Power of Appearance
Power, to be effective, must appear. At least this has been the case throughout most of history. The architectural structures of Ancient Egypt represented their pyramidal social structure, as the friezes on Medieval European cathedrals depicted the great chain of being (… on earth as it is in heaven). But it is the oil painting that marks the appearance of more worldly power.
With authority no longer assured by divine right or tradition, princes and kings, both royal and merchant, assembled new signs of superiority - their property, riches, bearing and visage - that could be captured and communicated in oil painting's succulent realism. While their evident humanity made these powerful people potentially common, their appearance assured the spectator they were decidedly not. The classic oil portrait, in the words of John Berger, conveyed "the individualized presence which needs to suggest distance".1
Today, power must appear intimate. Whereas the prince needed to demonstrate that he was unlike his subjects, the contemporary leader must appear to be a "man of the people". Even the powerful whose very presence is based upon distance - be they celebrities or royalty - must be "humanized" if they are to be loved. This appearance of intimacy can be captured through grainy paparazzi photos of cinema stars caught in prosaic pursuits (the stars are just like us!), or executed more skillfully through the pomp of a formal portrait whose very seriousness deconstructs itself in this age of irony (the Queen is human after all!), but the effect is the same: a distant power is made intimate, if not quite attainable.
One sees this relationship of intimacy and power most clearly in the staged reality of the political photo-op. Here, in a moment stolen from everyday, our leaders lead: giving speeches, holding meetings, making decisions, or even relaxing once their hard work is done. Through this visual access we are given the illusion of proximity to the processes of power. There is still distance between us and those with power - the fact of the photo-op confirms their singular importance - but this separation is no longer an insurmountable gulf of birthright and tradition, merely one of experience and context. We could be like them if we just had a different job and simply worked harder, and if we are distant from power it is our fault, not theirs. Such is the ruling ideology of modern democracy.
This current state of appearances creates a problem for those of us who strive to be critical of power. If at one time the job of such a critic was to reveal the humanity, and thus fallibility, of power - to pull back the curtain of religion and tradition to reveal the mortal man behind - today, the careful revelation of humanity is an integral component in the maintenance of power. It is the very appearance of intimacy, and thus some semblance of popular identification and access, that allows power to remain in the hands of the few in our era of formal, if not factual, democracy. We who would strip power of what Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor described as its "miracle, mystery and authority" may, in the end, contribute to its success, and the critical artist, engaged in a subversive act of would-be revelation, risks becoming an unwitting court painter.
But there is a bigger challenge for those who seek to represent and reveal authority: power no longer fits neatly within a gilded frame. In the past, perhaps, one might locate rule in a person or a place. "L'État, c'est moi," Louis XIV is thought to have said. As such, challenges to unjust power had a target: people could march on Versailles or storm the Winter Palace; behead a King or kill a Czar. But can we say the same today? The immense political potency of the US president, for instance, is not located in the body of Barack Obama, but in the power of his position. And political decisions are as likely to be made in a back room of nondescript office building, in a plane at thirty-seven hundred feet above sea level, or through a secure satellite phone in the middle of a desert, as they are in the White House. As the artist-activists of the Critical Art Ensemble argue, "Even though the monuments of power still stand, visibly present in stable locations, the agency that maintains power is neither visible or stable".2 Heads of state are merely focal points of power, reassuring us that control is somehow comprehendible at human scale and scope, and, as such, each representation of power in the form of a person or place poses a danger of contributing to this illusion.
The decentring of power from person or place finds its complete expression in corporate and financial power when capital, currency and even production sites move around the globe at a moment's notice, and the boundaries of corporations themselves, legal abstractions to begin with, blur as they intertwine with other corporate, state and military entities. When power is increasingly mobile, distributed across space instead of located within it, how do we paint its picture? We don't. We chart the territory and map the flows; cartography and geography become the chosen method of representation. Yet mapping still depends upon points of reference. Even with the acknowledgement that these points are no longer discreet nor stable, and the knowledge that power is located in the network and its flow, there remains in any cartographic project a dependence upon power's visibility. Without this there is nothing to map. But power is not only mobile, it is increasingly invisible, with shell companies and secret prisons its modern manifestation. The appearance of this sort of power can only, at best, be partially captured in the distance, its revelation a hazy image. Indeed, the near invisibility of power today is perhaps the only thing that can be revealed. Power is to be located in absence as much as in presence: blank spots on the map. Most visual representations and revelations of power, no matter their differences in intent and technique, understand authority as an external force. Power may be present in a leader or it may be disappearing in a haze, but it is always something out there. But power is possibly at its most effective when it is not "out there", but inside; when it is part of us. Writing from a Fascist jail, Antonio Gramsci theorized that dominant power does not exert itself solely through force of arms or mechanism of the state, but instead through "common sense": the morass of norms, mores, and conceptions of the world that guide people's everyday thoughts and actions.3 If we are composed of what we do and what we think, then authority, in this view, resides at the core of who we are.
