Originally published on It’s Going Down.
During the height of the movement against neoliberal globalization in the U.S., numerous chants and sayings emerged or were resuscitated, such as, “This is what democracy looks like” or “The whole world is watching.” Fortunately, along with the phenomenon of summit-hopping itself, these utterances have largely fallen into disuse. A particularly nonsensical saying from that moment was “Speaking truth to power.” First coined by Bayard Rustin for a pamphlet he co-wrote in 1955, called Speaking Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, the notion has been rightfully critiqued by the likes of Noam Chomsky, who stated, “power knows the truth already, and is busy concealing it.” Yet even this does not go far enough, as it maintains the presumption latent in the slogan that there exists a binary between those with power and those without it, or that power as such is a thing one can speak to.
Theorists from Spinoza to Gramsci to Foucault have attempted to wrestle with the question of what power is, arriving at no agreement aside from the fact that power is no one thing. In this sense, power can be understood as being “overdetermined,” a Freudian concept appropriated by Marxist theorists which, as explained by Stuart Hall, allows that “an idea, a symptom, or a dream symbol can itself be the condensation of a set of different chains of meaning, which are not manifest in the way in which the symbol is given.…One has to conceive of it as overdetermined; that is, the same symbol can be determined at different levels, by different kinds of discourses.” The exploration of this discursive malleability of power, as well as the capacity of power to reify certain discourses, is at the heart of the most recent edition of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, volume number 32, published in May of this year by the Institute for Anarchist Studies and oriented around the theme of “Power.”Continue reading