Anthropology of Power -- long Bateson article
Phillip Guddemi (pguddemi@WELL.COM)
Fri, 15 Mar 1996 16:58:16 -0800
Since the question of the anthropology of "power" has come up in this list, I
wanted to post the following notes by Gregory Bateson which were published in
the Winter Solstice, 1974 issue of the _Co-Evolution Quarterly_ (now the
_Whole Earth Review_), pp. 26-27.
Stewart Brand introduced these as "notes, pre-pondering, for a conference on
New York's Robert Moses that Gregory is participating in this winter."
(_Ibid_, p. 24) Robert Moses was the famous or infamous planner (I believe
his title was Parks Commissioner) who brought New York City into the
automobile age during the mid-20th Century. He was the subject of a
celebrated book, _The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York_ by
Bateson's ideas about power are challenging and abstract. Some of them
resonate with many of the concepts in the current thread. Others must be
understood as part of Bateson's personal fight against the importation of
analogies and models copying the non-biological sciences (such as physics)
into social (and biological) science. He saw "power" as one of these, like
"psychological energy." His discontent with middle-level social scientific
analysis was partly with its use of imprecise language which he sometimes
called "medieval" but which he more often called "dormitive," referring to a
passage in Moliere in which a doctor passed his examination by declaring that
opium put people to sleep because opium contained a dormitive principle. Thus
the concept of "power" is suspect throughout the draft paper, which tries to
unpack and even subvert it. This contrasts with garden-variety Marxists or
Foucaultians who are more concerned with using "power" as the explanatory
principle _for_ what they observe.
DRAFT: Scattered Thoughts for a Conference on "Broken Power"
(GREGORY BATESON, from the Co-Evolution Quarterly, Winter 1974)
1. The title refers to a characterising theme of our epoch: that the
concentration of political power which enabled Robert Moses, the "Power
Broker", to act effectively, is today a sociologically and psychologically
obsolete phenomenon. As things are today, such concentrated freedom of
initiative could only be recreated by _emergency_ (war, revolution, or
ecological disaster); and perhaps a question for the conference will be: how
can large scale decisions of the scale of city planning and upward be reached
2. Note that the scale of decision is to be measured in _space_, in _dollars
and materiel_, and in _time_. The active political life of a human being is
usually less than forty years-- and today the time span of decision--
especially ecological decision-- is rapidly becoming much longer than this.
3. As a result of systems theory, ecology, cybernetics, and even semantics,
the metaphor, "power", as used in talk about politics and personal relations
is no longer acceptable. In principle all metaphors derived from a physical
world of impacts, forces, energy, etc., are unacceptable in explanations of
events and processes in the biological world of information, purpose, context,
organization, and meaning. The "power" metaphor must therefore be carefully
pulled to pieces for whatever meaning it has-- and must be looked at, as a
functioning falsehood or error, causing what pathologies? Self validating up
to what point?
4. It will be a task of the conference to try to spell out in terms of
patterns of interaction in real time what the metaphor "power" really denotes-
- a re-examination of the basic premises of political science in the light of
cybernetics. Some partial meanings of the metaphor are offered in the form of
a) "Power" is (or is located at) bottlenecks of information flow. The
"powerful" individual receives much information and has decision (or just is
lazy and inefficient) over whether the information shall be passed on.
b) "Power" is located at points of decision regarding distribution of
rewards and punishments.
c) "Power" is located at points of decision regarding "values"-- _what_
shall be rewarded and punished. (I.e., "Christ" is still perhaps powerful in
d) "Control" (by example, charisma, etc.) of taste-- rage-- amusement--
e) "Control" of the definition of contexts, punctuation, etc.
f) "Control" of the flow of goods and services.
5. Basic questions of the _economics_ of "power" are unsettled, i.e., we have
to ask about "saturation". Are there limits to concentration of "power" in
one part of a system, as there are limits to concentration of information? Is
"power" in any sense-- a) through f) above-- _used up_? Is "power"
6. What are the units of measurement in terms of which we say that A has more
"power" than B? Are comparisons of power transitive? (I.e., if A has more
than B; and B has more than C; does it follow that A has more than C?) In
general, "powers" (as defined by 4a) through f)) are not expectably transitive
7. Relation of "power" to skill in its manipulation. (Note that "skill" as
measured in games is not a transitive. If team A beats team B; and B beats C;
A will not necessarily beat C.)
