Feminists often suggest that some activities claimed as ’empowering’ are not empowering, or are empowering in a flawed way, because they draw power from the fact of powerlessness, from collaborating with oppression. Examples sometimes discussed include stripping, burlesque, dressing sexily, or having plastic surgery. Now, given that this is a very contentious issue and I want to avoid pissing anyone off, I’m not going to take any position on whether these activities are a capitulation, what that would mean, what it implies if they are, etc. I just want to explore the concept.
So the argument runs something like this, if I understand. The feeling of power derived from successfully being sexy and eliciting desire is based on amending oneself, one’s actions and appearance and mannerisms, to fit a model drawn from someone else – to fit into someone else’s idea of what’s sexy. But real power is about taking one’s own desires and needs and preferences, and making reality fit them, not vice versa. An analogy might be with financial equality imposed by an absolute dictator – it’s equality, but established on the basis of, and depending on, inequality (of power). Consequently, no-one whose committment is to equality can support it unreservedly – whatever value it has is partial at best. Similarly, it is argued, any power gained from adjusting yourself to someone else is empowering yourself on the basis of, and depending on, their power over you. Consequently, no-one whose committment is to equality can support it unreservedly.
That at least is the argument. I’ve deliberately left vague what ‘unreservedly’ means. What interests me is that similar reflections can be applied to other cases. Consider the following lyrics from the song ‘Fight Music’ by D12, from the verse by Kon Artis:
“I come to every club with intention to do harm
With a prosthetic arm and smellin like Boone’s Farm
Hidin under tables as soon as I hear alarms
Paranoid thief that’ll steal from his own moms
Connivin Kon, Artis with a bomb
Strapped to my stomach screamin, “Let’s get it on!”
A lush that love to drink, drunk drivin a tank
Rollin over a bank, cops see me and faint
It’s drastic, I’m past my limit of coke
I think I’ll up my high by slittin your throat
Push your baby carriage into the street, ’til it’s mince meat
Your mens been beat the minute I step onto your street
This is fight music!”
Who would like to be this person? One-armed, foul-smelling, mentally unbalanced, unable to maintain relationships, struggling with alcohol and cocaine. It seems clear that such a person’s life will be largely miserable. Yet here it’s being celebrated – not even in the Blues sense of “look how hard things are, I gotta sing about it”, but with obvious relish at this fucked-upness. Why? Because “cops see me and faint”: this unstable, unpredictable, anti-social persona inspires fear and anxiety in others. And that’s not something to be sneered at. Better to be feared than to be ignored. Better to be an important threat than unimportant. Better to provoke a reaction by being such a conspicuous collapse of a person than to be a well-functioning and consequently un-noticeable person.
If this is the emotional basis of the song’s appeal, we should probably expect it’s audience to be, at least partly, people frustrated at their own lack of power. This is borne out by the following lines from the song’s chorus – the song is:
“just some shit, for these kids, to trash they rooms with
Just refuse whenever they asked to do shit”
Someone with power over their lives has no reason to trash their own belongings, nor to refuse for the sake of it. The matter is even more clearly expressed in the last verse of the song, where Eminem explains that:
“this song is for any kid who gets picked on
A sick song to retaliate to”
So ‘Fight Music’ is an anthem of those who are in some way powerless and whose response to that powerlessness is to try to be as much of a fucked-up anti-social destructive force as possible – because at least then they will be noticed. I think philosophers who take it as some kind of axiom that people want to be happy or to experience pleasure are completely wrong: people want to matter, to be of significance, and they are more than willing to sacrifice their own and other people’s happiness to that end.
But what’s most interesting is how similar this is to the ‘capitulating to patriarchy’ issue I mentioned at the start of the post. As in that case, the sense of power gained is based in appearing a certain way to others, whether that way is ‘fearsome’ or ‘desirable’. As such it’s power on the basis of lack of power, on the basis of adjusting oneself to others, not of adjusting one’s surroundings to oneself. When one comes to every club with intention to do harm, with a prosthetic arm and smelling like Boone’s farm, one is really more dependent upon the hapless civilians there than vice versa. It is a capitulation to the society that has made you feel so powerless in the first place.
Of course we should not overblow the similarities. There is a difference between striving to elicit fear and striving to elicit desire – for one thing, the person whose fear or desire is being elicited, is likely to be much more pleased by someone struggling to elicit their desire than struggling to elicit their fear. Indeed in the latter case they as individuals may well even be maimed or killed. So the form taken is very different, as are the potential consequences. But the basic orientation is the same: the powerless remain dependent on the powerful.
A contemporary example may perhaps be Hamas’ rocket-firing into Israel. To some extent, it seems to me, this activity is symbolic in its value: it doesn’t so much aim to destroy Israel (which it could obviously never do), or even to produce concessions from the Israeli government (much more debatable), as to just do something the Israelis won’t like. To show that the Palestinians are still there, and that no matter what Israel does it can’t stop them from firing rockets. To show that they cannot be ignored. To lose one’s house or liveliehood is traumatic, but so too is to suffer the psychological blow of being given the message that it doesn’t matter, that no-one cares, that your losses are simply not important. Against that, the desire simply to be noticed, to express some of your pain by causing anxiety and consternation or even occasionally death to that nebulous national agent that you feel is responsible, might be a very strong desire.
That seems to me to be at least something worth considering in looking at Hamas and the support it received from the Palestinians (I say received – given its methods of rule and conditions it’s hard to tell how much support it retains).
Finally, we might extend the analysis even further and apply it to those who actually do control the world. Governments, armies, businesses – they have huge power over others, but that doesn’t always mean huge power over themselves or their own lives. If a fair percentage of them are motivated by a love of power – which seems very likely, in one form or another – then aren’t they too ‘capitulating’ to the masses, ruling them to satisfy their own personal fears and insecurities? Dictators are dependent on others to hang up their portraits and carry their little books; management consultants are dependent on others to gaze enviously at their expensive trinkets.
I don’t know to what extent this is true. But I reckon it’s a significant one at least. It puts me in mind of Rousseau’s famous introduction to The Social Contract: after the first, and most famous line, “man is born free, but is everywhere in chains;” he adds that “those who think themselves the masters of others are greater slaves than they.”