Seeing Through: Emptiness and Networks of Power

Today I begin a new series on the use of the Buddhist concept of emptiness to challenge and dismantle social systems of power and oppression. I translate the term shunyata or emptiness into a description of the process of seeing through social institutions that create powerful controls on our minds, behaviours and relationships. As engaged Buddhists, we engage in seeing through institutions of power and oppression, deconstructing these systems, and as engaged Buddhist practice, dismantling them. Institutions are merely “patterns of collective behaviour” that are meticulously and endlessly repeated, which control the behaviour and shape the minds of people engaged in that process. These institutions of power and privilege divide people by race and gender, and other arbitrary categories, into privileged and oppressed castes or classes. They shape our culture, which in turn shapes our minds, our views and our relations with other people. They control our economies and natural resources, the conditions for our life on this planet. This is not the classical concept of emptiness derived from ancient forms of Buddhist doctrine, which tend to lead people to believe that “ultimately, things don’t really exist”. This is not a discussion of “relative v. ultimate” reality, which I believe is a false division of the experience of reality and which I totally reject. I am not going to argue this point here, because I think it’s a waste of time. I would rather get on with the business of creating a new definition of emptiness as seeing through social systems of power and oppression. I take direction from the classic sociological definition of social facts as “things which are not real but which are nonetheless real in their effects.”(Durkhiem) We do not escape the effects of social realities by engaging in magical thinking, as in “we don’t have to bother with them because ultimately these things don’t exist.” They don’t exist as objects, but they persist as processes and systems, and they are most certainly, real in their effects. Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar offered a vision of engaged Buddhism that was powerful enough to dismantle the Hindu caste system in India. In that tradition, I propose the doctrine of seeing through, a sociological form of shunyata, as a method of deconstructive analysis and dismantling practice of engaged Buddhism.

[The following is an excerpt from my Doctoral Demonstration of Expertise on Power and Social Systems theory; in particular, my study of Michael Mann’s “Networks of Power”.]

Michael Mann: Networks of Power

Michael Mann is an historian and social theorist of power. Mann’s most famous statement is that “societies are constituted of multiple overlapping and intersecting networks of social power.” (Mann, 1986, p.1). Randall Collins explains Mann’s power network theory: “Networks are inherently processual; they exist as long as and just to the degree that action flows through them.” (Collins, 2006, p. 23). Schroeder calls Mann’s theory organizational materialism, that power is not a reified concept, but an actual practice. Organizational materialism is “the idea that ideology, like the other sources of power, is always contained within the reach of networks. . . briefly put, if it is not in a network or in an organization, it can’t do anything. (Schroeder 2006, p. 6). Jack Snyder, in his comment on Mann’s model of the state, focuses on Mann’s theory of the State as an emergent network of power. Snyder says that Mann documented historic “spurts of power” which occur “when interstitial and cross-boundary networks form around a power ideology that unleashes a qualitative leap in the mobilizing, organizing potential for social cooperation on a broader scale.” (Mann, 1986, p. 3). (Snyder, 2006, pp. 306-307). Snyder summarizes Mann’s theory of ideological power:

An ideologically animated expansion of social power depends on the coming together of a latent potential for collective action in a social network, the motivation of a group of entrepreneurs to organize that collective action, and their provision of a normatively infused ideology that effectively overcomes barriers to collective action. (Snyder, 2006, p. 322).

Mann identified two forms of ideological power: 1) sociopolitically transcendent, which  is a diffuse influence spread a large populace and territory; and 2) immanent morale, which is intensely focused within an organization or sub-region. (Schroeder 2006, p. 5) Mann further distinguishes two types of power in social movements: collective and distributed. (Schroeder 2006, p. 5) This last distinction is critical to understanding the type of social power that dominates post-industrial capitalist democracies. Collective movements tend to massify individuals who only have power insofar as they congregate and act together, a typical example being labour unions. Distributive social power is typical for late capitalist democratic states, where the various forms of power are spread through individuals and organizations that can act independently of each other. (Schroeder, 2006).

John Law (1992) uses Actor Network Theory to propose that social actants create a ‘false gestalt of power relations. Objects connected in a network of relationships makes certain objects appear ‘whole’ or emergent, but that appearance of wholeness is really a temporary effect, or punctuation of network relations. Law examines what appear to be the continuous logistics of organizations that are really discrete relays of signals from object to object, which may be disrupted at any time:

Looked at in this way organization is an achievement, a process, a consequence, a set of resistances overcome, a precarious effect. Its components – the hierarchies, organizational arrangements, power relations, and flows of information – are the uncertain consequences of the ordering of heterogeneous materials. So it is that actor-network theory analyzes and demystifies. It demystifies the power of the powerful. (Law, 1992, p. 389).

Law’s theory extends the concept of networks of power by laying bare the network mechanism that by its operation brings it into effect. Law argues that the power to control and direct circumstances exerted by any actant on others is merely an ‘effect’ or punctuation of the elements of a network that appear as a continuous whole, and which by this punctuation also conceals it’s discontinuity and vulnerability. By seeing through this punctuation, we can discern the mechanism of the network and realize that networks of power are not impervious. Both Mann’s and Law’s concept of networks of power are potentially useful to my study of systemic power. Luhmann (1991) defined the internal operations of subsystems as networks of communication, but he emphasized functional self-organization rather than foregrounding network operations. For Luhmann, networks are not generic but are differentiated by their functional coding. With that qualification, I can include an analysis of the way that networks of communications shape systemic interactions in my study of ecology groups.


One thought on “Seeing Through: Emptiness and Networks of Power

  1. Regarding ‘ultimate v. relative reality’; this is nothing more than a conceptual and semantic distinction; strange for a bunch of Buddhist philosophers to accept this as “truth” when they utterly dismiss concepts and semantic distinctions as false and non-existent. Take away this conceptual and semantic distinction, and there is no distinction to be made whatsoever. That is true “non-dualism.”

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