Brian Holmes on Thu, 20 Apr 2006 08:44:08 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Network, Swarm, Microstructure

Some thoughts about power

Foucault conceived a mode of sovereign power, related to the 
functioning of law in the Middle Ages (transcendent power of 
life and death, power to banish); a mode of disciplinary 
power, related to the functioning of institutions from the 
16th century onward (collective power to train, to correct, 
to reshape behavior at both sensory-motor and psychological 
levels); and a mode of liberal power, related to a capacity 
to evaluate the potential benefits, to oneself and/or the 
state, of circulations of all kinds (power to induce 
self-maximalizing strategies that make behavior predictable 
and modulable, without having to dictate it).

Finally, he also came somewhat reluctantly to admit and 
theorize the coexistence of all these forms of power, their 
hybridization in specific admixtures. An approach which has 
not been sufficiently developed imho.

I think the word "network" is a better descriptor of 
hardware and of protocols, than of forms of power (ie, 
regular and constraining patterns of social relations). A 
lot of confusion arises because of the desire to make one 
word, network, say much more than it can all alone.

I also happen to think (and this is where I do differ 
slightly from Felix) that the most common contemporary 
networks, though not all networks of course, have very weak 
and open protocols. Not particularly binding, somewhat 
exclusive of course, but not intensely exclusive either. The 
Internet can convey words, images, sounds. You can do it all 
for free with pirated Microsoft bullshit that takes thirty 
seconds to learn. Similarly, you can put a lot of different 
things on a train, and you can say a lot of different things 
over a telephone. This is massively done all around the 
world by people with incredibly different motivations, 
entangled in very different sets of constraints, 
disciplines, hierarchies, systems of law and so on. You can 
convey a tremendous amount of cultural attitudes, behavioral 
cues, conceptual structures via the net, the train or the 
phone, all of which don't have practically anything to do 
with the specific protocols of those technologies. It would 
be sort of strange not to notice that important permeability 
of the most widespread networks, with the most basic 
protocols. However, the fact that these cultural attitudes 
etc. do pass through the net, and through Microsoft, or 
through the train and the SNCF, or the phone and Mobistar, 
does have its real importance too. The forms of power are 
reorganized by the ones that are dominant.

In the world today, the liberal form of power is dominant. 
It is articulated by money first of all. The telos of money 
is to circulate. Its circulation is calculable with 
statistical methods. People can be expected to follow the 
cues of that circulation, and institutional and control 
functions can be built which make that expectation into a 
self-fulfilling prophecy. All this has an incredible effect 
both on discipline and on one's experience of transcendence. 
But it doesn't get rid of the influence of inherited 
disciplines or symbolic divides between the holy and the 
base, the includable and the excludable.

What money with its telos of circulation does do, however, 
is elicit a very clear ethos of resistance among certain 
minorities, an ethos which can and has gone very far in 
erecting all kinds of incitements and constraints to keep 
you from acting for profit. And so we do, in reality and 
when we're lucky, have cooperative networks as well.

What's needed is to understand very precisely the large 
number of social dynamics that have reconfigured themselves, 
for better and worse, according to the last great 
deterritorializing expansion and multiplication of the 
circulation of money, which has been accompanied and 
facilitated, even decisively reshaped, by the implementation 
of hyperindividualizing electronic networks.

Study the expansion of the American currency (or financial 
techniques), accompanied by the Internet, comsats and TVs, 
and you will learn a lot about the dominant structures of 
power articulated by the underlying logic of liberalism. 
Study the expansion of the vertically integrated American 
corporation and you will learn a lot about what discipline 
means in the world today. Study the expansion of American 
military bases and you will learn a lot about what sovereign 
power means today. The word American recurrs three times in 
the sentences above because the currently dominant ways of 
articulating all the three forms of power were invented 
there, from about 1890 onwards. But that doesn't cancel out 
deep and strange hybridizations of the type we see all the 
time, both between the three contemporary (ie dominant) 
forms, and between other kinds of power, sets of behaviors, 
concepts, values and world views, that have held historical 
sway elsewhere and at different times and that continue to 
reproduce themselves partially in circulating human beings.

The useful gain that could be made out of this conversation 
is to quit saying a network is this, a network is that. I 
definitely don't think you can specify networks to 
collaboration. Hierarchy can be conveyed perfectly by 
network technology; possessive individualism can express 
itself even better through network technology. However, if 
you start trying to talk about a specific set of values, 
goals, world visions and truth claims, and then you 
delineate the relation between those "worlds" and specific 
technical functions and  logical protocols that enhance 
people capacity to act within them, then you can start to 
describe some of the great variety of microstructures that 
have proliferated over the past thirty years.

great to hear so many ideas on this subject!

best, BH

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