Power With

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.

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.