Defacing Power: The Aesthetics of Insecurity in Global Politics

Defacing Power: The Aesthetics of Insecurity in Global Politics

by Brent J Steele

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"Combining a rich and varied set of theoretical insights with a subtle analysis of the politics of American foreign policy, Defacing Power marks an important contribution toward understanding the power of identity in world politics. Engagingly written and rigorously argued, Steele's challenging analysis is incisive, important, and rewarding."
---Michael C. Williams, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

"Brent Steele's marvelous excavation of the aesthetic dimensions of power is strikingly irreverent, inasmuch as he displays no commitment to ex ante disciplinary or substantive constraints in his quest to disclose those moments of creative action so often overlooked by theories and theorists wedded to the grandiose and the transhistorical. Steele samples and remixes a myriad of sources, arranging them so as to produce a transgressively insightful account of how 'work on the Self,' often condemned as self-indulgent by prior generations of intellectuals, might just point in the direction of a more sustainably secure world."
---Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, School of International Service, American University

"Defacing Power successfully integrates work from Dewey to Morgenthau to Foucault, as well as a wide range of contemporary international relations scholars, in its genealogy of power conceptualizations and characteristics. This book is theoretically sophisticated and serious. It should be of interest to students of international politics, international theory, social theory, and foreign policy."
---Cecelia Lynch, Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies, University of California, Irvine

Defacing Power investigates how nation-states create self-images in part through aesthetics and how these images can be manipulated to challenge those states' power. Although states have long employed media, such as radio, television, and film, for their own image-making purposes, counterpower agents have also seized upon new telecommunications technologies. Most recently, the Internet has emerged as contested territory where states and other actors wage a battle of words and images.

Moving beyond theory, Brent Steele illustrates his provocative argument about the vulnerability of power with examples from recent history: the My Lai Massacre and the Tet Offensive, September 11 and the al-Qaeda communiqués, the atrocities at Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, and the U.S. response to the Asian tsunami of December 2004. He demonstrates how a nation-state---even one as powerful as the United States---comes to feel threatened not only by other nation-states or terrorist organizations but also by unexpected events that challenge its self-constructed image of security. At the same time, Steele shows that as each generation uses available media to create and re-create a national identity, technological innovations allow for the shifting, upheaval, and expansion of the cultural structure of a nation.

Brent J. Steele is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472022809
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 11/22/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 234
Sales rank: 1,145,094
File size: 451 KB

About the Author

Brent J. Steele is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas.

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The Aesthetics of Insecurity in Global Politics

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2010 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11732-1

Chapter One

Aesthetic Power and Counterpower

This chapter advances an account of aesthetic power and counterpower. It begins by defining power as an aesthetic subjectivity of a centralized body of individuals, groups, nation-states, or transnational organizations. Again, this is not intended to be a full-frontal assault on the typologies already introduced—at least not in an analytical sense. Instead, the purpose of this chapter is to propose that aesthetic subjectivity obtains in power. It stems from several resources, spanning from John Dewey's work on the "experience" of art to the Foucauldian observation that subjects create the Self as a work of art but do so removed from or sometimes in opposition to comprehensive moral codes. The process of self-creation inevitably entails an engagement of the aesthetic as a communal experience; subjects look inward for guidance on the construction of the Self but also do so within a community of fellow citizens. Power is therefore consolidated not necessarily through the relations with an Other external to this community but, rather, intrinsically with a centralized Self.

This is not, however, an argument advanced solely on the terrain of ideas—acquired material resources are necessary. They are used not only to further survival, moral purpose, or the self-identity of collective bodies but also to continuously re-create the Self. Returning to the "makeup" metaphor discussed in the previous chapter, centralized bodies of power utilize resources to apply a cosmetic image to the operation of power. These resources are disseminated throughout the various agencies (or "applicators") to coordinate the movements of a centralized body—in a national context, this would include bureaucracies, branches of government, the military, science, and art. As a result, this aesthetic construction helps regiment the legitimacy of power.

