The signature of power

By Mitchell Dean:

[Abstract] This concept of power keeps referring its users to a domain of apparent antinomies, which from a formal theoretical perspective are in turn construed as unities in opposition to further terms. Three such sequences are ‘power to’ and ‘power over’, power as capacity and as right, and juridical conceptions of sovereignty and ‘economic’ conceptions of government. This movement of opposition, unity and renewed opposition is however the signature of the concept of power, which, instead of being transcended or neutralised, must be kept in play in its analysis. As a consequence of the view that there is no essence of power, the paper further argues for a substantive rather than formal approach to power in which the analysis of power proceeds by paradigmatic cases, analogies and exemplars. The work of Ernst H. Kantorowicz, Michel Foucault, Max Weber and Giorgio Agamben helps to elucidate this approach.


In contemporary constitutional democracies, we start from the assumption that power is exercised in a particular way and that the ceremonies, inscriptions and symbols that accompany power are secondary to its form. To adopt a substantive conception of power, we must suspend the assumption that power is somehow separated from everything that allows its manifestation and exercise. What comes into view when we do so is not only an enormous wealth of data already before our eyes but the existence of analyses that have already been made of this data by historians, anthropologists, theologians, semioticians, and cultural and media analysts. With governmentality studies, we are used to regarding architectural plans, statistical tables, graphs, techniques of accounting and the management of performance as constitutive of kinds of rational, calculable power relations. Yet we should extend this generosity to less immediately rational, more obscure and difficult to read elements, a task undertaken by Agamben’s (2011) economic theology. An inscription on a column or a coin, a Latin phrase, legal maxims, an ancient doctrine, a theological debate on the Trinitarian mystery or the role of angels (Peterson 2011, pp. 106–142), the anthropological analysis of prayer and sacrifice (Mauss 2003), religious liturgy, imperial and religious acclamations and their histories (Kantorowicz 1946), symbols associated with states and political actors, are no longer the archaic media of power but their concrete, material, substantial historical manifestations that carry signatures of power. While power is not a substance or thing, it takes and can be known through these substantive forms and their signatures. The same can be said for philology and epigraphy. It is not a matter of the language of power being sequestered in a sphere of truth and rationality outside power but how power is manifest in the signatures of words and phrases and in the language by which we seek to understand power.


Let me summarise the perspective on power suggested here so far:

  1. The concept of power is best approached through its particular signature. This refers us to a series of antinomies of different conceptions of power and the process which suspends or overcomes one antinomy in order to oppose the resultant unity to another. To approach the concept of power through its signature is no longer to take sides in these antinomies but to be sure to capture the entire field of dispersion of various concepts of power.
  2. This means that rather than a dichotomous conception of power, we need to adopt a dipolar one. To analyse power, then, is to grasp power as both ‘power to’ and ‘power over’, capacity and right, facilitative and repressive, law and violence, episodic and dispositional, sovereign and economic, being and action and ultimately reign and government.
  3. Power is neither a substance possessed by some nor  a liquid circulating among many. Rather it can only be known in its substantive and singular instances, cases and examples. In the analysis of many of these substances, we can seek resemblances and analogies in the way they have been marked by signatures.
  4. This analysis is necessarily historical, or genealogical, because it is focused on neither the general nor the particular,  but  the  singular.  It  brings  into play conceptual–historical, epigraphic, philological, historical–sociological, religious–historical and anthropological study and makes pertinent the study of ceremonies and rituals, state symbols, oaths, gestures, acclamations, liturgy, hymns and prayer, legal maxims and inscriptions. Following this, the mass media and its ‘representations’ of power again become central to our analysis of power.
  5. Each singularity is an exemplar or paradigm for a substantive kind or mechanism of power. Rather than a formal specification of the nature of power, we seek to understand substantive kinds of power such as the disciplinary, biopolitical, sovereign, governmental and pastoral, ones identified and analysed by Foucault.


Source:  Mitchell Dean (2012): The signature of power, Journal of Political Power, 5:1, 101-117 (available at Copenhagen Business School)

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: