Power

The Anthropocene posits a very powerful species, one whose presence has registered even on the densely slow scale of the Earth’s geology. But how singular is this species, and what does such a premise suggest about our capacity to think about power? These questions matter because the crisis named by the Anthropocene impels not only an accounting of the global impact of our species but also an effort to break from the myopia of our species being—the monomania that makes us the motor for the sixth extinction. How can we push our analysis “beyond the human” (Kohn 2013) in an age defined by the planetary scale of humans’ impact on everything? By beginning to transpose our key concepts, like power and force, across species lines.

Try it. Can a species be powerful, can it act with force? If humans are powerful enough to alter all life on the planet, do other species have similar capacities? Perhaps on less grand a scale, but certainly yes. Consider two examples. In my hometown of Detroit, where the Industrial Age crested and broke, much of the city lies under dense mats of flora—as in ancient Mayan cities, plant species have taken over former human abodes. If you want to imagine what the end of the Anthropocene might look like, Detroit is the place to start.

Bindweed
Walden Street, Detroit. Photo courtesy of Andrew Moore.

Consider this photograph of bindweed overgrowing an abandoned home. Any of its individual tendrils may be intent on the struggle for existence, but cumulatively and collectively they demonstrate the power to overcome the dominance humans once displayed in the epicenter of Fordism. Such scenes, played out across the planet, where habitations have been overgrown, offer prompts for rethinking power. In such frames—especially as we are quickly facing a lack of oxygen as phytoplankton begin dying off (Sekerci and Petrovskii 2015)—our species no longer looks quite as powerful as we imagined.

Now for another species, wild horses in Galicia, Spain—the tribe that is the focus of my current fieldwork. With these horses, I am asking how basic concepts like face might be applicable to understanding their sociality.

Horses
Horsepower. Photo by John Hartigan.

Horses highlight how our species’ power is dependent upon harnessing its domesticates. To think the Anthropocene properly means recognizing that we are only possible through them, and that together we make up 90% of the vertebrate biomass on the planet (Vince 2011). Horses, then, highlight how transposable a concept like power is. Take our very notion for defining power in terms of work—horsepower. James Watt coined the term to compare the rate of work of his steam engine, which fueled industrialism, to that of a team of draft horses. As with many key concepts—hybrid, which we get from botany, or the roots and branches of our computational imaginary—power, in a mechanical sense, is predicated upon transposing the capacity of one species to exert sustained force on another. Power certainly operates in other species, as primatologists would be quick to point out; they have a great deal of experience working with such concepts across species lines, but this is a matter of scaling up from interactions between conspecifics to thinking of the species as a whole.

The challenges of scale are considerable, as the species concept is a problem of scale. Across the phyla our answers will change, especially if we are considering social species. The trick with such transpositions—as with a variety of challenges in the Anthropocene—is to deploy them without anthropomorphizing, but also without redrawing the line of uniqueness around our species. We do not need an entirely novel set of analytics to analyze nonhumans, but we also do not want to use terms in a way that just reproduce projections of the human. So power and force should start to look and function differently. Does power entail both objects and subjects? Certainly objects, upon which it is applied, but maybe our understanding of subjects—those who operate powerfully or are operated upon—needs to be rethought. This works best by shearing these concepts off from some of their correlates, like personhood or agency, which rely upon anthropomorphisms.

When Antonio Gramsci (1971, 169–71) wrote about power and hegemony, borrowing from Niccolò Machiavelli and Karl Marx, he conjured up the centaur, half human, half horse. Initially, this figure served to dramatize the tension between force and consent, but subsequently—and more fulsomely—it came to frame a mythic resolution of two easily disassociated forms of perspective: one “immediate and elementary,” and the other a more “distant,” dialectical view of the “complex and ambitious.” The figure of the centaur works well here, too: first, as a nod to the particular concerns of power analysis among humans (inequality, hierarchy, and exploitation), and second, to highlight the challenge of transposing this concept across species lines. But in the transposing, we cannot settle for half-measures such as an anthropomorphic fusion that mythically resolves incompatible forms and natures.

What would be more useful are concepts like population, which has great currency across the social and natural sciences, insofar as they open up new ways to align underlying, powerful dynamics among humans and nonhumans. For the biopolitics of Michel Foucault (2007, 5), population is the key unit of analysis as the means of “modifying something in the biological destiny of species.” But population also offers the means for understanding strategy differently—as in the curious concept of evolutionary strategy, where power may function without personhood or agency and may challenge our scale of reference for construing strategic and tactical actions.

References

Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978. Translated by Graham Burchell. New York: Picador.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sekerci, Yadigar, and Sergei Petrovskii. 2015. “Mathematical Modeling of Plankton—Oxygen Dynamics under the Climate Change.” Bulletin of Mathematical Biology 77, no. 12: 2325–53.

Vince, Gaia. 2011. “An Epoch Debate.” Science 334, no. 6052: 32–37.