It accomplishes this regimentation, however, by individualizing power—organizing it from the individual up to the centralized body. Aesthetic visions of power are engaged in a multitude of fashions by the individual—the openness to interpretation that defines the aesthetic allows the individual to internalize the Self of power. What makes power so attractive and legitimate for these subjects is the freedom to choose the meaning of this beauty. While theorists have established an ability of the nation-state to extend a "political power beyond [its spatial limitation]" (see Rose and Miller [1992], quoted in Löwenheim 2007a: 205)—shaping citizen choices for travel abroad with warnings, for example—the conceptualization of power here assumes that it is an attraction constituted within and between the confines of individual subjects.

Let me also provide here a bit of background to the role aesthetics plays in political and moral philosophy and justify why I choose John Dewey and Foucault as my philosophical building blocks of the aesthetic, as opposed to Kant, who is the inspiration for a substantial amount of aesthetic analysis. In Critique of Judgment, Kant sought to identify the process by which humans can judge something to be beautiful and agree with one another on that judgment. Though we can never know if others truly concur about a common object of beauty, the ability to make a judgment and to communicate that subjective judgment to another individual is evidence for Kant that we are rational beings (Kemal 1999: 287–88). What is important for Kant is not the knowing about the objects themselves but the "nature of our perception of them" (Bleiker 2001: 513). Therefore, it is not the object of art itself but, rather, the judgment as a form of assented communication that possesses a universal validity. The faculties of human judgment regarding other forms of cognition allow for us to claim, according to Kant, that our judgments about what is beautiful also are universally valid.

While this view by Kant is by no means ignored throughout the remainder of this book, the aesthetics of insecurity finds a bit more inspiration from the philosophies of Foucault and Dewey (among others), because of their emphases on the ability of art to work back upon the subject and their mutual rejection that any "ground" or scientific knowledge of the Self can be established. They also confront the notion that humans contain a universal will toward rational judgment, especially when confronted by the aesthetic. Instead, subjects continually transform so that judgment is always contingent in time and place. Or, as I discuss in chapter 5, a transgressional limit, when breached, shocks precisely because the subject is always unsure of its "true" Self. The Self's ambiguity and indeterminacy—the lack of an essence—are its most vulnerable and thus (counter)powerful qualities. A primary value the current chapter wishes to advance, then, is that such aesthetics of power contain a paradox. They of course allow power to operate because of the disciplinary nature of what I will term its three "strata," but by inflating the Self of power through such aesthetics, idealizing it into a more heavy body that cannot be sustained. Aesthetic construction, therefore, facilitates a vulnerability to the "weightlessness" of counterpower noted in the introduction.

This position is elaborated further in section I of this chapter by examining aesthetic power's three strata—what I term the psychological, the imaginative, and the rhythmic. Section II situates this understanding of power by reviewing several vibrant accounts of the aesthetic in both broader social philosophy and more recent IR theory, with a special focus on Foucault's understanding of the Self's work on the Self. What is most instructive about the aesthetic is the sometimes traumatic process that follows a break, or rupture, as I also explore in section II. Section III pivots from these insights to articulate the function of and fixation on action found in vitalist ideologies, as examined through the work of Carl Schmitt and neoconservative commentator Norman Podhoretz. The aesthetic as it is realized through motion and action in these accounts has the stated intention of creating a more secure environment for a community or Self (a "show of force" or "demonstration of will"); it instead leads to pockets of vulnerability that arise because the aesthetic of power that had been operating in ambiguity becomes revealed through such action. These revelatory instances shock or disrupt the three strata of aesthetic power, and this is one fashion in which vitalist ideologies contain their own self-defeating logic.

Section IV concludes the chapter with a final assertion regarding the manner in which generations renew the Self of a political community. Through the creative capacities of individuals and, in certain instances, a democratic public, generations create and re-create the Self of community power. Generational analysis helps make intelligible the politicized conflicts that arise between intracommunity generations in a wide variety of realms, spanning from the production of knowledge (seen through Kuhn) to the making of foreign policy. As generations rise and fall, they fuse with the power of a community to shape new visions of a community Self in often reactive (to a past generation) ways. The special role of technology in these cycles is discussed at the conclusion of the chapter.

