The sounds of silence

Sometimes that which is left unsaid is more important than that which is carefully articulated. The silences of power speak from the words they don’t pronounce as much as those they do. Texts speak to us by the words they tell but also by the words they keep quiet. In A theory of literary production Pierre Macherey (1978) argued for the significance of what is not said and of what is placed in the margins, noting that what needs to be explained is not the apparent unity of meaning but the pres- ence of an opposition between elements, disparities which point to a conflict of meaning.35 This conflict is not the sign of an imperfection; it reveals the inscription of an otherness in the work through which it maintains a relationship with that which it is not, that which happens at its margins. Thus, it is the silences and gaps in a discourse that are significant to an understanding of its ideological milieu.

These indicate the unconscious of the discourse, in so far as it possesses one, an unconscious in which the play of history beyond its edges may be seen. We have identified several such edges here.

Our purpose is not merely historical. The astute reader might recognize that, between the lines, reside more general and contemporary points being made about the nature of power and total institutions, as well as about the nature of contem- porary organization theory. By the tally of this chapter it is a theory of surprising reticence; indeed, it is more than surprising; it is strange. In a science devoted to understanding how organizations do what they do, the organizational crimes of the century remain largely a black hole, a vast empty space, a void of intellectual nothing, an absent presence in a science dedicated, in the words of its leading jour- nal, ‘to transcending the bounds of particular disciplines to speak to a broad audi- ence’. Transcendent it may aspire to be, but this science hardly seems able to speak to central manifestations of power. What we have in its place is the radical absence of such address in, precisely, a surfeit of irrational rationality, with an empty and missing center.

What was lost in translation does not reflect an absence in life, however, as this chapter has sought to make absolutely clear. Despite the fact that domination went missing with action inside systems theory, in not one of the cases reviewed should what was inscribed in its place ever be graced with the name of authority. Legitimacy there was not, at least not from the point of view of the wretched inmates of the institutions constructed. But there was power aplenty. And it is important to differentiate between the violence that was embedded in these total institutions and the power that they expressed.

Power is not violence, but power makes violence easier to impose, both morally and practically, as Arendt (1970), who was very careful to distinguish between power and violence, makes clear. Violence, she argued, is an instrument that should never be confused with power. Power is the ability of a social entity to act in con- cert, enabling its components to function together. For Arendt, acts of violence are the antithesis of power as they ‘can always destroy power’ – in the sense of a col- lective concertative ‘power to’ – but, as she says, while ‘out of the barrel of a gun grows the most instant and effective obedience … [w]hat can never grow out of it is power’(1970: 57). Where action is exerted by violence then it is a one-sided act that entails domination and subordination. While violence was the means deployed, it was not this violence that signified power but the capacities realized in establishing stable social relations of domination that incorporated so many bodies within the vortex of that violence, and which made that violence possible.

In every case, what violence does is to violate the state of being that Arendt (1993: 167) terms ‘freedom’, that which enables human beings to transcend neces- sity and to act creatively and imaginatively. By attacking the bodies of those subject to power, by extermination, torture, seizure, confinement, these manifestations of power seek to obliterate resistance through total domination. An essential step is classification of bodies as sharing an essential similarity as Jews, enemy combat- ants, citizens, sinful girls, etc. Uniqueness and individual identity are denied; just the big essential category is used to order confinement. When individuality is so denied, then the possibilities of individuals acting in concert, in power, to resist, are minimized. It is no accident that it was the tearing up of their identity papers that mobilized the final resistance against the Stasi in a creative act of resistance to a power that had always insisted on its rights of inspection, a power which reaffirmed the individual human freedom of each putative subject. Yet, even individual acts of resistance can deny power. One thinks of Gramsci (1971), writing his prison note- books in tiny script on toilet paper and other filched resources; Primo Levi, work- ing in the IG Farben slave labor camp, surviving in part because, as a chemist, he knew that he could safely eat cotton wool and drink paraffin. After his liberation, he was to liken resistance to just surviving, much as a frog in winter:

Consider whether this is a man,

Who labors in the mud

Who knows no peace

Who fights for a crust of bread

Who dies at a yes or a no.

Consider whether this is a woman,

Without hair or name

With no more strength to remember

Eyes empty and womb cold

As a frog in winter. (Levi 1992, ‘Shemá’)

Domination in total institutions in the twentieth century worked on both the body and the soul. Its subjects may have been produced by power, but that power depended on relations of domination that stripped subjects of their life-enhancing pluralities, their identities as more and other than that which they were classified as being. While power might create a certain kind of visibility, in total institutions its relations seek to deny resistance through a form of invisibility. Classifications, degradations, and stripping of identity work to make the subject invisible as a person already thought of in terms of being an already-dominated category, whose ability to act is thus diminished.

Relations of domination should not be mistaken for particular acts of violence.

Relations of domination are stable sets of social relations capable of confining bodies – and sometimes souls – in ways that deny individuality, identity and dif- ference, filling their existence with a totality that denies their freedom. That vio- lence thus becomes so much easier to enact is an effect of totality rather than power per se. Power, which depends on mobilization, real political energy, and creativity, is antithetical to violence. Violence is an instrument not so much of power as of domination. When the organizational relations sustaining intense domination – total institutionalization – break down, then violence becomes far less probable, as the case of the GDR shows most clearly. Once the people no longer were held in the web of fear and paranoia constructed by the government, once they destroyed the identity bestowed on them with a sense of freedom, then the situation changed abruptly. As Arendt argues, it is where ‘commands are no longer obeyed’ that ‘the means of violence’ cease to be of use:

[T]he question of this obedience is not decided by the command–obedience relation but by opinion and, of course, by the number of those who share it. Everything depends on the power behind the violence. The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in revolutions reveals in a flash how civil obedience – to laws, to rulers, to insti- tutions – is but the outward manifestation of support and consent. (Arendt 1969; retrieved on March 4, 2005, from

The superior organization of power has less to do with the subordination or dom- ination of people and more to do with the ability of power to transpose the means of subordination into legitimate currency, into authority. As the list of 20 attributes in Table 6.1 demonstrates, power has many pressure points; it is the multiplicity of these, their interactive effects, their dulling of the thresholds that are crossed, that are significant in the ways in which total institutional power is accomplished. Mark these points well, for they are often present long before violence or horror mani- fests itself explicitly; they ease power over the thresholds from authority into sheer domination. What is most sobering is that such domination is not necessarily done in the name of evil, violence or terror: sometimes it comes clothed in moral authority, religious piety, or ideological legitimacy. Why, it even comes disguised as normal organization, authority or leadership.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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