Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The vertical nature of power

We conceptualize power in terms of a “vertical space” metaphor.  Power hierarchies are arranged vertically with power and control increasing as you progress toward the top. Authorities exercise their power “over” those “under” their command. The occupy movement is directed at the “top” 1 percent. People move “up” the corporate ladder. This way of thinking about power is so ingrained that it’s hard to see it as metaphor. And there are numerous concrete features of society that further obscure the metaphoric nature of power’s verticality: the penthouse suite is usually on the very top floor.

An interesting feature of vertical space as we actually experience it is its asymmetry.  The ground places very solid limits in the downward direction, but the sky is boundless.  This asymmetry is inherited by our vertical metaphor for power.  Two things result from this.  First, there are no limits to the “height” of one’s potential power.  Second, verticality has more relevance when talking about power than when talking about powerlessness.  Powerlessness is more situational, relational, contextually-bound, and potentially transient. Power, by contrast, is seen as more durable and absolute.  The personal loss of power means that it now belongs to someone else—the power itself remains.     

This might help explain why the occupy movement appears to be focused on “sharing the wealth” while leaving the scaffolding of power intact.