I. Three Strata of Aesthetic Power

In a book that makes the case for the aesthetic subjectivity of power and how such subjectivity can be problematized by counterpower, it is necessary to provide a systematic conceptualization of power itself. What follows here are what I term the three strata of aesthetic power. I prefer the term stratum, rather than component, to refer to the imaginative, the rhythmic, and the psychological, because it may conjure some of the other contexts in which the term stratum has a meaning. The individual functions of each strata are discussed in turn, before a brief exposition on the manner in which they work co-constitutively to build an aesthetic subjectivity of power.


The import of a psychological stratum of power has long been anticipated by a variety of theorists writing about power and has been most persuasively advanced by Hans Morgenthau and other classical realists. Morgenthau's famous dictum declared political power to be "man's ... control over the minds and actions of other men" ([1948] 2006: 30). Later, Morgenthau asserted that "power, like love, is a complex psychological relationship" ([1967] 1970: 243). Power is also "a quality of interpersonal relations that can be experienced, evaluated, [and] guessed at" (ibid., 245). Power engages the psychological when it is reduced to its most concealed form, as Foucault posited in Discipline and Punish when he wrote of the disciplinary society's propensity to "bring the effects of power to the most minute and distant elements" (1977b: 216).

Other classical realists have advanced this claim that power is much more compelling when it is concealed—when the possibility of resistance is not even entertained. I have referred to these classical realist emphases on "prudence-as-stoicism" and "prudence-as-restraint" in my other work (Steele 2007b), but in regard to the specific stratum of psychology, it is important to note here Niebuhr's points on how social groups, "among whom a common mind and purpose is always more or less inchoate and transitory," maintain cohesion (1932: 55). The primary way that power can maintain its hold over the "masses" is, for Niebuhr, through a psychological connection established between the individual citizen and the idea of the nation (1932: chap. 5). Likewise, we can recall here Robert Cox's (and Gramsci's and Machiavelli's) metaphor of power as a centaur, half man and half beast, "a necessary combination of consent and coercion" (1983: 164). Individual subjects are involved with power and submit to it because it fulfills their psychological needs, especially on the rare occasions it is exercised, and perhaps especially when it is violently expressed.

The use of power, furthermore, is emotionally satisfying. Such exercise activates, to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr, our "anarchic lusts vicariously" (1932: 93). The most extreme version of this psychological attraction to such exercise occurs, of course, as Erich Fromm posited, in a fascist regime, which "arouses and mobilizes diabolical forces in man which we had believed to be nonexistent, or at least to have died out long ago" (1964: 7). The society in which man inhabits contains a dual function—it suppresses, but it also creates (ibid., 13). But a psychological stratum in aesthetic power assumes an inverse effect on the "man on the street" the more coercion is exercised—for if physical power needs to be deployed more often, the likely cause is a decline in its psychological stratum of influence. In such cases, aesthetic power's subjectivity becomes an object—it travels from a concealed place to a revealed vision. Counterpower can assist this revelatory process, as I discuss later in this chapter.

One result of using a psychological stratum in aesthetic power is that, by definition, it problematizes rationality. It makes the contrary assumption that social action is essentially complex and difficult to reduce to rational formulations (Morgenthau [1967] 1970: 242); therefore, the attempt to remove complexity from models of IR "obviates the possibility of theoretical understanding" (254). It is, however, not only impractical to remove such contingency and uncertainty through the rationalization of IR—if we remove such uncertainty (or, in a psychological sense, such anxiety or "dread") from our models, we are removing a primary engine of power: "the element of irrationality, insecurity, and chance lies in the necessity of choice among several possibilities" (254). It is ambiguity itself that facilitates the need for action (or motion), aesthetic construction, and emotion to obtain a pull on the groups (citizens and social movements) that help reinforce power's legitimacy.


