Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Paul North reviews Power in Modernity

Isaac Ariail Reed. Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King’s Two Bodies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 283 pp.

Review by Paul North

10 March 2021

Power, according to Isaac Ariail Reed, happens in a diagram. This is one way to present the movement of this wide-ranging book, indicating its U-turn from existing theories of power and its usefulness for the humanities. For Michel Foucault, power always issues in forms of domination. Whether administrative power, biopower, or a regime of knowledge, the outcome for subjects is to be dominated, that is, for their otherwise unregulated possibilities in the world to be constrained by an external force, even where the force gets internalized. What Reed’s book gives us is an alternative interpretation of power, no longer as force leading to domination, with its reflex image of an undominated ideal. Human beings occupy points in a diagram, and power flows through delegation rather than domination. Power is an epiphenomenon of order; it arises only where a certain geometry of social relations is fixed and active.

Part 1 of the book envisions “the world of power relations as intersecting chains of rectors, actors, and others" (p. 89). These types are organized in a diagram, rector-actor-other, that places social beings and gives a place to the unplaced. The sociological gaze sees those whose exclusion from society’s goods is constitutive of those goods. Thus the diagram can be read both ways. Rectors send actors into a world already set up to prevent others from benefiting. Read backward, prevention of benefits is as integral to the diagrammatic relay of power as the rector who purportedly wields it. With this shift in the meaning of power comes a shift in the possibilities of living with that power. Freedom is not the hope: the transformation of social relations is. That is, political action consists in redrawing the diagram. It is a much harder and much higher call than freedom in its liberal, psychological, creative-artistic, or even democratic-socialist forms.

Part 2 shows the diagram at work in early modern theory (Thomas Hobbes), and in early modern American forms of government and historical events. Here Ernst Kantorowicz’s hermeneutic––a king with two bodies; one high and immaterial that has and emits power, and one low and material that stores and distributes it––becomes the emblem for the workings of the modern state, which “features a relationship of recruitment, and then sending-and-binding, between rectors and actors who act for and on behalf of the state” (p. 150). Although this medieval schema lives on in the modern European-style nation-state, it also begins to disintegrate, as other bodies besides the king’s, such as the people, become central. In part 3, the body fractures and splits—into a productive body, a body as receiver of violence and domination, and a body politic. In short, modernity’s crisis is not simply how to free naturally free individuals from dominating snares. The critical crisis is to see the diagram as it persists under a range of different guises, from regicide and revolution to republic. The diagram is creative and transforms—but how much? Reed wonders, and this is where the book speaks directly to humanities scholars, whether culture is where other patterns of agency get invented.