The Prison with Symbolic Walls: Complexity and Structuration in Havel's Power of the Powerless

By Hammond, Scott C.; Houston, Rene | Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Prison with Symbolic Walls: Complexity and Structuration in Havel's Power of the Powerless


Hammond, Scott C., Houston, Rene, Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science


A dear friend who, as I write, is in a Chinese prison once told me this tale: For want of something to do, a prisoner gleaned from the sweepings of the shop floor tiny bits of glittering wire, which he deposited in a bottle. Years passed. On the day he was freed, there was nothing to take with him to make the passage of those years except the bottle, and so he carried it away. Back home he rose and he ate and he slept at the exact hours the warden had decreed. Too old to work anymore, he spent his days pacing, the exact space of his long confinement-four paces forward, four paces back, four paces forward, four paces back. For want of something to do, one day he smashed the bottle to count how many tiny bits of glittering wire he had collected. He wept. At his feet lay broken glass, and a clump of wires rusted solid in the shape of a bottle (Lord, 1990, p. 3).

How many organizations, rules, relationships and customs continue to control us long after we are free? Power relationships, agency and identity collide until, like the elephant and his chain, we become accustom and sometimes dependent on controlling power that structures our lives, often unwilling or unable to let go of our own victimhood. Deleuze (1990, p. 3) reminds us that our sense of causality is easily blurred and our good sense destroyed when identity confronts power.

Power has long been a central topic for consideration for communication and organizational scholars and has been prominent in the literature of post-modernism. In this essay, we examine the essay by Czech poet and President Vaclav Havel entitled The Power of the Powerless that expands the notion of power in political systems towards an understanding of structuration and self-organization. Havel published the essay in 1979 while the Czech people were still under the political control of a government sustained by the former Soviet Union. In a case that is similar to the Chinese prisoner, Havel's story begins with the situation of the green grocer trying to make a living for his family in the totalitarian state. The grocer complies with requests to put party poster in his window and does not offer resistance to regulation. In a traditional way, the green grocer is seen as "powerless," but Havel argues that traditional view of power is insufficient in understanding the scope of the power relationships. Havel then proposes a conceptualization of power in the post-totalitarian state that is consistent with structuration and complexity theory. In his discussion of automism he explains why the Chinese prisoner referred to above stays a prisoner even after the walls are gone.

This essay begins with a discussion of some of the many common definitions of power beginning with traditional theorists and moving to the post modern. In this section we give a brief accounting Foucault's influence on postmodern conceptualizations of power, citing his distinction between juridical and contingent power. The second section describes Havel's unique contribution to the concept of power, focusing specifically on his case study of power in the old Soviet Union and using examples of the green grocer. The third section shows how Havel's view of power is consistent with current complexity theory views of power. In this section, we show how Havel's examples illuminate the complexity theory power perspective and draw out important ideas such as emergence and selforganization. The fourth section and conclusion argues that Havel's view of power operates sympatrically with traditional power. For Havel post-totalitarian power does not mean that traditional forms of power can be dismissed. Havel sees both traditional and holistic (posttotalitarian) power in play. In the final section we discuss the creation of symbolic power through field theory and structuration and show how Havel proposes a metaphysical symbolic field with underdetermined boundaries within which power operates.

FROM LINEAR TO NETWORK DEFINITIONS OF POWER

Historically, definitions of complex subjects most frequently begin in a practical domain and power is no exception. …

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