The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

Power: The Metonymic Model

In my last post I introduced the “panoptic model of power” as an explanation of where the name of this blog comes from. In doing so I touched briefly upon the concept of the panopticon, because at first glance “panoptic” is the word in that phrase that needs to be explained. I was able to take for granted that anyone reading would have some previous understanding of the word power. However, in presenting a new model of power I also implicitly challenged that understanding. Therefore, I believe that an examination of power as a concept is worthwhile before we go any further.

Often individuals and groups are spoken of as having power. For instance, America is a powerful nation – some would say the most powerful in the world. Within America, George W. Bush is currently in power. Here we are speaking of military power, political power, economic power. What does it mean to have this kind of power?

One can say, “George W. Bush invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power” in all seriousness without considering that it was not Bush himself but rather certain members of the United States military who invaded Iraq and toppled the government. Using the name of the President to stand in for the troops who are carrying out his orders is an example of metonymy, a rhetorical device in which one word or concept is used to stand in for a related word or concept. The use of metonymy is widespread when discussing power relationships. If officials from the US government sign an agreement with officials from the British government, it is said that Washington and London have signed an agreement. This, too, is metonymy.

If we read these metonymic statements literally what we see is a displacement of agency. Bush himself did not invade Iraq, nor did the city of Washington, D.C. pick up a pen and write its name on a piece of paper. In these examples, Bush and Washington are not direct agents but related concepts – concepts linked by the relations of power. They do not do anything themselves and yet the agency of the actions taken is ascribed to them through metonymy.

So one formulation of power we could postulate would be the metonymic model of power – the possession of agency not through action but through metonymic relations. The reason I am formulating power this way is to point out that it is not just individuals who wield power – it is also concepts, and it is also the names of these concepts. Under the metonymic model, “Washington” has power even though it has no real agency of its own. Washington, instead, is a symbolic agent – it has agency through a metonymic relationship.

By definition, then, metonymic power is the displacement of agency from an acting agent to a symbolic agent. This displacement of agency is what gives metonymic power its power. A displacement of agency is also a displacement of responsibility. Therefore, metonymic power gets its power from the human tendency to evade responsibility.

Thus, when we say that President Bush invaded Iraq we relieve ourselves – that is, everyone except our symbolic agent, President Bush – of the responsibility of invading Iraq. We do not blame the acting agents, i.e. the soldiers, because they were just following orders. But by relieving the soldiers of responsibility for their actions we enable them to take actions irresponsibly.

But we haven’t finished displacing the agency yet. We could also say that America invaded Iraq. America, after all, is the world’s most powerful nation. America is much more powerful than, for example, President Bush. This is because America cannot be an acting agent. America is a concept, a dream, a set of markings on a map. America is purely symbolic, which means that when we displace agency to America there’s no individual to take the blame or the responsibility. Soldiers can invade other countries because President Bush is assigned the agency; President Bush can invade other countries because America is assigned the agency. The idea of America becomes the ultimate authority and the ultimate scapegoat for any action because we can and do point to the action and say “America did that.”

If America is an extremely powerful symbolic agent, then perhaps the most powerful symbolic agent is God. God, as a concept or symbol, is often assigned all of the agency for everything that ever happens in the whole world. God is watching and God has a plan. God made this all happen for a reason. The Catholic Church was able to launch the Crusades in the name of God, and I certainly don’t remember which pope it was who harnessed this power, because ultimately the symbolic agents – the Church, and God – are much more powerful than the individual who puts these agents to use. The divine right of kings was a concept that said that all kings derived their authority from God, and thus to oppose the king was to oppose God. What is this other than a displacement of agency? Everything the king does as an acting agent is justified by the will of God, the ultimate indisputable symbolic agent from which all agency flows.

The power of polities and religions has often been described as hierarchical or top-down, with the power deriving from the king or God, and proceeding down through the nobility/clergy and ending with the peasants/laypeople. But in general terms, the king doesn’t have any more acting agency than the peasant, and God as a symbol doesn’t have any acting agency at all. Under a classic model of power this leads to a paradox: why do people follow the king, or God? The answer usually comes swiftly – fear – but I do not find this satisfactory. People have a natural tendency to displace agency. People don’t want to be responsible for bad things happening to them. People are happier with fewer choices. When people fail they want to justify their failures by blaming something other than themselves. Metonymic power is bottom-up power. It essentially consists of individuals passing the buck onward and upward until a satisfactory symbolic agent can be found.

(From a Lacanian point of view, one might say that the displacement of agency is an attempt to abdicate the Imaginary identity and return to a need-response paradigm. This argument is strengthened when you consider recent cognitive science work suggesting that conscious will exists solely as a marker of agency. People want to satisfy their feeling of lack by returning to a non-agencied, pre-conscious state.)

Perhaps at this point an example might help to clarify things: Let’s say King Jeff fights a war against the French. King Jeff doesn’t do the fighting himself. Instead, “King Jeff” is a metonymy: a word that stands in for a related word or concept, in this case, the subjects that do the fighting. But how is King Jeff, or “King Jeff,” related to his subjects? You might say the relation is power. I say, rather than Jeff being related to his subjects by power, he is powered by his relation to his subjects. The relation between Jeff and his subjects – the metonymic relation – is a displacement of agency. Jeff is related to his subjects in that he is their symbolic agent. He acts by them acting – their actions become his actions. This metonymic relationship is what constitutes Jeff’s power. Now if we substitute for “King Jeff” the word “England” in the above explanation we see how agency can be metonymically assigned to symbols or ideas and not just people. And indeed, “England” was considered one of the King of England’s names (Even if Jeff was never one of the King of England’s names).

Metonymic power accounts for a great deal of what is traditionally known as power. It bears mentioning that there is also power as a synonym for strength, capacity, or energy – as in, a car with a certain amount of horsepower, or a power tool, or a rock with the power to turn lead into gold. This type of power seems on it face somewhat less interesting, but it provides a good segue into a discussion of productive power, which I will discuss in a later post.


February 3, 2008 - Posted by | Power | , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] feel that their lives are created by their choices provides a certain amount of resistance to metonymic power. Metonymic power involves a displacement of agency and an abdication of personal or individual […]

    Pingback by Organized Labor: A Power Analysis « The All-Seeing Eye | February 24, 2008 | Reply

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