Michel Foucault was to pick up and extend this insight forty-odd years later with his exploration of the microphysics of power. Power, for Foucault, is an intimate affair, enacted and reproduced by its very subjects. This, he writes, is "a synaptic regime of power, a regime of its exercise within the social body, rather than from above it".4 Far from being something external and "other", (bio) power is inscribed onto our bodies and into our desires. We are subjects of our own subjugation. But if power is embedded within and articulated through ourselves, then how do we recognize, much less represent it? This is a daunting task, for not only must any understanding of power take place through the frames of comprehension - the "common sense" - of that power itself, but because we are agents of power any representation must also include and implicate ourselves.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe the current system of power as one of Empire, a regime far grander and more diffuse than even Foucault, at his most despairing, imagined. "The political", they write, "must also be understood as ontological. … Empire constitutes the ontological fabric in which all the relations of power are woven together - political and economic as well as social and personal relations." In its daily production and reproduction power has outstripped any constitutions, founding documents or ideologies that once allowed one to locate it, pin it down and examine it. Empire can not be located in a Parliament building or a cabal of businessmen. Power is everywhere, and therefore it is nowhere to be found. A system this pervasive and this integrated is, in the words of Hardt and Negri, immeasurable. The only resistance to such a totalizing system is an "ontology of the possible" that exists "beyond measure".5
How is it possible to represent that which is immeasurable? The image, by its very definition, is a representation of some-thing. (The word's Latin root: imago, meaning likeness, copy, or imitation.) But when power appears staged in photo-ops or is only glimpsed in its disappearance, when power is networked, distributed and always in motion, when power is internalized by its very subjects - then how is an artist supposed to capture its image?
Here Jacques Rancière makes a useful distinction between what he defines as representative and aesthetic approaches in critical art practice. The representative, as the name suggests, is an attempt to represent reality; holding up a mirror up to the world as it is. This representation may be celebratory or critical, but its function is always that of capturing and revealing the real. The aesthetic approach, on the other hand, is the practice of rearranging the very coordinates by which we recognize reality. The "distribution of the sensible", as Rancière calls it, "is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience".6 The aesthetic approach is thus a re-distribution of the sensible; an assault on the very foundation of what we understand reality to be and a recalibration of our senses so that we might perceive new realities… and imagine new possibilities. This shifts critical practice, be art or activism, from recognition and critique of reality towards its redefinition and regeneration - moving from the representational image to procreative imagination.
The power of appearance, argued the great Niccolò Machiavelli, lay in its ability to cloak reality. His political masterwork, The Prince, is filled with recommendations regarding how a leader is "to be considered", and advice for "one who wishes to obtain the reputation" of possessing qualities such as mercy, faith, religiosity and sincerity. Power is more about appearance than reality. "It is not, therefore, necessary for a prince to have [these] qualities, but it is very necessary to seem to have them", Machiavelli states, adding that a good prince must be "a great feigner and dissembler".7 The use of appearance to feign and dissemble has disturbed generations of dissentients, from Plato to present-day critics of the Hollywoodization of politics. This is understandable. But maybe Machiavelli should not have the last word on the subject, for perhaps there is another, more positive, way to think about the power of appearance.
Appearances need not only be a cloak to hide reality, they might also be means to envision new realities. Art can certainly represent what is, that is: take the measure of existing reality, but it can also manifest visual worlds and create forms of experience that push beyond contemporary measurement. Appearance, seen in this light, becomes a means to enable new senses of the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable through which we can temporarily transcend the strictures of common sense, freeing ourselves from what André Breton called the tyranny of "the realistic attitude".8 This approach will not miraculously eradicate the power imbedded within us, nor will it immediately overthrow those who wield power above us, but it could create a space within which we might begin to visualize an "ontology of the possible"; to re-conceptualize the very nature of power and help a new form make its appearance.
1 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin/BBC, 1972), p. 97.
2 Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Civil Disobedience (http://www.critical-art.net/books/ecd/), p. 9.
3 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971).
4 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, edited by Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Press, 1980), p. 39.
5 Michael Hardy and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 354 and 368, respectively.
6 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, translated by Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 13.
7 Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, translated by Luigi Ricci, pp. 86 and 93, respectively; emphasis mine.
8 André Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism, first manifesto, 1924 , no page.