Power, Representation, and Imagination

Regenia Gagnier’s densely researched, interdisciplinary analyses (presented via the Robert & Lillian Drake Lecture Series) imply an argument about the character of power. As I interpret her readings, the greatest powers exist variously in:

  • the oppressive web of countervailing attractions and pressures, such as the strategies of rivals, that act on Trollope’s characters;
  • the historicity that renders a single psychological moment the conflicted site of one’s past, present, and future, such as in Dickens’s tragic characters;
  • money under capitalism as, according to Marx, “the truly creative power,” indeed, the power of freedom itself, depicted in Little Dorritt’s Merdle, whom Gagnier interprets as “the abstract character of money itself” (10);
  • not in individuals alone or individual institutions, but rather, in “institutional alliances between legal, political, and economic institutions—Bar, Barnacles, and Bank Dickens calls them” (10); and in
  • the “energy of competition, entrepreneurship, upandcomingness and desire for recognition” that constitutes Dickensian “vitality,” which Gagnier identifies as a source of hope. (This “energy” or “vitality” recalls, for me, David Hume’s less optimistic notion of perpetual “flux,” or the play of forces of which the self is an effect.)

Above all, power thrives in the mutually constituting forces of biology and culture through which humans form and define themselves, as illustrated, for example, in Victorian notions of a physiological will. Power, always characterized by dynamism, takes the form of concatenations, technologies, and systems, which can function in social worlds as cancers or contagions. At the same time, however, Gagnier argues that the literary and philosophical anthropologies she analyzes perceive humans as “the ultimate technological animals, the niche-constructors, [who use] their technologies to transform the environment and themselves wherever they are,” thus attributing agential power to people, or collectives of people (15). Despite the fact of this (incomplete) list, Gagnier’s work makes it impressively difficult to name the source or nature of power in the constitution of human beings as Victorians imagined them. On the level of analysis, she discovers that her conception of relationship serves as a more powerful tool for understanding than do “identity, essence, property, or linear causality” (1).

On the question of power, I find it useful to turn to Foucault’s theory of the “omnipresence of power” articulated in The History of Sexuality (Vol. 1). For him,

Power’s condition of possibility, or in any case the viewpoint which permits one to understand its exercise, even in its more ‘peripheral’ effects, and which also makes it possible to use its mechanisms as a grid of intelligibility of the social order, must not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique source of sovereignty…power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical [sic] situation in a particular society. (HS, 93, emphasis mine)

Gagnier’s work bears out the thrust of Foucault’s theory on both the level of content and methodology. This is the strength of her analyses and of the anthropologies and biosciences she studies: she resists privileging any one system, “central point,” or “strategical situation,” just as she refuses loyalty to a single professional discipline. Any problem worth solving, she advises, cannot be solved using only the terms of one discipline. Importantly, like causes, perceived centers, and sites of origin, names work to fix and reduce powers, whose essential changeability renders them unnamable. At stake here, as for Foucault, is the problem of representation: the (faulty or fruitful) names we give to Power.

In the context of Gagnier’s and John Dupré’s work, I wonder: what modes of representation emerge as potential ideals for comprehending the “powers,” or multiplicities, they study? In terms of Gagnier’s investigations, what about the novel makes it an especially rich form for anthropologies of the human animal? Can we best understand the strength of the novel, or perhaps of narrative itself, as its fundamentally interdisciplinary form? As a natural-cultural mode that adapts along with humankind, itself a sign of hope in the possibility of change and in the powers of people? To turn to Dupré’s work: an attendant at his Monday lecture, entitled “What are Genomes,” asked a variation of this question about the representational abstractions used in science education and research today. This person asked: What do we do—scrap our existing models? If so, what kinds of models should we use in order to heed, as Dupré had suggested, process over distinct object, dynamism over stasis? Of course, there is no simple answer to this question, for there is no magic medium of communication. That said, I left this talk believing that the greatest tool—the tool we must cultivate when faced with the limits of the Symbolic—involves the greatest power of them all: Imagination. What better than a good novel to do that?

Diana

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~ by bellonvandy on March 30, 2009.

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