POWERS OF THE WEAK by Elizabeth Janeway
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Power is a ubiquitous element in our culture, and, if novelist and feminist Janeway is correct, in all other cultures as well. Janeway sees power as a social relationship defined by both poles; i.e., power only exists in a context in which that power is understood by both the wielder of power and the person or persons over whom it is exercised. By focusing on those who are ordinarily thought to be without power, the weak, Janeway illustrates her point in an original and engrossing manner. Although her main concern is with women, who are taken as representative of those on the short end of the power relationship, she establishes her position by reference to the cognitive development of infants, where the learning of speech involves the use of power, first in the imposition of language rules, and then in the ability to exert the power through naming objects, as well as in saying ""no."" Language, taken as a primordially social structure, leads to the notion that power is socially constituted, and therefore dependent upon socially shared meanings; in short, power is dependent upon community. Because of this social base, power requires legitimation, Janeway argues, and those upon whom power is exercised acquiesce in that power by accepting the legitimating claims. But once those legitimations break down, the ""social contract"" between strong and weak, or governors and governed, is absolved; and the power of the strong is removed. The growth in awareness of the condition of women has already begun to erode the legitimation of power in that realm, which is the first step toward a new social contract. Overall, this thesis is not new--it is close to Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex and even closer to Hegel's master-slave dialectic--but Janeway's development of it is. Reviewing examples of oppressive power and revolt from European history or the power relations manifested in Zande magic, Janeway approaches Barrington Moore's recent Injustice in scope and succeeds in placing important feminist concerns within a general social theory, to the benefit of both.

Pub Date: June 19th, 1980
Publisher: Knopf