"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

Oct 24, 2011


"Empowers" is a term which traps its users. It gets you thinking that power is a possession, an item which can be packed away and employed later as needed.

Power cannot be owned.

It is not a trait which can be made use of, or a reserve of strength which can be tapped at a crucial moment.

Power is a relation.

It requires, at a minimum, one who submits or surrenders, and one who controls.

Yes, we have power lines and electrical power, and you can as easily speak of motive power as you can political power, but these usages of the word as not as divisible as might be cavalierly assumed. They are contextual, as with all language.

There is nothing particularly free, horizontal and liberating about the control an electric company has over its monopolized and captive consumers. And the car which you might drive from debt-house or rent-rooms to your box-of-labor-suffering is a tether attached from your needs to your death, and to all of the commodities you produce and consume on your way from one dark to the other.

And so on.

Like that.

Until you die.


Mark S said...

From a long-ago radio interview, before NPR became more careful about vetting their on-air guests. This exchange has stayed with me:

Guest One: "... has given employees a sense of ownership."

Guest Two: "A sense of ownership is like a sense of lunch. It smells appetizing, it looks delicious ... but somehow it's just not as satisfying as real lunch."

Picador said...

So paraplegics who think they're "empowered" by their wheelchairs, which give them the "power" to move around on their own, are actually being oppressed by them? I just want to make sure I understand your argument. Because it sounds just as insane as your previous riffs on the word "power".

Anonymous said...

dude, the paraplegics empower their wheelchairs

Coldtype said...

@ Picador

You don't understand his argument, clearly.

Lori said...

One example of where the English language has squashed two things into one word. In French "puissance" is that which is measured in watts, while "pouvoir" is that which corrupts.

The Red Queen said...

I am soooooooo stealing box-of-labor-suffering. Stealing. Consider it stole.

And Picador, saying that a paraplegic is empowered by their wheelchair is removing agency from the paraplegic who is using a wheelchair. Are you empowered by your legs? Point missed.

Devin Lenda said...

Reminds me of: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

It sounds nice for a second, and there are arguably worse options, like "shoot a man in the face," but it presupposes that the man is extremely incompetent, too stupid to figure out how to fish. Then when you teach him, it's you who get credit for his not starving: "YOU feed him for a lifetime". In these days of plenty, it's only in a hypothetical that fishermen starve for lack of skill. Forced cash crop peonage, wage slavery, ex-fisherman Somali pirates, etc. are direct, predictable results of policy. Which means they are the aim of policy. Policy sold as empowerment.

To switch metaphors, the system-powerless might say to the empowerers: "don't teach me to stand up, just get your boot off my neck."

Relatedly, my almost three year-old has taught himself how to get milk from the fridge, get a glass, pour it, and warm it in the microwave without an adult deliberately showing him any of the steps. Empowerers have trouble understanding such things.

Jack Crow said...

Mark, that's damned shiny. Has my lobes making connections: ownership, empowerment, sense of purpose, patriotism, orgasm/petting as a possession, the parental title to children...

These are all invented territories, vistas carried around in the brain case, which cover and glamour a quotidian, and oft ugly, set of shared experiences - we feel, we identify and our (lizard?) brains mark fiefs. These territories, though, are also reflective surfaces. We come crawling into our days and upon discovering a landscape of mirrors, assume that the ubiquity of our reflections gives us remit to own.


Sometimes when another person labels me with a term I've used recently, I feel lucky for the shift in perspective. Not long ago, I thought highly enough of myself to call Republicans "insane." I still believe them to be a generally mystified lot, because rank-and-file Republicanism is an exposed and obvious adherence to a hierarchy which feeds on the rank-and-file's alienation and destruction. But, I also should have better considered the meaning of the word I chose.

I don't really think ordinary Republicans are mentally or emotionally unclean.

Nor do I think it is unclean of me to challenge the word "empower(s)." Sure, I'm just doing a re-pensee, here; I still think the word is a usage trap.

