The local electricity provider will position the temporary power output on our property and guide the voltage with subterranean or elevated lines. A long strand of coated cable will run through dirt or air, slicing something physical or imaginary (sometimes both), and entering the building serpentine. When this happens, when the line breaches the worn wooden cladding of the building, the structure will enter a unique moment of life – when potential is expressed through addition, and no longer the subtraction of nails, rotted timbers, and broken brick. This new source of power will resuscitate the building in a way altogether different than the pummel and pounding of hammers. New possibilities. New tools. New actions. New movements. However, we must realize, even in celebration of the captive spark, that power itself is not the newest addition to the premises; only that power is now present in this most understood incarnation.
The lines that connect people and place to power never emerge from a transformer or temporary output. In fact, the lines and paths of power are so wild, arbitrary, and dynamic that any geography of inputs, flows, and outputs is nothing short of a fool’s errand. But, we want that structure and that system. We want to understand what power is so that it can be branded and marketed, sold off and consumed by this group and rejected by this milieu. I believe it is a matter of comfort for most of us to interpret power as an object or material worth pursuing, as if it was some limited edition collection to be accumulated and showcased. This is a pleasantly inequitable system, where those with power chaperone its redistribution and the irregular sharing of its benefits. In the social justice realm, we call this empowerment. Yet, when we describe power as something that acts upon passive bodies, or as something that is administered by an expert, we allow power to be a rarefied commodity. Even more destructively, we permit individuals and organizations to become handlers of power, bearers of it as if it were only a weapon. Power for the majority is something to be used and wielded, something to be put in action mostly through antagonism. This is unfair.
(What do we mean when we say someone is empowered? If it is someone realizing self-determination or agency, why not give credence and refer to the moment as such? I feel that we’ve so mainstreamed definitions of power that we’ve failed to describe it in a manner consistent with commitments to diversity, mutualism, and culture. People are unique and deep, but their power is not?)
We need a new understanding of power or, better yet, we need a renewed understanding of power. If taking and giving (transactional or adversarial) emblemizes power, then seeking it has equivalence with the queue for the next iPad. In reality, power is a circulating force, a constant in presence but its shape infinitely in flux – operating universally from hand to hammer and bullet to bouquet, from voice to victory and everything in between. The electricity provider has power, I have power, the organization has power, the neighborhood has power, and the residents have power. Power doesn’t happen from being plugged in or toggled on. People craft their own power, from daily actions and thoughts; they exercise it in voice, handshakes, smiles, aspirations, and fear. They exercise it in being human. It is not something given or taken, not an attribute acquired or ascribed, it is revealed and recognized – and only by the self.
By RJ Koscielniak