The term “power” is highly ambiguous. In one signification, power can refer to the capacities of an entity; to what that entity can do. Water has the power or capacity to freeze, be liquid, or be gaseous. Plutonium has the power to release tremendous amounts of energy. A gymnast has the power to do a flip from a standing position and do extraordinary movements on bars. A bloodhound has the power to detect a tremendous number of scents and even correlate them with how recently they occurred. If we follow Spinoza (and Deleuze), the power of a thing is its affects. Affects come in two varieties: passive and active. The passive affects– what we normally refer to as senses and emotions –are capacities to be affects, as in the case of vision where we are affected by light within a certain spectrum. The active affects are the capacity to do, as in the case of a cat leaping on a counter-top. The analysis of an entity, the understanding of an entity, consists in the analysis of its affects or powers. To know something is to know how it can affect and be affected. We can refer to this form of power as ontological power.
In another signification, power refers to something an agent has. Regardless of what Latour and his followers might suggest, not all beings are agents. Rocks, for example, are not agents; and this for no other reason than the fact that rocks lack self-directedness or the capacity to act on their own. To be sure, rocks might contribute to the agency of an agent, as in the case of a soldier that has stones and a sling where, to use McLuhan’s expression, his hand is “extended”, but it is not here the rock that is the agent. When we speak of an agent having power– whether it be a dolphin, chimpanzee, human, or something else besides –we are speaking of the power to influence and control others. For example, the general has the power to give orders and, more often than naught, those orders are followed. She has power over those that are subordinate to her. We can refer to this form of power as sovereign power.
Finally, a third sort of power refers to constraint and affordance. This form of power consists of those things that constrain or enchain entities, but that also enables them. For this reason, we might refer to this sort of power as ecological power, for it mostly–though not entirely –refers to the manner in which an entity is constrained by an environment about it. Ecological power then constrains and affords a body’s power of becoming, action, and movement. Here it is obvious that ecological power is relational (as is sovereign power). It only exists in a relation between one entity and another. Ecological power comes in three forms. First, there is purely material power. This power consists of the way in which material beings constrain the ontological power of other beings. For example, if you were born in New Orleans and this is the geography where your body developed, you will encounter significant material power over your body when you visit the Andes mountains in Peru. Because your body developed at or below sea level, your lungs will be accustomed to a certain air thickness. When you encounter the thin, high altitude air of the Andes your body’s active affects will be diminished as you will have less oxygen and therefore be less able to produce energy to engage in certain acts such as running and walking for long periods of time. Indeed, even your power of thought will be diminished. Similarly, on the Mars your body’s power of acting is changed as a result in the gravitational differences between Earth and Mars. While you will be able to leap higher on Mars, you will not be able to run as you could on Earth. Finally, the presence or absence of a road affords and constrains movements, allowing for connectivity or diminishing connectivity between regions and groups of people. Material power functions by virtue of what things are and the ontological powers that they have, not by virtue of what they mean or signify. It includes things like technologies, foods, forms of transportation, natural features of the environment, and urban infrastructure. The presence or absence of public transit, for example, can have tremendous economic consequences for people in a city, for example, by virtue of how it enhances their power of mobility allowing them to find a broader range of jobs. The appropriate response to material power, then, is design. Through design, through physical construction in the material environment, action, becoming, and moving can be afforded and constrained in ways a collective might find desirable.
The second form of ecological power is semiotic. We live in an ecology of signs and signs are like a web thrown over the world that afford and constrain movement, action, and becoming. Your credit rating influences your passage through the world in all sorts of ways that you might not even be aware of, determining whether you can do this or that, or even what sorts of opportunities are thrown away. Citizenship, of course, comes with all sorts of rights, but also duties (such as paying taxes). A young child of an illegal immigrant might have no concept of citizenship whatsoever, might think of themselves as “French” because that is where they live, yet just as the thin air of the Andes affects the native of New Orleans, their status as “illegal” is like an invisible force that can affect their life in all sorts of ways. Semiotic power includes things ranging from how we sort and categorize people according to race, citizenship, medically, in terms of titles, etc., narratives and myths that influence policy, laws, train schedules, economics and how we track economics, rights, identities, theories, categorization schemes and taxonomies, pertaining to what a society acknowledges as existing, and much more besides. Here power functions not by virtue of what things are– there’s nothing about the physical geography in which the illegal immigrant child lives that is constraining its action semiotically –but by virtue of how things signify in a particular social system. I visit another country and notice that people are responding to me in a peculiar way. I later find that my earrings signify a particular thing in that culture. Unbeknownst to myself their cultural norms were acting upon me and sorting me, defining how others relate to me. A woman wears a particular black and white scarf on her visit to Israel– one that she highly prizes due to its beautiful pattern –and is thoroughly confused and perplexed when she receives heated attention from customs, military, and law enforcement. Like Lucretius’s simulacra that are everywhere flying through the air rendering vision possible, the world is pervaded by invisible semiotic codes that influence us and other beings in all sorts of ways. The appropriate response to semiotic power is semiotic deconstructive critique, the dismantling of oppressive sign systems, but also the construction of new sign systems. Consider, for example, how the GLBT community has resignified terms like “queer” in their political struggles.
Finally, there is embodied power. The formulation of a separate category for embodied power is somewhat peculiar as all power, even the semiotic, is embodied in some form. After all, while signs might be incorporeal in that they are iterable while retaining some minimal identity– Shakespeare’s Hamlet is always the same Hamlet regardless of how many times it is printed –they have to be embodied somewhere. There is no speech without gases to carry that speech (sound can’t occur in a vacuum). Hamlet must be written on paper, stored in a data base, encoded in a brain, and so on. There are no signs without bodies to carry signs. Nonetheless, while it is true that all power resides in bodies of one form or another, it still seems important to draw attention to our biological bodies. For our biological bodies are not simply seats of ontological power, of the capacity to affect and be affected, but they can also exercise power over our ontological power in all sorts of ways. I exist in time and space and therefore cannot be in two places at once; even when I have a smart phone. If I don’t eat, my mind grows foggy and my body aches. I can hardly keep my eyes open. I can get sick or suffer from a terminal illness. My physical visage might terrify others, even though I don’t act in a menacing or angry way.
It’s important to note that these are only analytic categories and that we should not think of them as numerically distinct. These different forms of power are intertwined in all sorts of complicated ways. Thus, for example, economy has a strong semiotic dimension in the form of monetary systems used, law governing economic transactions, concepts of property, etc. However, economy wouldn’t be economy without workers, technologies, features of the environment, and so on. These things need to be thought together. An onto-cartography aims at mapping these relations of power so as to understand how these assemblages function. The aim here isn’t simply one of producing knowledge to satisfy curiosity, but is rather a mapping of territories of power so that strategies might be devised for intervening and overturning oppressive forms of power. Action is never possible without good maps.