Power in Light of the Theory of Rhythm: A View from the Twenty-First Century

by Zinaida Chekantseva


“There is an inextricable link between power and rhythm.
What power imposes in the first place is a rhythm (rhythm of everything – life, time, thought, discourse)”

—Roland Barthes


The French historian and philosopher Pascal Michon, whose works are the primary source of this text, argues that in the new globalised world, transformations of reality create the theoretical instruments to analyse it. In the conditions of total commercialisation of human relations, ‘de-systematisation’, ‘de-governmentalisation’,‘de-desciplining’ are present in all spheres of life. It is not always possible to grasp it all using traditional explanatory schemes and familiar concepts of ‘system’, ‘structure’, ‘individual’, and ‘interaction’. The radical criticism of the world order of thirty or forty years ago is definitely losing its liberating force, turning into a prop of neoliberalism. This also concerns all existing concepts of power, including relational ones, in many ways directed against traditional dualism, which holds its position in both philosophy and social science today.

What makes the situation more complicated is that redundant, excessive and accessible information has generated the so-called ‘academic phagocytosis/englobement’ – superficial digestion of critical thought solely as the ground or motive to achieve academic degrees and endless commentaries. Besides, we are witnessing a catastrophic turn in the direction of disciplinary knowledge. Interdisciplinarity in all its forms often remains nothing but a slogan. In social sciences, including history, according to Michon, “academism is raging” where the highest value belongs to empiricism and positivism. All this makes the objective of renovating conceptual thinking a pragmatic need. To begin with, according to Michon, we need radical historisation of intellectual heritage, including structuralist and post-structuralist critical thought. The idea is to take this thought back into the context in which it was created, in order to find new approaches to “the liquid modernity” and historical material.

One of the directions within this search has to do with reconsidering the concept of ‘rhythm’ and applying the rhythmic theory developed in anthropology, sociology and linguistics to historical anthropology and political science. As far back as the beginning of the previous century, Marcel Mauss formulated the thesis “Man is a rhythmic animal”. Studies of the topic of rhythm which started in late twentieth century at the intersection of philosophy, social sciences and poetics have shown that it contained a great heuristic potential. It was made clear that off and on over the course of the entire twentieth century, rhythm was the subject of close attention not only in natural sciences and philosophy, but also in sociology, anthropology, psychology, psychoanalysis, film studies, literary science and history.

Interpreting the results made it possible to reconstruct the genealogy of the concept of ‘rhythm’ in the spirit of radical historism/historicism, and offer its different content. Instead of the widespread understanding of rhythm as tempo, Michon suggests returning to the pre-Plato concept of rhuthmos (literally, ‘rhyme’) which, as was shown by Emile Benveniste, in ancient Greece meant “the form of the moving”. Rhythm in this interpretation allows us to imagine and describe what used to seem invisible – not as much the individual-to-individual or system-to individuals’ interactions as “the manner of flow” (maniere de fluer), the general organisation of these interactions. As a result, in the foreground we have the process of ‘creating’ individuals and revealing/disclosing the temporal and spatial organisation of this process. Thus the concept of ‘individuation’ acquires new content. As a rule, individuation is understood as formation of a single individual who is self-determined and different from others.

 This concept is the basis of ethics and politics of liberal individualism and individualistic methodology which, in Michon’s view, has exhausted itself in many ways. The model of possessive individual (individe-possesive) is believed to have been formed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, during the Age of Enlightenment, there also existed an alternative, less salient, model. In the framework of this model the individual is interpreted through terms of ‘manner’, his way of life. This model was developed in artistic circles in the practice of production and exchange of the artistic, not economic type: Denis Diderot in fact used it in analysing artistic practices. It allows the critical reconsideration of the process of individuation. Unlike the ‘possessive individual’ (a notion introduced by Hobbes and Locke), the ‘manner-individual’ cannot be reduced to himself; he exists only in the interaction with the public. Amongst the innumerable “ways/manners of flowing” (les manieres de fluer),  one could call ‘good’ those rhythms which make it possible for single and collective individuals to find the best manner of change for themselves. Ideally this could be done by a creative individual, an artist, because the individuation rhythms of an artist do not necessarily imply a state of fighting, or war, or such. One great master does not exclude another; they coexist.

