Essay

Towards a reconception of power

Modernising our magical thinking

IT WOULD BE disconcerting to wake up one day and discover that everything we thought was real in the world we live in was simply a fantasy constructed out of some flimsy, mismatched old metaphors. Though most of us can go through life without ever noticing, the truth is many of the things we experience as reality, culturally speaking, are thanks to this subversive power of language.

Whenever we think things are looking up (why up, not down?), or when we look to the days and the weeks ahead of us (rather than behind, around, above), we enable language to shape our relationship to the world in fundamental ways. Every time we worry about wasting time doing things not worth our while (as if time is a limited resource that can run out, like money), or give people ideas or power over us (like finite objects or substances that can be lost once transferred), or shoot down their arguments (as if arguments were wars), we rarely see that these things could have been conceptualised differently. New ways of speaking may make us linguistically a little uncomfortable as we become more aware of how reality could work, but that can give us a certain power to act, to change our realities.

From a linguist’s perspective, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s ground-breaking research on conceptual and conventional metaphor in everyday language in Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1980)was instrumental in showing that metaphors are an incredibly pervasive, powerful force that result in real – and sometimes troubling – consequences for the decisions we make.

The power of language to influence our social realities – even if we don’t take metaphors literally – is not trivial. We may logically understand that time doesn’t run out, but that doesn’t stop us from panicking about how little we have left as a day ends, especially if everyone around us does the same. Expressing a concept in terms of some other relatable experience makes it something many can understand culturally, even emotionally. This means metaphors can be used effectively, sometimes dangerously, in propaganda and advertising, to persuade us to hold certain beliefs or to act in certain ways, to retain certain images in our minds, associating them with negative or positive emotions, to absorb and defend ideologies that become our way of life.

Lakoff and Johnson ask us to imagine what might happen if, instead of seeing arguments as war, always attacking and defending, there was a culture that framed arguments as a kind of co-operative dance, with the goal of performing in a balanced and aesthetic way. The people of that culture would likely experience, talk about and act on arguments in a very different way to those who see debate and discussion as a zero-sum game with winners and losers, and with the result often tied to our own self-worth and identity.

Imagine if, in our adversarial politics, we didn’t continue to think or talk about power as some mysterious substance that exists in the universe and can be given away to the leader at the very top, leaving those of us at the bottom utterly powerless. Michel Foucault, for some the last word on the intricacies of power, entreats us to understand that ‘power is not a thing’, not a possession like wealth or commodities. Power is in fact everywhere, made real through actions, socially negotiated through the evolving relationships between people. We may read Foucault’s words, but it’s not always easy to understand their truth.

Metaphors may govern our social realities, but everyday life has grown harder for most people in a practical sense. The evolving customs of our communities have grown crueller and more punitive, and our futures have grown bleaker as the needs of the people clash against the desires of that impersonal, immovable force we obliquely call ‘the powers that be’. Entrenched in the very language we use, these are powers that just are, and seemingly always have been, in our governments, big corporations, the elite classes or anyone else to whom we’ve given power over our lives.

Today, millions worldwide can leave their schools, their workplaces or their homes and join together to protest one injustice after another, seeking to put in balance a world that seems forever lopsided for the benefit of one rarefied class. Yet they’re easily dismissed by their political representatives – and nothing changes. The gradual loss of people power, much like the unseasonably hot weather of a warming planet, creeps up on us slowly until it seems like ordinary life. Science tells us it takes just a few years for people to normalise the frequency of extreme once-in-a-lifetime weather events – but when it comes to extremism in power, perhaps we’re already there, having always been in thrall to authority.

 

WE’RE CONDITIONED TO have a healthy respect for the powerful from childhood, as docile bodies, absorbing the symbols of strength in our societies, learning good behaviour, trusting in public institutions intended to keep our communities stable and safe. Even a flimsy cloth-covering around civic power can inspire a fearful compliance – from flags to certain uniforms, for instance, that we’ve internalised as inherently authoritative symbols and that happen to be worn by regular people like ourselves. Uniforms, the inanimate, outward trappings of authority, have a strange and sombre power to compel people to obey, to capitulate, often without question. The very sight of them is a threat as fearsome as any weapon, as some of us – especially the disenfranchised – nervously skirt the presence of someone in police uniform, or voluntarily give up rights, privacy and data during a police interaction, despite having done nothing wrong.

