For the first session we focussed on the concept of Power, using Steven Lukes' useful categorisation of the Three Dimensions of Power. This provides a convenient way of thinking about what could otherwise be a rather elusive topic.
Lukes' basic account of power is that it is a capacity bring about consequences, and that it differs from extreme cases of coercion where there is no possibility of agency (though it is arbitrary whether we consider these cases uses of 'power' or not). Power involves compliance, often, though not always, with another's wishes.
Lukes identifies 3 dimensions of power:
- Where there is a conflict, the one who gets his or her wishes has power over the other. This can be observed: it focuses on behaviour. (
- In some situations power is evident in agenda-setting. The powerful can control what even gets discussed.
- Least obviously, social norms, and other invisible forces can be at play which exert power over individuals without them realising that this is happening. These unconcsious forces are not necessarily malevolent, but can shape a person's entire life without him or her realising that. This is inspired by the Marxist notion of 'false consciousness', the idea that you may not know your own best interests, and may even be in thrall to a vision of society that shapes your preferences and beliefs yet leaves you thinking these are freely chosen, when in fact they simply serve the interests of the powerful.
Listen to a Philosophy Bites audio interview with Steven Lukes on Power (c15 mins) (Philosophy Bites is also available on iTunes and via an iPhone/iPad app)
You might also be interested in this Philosophy Bites interview with Susan James on Michel Foucault which includes a discussion of his approach to power. (c20 mins)
Machiavelli wrote about strategies for exerting the first dimension of power in his book The Prince. He, for instance, argued that if you have to chose as a leader whether to be loved or feared, then chose to be feared as love isn't an effective motivator in times of crisis, but you can exert your power through fear. Machiavelli challenged the classic wisdom that a ruler should be compassionate, lamb-like, and display Christian virtues: he argued that a good leader should be a combination of the lion and the fox. Use the lion's power and the fox's cunning.
In the gallery we concentrated on a room in the Citizens and States section of the Tate Modern collection, Citizens, looking at works such as Richard Hamilton's The citizen 1981 - 1983, discussing them in relation to Lukes' 3 dimensions of power.
We also looked at the power relations displayed by Tate Modern over viewers' interpretations of works in the section Abstraction and Society, and in particular the suggested reading of abstract works by Mondrian and others through the caption 'Works reliant on geometrical abstraction from different moments in the twentieth century reflect the aspiration to invent a new society'. The confident and seemingly authoratative caption here, written in abstract and somewhat academic language, could be viewed as exerting power of types one and two over the viewer. There seems little room for debate here, and some more conventional views of about Mondrian's intentions, for instance the idea that his move towards abstraction during turbulent times in the mid-Twentieth century could be seen as a turning away from pressing social issues to focus on spiritual metaphysical, aesthetic matters, don't get on to the agenda of those who are dependent on the captioning. A more charitable reading, however, would be that such captions are deliberately provocative and designed to prod viewers of the images to see them differently.
Next week we will be thinking about art and dissent.