--one must not sleep with one's mother--and sever one from nature. One cannot ignore the effect that contemporary media must play within the symbolic order. Media's constant flow of signifiers is a flow directly into the symbolic. Media is strangely absent from Lefort's piece. Though he claims to be concerned with "the most characteristic features of the new form of society. A condensation [. . . taking] place between the sphere of power, the sphere of law and the sphere of knowledge," he never once mentions the means through which this transformation is accomplished (13). It seems to me quite likely that the transformation Lefort concerns himself with is the rise of modern media. As Benedict Anderson articulated about the specific case of print capitalism, modern media has a reciprocal effect on society. Not only is it societal production, but it is the very space in which we conceive of community and society. Lefort refers openly to this production, but never calls it by its name: media. "Economic, technical, scientific, pedagogic and medical facts, for example, tend to be asserted, to be defined under the aegis of knowledge and in accordance with norms that are specific to them. A dialectic which externalizes every sphere of activity is at work throughout the social" (18). While seeming to point away from "media" to something broader, "the social", the very society he describes is one which is constantly becoming more mediatized. How else do we articulate, "externalize" this sort of knowledge? No other way than through our every-expanding range of media: everything from print capitalism to the blog.

Foucault told us that contemporary power does not act through coercion. Contemporary power makes one want to say yes.
"It seems to me that power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another; and lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies" (The History of Sexuality 93).
Our information is not ripped from us, externalized against our will. Rather, we give it up in this constant play of power, in attempts to gain power for ourselves. Furthermore, Foucault is well aware of the conflicts, the constant resistance to power.

Media cannot be modern totalitarianism. In fact, Lefort's discussion of totalitarianism, while an interesting point of departure from which to examine contemporary democracy, leads us in the wrong direction in the analysis of power structures. "The analysis, made in terms of power, must not assume that the sovereignty of the state, the form of the law, or the over-all unity of a domination are given at the outset; rather, these are only the terminal forms power takes" (Foucault 93). It would be more productive to start from the micro level, to examine media and social production.

Media cannot be modern totalitarianism. "The assertion of difference (of belief, opinion or morals) fades in the face of the rule of uniformity; the spirit of innovation is sterilized by the immediate enjoyment of material goods and by the pulverization of historical time; the recognition that human beings are made in one another's likeness is destroyed by the rise of society as abstract entity" (15). Media is the very space of this fading, this sterilization, this pulverization, this destruction. When one shifts their gaze from the macro to the micro, it becomes almost impossible to articulate the specific points of power. The kings and princes all seem to be headless.

Here, I'd like to break from this discussion, and pose a question: what is the most power an individual can have? Who are the supermen of our society, and how do they employ media to maintain their strength? To bring Lefort back into the conversation, "neither the state, the people nor the nation represent substantial entities. Their representation is itself, in its dependence upon a political discourse and upon a sociological and historical elaboration, always bound up with ideological debate" (18). Is the articulated, the "substantial" which has power, or is remaining unsaid, invisible, the key?

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