Power's productive influence also depends on connected individuals (in a nation-state, these would be citizens) imagining that its operation is ethical and even beautiful. The imaginative stratum is intuited through certain post-structuralist accounts of power and action. We might begin with Lacan's (1977) work, as others have in more detail (see Debrix 1999: esp. 249 n. 5; Edkins 1999: esp. chap. 5). For Lacan, identity is developed, in part, during that stage when the child can see his or her image in a mirror, when the child can recognize himself or herself and notice how the movement of the body in the mirror can be controlled. The subject's identity is formed in relation to this image through a series of fantasies—fantasies that the infant is this total, this smooth, this collected image that appears to him or her in the mirror. This is, thus, an imaginary sense of control, yet this imagination is necessary for the child to form a psychological continuity with his or her social environment. As a result, the child interprets that he or she may have the ability to control more (rhythmic synchronization), including the environment that surrounds him or her. That the child cannot in reality do so is not of concern here; rather, the focus is on the continuous tendency of the human subject to look for this smooth continuity in its environment and on how such a search is an illusory, tragedian drama of the human being. The imaginary order is a necessarily narcissistic one, and it accords to the sketch of aesthetic power that I provide in this book—self-centered, egotistical, and, importantly, vulnerable to disruption by the Lacanian notion of the "real."

What protects the Lacanian subject from this disruption is the symbolic order, where we analyze the role that language plays in processing the image for the human. How can we recast the Lacanian orders as representations of the counterpower process? The subject's dependence on the imaginary is made vulnerable because this basis is erected through image fantasies, but it is dislocated through the real. The protective veneer of the symbolic order will eventually "interpellate" the image that challenges the Self, but it is in those moments when there is a suspension of the symbolic and when the image itself is too (counter)powerful to be characterized that power becomes disrupted. The image defies symbolic and even imaginary control. Recognizing it as a threat, the symbolic intervenes upon the real and classifies it, embedding it with disciplinary meaning. The events evoking correlated sets of images that are addressed in subsequent chapters represent those moments of the real—moments where power was briefly dislocated and symbolic signification was suspended; where power operates unattended in an ambiguous space; and, in certain cases, where re-actions by power against such images took place.

When discussing imaginative power, however, the narcissism of the "mirror stage" is deepened. For imaginary power, which interprets through the lens of Self the meaning of external events, each action that occurs "out there" must say something about the Self. The Russian attack on Georgia in 2008 or the current climate crisis, devoid of their own non-U.S. contexts, are interpreted by the U.S. subject as saying something about the U.S. Self. Yet when power goes looking for reflective images in others, it is vulnerable—it cannot predict which images of the Self will emerge, since it is looking everywhere for evidence of self-gratification and is bound to be let down (down from the idealized Self).

But why would power go looking for its reflection? According to Lacan, "the mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation—and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phatansies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality" (1977: 4). The problem for the Lacanian subject, if we think (as I do) that it indexes power's search for aesthetic totality, is that these images are fragmented because the gaze of power looks upon an image only briefly. It may resurrect that image on occasion to accord to its fantasies, but the understanding of self-interrogative imaging advanced in chapter 4 sees such images as unexpected events. The narcissism of imaginary power becomes routinely dependent on these images and, in so doing, loses the ability for self-definition. In other words, power, which prides itself on control and the control of others, has an inherent lack of control over which images do or do not emerge in the mirror stage, which thus loosens its grip over aesthetic self-integrity. In the words of Edkins, "as a result of the mirror stage, the ego's mastery of its environment will always be illusory" (1999: 91).


Excerpted from DEFACING POWER by BRENT J. STEELE Copyright © 2010 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Introduction 1. Aesthetic Power and Counterpower 2. Reflexive Discourse and Flattery as Counterpower 3. Truth and Power: Parrhesia as Counterpower 4. The Image of Power: Self-Interrogative Imaging 5. Toward a Transgressional Account of Power Conclusion References Index

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