A Disempowering Rant

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I usually try to avoid ranting about my pet-peeves, but I just gotta get this one off my chest: what’s up with leftist academics criticizing a theory for being “disempowering”? I don’t even know where to begin with such criticism. It is as if someone, upon learning of such a theory, would be so overwhelmed by the inevitability of domination that they simply give up trying to make the world a better place. Has this ever happened to someone? Really?!

I’ve seen such criticisms levied at Bourdieu, Foucault, and just about anyone else who tries to offer a big-picture view of power relations. Let’s concede that these theories are problematic and under-theorize questions of resistance and social change. But does every theory really need to theorize both domination and resistance? For years now physicists have been trying, and failing, to create a grand unified theory. But do we really need such a theory? The effort to construct such a theory may have been useful, but it seems arguable that we can get along just fine without it, using whatever theory we need for a given task. Similarly, isn’t it OK for some scholars to focus on social reproduction theory and others to focus on theories of social change? Do we really need a grand unified theory of both? More to the point, can’t we trust readers to mix and match models as meets their needs without sinking into despair?

I’d like to go even further and suggest that theories of power are never disempowering. Dominant power structures are disempowering, but understanding how power works is always empowering. If there is a problem with a particular theory of power, then attack the theory on those grounds.

This brings up a second pet-peeve, which is that, all too often, people fail to distinguish between theoretical critique and criticisms of the data. For instance, a lot of criticisms I see of Bourdieu argue that he overemphasized the role of the state in creating symbolic capital. True, but that doesn’t mean that one couldn’t use his theory to discuss the creation of alternative markets without having to do much to change the theory itself. I do think there are limitations to Bourdieu’s theory which make it difficult to explain certain empirical phenomenon, but that is different from saying his work is “disempowering.” Such dismissals do little to explicate the strengths and limitations of the theory in question. [See here, for instance, for my discussion of the similarities and differences between Bourdieu and Gramsci.]

In the end, are discussions of agency and social change really that empowering? They might be inspiring, but that is something different. In my experience, inspirational accounts are often limited by their own historicity and specificity, making it much harder to see their application to one’s own life-situation than are theories of power. I suspect that the greater generalizability of power relations is one reason why so-called “disempowering” theories remain so popular, despite being continually critiqued.

Even people who claim to be Marxists these days largely dismiss or ignore his theory of revolution and value Marx primarily for his discussion of power relations under capitalism, making his theory just as “disempowering” as the others — if we are to believe in the power of such a critique. I suspect that most people who use the phrase do so to mean something along the lines of: “this theory of power doesn’t allow me to talk about some aspects of my empirical data” but feel that saying this doesn’t sound radical enough. It also alleviates them of the hard work involved in sorting out the strengths and limitations of the various theories they are using. But isn’t this kind of lazy scholarship even more disempowering?

7 thoughts on “A Disempowering Rant

  1. My main beef with the while empowerment discussion is that it is unscientific. A theory explains the data more or less well. Its social consequences are scientifically irrelevant. For instance, we have thrown out the division of humanity into “races” because it lacks any empirical support, not because it is politically distasteful.

  2. I think leftist academics gain symbolic capital by appearing to be on the side of the oppressed. So the accusation of disempowerment is a way of discrediting rivals by claiming to be more-on-the-side-of-the-oppressed-than-thou. It’s an act of symbolic violence.

  3. Nice rant!

    I think that part of the problem is that anthropologists (and social scientists) in the US in particular, tend to see their knowledge as inherently “empowering” in a political sense. The dream is that it is something of a combination of Physics and Engineering. But I’m afraid that sometimes the social sciences are also a humanity, in the sense that it is a way to understand the nature of something, and in this respect more like philosophy.

    But even much of physics is not very practical for the engineering, but only wonderful in the humanistic sense (please don’t tell the physicists!) and irrelevant to making useful stuff. Not every physics discovery is relevant to a medical advance, or even space travel. But so what? Sometimes things just are interesting and wonderful to understand for their own sake. Similar things can be said of much of anthropology, even of the Marxist sort!