According to Michon, the individuation process (that of both single and collective individuation) includes at least three aspects: ‘corporality/bodiness’, i.e. techniques organising the ‘flow of bodies’ (Michon introduces a new term ‘flow’ – le fluement); ‘discursiveness’, i.e. techniques organising linguistic activity (langage), which nowadays is normally called ‘discourse’; and ‘sociality’, i.e. techniques determining forms of intensity of interaction of bodiness-linguistic практик. Michon calls this the “rhythmic organisation of the individuation process”. It is important that all three aspects of individuation are inseparably interconnected. Only as a result of the intertwining of corporality/bodiness, discursiveness and sociality are ‘souls’ formed/composed/constituted. Michon presents individuation rhythm’ as a universal characteristic of an individual. In each historical period, in each group under consideration, such techniques make up a complicated ‘dispositif’ (‘device’, ‘machinery’, ‘apparatus’, ‘construction’ and ‘deployment’) – rhythm of rhythms. It turns out that individuation cannot be reduced to interactions between norms and existing values on the one hand, and the consciousness/thinking of already formed individual on the other.

All these curious theoretical considerations allow us to reconsider the notions of the individual and the subject, individuation and subjectivation. In social sciences, as well as in philosophy, the subject, in Michon’s opinion, remains a vague spot, even though a lot has been done. For example, historians have long been studying the body in all its manifestations: sexuality, gender, perception, taste, smell, vision. And much comprehensive research exists on sensibility, will, mind, memory, as well as emotions, feelings and imagination. There are persistent, although not always successful, attempts to understand metamorphoses of identity. A great number of brilliant studies have been done in the context of historical anthropology. But modern historical anthropology, according to Michon, is “a bouquet without a vase”, for the only history that could give sense to this wonderful search – the history of the subject – has not yet been written. 

According to Michon, two conditions are the main obstacles in understanding the subject. First, it is absolutising the notion of the social, both in the holistic perspective and that of methodological individualism, which leads to confusing the concepts of the subject and the individual. Second, within social sciences, there is no linguistic theory which would not reduce linguistic activity to one of the social spheres. The dominant philosophical attitude reduces linguistic activity to language, which fortifies/supports/further supports the social/individual dualism in social sciences (i.e. the individual as opposed to society). 

Let me explain this in more detail. After the Second World War, the principal notion in social sciences was that of the social and philosophy was dominated by the concept of language. Neither the history of the subject, nor the historical anthropology of the subject were of any interest. If the subject was studied at all, if was from the objectivistic viewpoint (body, sexuality, individual), as well as psychologically. No question of his inner dynamics was raised. However the development of the theory of linguistic activity and poetics opened new prospects. A number of authors (Mikhail Bakhtin, Emile Benveniste, Henri Meschonnic – showed that langage is not a mere subsystem of society, but an interprotant of the social. It is a kind of activity which makes it possible to constitute a human life, to interact with the world and the others. Nonetheless, social sciences keep seeing this activity as only one of the aspects of the social. We need a historical anthropology of the subject and the society which, according to Michon, is only possible when we acknowledge the primary role/supremacy of linguistic activity over social practices.

What do all these ideas have to do with power? A lot. Politics cannot be understood without disclosing its attitude to the world, its attitude and relation to discourse, without considering and interpreting the processes of communication, individuation and subjectivation.

In the modern world, argues Michon, traditional concepts of power do not work. Power can no longer be presented in the notions of state domination or class struggle. In reality, power networks and power relations weave through the entire social body. However, political power is still seen mostly as a simple consequence of an ability inherent in any individual. Human beings possess an ability to rationally determine what they need and what they should do in accordance with their interests. Political power allegedly embodies people’s struggle to keep and improve their well-being, and in this light the state is envisaged as an institution/instrument (институт) that controls this struggle. Microanalytical approaches to studying power relations, while retaining their importance in some cases, do not take into account the temporal dimension of interaction on different levels and in many ways can hardly be used to analyse modern phenomena and processes.