Someone who takes up the symbolic mantle of leadership, from the police to prime ministers to presidents, can theoretically only have power with the consent of the people. But in practice it’s taken for granted that power somehow magically accompanies a position of leadership, unaffected in any material way by the integrity of the person who acquires it, or by their effectiveness in leading (at least until the next election cycle). In the words of William Hazlitt in his 1823 essay ‘On the Spirit of Monarchy’: ‘It is the place and power we bow to, not the man. He may be a sublimation of all the vices and diseases of the human heart; yet we are not to say so, we dare not even think so.’ That our elected leaders no longer feel they have to answer to the source of their leadership can be seen in the ways they pay lip-service to one thing and use their people-given power to do something else – often in favour of the few, often against the will of the majority – be it on issues such as the continued denial and trivialisation of the climate crisis or the relentlessly immoral obstruction of human rights, from Indigenous rights to the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

In their 2014 article ‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens’, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I Page quantified what many of us have suspected for a while – that the rich and powerful continue to become ever more rich and powerful. In comparing voters, Gilens and Page found that the will of the majority, from lower income groups, often simply didn’t matter.

How do we make sense of our own powerlessness? Perhaps, as Leo Tolstoy once suggested, ‘power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand’. Our understanding of the limits and the civic responsibilities of this amorphous thing we call power needs to evolve, and this starts with how we talk about it.

To be clear, the powerlessness of people is not simply linguistic: it’s very real. It’s not simply a matter of changing our language and thinking positively, because the lack of power is often systemic. But our well-worn, conventional language about power makes us less aware of how to achieve a sustainable balance of power, where everybody must play a role. The ways we conceptualise power, authority and their tangled links to integrity, morality, effectiveness and public trust are surprisingly rudimentary and disconnected from each other, even in the modern Western societies that many staunchly believe are the most advanced.

We don’t have to look much further than our own backyard to find a culture with a far more advanced way of conceptualising what power is and could be. The Oceanic region is home to one of the most forward-thinking and long-misunderstood metaphysical concepts of power that can be found – particularly in terms of how it’s been used politically in Polynesian languages such as Hawaiian and Maori. Long before Foucault’s influential intellectualisation of power, the people of the Pacific already had a practical, lived experience that aligned with many of his core theories on power, through the cultural concept known as mana.

 

IF MANA SOUNDS familiar, it may be because in popular culture the word has become synonymous with magic. In the hugely popular gaming, fantasy and science-fiction subcultures, mana is a mysterious substance or essence of magic that allows a user – having imbibed it through potions – to perform extraordinary superhuman acts, such as casting magic spells or increasing their physical strength.

In this fantastical form, this version of mana is a natural extension of how wildly the Indigenous Polynesian concept of power has been misinterpreted. Like our metaphors of power, mana as magic in popular culture has been envisioned as a substance that can be consumed by anyone who possesses it, no strings attached. It just exists. In The Melanesians (1891), Anglican missionary Robert Henry Codrington described mana as ‘a supernatural power or influence…that works to effect everything which is beyond the ordinary power of men, outside the common processes of nature; it is present in the atmosphere of life, attaches itself to persons and to things’. Codrington’s definition has steered the scholarly perspective towards mana’s curious magical possibilities ever since.

Mana, like Foucauldian power, is everywhere and is not a static thing. It can be found in the trees, in the land, in the silent threat of a police uniform. And it can be found in people and their actions and reactions. As a widespread concept across diverse Pacific cultures, through language change as much as through colonial contamination, mana has evolved many nuances related to power, from a supernatural sense of power to something more secular in terms of political authority, integrity, effectiveness, truth and even stewardship of the land. In context, mana overtly ties these facets of power together in a way that may seem surprising – integrity and power don’t necessarily go together in our minds, but perhaps they should. If we can look past the conventional, magical thinking on mana, its cultural force begins to look distinctly human. The endeavours of people working together to build extraordinary things is a miraculous kind of power, metaphorically speaking.

In ‘Conventional Metaphors and Anthropological Metaphysics: The Problematic of Cultural Translation’ (1985), Roger M Keesing suggests concepts such as mana that are nuanced and difficult to grasp may have been misinterpreted due to the metaphorical mindset and cultural biases of Western researchers. Although we talk of the sun rising and setting and of the world as if it were flat, ‘it would be nonsense for an ethnographer of England or the US to write that “the natives believe that the earth is flat and that the sun goes up and comes down”.’ Yet scholars of the past assumed that those cultures they perceived as so different from Western society must have been more of an exotic other than ‘sophisticated modern’. It’s no wonder it was easy for many Victorian scholars, in an age of popular fascination with the occult and spiritualism, to see mana only as a kind of supernatural, magical essence.