    For example, I hope that everyone of all faith, political persuasion, economic condition, etc., has a nice Christmas day 2013 for its own sake–it looks to be pleasant and warm here in California once my family wakes up!

  4. People who whine about disempowering arguments remind me of people who whine about being given “too much information”. Whining is a luxury. You should be able to take what you can from what you read and move on. Foucault is not your daddy.

    The problem with Bourdieu as I say maybe too much is that he’s a petit bourgeois moralist, and and authoritarian, a bureaucrat Modernist.

    From On Television

    “But journalistic forces and manipulation can also act more subtly. Like the Trojan Horse, they introduce heteronomous agents into autonomous worlds. Supported by external forces, these agents are accorded an authority they cannot get from their peers. These writers for nonwriters or philosophers for nonphilosophers and the like, have television value, a journalistic weight that is not commensurate with their particular weight in their particular world.

    …What I find it difficult to justify is the fact that the extension of the audience [made possible by television] is used to legitimate the lowering of the standards of entry into the field. People may object to this as elitism, a simple defense of the citadel of big science and high culture, or even an attempts to close out ordinary people (by trying to close off television to those who with their honoraria and their and showy lifestyles, claim to be representative of ordinary men and women, on the pretext that they can be understood by these people and will get high audience ratings). In fact, I am defending the conditions necessary for the production and diffusion of the highest human creations. To escape the twin traps of elitism and demagoguery we must work to maintain or even to raise the requirements for the right of entry –the entry fee- into the fields of production.”

    It’s Modernist claptrap, the snobbery’s obscene, and there’s a lot more where that came from. He doesn’t so much defend an intellectual elite as argue from it without thinking. And this gets back into the anthropology as science debate. We don’t have arguments any more about whether historians are scientists but somehow if its the study of the present then the debate is back on. “Political science” is as absurd as “historical science”. Bourdieu was the son of a postal clerk and his intellect was the intellect of a clerk: neat and tidy, without irony. Acknowledging that is not “disempowering”

    Stanley Hoffman’s review of Distinction

    —But if “using rare words and tropes in place of common words and phrases” is a strategy of “deliberate transgression” of the norms of clear prose characteristic of the dominant classes and is opposed to “the hyper-correction strategies of pretentious outsiders,” then Bourdieu is a master strategist. Words such as lexis, allodoxia, chiastic, askesis, espace hodologique, hysteresis, and of course habitus (and, indeed, hysteresis of habitus) are scattered throughout the text.6 That a work of social science should—”unlike the sometimes illuminating intuitions of the essay”—require an effort on the part of the reader is fair enough. Here, however, reality disappears into the hypertrophied rhetoric of the Ecole Normale.—

    Damn right

  5. kerim–what i love the most about the post is the image. yes i am that superficial. but i see the problem. your description seems to be the intellectual / academic projection of a more widespread phenomenon, which i would group within the larger (for lack of a better word) “therapeutic culture” of contemporary north america, a game of ricocheting from alarmism (200 species going extinct every day!) to warm and fuzzy stories (isn’t it nice that you, too, can donate to build monkey bridges across roads in costa rica, all while drinking this delicious coffee). the emphasis in this discourse is affect; similarly, don’t we feel so much better, isn’t it just the thing for the weary academic, to be behind an “empowering” paradigm. awwww (insert picture of maru chan here). conversely, rigorous genealogies of how you got the shaft, analyses of the operation of power, or descriptions of your complicity with ecological crises just will not sell or they seem too disengaged. and of course, there’s no moral victory or feel good moment in such analyses. my sense of this problem is that it is repeated in several domains: much of my ambivalence with the language endangerment crowd has to do with the operation of a similar sort of desire for uplifting narratives even as it might be more useful to understand just how the peculiar combination of settler colonialism, nation making projects, the global economy, and a sense of imperiled sovereignty have created language markets that greatly devalue taiwanese indigenous languages

  6. Calling something “disempowering”, or similar polemics is meant to make a response difficult, because it says something, registers a retort, but with not enough info for a learned response. It a common polemic tactic, trick, strategy and may best be called out as such.

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