Jack Crow said...


That's fairly salient.

A few years back, my wife worked for a company which was one floor above Dean Kamen/Johnson and Johnson's wheelchair laboratory (which is separate from his DEKA facilities, or was then).

I used to meet my wife for lunch along the riverwalk which stretched behind the mill buildings in which those offices were located.

Some time after Kamen had already had his "20/20" (or was is that Stone Phillip's vehicle?) show on the device, and while waiting for my wife to come down to lunch, a demonstration of the wheelchair's versatility was being given in the parking lot.

I was sitting on a bench, behind a cluster of office workers who were watching the goings on.

I don't remember every detail anymore, but I can still distinctly recall scoffing inside at the comment, from one of the suits, that this was going to "empower" handicapped people to live "normal lives."

And that's the usage, I think, which carries over in everyday idiom. "Empowers" means "normalizes" with the dominant society, with the community in force.

As rule, we don't see an "empowered person" as a Unique, as an experiment in altering, or innovation upon, the baseline. An "empowered" person, instead, is understood to be someone who can now more fully participate in the system of degradation, ownership, destruction, rape, slaughter and self-abnegation which so thoroughly possesses the planet that it is not uncommon to associate it with naturality and rightness itself.

Jack Crow said...


To be fair, I often make it poorly.

Jack Crow said...


Force and strength, come to mind, for English usage - but they don't have the encompassment of norms which attaches to "power." Force is active, strength is a trait. There's overlap, but the words clearly mean differing things.

Not so, with "power" and its related terms. With power, we get possession and imaginary states of being.

"I am empowered!"

"I have the power!"

Et cetera...

To further your point, too: reich and macht.

Jack Crow said...


It's yours.


I agree: the user of the wheelchair is reduced and often negated by overlaying her with "empowerment." It suggest a deficiency in need of correction, a lack of normative belonging which must be machined and smoothed away.

And yet, to observe a person using a wheelchair, it's obvious that the thing does not move itself. It might expand options for a person employing it, but he or she is neither improved nor made-normal by the act.

To see the wheelchair bound as empowered by the device is to see them as originally lacking, as abnormal.

And that misses the point of all tool usage. Tools expand options, certainly. But the use of the tool is not an "improvement" upon a weakness. A tool extends, but that extension of human effect does not imply a prior insufficiency.

That a person picks up a hammer to drive a nail does not mean she was previously deficient without it.

Jack Crow said...

"...To switch metaphors, the system-powerless might say to the empowerers: 'don't teach me to stand up, just get your boot off my neck'..."

This, Devin.

I know it can be difficult for my own aging and mostly ridiculous self, but I think there's a need to exceed the duality of power-powerlessness, as well.

We see these derived meanings, and their explicit relationships, into even inhuman occurrences, so that a storm becomes (for human interlocutors) an event of power, and submission. We feel ourselves conquered by the inhuman, or the unhuman, and in doing so, lose what I believe is a vital perspective: so little of the universe actually reflects us. Our insignificance is not powerlessness. It's liberation.

Devin Lenda said...

Good stuff. The liberation bit makes perfect sense in the abstract. Wish I could feed the abstract to the hatred and get diamonds instead of shit.

This difference between inanimate power and intention-accompanied human power is something I've thought about a bit. No one wanted to bomb Katrina, and not just for practical reasons. Objectively, destruction is destruction, but it feels worse when humans do it. For me, it's always been about shame. Rape is much worse than accidental impalement. Not, of course, that the raped should feel shame. They'd be right to feel pride in having survived. Fucking human brain gets it all mixed up. Personally, I've never been so much as beaten up, as far as I can recall, though as a raised-Catholic, who knows? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VABSoHYQr6k

Lori said...

Force is that which is measured in newtons. In libertarianese force means coercion, and the claim is made that social situations are characterized either by its presence or its absence. But a contest measured in newtons is more like tug of war. Or arm wrestling. Either there is equilibrium (equality of force) or there is movement. It is the outcomes, not the givens, that are either-or in character.