Power is not something given but rather a certain environment and a means in and through which single and collective individuals are constituted, hierarchies to connect them are created, as well as ‘domination effects’, which become visible in the depths of such hierarchies. Today the dominant position belongs to the interactionist interpretation, or understanding of power as a result of the interaction between the individuals and the system. However in different theories, the question of subjectivation is not developed thoroughly enough, although many theoreticians attempted to find some fundamental ideas/foundation here. For instance, Norbert Elias believed that the basic notion here could be that of man of desire (l’homme de desir). Still, the subjectivation process is more and more seen as the development of an actor, and it is no longer reduced to identification with self that is typical of neoliberal ideas. The developing actor is understood as the agent of his own life. The English sociologist Margaret Archer is an example of such interpretation of the subjectivation process. By the way, she also uses the notion of rhythm, even though she employs its old interpretation as the change of strong and weak tempo.

In the light of ‘the rhythmic organisation of the individuation process’, power is seen as ‘the rhythmic medium’. In 1976, in his first lecture in the Coll.ge de France, Roland Barthes was one of the first people to mention that “there is an inextricable link between power and rhythm. What power imposes in the first place is a rhythm (rhythm of everything – life, time, thought, discourse)”. In this lecture, Barthes provides a specific example of rhythmic liquidity without requiring an obligatory vertical system. It is pre-Christian communities of hermit monks who lived in the third century BC. Barthes calls the way they lived together “idiorrhythmic”. The underlying idea (Смысл) of these communities was total individuation of their members. Each monk had to find their own rhythm of existence, including meal times, with the exception of one common meal a week. After Constantine the Great was baptised in 313 AD, these communities were dismissed. Barthes comments here that idiorrhythmic existence always conflicts with power.

Apparently, Michon is trying to find a way to explain the processes of individuation and subjectivation, which would allow a description of their specific features/character in all historical moments in all societies. In order to understand power relations, he suggests that we should focus on the action and its organisation, i.e. single out and describe ‘the way/manner of flowing’ (манеру течения), ways and realisations of bodily, linguistic and social activity, in the course of which single and collective individuals appear, find their own identity and disappear. At the same time Michon adds complexity (проблематизирует) to the widespread explanation of modern life by the general acceleration of historical development. Time is indeed an important constituent of such activity but the pace of its flow, in Michon’s view, is not the determining factor. Rather, what is more important here is the ways ‘the manners of flowing’ of the main types of such activity – physical, linguistic and social – are organised. This means that it is essential to show their rhythms, as well as the various qualities of single and collective individuals. To add to this, Michon proves the supremacy of linguistic activity (langage) in these ‘manners of flowing’.

To be fair, even before Michon, there were works which convincingly showed the primary role of discursive practices in specific societies. In one of his books, Michon refers to a well-known book by the German linguist Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, in which the latter demonstrated how the Nazis were able to penetrate the individual family world by controlling the rhythms of language, for example by exploiting the obvious love for words of foreign origin or by giving some words derogatory meanings. Rank-and-file Germans did not understand these words, but they were constantly used in propaganda, which significantly influenced their perception of the current events. Another impressive example of such discourse research is Analyzing Soviet Political Discourse (Paris, 1985), a book by the French-Swiss linguist Patrick Seriot, in which he describes “the Soviet way of operating language” in the course of a few decades of the Soviet regime. The discourse of the Soviet ideology of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras was called “wooden language” (langue de bois) among Russian speakers in France. It involved special use of language which revealed itself in more active use of some of its specific features, as well as in the development of special grammar and vocabulary usage. What is important to mention is that this process was not confined to the political sphere; in fact, a special ‘mental world’ was being formed.

The social dimension of rhythmic individuation processes is certainly very important as well. In the light of the rhythmic theory many longstanding ideas are changed. For example, the social group is interpreted as a combination/set of various techniques that determine the ways in which human relations become liquid. This means that it is not the group that precedes the techniques but on the contrary it is the techniques that form and transform the group. In conclusion, we could say that the new interpretation of rhythm is a useful tool for Michon to capture the individual in his liquidity. It opens up new opportunities, including those in power studies. And using rhythmic theory in social sciences makes interdisciplinary and theoretical reflection an indispensable part of scholarly work.




This text was presented at the Twelfth International Seminar in Budva, Montenegro, 31 May–7 June 2014. The paintings are part of the GalerТa de Retratos Subalternos of the piece Altered Views by Voluspa Jarpa, curated by Agustin Perez Rubio for the Chilean Pavillion at the 58th Venice Biennale, 2019. Each image corresponds to one of the six case studies composing the piece.

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