The craving for power

The hankering after power is as old as human beings; no, older – it is as old as the first unicellular being that emerged from the primeval morass of evolution. After all, like all organisms since then, it would have tried its primitive best to survive, to stave off death. And isn’t that already an attempt at exercising a form of very basic power? The longing for power does not end there, of course. Among animals it assumes forms of dominance over its kind – the leader of the pack, and all that.

As Nietzsche saw clearly, the ‘will to power’ is fundamental to all beings, and the evolutionary tendency, to overcome all the limitations of one’s species – through specific individuals that exemplify such overcoming – is nothing other than the expression of this will to power. Of course, Nietzsche also intimated that the greatest – and most difficult to achieve – power is the overcoming of this very ‘will to power’; that is, ridding oneself of the craving for power in the knowledge that such power is ultimately hollow. I would contend, though, that a more nuanced understanding of power – along the lines of Foucault’s, for example (see here) – would enable one to distinguish between forms of power that are innocuous, although necessary for survival, and other manifestations of it that are positively noxious in their effects. In brief, power is, like many other things, a ‘pharmakon’ – poison and cure simultaneously.

For example, we all know the power of language, which not only enables us to communicate with one another in an edifying manner, but also imparts to one the knowledge that one can only truly grasp the reality of something once one has articulated it in language. This is the ‘cure’ aspect of language. Its poisonous character reveals itself in its capacity to be employed destructively, as when someone execrates another unjustifiably through the use of words, in this way undermining the very humanity of the other.

This ‘poison’-aspect of language has often, throughout history, had enduring institutional effects – the best-known example in our own country being the whole vocabulary that grew around the institutionalisation of racial segregation in the system known as apartheid. This explains the sensitivity surrounding certain words even today, here as well as in a country like America. And understandably, people who were at the receiving end of ‘language as poison’ would welcome any attempt to reverse this effect.

The meaning of the word ‘black’ in a racial context is one instance – a very significant one – of language functioning as a pharmakon, sometimes poisonously and in other contexts as a cure of sorts. Under apartheid as poison, mostly, but also sometimes as cure, for instance in the black consciousness movement in South Africa, and the civil rights movement in America. People like Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, as well as Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, in the United States, contributed profoundly to the ‘cure’ aspect of the word ‘black’ through their political activism as well as their writings, which recuperated the meaning of the word significantly.

If one were to go further, and add to this the many outstanding black individuals who have done constructive cultural or educational work in varied spheres of society, one would have to conclude that today black people generally have reason to feel that the word, ‘black’, in a racial context, has been redeemed to a large extent. I am thinking of people like African American philosopher, Cornell West – whom I had the privilege to meet during the time I spent as postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, and in whose seminars I learned a great deal – as well as a writer such as Toni Morrison, who is one of the great novelists of today, but also, of course, of Frantz Fanon, all of whose work stands as testimony to the fact that genius has no specific colour; it is encountered among all races.

Just recently something else has been added to the ongoing recuperation of the word ‘black’ in the world – because, make no mistake, there is still a long way to go before one would be able to say that all races are treated equally in the world, and that no trace is left of the long history of oppression of black people by their white counterparts. What I am referring to is the release, in February, of the Marvel/Disney franchise film, Black Panther, in which a black superhero makes his film debut.

Many people would shrug and say ‘So what? It is just another superhero movie’. And they would be wrong; it is NOT just another superhero movie. From the psychological perspective of the need that every person has to ‘identify’ with someone else – real or fictional – in the course of growing up, it is immeasurably important, specifically for black people. Not only is this superhero black and incredibly strong (as superheroes usually are), but he is of royal descent and uncommonly intelligent into the bargain. And – very importantly – he is African, something that every black person can probably identify with, whether you live in Africa, in America or the diaspora.

The cover article, by Jamil Smith, of a recent TIME magazine (19 February, p. 34-41), addresses the significance of Black Panther (p. 36): “If you are reading this and you are white, seeing people who look like you in mass media probably isn’t something you think about often. Every day, the culture reflects not only you but nearly infinite versions of you – executives, poets, garbage collectors, soldiers, nurses and so on. The world shows you that your possibilities are boundless…

“Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. When it doesn’t happen, we are all the poorer for it.

“This is one of the many reasons Black Panther is significant. What seems like just another entry in an endless parade of superhero movies is actually something much bigger. It hasn’t even hit theaters yet and its cultural footprint is already enormous. It’s a movie about what it means to be black in both America and Africa – and, more broadly, in the world. Rather than dodge complicated themes about race and identity, the film grapples head-on with the issues affecting modern-day black life…”

The reason I have referred to Black Panther is because, in the final analysis, it has to do with power, and with restoring a sense of power associated with the word ‘black’. Historically this rings true, too. Some readers may know that, long before the film, Black Panther, the superhero, Black Panther, was introduced, in June 1966, in Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four Number 52, as T’Challa, the King of a fictional African nation (an identity retained in the film), as Smith reminds one in the TIME article (p. 38). Importantly, this did not fall from thin air; it was Marvel’s response to historical events of the time – a month earlier Stokely Carmichael had made a dramatic declaration on Black Power, shifting from a pacifist philosophy to one of militancy and resistance to white oppression. The superhero character reflected this change. Hence, the craving for power that is so characteristic of human beings finds expression here, too, and understandably so.

In a more critical vein – not specifically regarding Black Panther, but concerning all superhero movies: while I understand the need for people to identify with heroic characters, my own view is that the typical American phenomenon of ‘superheroes’ does not constitute what one might call a ‘preferred’ terrain of identification. By this I mean that – to put it in Lacanian terms – it represents a genre where the register of Lacan’s ‘imaginary register’ is predominant, without much mitigation by the symbolic register of language, which could (and should) restore a semblance of the realm of the possible.

After all, the imaginary register is where ideological obfuscation is located, usually through unbridled fantasy. Simply put: if someone identifies with a character in a fantasy realm of virtually unlimited power, sooner or later they are going to collide with what Lacan calls ‘the real’ (which surpasses language and the imaginary). People don’t really have the ability to fly, like Superman, to use a simple example. This is why I would rather see people find their identification figures in credible fictional characters, like the black physician, John Prentice – Sidney Poitier’s character in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film on interracial marriage in the United States.

It is also why, among all the superheroes the only one I can personally identify with is Batman, not because he is white, but because he is not really a superhero at all – he is a broken being, like all human beings, resisting the cause of his brokenness by seeking it out in Gotham City and eradicating it where possible. He also exemplifies the truth that, seeking power, we lack power. That, to me, is preferable to a blind craving for absolute power.