Matters of Power – Musings on Material Agency

Matter, and the assemblages of material things, affect and are affected by the relationships of power. This occurs within both human and non-human realms. In physics, power describes the efficiency of energy conversion and it’s capacity to perform work. Think of a knock-out punch, or of a sapling springing through dense soil, or of rocks eroded by turbulent rapids. In social or human contexts, power often describes the ‘political’; that is, the degrees of influence and control that are exerted by anyone that has the capacity to do so – agency. In any of these cases ‘population thinking’ (Deleuze, de Landa) can be used to map these relations and their resultant stratification. 

To use a geological example, we can observe the sorting power of a river as it separates the silt and pebbles that have entered into it’s stream. The finest grains move the quickest, a highly efficacious energy conversion, the medium grains moving slower as a result of their weight slowing the conversion of the rivers energy into movement, and finally the heaviest pebbles and rocks are dragged slowly along the river bed as much of the river’s energy is lost due to their weight. The result is a gradual stratification of these sediments as they settle, and eventually, over great periods of time, become bonded by silica on the ocean floor. Much later in the process, tectonic movements give rise to mountains and a repetition of the earlier process ensues. 

Social strata forms in a similar fashion; with politics and currency as akin to the river and its flow. The sorting process of the political is contingent to the materiality of the milieu. 20th century political agency was (and mostly still is) contingent on the possession and control of materials such as oil, wood, metals and rare earths. The flow of this matter created a sorting process whereby those with control of it had access to the most efficacious conversion of matter into energy; currency. Currency is the placeholder for energy, in this analogy. One could expend X amount of personal energy, time and resources building a thing, or one could purchase the thing if in possession of enough currency. The more efficiently one can acquire wealth or currency, the more efficacious the influence and control. Equally, the least able to move efficiently with the flow of wealth were labourers and other such workers, who would expend high amounts of personal energy (weight)  for relatively low amounts of currency (movement). This sorting process eventually stratified into the hierarchies of power that we can observe in the 21st Century. Over time, generations of families and groups that exist within a certain strata (or regime flow) will calcify, or crystallise, into social and economic classes. 

Revolutions and social upheavals can be thought of as akin to tectonic movement; that is, event based turbulence that has the potential to de-stratify the order of things.   It is in this de-stratification of the order of things that chaotic attractors take hold and where a myriad of potentials can become actualised; where uncertainty and becoming destroys the already always; that is, the certainty that comes with inertia, the certainty of the assumptions and of the perpetuations of the “way things are”. Here, chaos rules – and her face is terribly beautiful.

Morality and ethics, too, have the capacity to affect and be affected by the relations of power. Again these relations are tied to the milieu in which they are observed, and to the relationships between the existent populations. We can see this play out evidently in Christo-centric Anglo-American moralism versus that of the Islamic Middle East. Whichever side was most able to capitalise on the flow of wealth in order to exert the greatest influence and control has always held the moral high ground – with the other side demonised for its apparent lack of humanness – just as with social classes where the disadvantaged are demonised, held in disregard and blamed for whatever it is that is convenient to blame them for. In simple terms, money talks and history is written by the victors. But there are two sides to every coin. Those with control and influence are also blamed by the disadvantaged as being the source of their woes. This may very well be the case, but the matter at hand is matter itself; its tendencies, its capacities and its potentials. 

And still... tectonic plates rumble, grounds shift, and what seems stable can change... in the blink of an eye.

 

Jamin, 2015

 

 

  • This text lends from the writing and lectures of Giles Deleuze and Manuel De Landa.
  • Jamin is a PhD Candidate at the Tasmanian College of the Arts, University of Tasmania.
 A stencil of Aphrodite by Jamin, for Urban Greek Restaurant, Hobart 2015.

A stencil of Aphrodite by Jamin, for Urban Greek Restaurant, Hobart 2015.