What Superheroes Teach Us About Power

This is part 5 in an ongoing series about art and power

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about power, looking at some of the big power theories out there. But many of our everyday theories of power are not buried in academic libraries, but right in front of us in gleaming spandex. I’m talking about superheroes. If superhero comics are all about power, what kind of power are they talking about? What are they teaching us? Read on, true believer!

Power as the Ability to Act
Since Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics, most superheroes have been defined by one or more powers: flight, invisibility, healing factor, vomiting, etc. In this sense, a power  is an ability. This usage implies that we all have “powers,” though ours are decidedly less super. I, myself have the power to walk, to breathe, to protest, and to blog. In their typology of power, Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller would call this kind of powerPower To…the unique potential of every person to shape his or her life and world.” This use of the word power also assumes that power is something that an individual has and can use — though it can be taken away with some well-placed kryptonite.

Some community organizers, like Ernie Cortez Jr. of the IAF, speak about power in a similar way. Because they see building power in marginalized communities as positive, they separate the word power from negative ideas like oppression and domination. They often point out that power in Spanish — poder — simply means “to be able to.”

Power = Responsibility
Perhaps the most famous line in comic book history came from Spiderman: “With great power comes…great responsibility!” Superheroes are those who take up this mantle of responsibility to others, while supervillains do not.

This resonates with the ideas of Steven Lukes. Lukes says that one of the reasons we need to talk about power is because we need to figure out who we can hold responsible. He defines the “powerful” as those to whom we can attribute responsibility — either for acting, or for not acting. Just like Spiderman holds himself responsible for not stopping a thief, who later killed his uncle, we can hold powerful people like CEOs and politicians responsible for not protecting the environment (for example) even if they aren’t the ones doing the polluting. This is because they have the power (and thus the responsibility) to step in.

Power Corrupts
In one of my personal favorite comic book stories of all time, the Dark Phoenix Saga, the author (mis)quotes Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We see this corruption in action as Phoenix, who has the power to consume stars, turns into Dark Phoenix and does just that. In a more recent twist on this theme, the comic series Irredeemable shows how a superman-like character, with a bit of an inferiority complex, transforms into an unstoppable villain.

Today the casualness with which we approach corruption in government shows that we pretty much take this idea as a given. The “balance of powers” in governments like the US is an attempts to avoid absolute power and thus absolute corruption (though this balance seems to be deteriorating).

Money is Power
The X-men got their powers from genetic mutation, Superman from our yellow sun, and the Fantastic Four from “cosmic rays.” But Batman was just really, really rich (and a little crazy). This was enough to land him a spot among the worlds most powerful superheroes in the Justice League.

In his classic, much reprinted book “Who Rules America,” G. William Domhoff has thoroughly documented the connection between economic wealth and power over the history of the US. He doesn’t quite say money is power, but shows that money is a resource for power, money can lead to power, and money is an indicator of where power lies — showing us just how unequal power distribution is. We now know people like Bruce Wayne as “the 1%.”

Collective Power
While many comics celebrate purely individual power, there is also a strain of collective power running through the superhero world. The X-men in particular continually learn that while each has a specific, individual power, its usually only by combining their powers that they can succeed. As the recent Avengers movie showed, even the most powerful must unite when the big threats come down. Combining our powers makes us more than the sum of our parts.

The power of collective action is sometimes called “power with.” Bernard Loomer writes about a similar concept of “relational power,” which is the power that comes from true collaboration, from not only being able to change others but being open to change yourself.

What Comics Don’t Teach Us About Power
While there are many types of power at work in superhero comics, it is perhaps more notable which types of power are absent. There is little to no talk of the power of systems and institutions, or the power of cultural forces like mass media. What if power is not something a person can “have” at all, but something that surrounds all of us, shaping not only what we can do but what we even think is possible? I’ll be exploring some of these ideas in upcoming posts in this ongoing series.

Where is the Power? Creative Power Analysis and the Arts

This is Part 4 of a series on Art and Power

Where is the power? That’s the question at the core of a power analysis, one of the most useful tools that community and movement organizing have today. While it can look different across organizations, a power analysis basically charts out the power relationships relevant to a campaign, an issue, or a movement.

A controversial pic of Obama teaching about Power Analysis, much attacked by the right.

A youth organizing group taking on discipline policies in schools, for example, might gather together and map out who really holds power over discipline policies. Can the principal change them on her own? Is it mandated by the district? Is it a state government matter? What outside forces are supporting the current policies? Who funds them? These questions help the organization to choose allies and targets. On the flip side, power analysis can be done on ourselves. What kinds of power do we have? Where does our power come from? How is it best used?

Cultural organizers and arts activists may struggle to answer these kinds of concrete questions, as we work in the realm of culture and are often taking on invisible forms of power. But there are a few methods that I’ve run across that could be helpful in this regard.

