login | register
EN  |  DE


Panoply of Power

30 JAN 2017

published in: General

Louise Bourgeois, THE INSOMNIA DRAWINGS (March 21, 1995), 1994-1995, Detail from 220 mixed media works on paper of varying dimensions, Daros Collection, Switzerland © The Easton Foundation/Bildrecht,
Power of Desire

Power comes in many guises. Sometimes it assumes the shape of the sublime, sometimes the face of destruction. Sometimes it comes as a repressive force, sometimes it brings emancipation. While in dramatic texts, it often leads to the apotheosis of the hero and heroine, it can just as easily let them fall into an abyss. In all cases, however, our attention is drawn to the fact that something has disturbed the ordinary course of events. If the mechanisms of power at issue were operating transparently, we would hardly take notice of them. This doesn’t, of course, mean that finding closure for those events which made us aware of an intricate battle for influence and mastery in the first place is tantamount to the end of all power relations. These merely continue their course unseen.

Power emerges as an anomaly most strikingly when calculation and passion come into conflict. Strong emotions produce a force of their own, which either helps to implement a particular power game with utmost rigour or allows it fail magnificently owing to personal interests. Compelling – and thus the concern of dramatic art – are, in turn, primarily those stories, in which a rotten kernel at the heart of the law of power comes to surface. These stories render visible both the human casualties resulting from any ruthless enforcement of authority as well as the breaking point of power itself. Those who, by force, seek dominion over others, are themselves invariably implicated in this drive towards suppression. Empowerment and disempowerment manifest themselves as two sides of the same coin.

One of the most seminal preconditions for the survival of the community, played through in countless mythic stories, is, furthermore, predicated on a conflict between the desires of the individual and the cultural codes which necessarily curtail these. As a result, paternal authority and transgression are not only reciprocal, given that the law requires acts of violation so as to impose its prohibitions with particular urgency. Rather, a will to power inevitably also provokes resistance on the part of those whom it seeks to oppress. For this reason, resistance and protest against symbolic injunctions, have – as though in a countermove – emerged as the precondition of modern subjectivity as well. To insist on pitting personal ambitions and fantasies against public dictates and prescriptions means taking control over one’s own destiny. The cultural logic of scapegoating offers a poignant solution for this antagonism. Characters whose extreme behaviour allows them to be targeted as marginal, may – indeed must be – sacrificed in the name of community restitution.

At issue in this interplay between power and protest are, then, two types of repression. On the one hand, individual desires that threaten to fundamentally disturb the interests of a concrete family or community must be extinguished. At the same time, by virtue of sacrificing individuals deemed expendable, what also comes to be negotiated is the systemic suppression of those forces which fundamentally question society and its symbolic order. As a result, great mythic stories also thrive on a radical contradiction inherent to notions of heroic apotheosis: to accept the death sentence, which public law has chosen as its just punishment, may appear as a false choice, given that there is no escape from this conviction. To consciously choose this death, however, also transforms an external enforcement into the expression of an intimate wish. The force of fate becomes a necessity to which one willingly complies, because in one’s heart this is what one desires.


Download the complete essay here.