Monday, February 7, 2011

Spider Power

"A diplomat of full age ought surely to know this pair of simple things! that a country's laws are written upon paper, and that its customs are engraved upon brass. One may play with the one, but not with the other. It is less risky for a stranger to dance upon our Constitution in the public square than to affront one of our solidified customs. The one is merely eminently respectable, the other is sacred."

Mark Twain may as well have written a textbook on social power and public diplomacy, but luckily he did not, so I am now afforded the opportunity to construe his wise social commentary in any way at I see fit. It remains to be seen if Volume Two of his autobiography will include an unfinished manuscript entitled My Life as a Public Diplomat, but until then this niche of (mis)appropriation is populated by myself and myself only.

In reading Van Ham's chapter on social power, I was struck by his categorization of popular culture, customs, and norms as a co-optive form of hegemony. This form, being so pervasive and almost impossible to quantify, makes it more powerful than the coercive, harder form of hegemony employed in centuries past. Twain saw this as obvious fact over 100 years ago, and it remains true today. In the case of the United States, and the rest of globalized society, consuming has become the most standard norm; what you buy essentially defines your culture. Furthermore, what you want to buy is what you are shown: on TV, online, on the streets. This idea seems rather terrifying, but also undeniable, and applies not only to domestic populations but to international relations. The Marilyn Monroe doctrine applies not only to millions of Americans, but all of the earthlings in our sphere of influence, being sprayed with a glittery mist of our soft power. The idea of our global society being defined by typical bastions of American pop culture like Coca-Cola and Hollywood seems to move social power from the realm of soft and sticky power (which just makes me think of caramels or other friendly sweet confections) to something more insidious.

Slippery power?

Psychic power?

Spider power?

Yes, I shall call it spider power. Not Spiderman power, which is intellectual property that I am not licensed to use in this blog, but spider power, with long legs and a tough exoskeleton and the ability to spin huge shiny webs in which to trap its prey. Geertz said that culture is the web of significance that man himself has spun, and it is a very powerful, fiercely protected, and at times nearly invisible web indeed.

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