Updated: Mar 20
Power moves are everywhere
For those of you who doubt that power dynamics haunt all relationships and interactions, there’s this from an academic conference for people who study the novels and plays of Samuel Beckett. You know, the guy who wrote Waiting for Godot, if that helps.
Here’s the quote from the very beginning of an article in the Times Literary Supplement, which I know you all subscribe to:
My disenchantment with Beckett Studies was settled at a conference in Antwerp, when, one night outside a bar, a senior male professor at a distinguished university began to throw chairs at a female peer. Indoors, one of his colleagues suggested some motives for this, smoking casually as the graduate students ran out to break it up. Drink had been taken; there was an affair, long ago. She, as it happens, had just been overlooked for a senior post at the same university. Later, those grads would be advised not to work with her on a forthcoming critical book.
Academic books are about power in at least two obvious ways. They reflect the writer’s need to acquire it, and they embody, or attempt to, the state of having it.
The Journal of Beckett Studies is, by the way, a laff riot where in the most recent issue you can read eye-popping articles such as “Narrative Disorientation and Beckett’s Bureaucratic Space” or “Synecdoche’s Obloquy: Beckett and the Performance of Indecency,” which will be of interest to everyone who hadn’t realized that synecdoche had an obloquy.
These are the articles these scholars write when they’re not busy throwing chairs at each other.
But seriously, folks, power-wise, there’s no difference between academics in Beckett studies and everyday people in everyday relationships. We ALL feel disempowered and fear the threat of disempowerment. We are ALL heirs to a history of slights and hurts and, too often, terrible disempowerments that have changed our lives: a long-term layoff, a business failure, a career setback, an illness, a baby. Suddenly we have less influence, less say, less power. We are less someone. We feel more like a nothing.
“We are less someone”? Really? Aren’t we all somebodies?
Yeah, theoretically. But in real life? In real life, the sense of the slipping away of the self can be all too real.
Here’s an example. Take two people, married to each other, both working at the same jobs, both with the same dignity and respect. Then one of them drops out of the workforce to have a baby and then, hey, while we’re at it, another baby, and next thing you know five years of changing diapers and chasing toddlers has gone by.
The parenting person is—in most cases—feeling her life has shrunk, gotten less meaningful, and that they themselves are stupider, more out of it. If the spouse talks down to them, even if they think the spouse if talking down to them, this can feel tremendously hurtful in a specifically disempowering way: reminding them of their descent into nothingness.
They’re definitely on track for someone throwing a chair at the other. It could be the stay-at-home person, sick of patronizing power moves. But maybe the stay-at-home person has worked themselves into such a re-empowering rage that the other spouse feels compelled to throw a chair just to get back in the endlessly escalating game.
See what I mean? Beckett Studies, marriages—it’s all relationships, and they’re all, always, on the edge of tipping over into someone feeling disempowered, re-empowering themselves, and the whole explosive dynamic gets going.
We can’t be in denial about this. We can’t claim an exemption. We can’t claim to have some special way of being above it.
If you want to stay in the game where things like making love or making money or making pizzas or making progress understanding Beckett, you have to accept that your only choices are to go down the chair-throwing path of blindness to power dynamics OR to become aware of the fact that there is an edge to the precipice and to refuse to go near it by refusing to make power moves.
And if you have questions about how to do this, Why Couples Fight has all the answers, even if the “couples” are the folks you work with.