One of the most comprehensive frameworks to help groups do power analysis is that developed by John Gaventa at the Institute of Development Studies, building on the work of many organizers and academics. It is called the Power Cube, and it breaks down power across three axis: levels of power (global, national, local, household), spaces where power is exercised (closed, invited, and claimed) and forms (visible, hidden, and invisible). The power cube helps us to look not only at formal decision making, but at the cultural and psychological aspects of power — key to the work of cultural organizing. This tool has been used by groups around the world, and you can find an interactive explanation and many examples at the power cube site.

Another fabulous process is narrative power analysis, developed by SmartMeme and outlined in their book Re:Imagining Change. This analysis can help groups who want to shift the cultural discourses around their issues as a key part of addressing injustice. First groups analyze the current narratives that are helping to maintain the status quo by making injustice seem normal, inevitable, or justified (for example, the narrative of meritocracy and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” helps to justify poverty). Next, groups figure out where these narratives are weakest — for example where they contain unstable contradictions. Finally, groups build new, truer stories meant to challenge, subvert, or replace these dominant stories. This is part of SmartMeme’s “story-based strategy.” While such a strategy doesn’t need to involve art per se, it is inherently cultural in nature, and quite in line with the goals and principles of cultural organizing.

Finally, Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (TO). I was trained in these techniques in college, and was fortunate to attend a workshop with Boal before he passed away. Boal saw the possibility that theatre could be, if not the revolution, then “rehearsal for the revolution.” As a method of power analysis, TO is particularly good at addressing very personal and internal forms of power. TO brings people together to explore how oppression functions in their lives, and how they might confront it, by quite literally performing different possibilities. It starts not with big ideas — racism, homophobia — but with their everyday manifestations. Through image theatre, forum theatre, and the largely internal rainbow of desire, we can come to better understand — cognitively, emotionally, kinetically — what forces shape our lives, and what power we have to create real change.


More than the Sum of its (P)Arts: Relational Power and the Arts

This is part 3 in a series on Art and Power

Last post I wrote about the three faces of power — visible, hidden, and invisible — and how each type of power is used to oppress and dominate (as well as how we can use art and culture to resist). But power is not only a force of oppression and control. It can also be a force of creation and liberation. As organizers like Ed Chambers remind us, power simply means “the ability to act.”

Scholars and organizers have taken to distinguishing between two types of power. The first is what Bernard Loomer called unilateral power, often referred to as power over. Unilateral power is the ability to shape others to your own interests. It is sometimes seen as a zero-sum game — if you increase power, I lose it. Whoever has the most power wins. Social change groups exercise unilateral power when they mobilize large numbers of people, and sometimes money, and force decision makers to change their ways.

But there is another kind of power that Loomer calls relational power and many today refer to as power with. Relational power captures the strength that comes from people realizing their common humanity, and being able to act together. Rather than being zero-sum, it increases when more people are involved. It includes the capacity to be changed, as well as to change others. Social change groups exercise relational power as well, both within identity groups, and across lines of difference, developing relationships with sometimes-unlikely allies. In education organizing, for example, many groups have found that where they would once rely on power over to force principles to change school policies, it is sometimes more productive to build power with principles, towards shared ends.

The arts are probably not all that helpful in terms of exercising unilateral power. It’s tricky to use art to forcefully change others’ actions — though my brother makes some sculptures that could potentially serve as blunt weapons. Certainly arts can be used to capture media attention and make rallies and marches more engaging. But when it comes to forcing the hand of power holders, sheer numbers are the reliable favorite.

When it comes to building and exercising relational power, however, artistic and cultural practice come into their full strength. When we build relational power, we learn to see one another not as means to an end, but as full humans. We recognize what is similar among us, as well as appreciating differences. We begin to understand how, as indigenous artist-activist Lila Watson says, “your liberation is wrapped up in mine.” And we open ourselves up to change.

We start to build relational power through storytelling. A great example of storytelling through art to build relational power is the work of Batey Urbano. This Chicago-based organization is a space where Puerto Rican youth can share poetry, music, visual art, and more — leading them to realize that their experiences are similar and to commit to fighting injustice. Furthermore, Batey gathers with other marginalized groups outsides the Puerto Rican community, sharing their stories through hip hop and building ties of solidarity across difference. (For more, see Hip-Hop to Humanization)

We exercise relational power when we maintain long-term relationships and act in concert — not through negotiation and compromise, but through mutual transformation. It is one thing to agree to a short-term alliance when your interests happen to line up. This is valuable, but still an expression of unilateral power. To exercise relational power we need to combine creativity with vulnerability.

As a theater educator, I spent a number of years facilitating groups as they learned about one another, examined the world around them, and created original plays based on their collective writing and improvising. At its best, this space served as a forum for the exercise of relational power — though I did not know the term at the time. And whether we are creating a piece of art, a community, a consensus, or a movement (or all those combined), we would do well to keep that same spirit of improvisation and creativity at the center.