8. Relation to "power" to scope, either in time or space. Note that "power",
when scope is large, begins to approximate "wisdom". But wisdom crieth out in
the house tops and no man regardeth?
9. Relation of power to _expertise_. It is here that the architect, engineer,
ecologist, and other persons with special technical training have their say.
10. Relation of "power" to myth. Can we say that current mythologies of
health, etc., etc., are in some sense "powerful"? Who makes these myths? And
when? And how?
11. All in all, when we poke the metaphor, we find that it conceals a vast
tangle of interlocking notions, _none_ of which gives any support to the
analogy between social, psychological and organizational "power" and physical
power (energy per hour, MV-squared/T, horsepower, or watts, etc.)
12. Note that the _myth_ that political success depends on "power" which
somehow resembles horsepower and watts must necessarily corrupt. It is
perhaps the myth that corrupts more than the success...
13. In any organized proceeding, the multiple senses of "power" become
evident. Consider a court of law. There is one sort of "power" for the
judge, another sort for the jury, other sorts for the attorneys on each side,
a special sort for the defendant, and another sort again for the policeman at
the door. It is precisely the _differentiation_ of sorts of power that is
basic to all _systems_ (political, ecological, etc., etc.) and this fact
necessarily bankrupts the analogy between power in physics and "power" in
14. Perhaps the nearest "reality" to the metaphoric myth of "power" is a large
or important _part in an ecosystem_. And in this metaphor the word "part"
carries two meanings:
a) The individual who is in a crucial position in the system is a _part_
of that system and is therefore subject to all the constraints and necessities
of the particular part-whole relationship in which he exists. The part can
"control" the whole only up to a formal logical level.
b) The crucial individual is also a player in a drama (whose "unities"
are ecological). He has a "part" in this sense and is therefore reinforced by
applause, prestige, etc. Consider here the individuals who contrive to be the
"power behind the scene" (an interesting mixed metaphor which shows that the
theatric component of the crucial status is not lost upon those who covet such
15. Note that the reinforcements and/or perquisites of critical eco-status
are, perhaps all, only messages which partly _validate_ that status. Or--
more precisely-- validate the _label_ of that status. "Id rather be right
than be a millionaire", but being a millionaire or being honored by fame and
applause is surely a strong evidence and validation of my eco-label as crucial
to (and in a strange sense "loved by") the system. It is the endless and
insatiable hunger for this validation of what is after all only a limited
truth-- it is this insatiablility that creates a runaway. The lie that
"power" could be absolute and that comparison of "power" could be transitive--
this metaphoric lie sets the stage for the maximizing of "power".
But the actor has only a _part_ in the play; the tiger is only a part of the
16. Note that the criterion which most sharply divides the metaphor of "power"
from the ecologic metaphor, "part of" or "part in", is precisely contained in
the matter of transitivity. All mammalian needs are for optima. An optimum
amount of protein, oxygen, sex, warmth, entertainment, water, air, etc., is
what is "good". And all these goods become toxic beyond the optimum. If some
X is good, then more X is not neccesarily better.
The metaphor of power derived from physics or engineering suggests that more
power will always be more powerful. But this is an anti-biological, anti-
ecological view of the matter-- an untrue view.
Money and population are the only contexts for maximization. (And money is
17. Consider problems of irreversible change. The man who drew the first plan
which defined the "avenue blocks" of New York as long, and the "street blocks"
as short, committed later generations (how many?) to an awkward problem in
But more interesting are "points of no return" in the processes of ecological
change. I understand from the "power Broker" that Moses committed a great
number of irreversible errors of the first type and that the aggregate of
these errors is a possible determinant of the "democratic" trend which would
prevent the rise of similar crucial individuals--
So-- having thrown away our only conventional tool for thinking about "power"-
- what next?
In other words, the social changes which give rise to our conference-- that
change from the possibility of people like R. Moses to the impossibility of
such people or roles-- that change is perhaps partly a corrective change in
mythology-- the partial discarding of a false metaphor. A good riddance.
end of Gregory Bateson citation.
Phillip Guddemi [email@example.com]