Transforming power with embodied practice

Jethro Pettit


Social activists and academics are increasingly turning their attention to the influence of socialised norms and belief systems on civic and political agency. Looking beyond the wilful exercise of power by some over others, and beyond political economy and rational choice framings of power, there is growing interest in how power is created and reproduced through dominant narratives and behaviour (Clegg and Haugaard 2009, p. 3). Much debate in this direction was sparked by Steven Lukes’s Power: A Radical View (1974/2005), which compelled political scientists to acknowledge how people’s needs and beliefs can be manipulated to secure their 'willing consent to domination’. Yet thinkers and activists from critical, constructivist, feminist, race, queer and other perspectives have long seen power as the reproduction of socialised norms - residing in the very fabric of society rather than in episodic struggles for domination or resistance. This internalised or ‘invisible power’ as we generally call it in this volume (after VeneKlasen and Miller 2002, Gaventa 2006) is particularly insidious and resilient, shaping the possibilities for civic and political agency.

Power conceived as ‘more systemic, less agent specific [... and] more generally constitutive of reality’ (Clegg and Haugaard 2009, p. 3) could imply that those who are marginalised have little scope or agency to challenge the status quo. Yet a less pessimistic view of socialised power recognises that nonns are malleable, ever evolving and subject to disruption and re-creation by agents. This may happen through everyday acts of resistance (Scott 1985), through ‘unruliness’ (Scott-Villiers, this volume) or through moments of ‘disconfirming’ or ‘de-structuring’ established ways of seeing or doing things (Haugaard 2003, pp. 90-92, drawing on Giddens 1984). Agency is not separate from the constitution of power, in dualistic opposition to structure, but plays a central role in continuous processes of cultural signification (Butler 1990, pp. 195-8). But enacting alternative values and narratives, even in minute ways, can be instances of structural change — not only in politics but in culture, science, philosophy, art, education, the media and in everyday moments of domestic and social interaction. Of course, this proactive re-shaping of norms does not always lead to progressive outcomes; the point is that structures are not fixed, inscribing themselves on agents, but are continually affirmed or reconfigured through minute acts of compliance and resistance.

Social activists who understand power in this way tend to focus not just on winning immediate political battles, but on shaping values and beliefs, linking the personal and political, pushing back against those who propagate oppressive narratives, and articulating and enacting nonns that align with their claims. This can be challenging work given our pervasive collusion with systems of power through behaviour that tacitly complies with prevailing nonns. Patriarchy, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, nationalism, fascism, class and caste hierarchies, consumerism, environmental exploitation and many other forms of inequality and exclusion are all profoundly naturalised in many societies -even where their propagators and beneficiaries can be identified and challenged. An intersectional view that recognises how multiple forms of exclusion overlap and amalgamate poses further challenges for agency. We may be relatively liberated in relation to some spheres, for example gender or sexuality, but deeply implicated in others, such as class or consumerism. What scope then do we have as everyday civic and political beings to shift these embedded forms of power? How can we disrupt our own ‘willing consent to domination’ - or indeed our willing consent to dominate? How can we expose and transform embodied and habituated collusions with power?

Social movements and liberation struggles have often responded to invisible power with popular education activities that foster critical consciousness, such as campaigns inspired by the literacy methods of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). Recognising and unlearning socialised beliefs and assumptions, and gaining critical objectivity on structural power, enables a shift from ‘practical consciousness’ to ‘discursive consciousness’ (Haugaard 2003, p. 100). Transformative learning usually focuses on the critique of structures of oppression, with the expectation that heightened conceptual awareness will stimulate agency for resistance. Yet habituated patterns of behaviour can be remarkably resilient to reasoned thinking. In this chapter I argue that invisible power is constituted by more than the narratives, beliefs and language held in the conceptual domains of our consciousness. It is also manifest in our individual and collective embodiment of social dispositions, such that critical consciousness alone will not catalyse civic and political agency. While oppression can be rationally exposed and analysed, ‘aha moments’ will not generate agency without also disrupting embodied collusion with power.

Anglo-American political science has largely failed to account for the embodied and intersectional dimensions of power and democratic citizenship (Hawkesworth 2016). Political economy analysis therefore tends to focus on agents, their interests and alliances that can be observed ‘above the waterline’ (Pettit and Mejia Acosta 2014; see also introduction to this volume). Yet an emerging perspective among social theorists, social activists and cognitive scientists points to more embodied and intersectional dimensions of power and exclusion — challenging liberal and rational choice assumptions about civic and political participation. Research on embodied cognition is recognising the situated, perceptual and somatic dimensions of neural processes, seeing behaviour as enactive and experiential rather than responding to central commands from the brain, or to mental representations of reality, as traditionally assumed in cognitive science. Action does not necessarily follow logic, reason or choice: it can flow from a more complex processing of embodied and habituated experience of what is normally said or done, which suggests that even when conscious of oppressive power relations we tend to comply rather than resist.

As a university teacher, and a facilitator of reflective learning and action research with civil society activists and organisations, I have become more curious about the ways that power is habituated - existing not just ‘out there’, imposed through social and political structures and ideologies, but self-reproduced through micromoments of speech, gesture and movement. I’ve been struck by how resilient internalised power can be to dialogue and analysis, and have been drawn to facilitation methods that combine critical reflection with practices of creative and embodied learning. By this I mean proactive methods and disciplines for understanding bodily powers, actions and reactions both viscerally and logically. Social mobilisation and transformative adult learning strategies often include theatre, role play, scenarios and hands-on work experience, as well as meditation, yoga, tai chi and other martial arts. Collective action in the form of protests and marches is also embodied practice, serving not only as visible displays of solidarity but as creative, bodily enactments of alternative imaginaries, values and narratives. By working with and through the body, combining embodied practices of learning and action with processes of critical awareness-raising, I have found that we can expose and transform these patterns of power.

In this chapter I begin by revisiting theories of power, asking how they account for the cognitive and embodied processes that create and reproduce power, and what possibilities or constraints are implied for civic and political agency. Next, I look at research from the field of embodied cognition, relating its theories of mind to the findings on invisible power and agency. Finally, I share insights from my experience leading embodied practices as a teacher and actionresearcher, particularly enactment, body sculpting and exercises inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. In the conclusion I suggest that enabling civic and political agency requires a ‘pedagogy for the embodied mind’ that integrates critical consciousness with embodied knowledge.


‘Cognition is embodied when it is deeply dependent upon features of the physical body of an agent, that is, when aspects of the agent’s body beyond the brain play a significant causal or physically constitutive role in cognitive processing. In general, dominant views in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science have considered the body as peripheral to understanding the nature of mind and cognition. Proponents of embodied cognitive science view this as a serious mistake. Sometimes the nature of the dependence of cognition on the body is quite unexpected, and suggests new ways of conceptualising and exploring the mechanics of cognitive processing’ (Wilson and Foglia 2017, p. 1).

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