Mark S said...


Over at Shift, I've used the more prosaic "reified social constructs," but yours has the poetry.

So, coincidentally several divisions of the American Psychological Association have just dropped a delicately worded bomb on the DSM-5 Task Force, questioning the legitimacy of many shiny-surfaced, invented territories that are put forth as mental health diagnoses (http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/dsm5/).

Oh, and did you hear the one about the Occupy Wall Street protester who got taken to the psych ward for climbing a statue? http://abcnews.go.com/m/story?id=14792961 Just last weekend. Hilarious. He was up there waiting for Bloomberg to resign.

From the DSM-5 petition:

• “… [taxonomic] systems such as this are based on identifying problems as located within individuals. This misses the relational context of problems and the undeniable social causation of many such problems.”

• There is a need for “a revision of the way mental distress is thought about, starting with recognition of the overwhelming evidence that it is on a spectrum with 'normal' experience” and the fact that strongly evidenced causal factors include “psychosocial factors such as poverty, unemployment and trauma.”

That ain't the League of Disgruntled Mental Patients talking. Or the passe rantings of the ghost of R.D. Laing. That's the current membership of the American Psychological Association, if not unanimous then certainly unified, and better late than never.

I've really only been paying attention to the changes in the autism diagnosis (ah, the ballet of deck chairs on the Titanic) in the upcoming DSM revision, but -- given the "poverty, unemployment and trauma" situation, and the ability of diagnostic language to shape public policy and, er, "empower" police actions that disappear legitimately distressed human beings behind a mirrored image of official authority -- the fate of that petition may be a bellwether worth watching for everyone.

antonello said...

Give a man some work to do, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to live for a wage, and you starve him for a lifetime.

It's a curious thing to encounter a man who wears "power neckties," sports a "power haircut" and practices a "power handshake." By doing these things, he imagines that his message is "See how I radiate dynamism and strength. I'm a take-charge guy for a challenging job." But the message as I read it says "See how I've learned all the fashionable techniques to impose a sense of power. See how passive and unimaginative I am. I'm fit for little but drudgery. Don't even trust me with that, though, because I'll probably spend most of my time brown-nosing, back-stabbing and office-politicking in general."

The word virtue once had the secondary meaning of power. "Bilberry, it is said, has the virtue of improving eyesight." Power as a trait of something, its inherent quality.

joonsae said...

I think the word is dangerous insofar as it's become associated with a feeling rather than agency per se - there are countless products which are marketed as being 'empowering'. What this seems to actually mean is that they evoke a particular feeling in the consumer, since insofar as the consumer remains a consumer, they are in fact 'disempowered'.

Richard said...


I appreciate what you've been trying to do in your various entries on "power", but I feel you're being overly reductive. The fact is there is a huge body of work about the differences between the power over something or someone (which seems to be the only definition you will allow) and the power to do. Usually, when people talk about being "empowered", they are talking about the latter. I think it's a useful terminology.

To be sure, this language itself can be and has been co-opted; joonsae's point about consumer products marketed as empowering is well-taken. And I like and agree with your post about the wheelchair as tool.


Jack Crow said...


I see no reason to confuse "capacity" with "power."

A person has a capacity, an ability to do something. Power, in human relationships, is inseparable from inequity and submission.

Show a person with any sort of power, and I'll show you a person who has control of others. Every time.

Richard said...


You're insisting on something (and refusing to admit an ambiguity) in the face of all kinds of arguments to the contrary. If you want to disagree with that, fine, but I find it odd that you refuse to engage with the literature when told it exists.

When I have time, I'll try to find an example of the particular arguments I have in mind.

Jack Crow said...


I am admittedly intransigent on the subject, but it's not a philosophical inflexibility which has hardened my stance. It's the time done in employee control seminars.

The people using "empowers" are not to be trusted.