Keesing finds evidence across early Oceanic languages that mana was often realised as a verb, rather than simply as a noun – power as an action, meaning ‘to be effective’, or to ‘mana-ise’ something. A canoe that is ‘mana-ised’ isn’t necessarily infused with magic – but it might be exceptionally sturdy, fast and dependable.

This is an important distinction. When we look at how the word ‘mana’ was used in the past by Indigenous speakers, thinkers and writers in their own language, this more nuanced view of both mana and of the social responsibilities of political power emerges. While power can seem like an uncontrollable force, mana is made by people – and it can also be taken away. Mana makes clear that through the agreement of a human collective, power is constructed, laws are made, authority is assigned and support can ultimately be withdrawn.

In ‘Mana Hawai‘i: An Examination of Political Uses of the Word Mana in Hawaiian’ (2016), Noenoe K Silva shows how mana – as a power that was performed through language, and very much dependent on public trust and support – is an idea worth reviving for the modern age.

A small but crucial distinction between power and mana is crystallised in this example. An early appropriation of the word by haole (white American) missionaries to talk of God’s ‘mana’ shows that it was synonymous with a Western concept of power: ‘This is his mana, the creation of the heavens and the earth… Therefore, let us turn (convert) to his mana. It is there we shall escape the wrath of God…’

What’s revealing is a more nuanced use of the concept ‘mana’ from a Hawaiian student on the same topic of God-like power: ‘The great God of heaven has mana, because these listen to him when he speaks: the rock, the water, the ocean, the mountains, and the hills, and the heavens, and the earth, and everything.’

As Silva points out, for the missionary, God’s mana simply exists regardless of who believes in him or listens to him; it’s power that just is, and it’s possessed unconditionally. For the Hawaiian writer, more subtly, mana is overtly socially conditioned, performed in language. God can only have mana because people and things ‘listen to him when he speaks’. Not even a god can be all-powerful, it seems, if there are no people who will interact with or listen to them.

Whether it is a god’s power or the secular authority of governments to lead, the social contract of mana remains important. A powerful person with mana can make declarations, but the words come with a responsibility to act in the public’s best interest. Language was used to declare laws, rights, punishments, reveal truths and ethics, and verbal pronouncements were treated very seriously. Mana is a tentative political power that must be maintained, conditional on a civic or moral responsibility to perform acts for the public good, and not to be wielded as the power of an individual. Hawaiian kings could keep their mana ultimately only through the collective decision-making and support of the people, not necessarily because of who they were. A failure to act on their words would have meant the loss of mana from the loss of public trust. In a far cry from the situation of William Hazlitt’s all-powerful monarch, people could engage in debate and challenge a ruler’s mana, because rulers were seen as not the source of power, but a channel for it. A leader – even a king or a god – can lose mana if they are tested, held accountable and found morally wanting by the people.

 

THERE ARE NO utopias. But the corrupting wealth of great power amassed in the hands of the few requires a challenge, a correction in the system itself. What we can learn from the concept of mana is a tightly woven balancing act of power and moral integrity, in which public trust and public accountability must be equal partners in a co-operative performance – there are consequences for actions that harm the very source of an authority’s power: the people. Power, in the end, does not exist magically in the ether. It’s uniquely human. It is the extraordinary practical magic of human beings, working in unison, that can perform great things, in word and in act.

The story that mana tells us is that people can make power, thoughtfully and carefully, and people can take it away. We can’t do this alone, but we might just be able to change our reality together.

 

 

References

Hazlitt, W. (1823). The spirit of monarchy. The Liberal. https://archive.org/stream/collectedworksw25henlgoog/collectedworksw25henlgoog_djvu.txt.

Gilens, M. and Page, B.I. (2014). Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens. Perspectives on Politics,12(3), 564–581.

Keesing, R.M. (1985) Conventional metaphors and anthropological metaphysics: The problematic of cultural translation. Journal of Anthropological Research, 41(2), 201–217.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980a). Conceptual metaphor in everyday language. The Journal of Philosophy, 77(8), 453–486.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980b). The metaphors we live by(1st ed). University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Mawyer, A. (2016). The state of mana, the mana of the state. In Tomlinson, M., and T.P. Kāwika Tengan (eds),New mana. ANU Press, Canberra. pp 203–236.

Moore, F.C., Obradovich, N., Lehner, F. and Baylis, P. (2019). Rapidly declining remarkability of temperature anomalies may obscure public perception of climate change. PNAS, 116(11), 4905–4910.

Silva, N.K. (2016). ‘Mana Hawai’i: An examination of political uses of the word mana in Hawaiian. In Tomlinson and Kāwika Tengan, New mana, pp 37–54.

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