Taking On the Invisible “Man”: How Art Confronts Power

This is Part 2 in a series on Art and Power.

If our arts and cultural work is to truly bring about social change, we need to understand what we are up against. There are multiple kinds of power wielded by the powerful, some more conducive to artistic intervention than others.

According to a theory first put forward by Steven Lukes, and further developed by John Gaventa and others, power has three faces. The most visible face is the power to win out in formal decision making, whether in congress or in the board room. This is sometimes called visible power, and some have made the mistake of thinking this is the only kind of power there is. Visible power can be engaged with through formal channels such as lobbying. The arts have been used occasionally in the realm of visible power — for example, Augusto Boal’s Legislative Theater.

There is a second kind of dominating power called hidden power. This is the power to decide who is at the table when visible decisions are made, and which issues can be raised. Much of the work of activist and organizing groups is focused on getting new voices to the table, and raising ignored issues. The arts can help amplify these voices, and frame issues — for example, through political posters or grassroots media.

But there is also a third, more insidious, kind of power: invisible power. This is the power to control what people even think is possible. Invisible power hides the very fact that power is at work. We can see its effects when we begin to think that poverty or racism, for example, are natural: “just the way things are.” This power does not need to be used intentionally — it exists in the culture and shapes all of us. Arts and other forms of cultural work are at their most potent in the invisible realm — in fact, they may be essential to confronting invisible power.

I think of invisible power in two different ways, each of which suggests a different kind of creative intervention. From a traditional psychological perspective, invisible power acts within a person’s mind. For example, it creates feelings of inferiority and the internalization of stereotypes; also called internalized oppression. The remedy is to engage in internal consciousness-raising processes such as political education, radical healing, or conscientization.

Artistic and cultural practices can serve as spaces for this kind of transformative work. Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques are specifically geared towards conscientization, but many art forms can be used to help us explore our struggles, and collectively begin to imagine a different world. Philosopher Maxine Greene has written eloquently about how experiences with the arts can help us develop our social imagination — the ability “to bring alternative realities into consciousness, to look at things as if they could be otherwise.” Furthermore, many groups use traditional practices and rituals to  draw strength from shared histories and identities, and counter this kind of oppression.

Another way to think about invisible power is through a discursive lens, like that of Foucault. In this sense, invisible power exists in not in our heads, but in our culture. It acts as a set of narratives that are taken as true, or common sense. For example, in the US this power works through the myth of meritocracy that says anyone can make it if they work hard enough — thus making us feel that when we do not succeed, it is all our fault. If we think of invisible power this way, then the response is to introduce alternative discourses, or counter narratives, that challenge, shift, and replace these dominant stories.

To do this, we can call upon the arts as powerful storytelling media. Just as advertising companies wield invisible power by saturating our lives with narratives of consumption, artists can develop and spread alternative stories — through plays, murals, creative actions, posters, and more. And social media have created ever more accessible ways of spreading these new narratives into the public sphere — though more traditional modes of public and street art can still hold particular strength. We see this kind of work being done by groups like SmartMeme, with their story-telling strategies, or with the “Drop the I-Word” campaign.

The power to oppress is often at its strongest when it is least visible. Cultural organizing, and other forms of arts activism, might be our best chances to uncover it, and face it.

Artists: We Need to Talk about Power

In all this talk about empowerment, there is a strange absence of talk about power

Many artists and arts educators talk of tying art making to social change. Often this is explained in terms of “empowerment” — empowering youth, empowering communities. This rather vague term can refer to anything from building artistic skills to increasing confidence to helping people find their “voice.” But usually absent from the discussion is any deep talk about  power — what it is, how it is built, and how it is confronted. We often end up making social change seem warm and fuzzy — all building relationships and skills and community, with little focus on conflict, resistance, or confrontation.

Art-student-logo-fist-with-paint-brushIf we really want to make change (and I believe we do) we need to talk about power. The current state of things is defended by people and institutions with enormous amounts of power. That power must be understood and confronted for any change to happen. It’s messy, and risky, and might scare off some funders, but is absolutely necessary.

When involved in art making for social change, we first of all need to understand what we are up against: What people, institutions, discourses, etc. are maintaining the status quo? What sources or types of power do they have? Where is that power weakest? How is is best addressed — confrontationally or relationally, overtly or covertly? And at the same time, what sources of power do we have? Where are we strongest? What kind of power do we need to build? What kind of resistance might we face?

To do this kind of power analysis in an artistic space requires broader understanding of power than we sometimes have. Power lies not just in political influence or money or mobilizing large groups of people, but also in the stories that are told about us and our communities, in the stereotypes that trap us, in the withholding of information and a censoring of history.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to explore some different theories of power, and what they suggest about how the arts and other forms of cultural expression can build, wield, and confront power:

Read the rest of the series on art and power at the links below: